The Aborigines of New Zealand: Two Lectures
Among other superstitions prevailing in the land was their belief in the existence of an aerial tribe, called “Te patupaiarehe,” or Maori Fairies. These mysterious beings have had an imaginary page 30 existence in most parts of the world, generally being supposed the most perfect and beautiful creatures, of diminutive form, living in a land of exquisite beauty, amid scenes of enchantment and loveliness, governed by kings and queens who live in splendid palaces, riding on milk-white steeds, dressed in brilliant green, moving in processions more magnificent than those of eastern monarchs, dancing among shady groves and over verdant lawns to music more delicious than any mortal lips could sing or hands produce, and occasionally visiting earth and helping or annoying its inhabitants.
The Fairy superstition among the Maories somewhat differs. They are not the diminutive beings they are supposed to be in most lands, but giants—a people of extraordinary dimensions. They are exceedingly numerous, and have their abode in the mountains, on the tops of which they build their pas. These pas are generally seen at sunrise, all perfect in houses and fences, and everything essential to Maori comfort and safety; but when the Maories go to pay them a visit they find the scene has moved to another and distant peak, so that they can never get near them. Sometimes they are seen at sea, fishing; both angling and netting; but as the Maories draw near they disappear beneath the waves, and then reappear at their work in the distance. They suppose them to be spirits of departed men. Like fairies in other lands, they are musicians; and when they play their instruments bewitch the ears of the listeners. They sometimes pay a visit in the night and make a whole house sick and ill by trampling the inmates unmercifully as they sleep. To protect them against such midnight troublers, they used to deem it necessary to build their houses with the door towards the north. Only one man is said to have been taken away alive by them. His name was Tarapikau; and it is in consequence of his residence among them that they spare others whom they visit. They are said to have the power of driving men mad.
Is it not probable that these Patupaiarehe derive their existence from atmospheric illusion? Some of those spectral or illusory appearances which take place from the power of refraction in the atmosphere, or some other atmospheric phenomena resembling the mirage of the desert? A very remarkable instance of this illusion occurred during the passage of the French army across the desert at the time of Napoleon's expedition to Egypt. “When morning dawned,” says the historian, “the army found itself traversing boundless plains of sand, without water or shade, and with a burning sun overhead. All the wells on the road were exhausted. In the midst of the general depression a sudden gleam of hope illuminated the countenances of the soldiers. A lake appeared in the wilderness, with villages and palm trees clearly reflected on its glossy surface. The parched troops hastened to the enchanted spot, but it receded from their steps. Again they pressed on with burning impatience, but it for ever fled from their approach, and they had the mortification of discovering that they had been deceived by the mirage of the desert.”
Some English voyagers in the Arctic regions speak of splendid visions which they saw at one place. “The general aspect of the coast was that of an extensive and ancient city, with ruined castles, churches, hills surmounted by turrets, battlements, spires, and page 31 pinnacles.” So magnificent that they termed it the “enchanted coast.” There can be no doubt but similar phenomena called into existence those pas on the mountain tops. And as to the hostile visits paid by those aerial beings, and the severe trampling they inflicted, it is very likely to have happened after eating to repletion some unwholesome food, which produced nightmare and general sickness. A people without any knowledge of the laws of nature, and exceedingly superstitious, might be expected to account for such occurrences in this way.
From these mysterious beings they say they learnt the art of making fishing nets. At the north they had often observed in the mornings the prints of feet on the shore, as though a large company had passed along in the night; and also heaps of fish scales, for which they could not account. A man named Matawhero was determined to keep watch, and went to the spot one night for the purpose. About midnight a great host of those beings made their appearance, spread a large seine, and enclosed a multitude of fish. He mixed among them, doing as they did, and remained unobserved. He was very anxious to examine the seine to see how it was made. By and by they divided the fish, that each might carry his share; and as he knew they would be off before daybreak, he tried to detain them. In stringing his fish he made no knot nor fastening, and as fast as he strung them at one end they slipped off at the other. All were ready for flight but Matawhero. The fairies came to his help, but did not discover his duplicity. His fish could not be strung. At length day dawned, and away flew the new friends of Matawhero, leaving both seine and fish. His object was gained: he examined the net, and discovered the art of netting. They say the albinos sprung from those Patupaiarehe.
I had intended to have made some remarks on the customs and character of the New Zealanders, and given a few more specimens of their poetry, but time is gone. Another opportunity may occur.
Let us be thankful to Providence that our lot has been cast among the blessings of civilized life, and the privileges of a religion, the yoke of which is easy, and the burden of which is light.
And let it be our constant effort to banish all that remains of the old superstitions of the country, and to diffuse among the aborigines of our adopted land the blessings of an enlightened civilization, and the influence of a divine and happy religion.