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Fairy Folk Tales of the Maori

A Maori Night's Entertainment

A Maori Night's Entertainment

The greybeard Wairehu carried a big iron drum which once held sheep-dip into the carved wharepuni; it was filled with glowing charcoal embers to give us warmth through the night. There was a wintry bite in the air here in high-set Otukou; the breath of ice came on the wings of the keen south wind. The lonely little settlement of the Maori sheep-farming hapu was more than two thousand feet above the sea, squatting on the tussocky banks of a cold clear stream that came flashing down from the gullies of Mount Tongariro. The summit of the snow-tipped volcanic range was within three miles of us; and over its shoulder, as we rode into Otukou that day, we saw mighty Ruapehu, its icy peaks involved in the splendid gloom-clouds of a thunderstorm. In this communal hall and sleeping-house of the village we had plenty of company; the people of the hapu gathered page 12 for talk and song, preceded by the prayers which old Wairehu read slowly and reverently.

These isolated subalpine dwellers are a pious people, at any rate in observance of religious ritual, and in the earnestness and simplicity of their devotions they truly are patterns to the pakeha. Not an evening falls without these prayers and hymns in the gargoyled wharepuni. As the people sit there, chanting their soft solemn music, some swaying slightly to and fro as they sing, we observe with much interest their varying types. Some are dark indeed, with narrowed eyes peering out beneath heavy projecting brows, but most of them show the fine open cast of face, with large features, which distinguishes the Ngati-Tuwharetoa and their cousins the Ngati-Raukawa. Many are very fair of skin, and there are two or three women whose beautifully thick and long hair shines with a lustre golden in the firelight; they are of pure Maori blood, though almost as light in complexion as ourselves. They are urukehu or fair-hair; the tradition goes that their remote ancestors were a light-skinned tribe called the Whanau-a-Rangi, which in the pakeha tongue is “Offspring of Heaven.”

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A sightly house this within as well as without; its panels and rafters are brightly painted and scrolled, and the foot of the central pillar, the putoko-manawa, is wrought into a carved and tattooed head, the effigy of the tribal founder; his pawa-shell eyes glare belligerently at us over the fire. On the walls hang weapons of the past and present—taiaha and meré and a long-handled tomahawk, deadly weapons all in skilled Maori hands, and a dozen or so of rifles and shot guns.

∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗

Now come the stories, for night after night in the warm and social meeting-house the tales of the times of old are repeated, until every member of the tribe to the youngest is familiar with the unwritten history of the clan and the folk-lore of the land.

And first of all is told the tale of these nearby fire-peaks. Long ago there were magical doings in these parts, the like of which could only happen in old Maoridom, and the story of Ngatoro-from-the-Sky and his wonderful travels and godlike page 14 deeds satisfyingly accounts for the presence of the volcanoes that rumble menacingly above us.

Wairehu takes the matted floor, and girding his blanket about his waist to give free play to his sinewy, tattooed right arm, he tells, like a Skald of old, the saga of Ngatoro and his travels through an enchanted land.

Ngatoro-i-rangi was the sacred Ariki, the high priest of the Arawa canoe crew, and when that Polynesian ship's company landed at Maketu, in the Bay of Plenty, five hundred years ago, he set forth to explore the strange new land. When he reached the foot of the mountain range now known as Tongariro, he decided to ascend it in order to spy out the country, for, like the modern surveyor, the ancient Maori land-seeker and path-finder always made for the high points of the country in his journeyings. With one or two companions he climbed to the summit of the central volcano, the Ngauruhoe peak, and while he was there a snowstorm suddenly befell, and he was like to die with the freezing cold. In his dire extremity he exerted his marvellous powers, and he prayed in a loud page 15 voice for the fire of the gods. He cried to his priestess sisters in the far north, saying:

E Kuiwai e! Haungaroa e! Ka riro au i te tonga! Haria mai he ahi moku!” (“O Kuiwai! O Haungaroa! I am borne away in the cold south wind—I perish from the cold! Send me fire to warm me!”)

And straightway his priestess sisters heard him, and they appealed to the fire-demons Te Pupu and Te Hoata—personifications these of volcanic and thermal heat—and the saving fire was sent, by way of White Island and Rotorua and intermediate spots where the hot springs boil up to-day. The saving fire reached the perishing Ariki there on the mountain-top, and his freezing body gained fresh life, and he and his companions were saved. The fire which was his salvation burst forth at the top of Ngauruhoe—and that is why there is a fuming crater there to this day. And from the words riro (carried away or seized) and tonga (south wind) which he used in his cry to the goddesses of the sacred fire, came the name Tongariro, which was bestowed upon these grand volcanic peaks. For, the name Tongariro formerly included in Maori usage all three peaks—Tongariro page 16 Range, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu—all three were considered as one, the sacred kopu, the belly of this island-fish, the abode of the fire-gods, ever afterwards to be regarded as the holy of holies of the Arawa nation.

As for Ngauruhoe, that name also holds a story, said Wairehu. When Ngatoro-i-Rangi, freezing in his tapa-cloth garments there on the mountain-top, made his urgent cry for help, he slew a female slave as an offering to the gods—“he whakahere ki te atua”—in order to give additional mana to his prayer. This slave, who was a personal attendant and food-bearer, was named Auruhoe. When the god-sent flames of life burst forth, Ngatoro threw the body of the slave into the blazing crater, and that was how the volcano came to bear its present name, which is Auruhoe in the mouths of some of the Maoris of the south Taupo country.

And from that time to this the flaming of Ngauruhoe has been a mighty sign of portent for the dwellers on the plains below. Whenever the volcano burst into eruption the Taupo people said to each other, “Lo! the Atua is giving us a sign and a command. Let us go forth and make war page break
Otukou village, Mt. Tongariro in distance. (The meeting house in which the stories in Chapter I were told is shown in the middle of the picture)

Otukou village, Mt. Tongariro in distance. (The meeting house in which the stories in Chapter I were told is shown in the middle of the picture)

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Ngauruhoe volcano in eruption.

Ngauruhoe volcano in eruption.

Ngauruhoe volcano, from Taupo.

Ngauruhoe volcano, from Taupo.

page 17 upon the sea-coast dwellers.” For generation after generation this omen of the mountain-gods was obeyed. Ngati-Tuwharetoa in truth were a war-loving clan; and when the distant tribes heard that Ngauruhoe was hurling forth fiery ash and vast clouds of black smoke fear fell upon them and they hastily strengthened their palisades, for well they knew the warriors of Taupo would presently appear.

Ngatoro, the Old Man narrated, was an explorer of amazing energy, and gifted with all the strange powers of a wizard. He scaled the loftiest mountains with ease, and as we have seen, he could call fire to his aid through the very earth. And listen to the story of what befell his land-seeking rival, the venturesome Hape-ki-tua-rangi, who came trudging across the ranges and plains from the far East Coast, thinking to found a nation in the heart of the great island.