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The Aborigines of New Zealand: Two Lectures

The Maori Priesthood

The Maori Priesthood.

The existence of a separate class of men, exclusively devoted to the service of the gods, and entrusted with all religious matters, is discoverable among all nations. In the earliest ages the head of the family conducted religious services and offered the sacrifices. This was the case with all the descendants of Abraham till the giving of the Law. Among other nations, certain persons were selected and formerly appointed to this office. The occasion of this, and the manner of its institution, are subjects veiled in great obscurity. We know there was a regular order of priests in Egypt before the time of Joseph. The Magi of Persia, and the Priests of Greece existed in very remote antiquity. The ancient Britons had their Druids, who were the authorised priests, teachers, and law-givers of their countrymen.

All the tribes of Polynesia seem to have an established order of Priesthood. The New Zealanders, no doubt, brought the Institution from Hawaiki. Mr. Jarves tells us, in his History of the Sandwich Islands, that each chief had his family priest, who followed him to battle, carried his war god, and superintended all the sacred rites of his household. They had also a great high priest, who was immediately attached to the person of the most powerful ruler, and had page 22 the keeping of the national war god. Their power, though it partook of a religious character, was scarcely inferior to that of the chiefs. The Institution among the New Zealanders was much the same, only they had no national high priest. Every tribe had its priesthood, one of which was chief, and had the greatest influence. In many instances the principal chief was the high priest as well, uniting in his own person the rank of Ariki, or lord, and chief priest. The office was generally hereditary, passing from father to son, the father taking pains to instruct the son in all the mysteries of the order. Every priest had his own peculiar forms of Karakia. The secrets of his worship, the language he employed in his intercourse with the god, was hidden from the people. In fact it was a language not to be understood but by the initiated. I have heard old Tawaki, a great priest of the Ngatimaniapoto tribes, teaching his son at night, when all retired and they were alone.

Their persons were sacred. They were not allowed to work, their supplies were provided by the tribe. All about them and their houses were tapu. They were considered invulnerable to disease, and inviolate in battle. No sickness could affect them, nor any evil touch them in war, unless indeed they gave offence to the gods. I received from Ngaware, Tawaki's son and successor in the priesthood, a curious account of his father, on one of my visits to their village. Tawaki was an interesting looking old man, apparently about eighty years of age, with a long flowing beard, white as snow, appearing as mysterious and singular in all his movements and converse as you might expect such a personage to be. Ngaware told me his father was the oldest man in the country; had outlived all his compeers; that no man lived that could compute his age; that he had been proof against all disease; and, though he had accompanied the tribe on many a war expedition, no spear could pierce him, and no gun had power to touch his sacred person. The, secret of all this was, he had a watu in his breast—a sacred red stone given him by his predecessor, which was his preserver; nor could he die while it remained within him. “Bye and bye,” said Ngawhare, “when I see my father so decrepit that he is really sinking beneath the weight of years, and life has become a burden, I shall request him to give the watu to me—then he will die. I shall swallow it, and succeed him in the priesthood.”

Their work is to look after the interests of the gods, to see that the law of tapu be not violated, and that no offence has been given to the imaginary deity. They are, in fact, the representatives of the gods, and receive all the offerings which are to propitiate their deities, part of which is to be consumed by themselves.

In war they have the regulations of all the movements. From their supposed intercourse with the gods, they are expected to know the mind of the gods. They had their oracles, where they made enquiry as to their incidents of war. A place was selected, and a rude sort of grove prepared. Everything being tapu, no food was prepared, no fire lit; the gods were invoked, and a quantity of sticks planted to represent the different divisions of the tribes that were going on the expedition. These were in a row, and the enemy opposite. When all were placed in order, the warriors were com-page 23manded to turn away their faces, when the gods came and threw down the sticks which represented the tribes that were to suffer loss in battle. In this way they pretended to divine.

Like the ancient Druids, too, they divined by augury—by observations made on the flying and voices of birds; the appearances of the heavens; and by a variety of other methods.

Sometimes they profess to have revelations from the gods. Te “Atua Whera” pretended to have a revelation that foretold the assault on the pa at Ouhaeawai by the British troops, and our repulse. He gave it in the form of a song, which was sung by the enemy after the repulse.

The Dream of Atua Whera (The Fire God).
An attack! an attack! E! JIa!
A battle! a battle! E! Ha!
A fight on the banks of the river.
It is completely swept and emptied.
Oh! you would fight, you would fight.
You had better stayed at home in Europe
Than have suffered a repulse from Whareahau,
He has driven you back to your God.
You may cast your book behind,
And leave your religion on the ground.

