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The Aborigines of New Zealand: Two Lectures



Another subject connected with the priesthood and religion, is the superstitious custom or rite of Tapu. It may be defined as a law or restriction that derives its sanction from religion. Originally it meant sacred. It does not imply any moral quality, but is indicative of a particular distinction or separation from common purposes for some special design.

All nations, savage and civilized, have their peculiar laws. The chief peculiarity of the Tapu as it exists in these Islands is the religious character it sustains. Transgression is a sin against the gods as well as against society. I have met with some excellent remarks on this subject in the publication of the American Expedition, the substance of which is as follows:—When certain regulations are enforced by religious considerations, they exert an influence on the million they could not else obtain. The history of different religious sects illustrate this. It was not lawful for the Jews, according to the Mosaic law, to eat certain kinds of meat; or to offer in sacrifice the maimed; or to touch the animal considered unclean; and it was the sanction of religion that gave it its vitality and power. The Mahometan code, the work of an earthly law-giver, derives from its supposed Divine origin a force superior to that of any ordinary law. It is not lawful to eat pork, or drink wine, or omit certain ablutions, or to take food during certain months from sunrise to sunset. The Institutions of Lycurgus are another page 26 example, owing their authority less to their own excellence or to the rank of the legislator, than to the solemn oath by which he enforced their observance and to the mystery of his death.

These examples may give us a clue to the probable origin of the the rite of Tapu. It may be supposed that the author of the rite was a person who in the original seat of the Polynesian race united the power of ruler and law-giver to the dignity of chief priest: who probably pretended to be inspired by the gods, as they often do in the other Islands when they utter oracles. If so, his laws or tapus, whether or not promulgated as Divine commands, would be received and obeyed as such. This view is supported by the fact that the ariki, or principal chief, is often the high priest; and also by the fact that in nearly all the groups men are found who pretend to be descendants from the gods, and regard themselves as a sort of earthly divinity. I have heard Te Huehue claim divinity. “Think not,” said he, “that I am a man, that my origin is from earth, I came from the heavens; my ancestors are all there, they are gods, and I shall return to them.”

I certainly regard the opinion expressed in the American work already referred to as a very plausible one and likely to be correct,—“that the lawgivers whose decrees have come down in the form of Tapu was a ruler invested by his subjects with divine attributes.”

But though the origin might thus be of a sacred and regal character, yet it has become common property;—a sort of magic term with which any man can throw a kind of protection over his property;—can tapu his house or fishing grounds or eel pas, as may suit his whim, or convenience, and think himself quite justified in defending his tapu with his musket.

The multifarious and minute applications of the religious part of this rite it were difficult to describe. We may just instance a few.

It applies to persons. The person of a chief is sacred, so that he cannot enter a house where food is cooked, or sleep where food has been consumed; nor allow a slave to enter his house unless all his garments are left behind. Anything touched by a “tangata tapu” (a sacred man) would be thereby rendered tapu, and could no more be used, so that his drinking vessel must be held by a slave who pours out the water, and he drinks from his own hand.

A chief's head and hair are the most sacred parts of his person. To touch his head would be a breach of the law, requiring certain ablutions and offerings to his god. To burn his hair at a fire where food had been cooked would be a capital offence. When his hair is cut it is thrown into some sacred enclosure among other relics that are not to be handled. If he spill his blood the place is tapu.

Yeates, in his work on New Zealand, furnishes a curious account of the manner in which the tapu was regarded. He says he one day found a chief of great importance with a fish bone stuck in his throat, and though in great agony, and in a state of suffocation, no one dared to touch him nor to approach within a certain distance on pain of death. Mr. Yeates went to the suffering man, and extracted the bone. Instead of being grateful for the deliverance, the first words be spoke were in command to his people to take from Mr. page 27 Yeates the instrument with which the bone had been extracted, as payment for having drawn blood from him, and for touching his bead when he was sacred. So exceedingly tenacious are these sacred persons that it is extremely difficult for a novice to converse with them without committing some breach of the law of tapu, which may expose him to be robbed of all he possesses at the time. I once seriously committed myself by inadvertently offending against the tapu. I was sitting in a native hut over a fire, in conversation with several natives, when an old chief, too sacred to enter such a house, sat down outside to listen to the korero. Feeling cold he exclaimed, “I am dead with cold, I shall go. I have no garment.” “Here,” said I, “is a good fire, it will serve instead, come in.” This was enough; the idea of finding a garment in the fire was a great offence, and off he went muttering his wrath. When I arose next morning, I found the house and all it contained under tapu. No utensils for cooking breakfast could be obtained. I had to go to old Tawaki and beg him to remove the tapu. This he did by sending a slave to drag out an iron pot and cook six potatoes in it, part of which he eat as the representative of the offended atua, and part were sent to the offended chief. Thus the law was vindicated and the god appeased.

In some of the dialects the improper use of the preposition for would be a transgression. There are two forms of the preposition “for,” the ma and the mo. He patu mau would be a thing for you to beat with; he patu mou, a think to beat you with. Riwai mau would be potatoes for you to eat; riwai mou, potatoes to be eaten with your flesh,—an offensive curse. This is not universal. The northern tribes have not this distinction; but in Waikato it was universal, and the misuse of the word a great offence.

Places also are often tapued. Houses, because of some offence to a chief, and roads and rivers, so that canoes could not pass. A watchman is placed on the banks to protect the tapu; and they who dared to pass violated the law, and must pay the penalty. A chief had only to say concerning a place he wished to tapu, Taku iwi tuaroa, “such a place or path is my back bone.” This was enough to render it sacred in their estimation. The resting place of a corpse is always sacred, and the canoe in which a corpse has been carried. The place of sepulture is regarded with great veneration and awe; no foot will dare to tread the sacred dust, and no hand be so sacrilegious as to touch an object in the sacred enclosure.

The penalties of this law partake both of a temporal and a supernatural character. The transgressor was liable to have his plantations burnt up, or his food taken away, or his canoes broken up, besides being exposed to the anger of his gods. How burdensome is such a religion as this! A more powerful system of religious despotism could not have been devised. Its exactments were of the most humiliating and troublesome description;—if anything had been wanting to complete the bondage in which the New Zealander was held by superstition, this certainly would perfect and perpetuate his slavery and his fears.

To have got rid of such a burden cannot but have been a great deliverance. Formerly a great portion of this country was tapu. page 28 They could neither travel over it, nor hunt over it, nor cultivate, nor make any kind of use of it. Now it is all available. They travelled in dread, lest they should stumble on some tabued spot; now they go without fear. Their persons and their properties were in constant danger; but Christianity has freed them from these burdensome rites and distressing superstitions.