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Fairy Folk Tales of the Maori

Chapter X — The Bishop and the Tohunga — A Tale of Mokoia Island

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Chapter X
The Bishop and the Tohunga
A Tale of Mokoia Island

… Thus I hurl
My dazzling spells into the spongy air.
—“Comus” (Milton).

The Holy-Isle-of-Tinirau, called by moderns Mokoia, which rises like a green pyramid from the middle of the soft blue waters of Rotorua Lake, has ever been a place of wizardry and enchantment, full of strange legends, half fact, half fable. It is the Olympus of the Arawa tribe, the abiding place of the ancient gods, the national ossuary, the hiding-place of the sacred images of stone. On the levels of warm volcanic soil at the foot of the hills the crops of sweet potato are never touched by blight; the magic of the atua-kumara wards off all ills. Above, the never-fading greenwood climbs over deserted fortress and village-site; there within the ferngrown ramparts and fosses the unnumbered generations of brown men and women have mingled with the soil of their mother-isle. Very few Maoris live on the island today; for most of its area is a land page 110 of tapu. Amazing tales of sorcery and bedevilment cling to Mokoia, and most curious of all is the story of the encounter between Unuaho the tohunga and Bishop George Augustus Selwyn—the famous First Selwyn—on the green terrace of Arorangi Pa, yonder. This narrative comes from the Maoris. Selwyn, like a wise bishop, never told the story. Maybe he set the inexplicable affair down to the Evil One; for all his learning he was just that medieval type of man.

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On that sunny eastward looking hillslope stood the thrice tapu hut of Unuaho the Wizard, the greatest tohunga, seer, medicineman, and necromancer of the Arawa nation. In front of the thatched and gaily-painted wharé there grew a tall forked ti or palmlily, the cabbage-tree of the white man, rustling its long sword-leaves in the breeze; and at its foot, the venerable witch-doctor used to spread his flax mat, so tapu-besoaked that no one but he dared touch it, and there he would sit through the long quiet days, looking out on the village below and the squares of cultivation and the blue lake beyond; sit like a grim, grey old god guarding page 111 and watching the labours of the little hapu, and thinking the Lord knows what strange thoughts and ancient wisdom in his deep old brain.

He was the Merlin, the Moses of the islanders and their mainland kinsfolk for fifty miles around. Very old and grey was Unuaho. His tangled locks fell in wizard-like disorder about his face; his white beard swept his breast; beneath his white-bushed eyebrows peered out the soul of the mystic. He was a man of extraordinary powers, one whom it were well not to offend. He could choke or paralyse an enemy by makutu, by witchcraft and the projection of his intensely concentrated will through space. Should a storm arise on the lake, he could quell it by his potent incantations and his sacred mana. Moreover, he could cause the powers of the air to wage war, the lightning to flash and the thunder to resound; and he could kill a bird in mid-air or wither a tree, by sheer force of will-power and magic spells.*

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In a canoe, paddled by a dozen brawny young Arawa, came the Bishop to Mokoia's silver beach one day of the late Forties. At Ohinemutu, the great stockaded town of the lakeland people, and at the mission station of Te Ngae, he had heard much of Unuaho the magician. Unuaho held out stubbornly against the new religion, and he was one of the greatest obstacles to mission enterprise in the boiling-water country. Selwyn determined to visit the heathen sage, and win him to the faith, if that were within the four corners of possibility. So up to the tapu'd hillslope he went, and there he found his cheerful old pagan.

Unuaho was pleased that the great Bishop, the “Hori Herewini” of whom he had heard so much, had paid him the compliment of a visit. It was fitting, for should not the chief of all the white tohungas pay a ceremonious call upon the greatest of the brown tohungas? He held the Bishop's hand, and murmured a charm of greeting over it, until the Bishop began to grow uncomfortable, for he felt as if the powers of the Evil One that dominated this romantic pagan isle were beginning to bedevil him already.

Selwyn set to as soon as the preliminary page break
“Te Paré-A-Hatupatu,” the totara tree on Mokoia Island, Lake Rotorua. (The kumara god of the island is kept in the little house just below.) (See page 119.)

“Te Paré-A-Hatupatu,” the totara tree on Mokoia Island, Lake Rotorua. (The kumara god of the island is kept in the little house just below.) (See page 119.)

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Tane-nui-a-Rangi pa. A village of the olden time, in Hawke's Bay.