The people were so fully persuaded of the power of the priests, and felt so much the importance of keeping on good terms with the gods, that they most scrupulously obeyed their commands. When the priest chose to halt, they must encamp, and not proceed till he issued the order. When he wished to consult the gods, he proclaimed a fast, and no fire was lit. So great was his influence on such occasions, that none would think of drinking at a stream as they passed to the field, if he had prohibited. Any violation of his orders would be expected to bring disaster and death. On returning from war he led them to a spot some distance from the pa, each warrior with a branch in his hand which he waved while the priest performed the karakia; then all their implements of war were thrown to a sacred spot and left.

Another part of the priest's work was, to heal the sick. All kinds of sickness was supposed to come either directly from the god, who, being offended, entered into the person and was gnawing his vitals; or indirectly, through the medium of witchcraft. The priests were the only physicians. When called to a sick person, the first thing done was to consult the gods, which was done by plucking up a piece of fern: if it came up clean, free from soil, it was a favourable indication. If much earth remained about the root, evil was predicted. He ordered the patient to be taken away into the bush—tapuing all the paths so that no one should approach. If he recovered, an offering was made. Fern root was cooked and presented to their deified friends, male and female. If one by chance was omitted, he would avenge the slight by afflicting again.

In cases of supposed witchcraft the class of priests called “Mata Kite” (face seers) are referred to. They generally go to the water and perform their incantations; then profess to see the spirit of the witch in the water; and hesitate not to divulge his name. In some cases the death of the witch is instantly sought; in others a system of counter witching is adopted.

page 24

They profess to have power over the elements. Te Heuheu, the great chief and priest of Taupo, once said to me, “If you and I were on that sea, and a storm were to arise, say not we should perish. I should command the winds and the waves, and they would instantly obey.” So confident was he in his power, that, when a tremendous avalanche of boiling mud came down one of the rivers on the banks of which he was living, and threatened their instant destruction, instead of taking to his canoe and escaping into the water, he stood calling to his gods till, with about sixty of his people, he was buried beneath the immense mass. He was a fine specimen of a New Zealander, standing upwards of six feet, with more dignity in his mien and nobility in his carriage than any Native I ever saw. The Lament that was sung by his brother is a fine specimen of native poetry, while it contains many allusions to their customs and beliof.

Lament for te Heuheu.
The morning breaks, it looks forth
By the side and through the peaks of Tauhara.*
Perhaps my friend comes back to me.
Alas! I swim alone!
He is gone, thou bast taken him!
Go then, thou great one!
Go thou terrible!
Go thou that wert like a Rata,
And gave shelter to many.
Who is the god that has cast you
In his anger, to the jaws of death?
Sleep on, my father, in that much dreaded house.
The cord of Kaukau shall no more grace thy arm.
It was the delight of thy ancestor, of Ngahere,
Which he left, a sign of chieftainship.
Turn this way thy great and noble frame;
Let me see it once again.
Like the blue waters is thy face,
Marked with a hundred lines.
Thy people now are chieftainless,
And have no courage left.
They stand alone; they look dismayed,
Like the stars of heaven forsaken:—
Atutahi is gone, and Rehua§ the man eater,
The great star that stood over the milky way is gone.
And thou too, Tongariro, stand alone.
The prows of the Arawa float in the water.
Women from the West shall weep,
Because thou art gone.

* A mountain.

Rata, a tree, at first a climber; it clasps the tree it clings to, and finally kills it, becoming itself a great tree.

The name of his meri or scalping knife. To this a particular name is usually given, which becomes well known to the tribe.

§ Atutahi and Rehua, the names of stars.

The burning mountain.

Arawa was the name of one of the canoes in which it was supposed that the first colonists sailed from Hawaiki.

page 25 Come back from the west, come back from the sea,
With thy tatoood body looking as beautiful as that of thy tupuna* of Rongomai.
The darkness of the Po has enshrouded thee
Son of Rangi. But cease to sleep—
Arise, stand forth! take again thy meri,
And talk o'er thy deeds of valour,
How thou didst tread them down by hosts.
Thou wert a rock by ocean shore!
But thy death was sudden;
By the side of Peppeke
Thou didst fall. Thou wert laid on the earth;
But thy fame shall travel while the heavens remain.

They have a remarkable custom in reference to children. At a certain period the child is taken to the priest, who either takes it to the water and goes in with it, or sprinkles it and gives it a name, repeating a form of karakia (prayer), the purport of which is, if a boy, that he may be strong to fight and avenge the death of friends, and strong to plant food; if a girl, the burden of the prayer is that she may be strong to make garments and to cook food. It will not be wondered then that the priests possess great influence. In fact the whole of the religious matters and much that was political was entrusted to them. The New Zealanders pray not for themselves, but leave it to the priest.

* Ancestor.

A river.