Tane-nui-a-Rangi pa. A village of the olden time, in Hawke's Bay.

page 113 heathen runes were at an end. He told Unuaho that he had come to teach him the True Faith, the new religion that Spencer and Thomas Chapman, pioneer missionaries had preached to him without avail. “Turn, turn to my God,” cried the Bishop. “Turn from your ways of darkness and believe, for my God is above all your false Maori gods; he alone has power over the sons of men…!”

“So!” said the pagan warlock, gazing with steadfast earnestness into Selwyn's keen eyes. “So! You would have me turn to your religion, would you? But why should I turn? My own faith suffices me. And am I not a god in myself? Have I not power over the elements, over the waters of yon lake spread out below, over the trees that spring from the soil, over the powers of the earth; yes, and over man, too!……Now, hearken you, O Bishop! Because I have affection for you, because in certain matters you are a man for whom I have exceeding regard, I shall make the path straight between us. Let there be a test, a straight and open test. Whichever of us can perform some wonderful deed, which shall be a sign from the gods, shall conquer in this matter of faiths. Let us, each in turn, put forth our page 114 greatest powers, and whichever conquers, to that one's religion shall the other turn. How say you, O Bishop?”

The Bishop sat silent, awaiting further enlightment.

“Behold this tree, this ti growing here in front of my house,” said Unuaho, pointing a long lean finger at the lone cabbage-tree. “Let us try our powers on that to begin with; then we may go further and each endeavour to slay a man by wizardry. Let us each endeavour to wither the green head of this tree. Should you succeed, then shall I acknowledge that your God is stronger than mine, and I shall become a Christian. But if not, not. What say you, chief of all the white tohungas?”

But the Bishop was by no means ready to reduce the issue to a test of theological legerdemain. He shook his head.

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“Then,” said Unuaho, “I will to work. Watch that ti-palm, O Bishop! I shall wither it, green as it is, before your eyes!”

And the sorcerer set to work. Stretching forth his hand, he recited in quick sharp tones his most deadly charms and put forth page 115 all his intense force of will and hypnotic suggestion or whatever mystic powers he derived through untold generations of priests from the ancient wise men of the East—powers now lost to common knowledge. His old eyes blazed; they seemed starting from his head. And see! There before men's living eyes the green and rustling sword-blades of the ti suddenly lay dead and still. The fresh green tint disappeared; the long leaves drooped grey and dry, lying limp, flaccid, and withered. Unuaho had blasted the lone cabbage tree.

“See!” said the tohunga, “I have withered the tree before your unbelieving eyes! Now, can you bring it to life again?”

The Bishop shook his head but committed himself to no speech.

“Then watch,” said the wizard. “Keep your eyes on that tree, O friend Bishop.”

Again Unuaho recited his mystic karakia, chants quick and rhythmic; again his frame quivered, his eyes burned with godlike fire, as Moses' eyes, we may believe, blazed when he struck water from the living rock. And behold, O Bishop of little faith—the tree turned green again. The dead grey leaves revived, took their former hue and freshness; page 116 once more they rustled gently in the soft lake breeze. Unuaho had conquered!

The Bishop sadly abandoned the hopeless task of conversion. He bade Unuaho farewell, he descended the hill to his canoe and returned to Ohinemutu, and never again did he set foot on this isle of pagan enchantments. And Unuaho died as he had lived, a heathen as the missionaries called him, content in that he and his gods had vanquished the New Religion.

∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗

Such is the Maori story, told me many a year ago on that sacred hillside of Mokoia by Unuaho's black-bearded grandson Tuki, himself a man wise in Maori lore—he sleeps now with his fathers in that island of the immemorial dead. But to his last days, said Tuki, the wise man of Mokoia held Bishop Selwyn in high regard. “I love that chief of the white tohungas, that keen-faced Bishop,” said Unuaho; “he is a man after my own heart, and in token of my affection for him there shall forever be a Selwyn in my family, in memory of my praying friend in the black hat.”

And thus it came that Tuki's pakeha name was “Hori Herewini,” or George Selwyn. page 117 A bright-eyed little Maori boy sat by us on the hillside. “This is my son,” said Tuki, “and his name is Hori Herewini too, and when he grows up and has a son his child also shall be a Hori Herewini. Thus the name of the great Bishop shall never be forgotten on Mokoia—nor shall we forget the triumph of our ancestor who makutu'd the living tree.”

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One would like to have Selwyn's version of that long ago theological duel. But the great Bishop took it to the grave with him. Verily, he would perhaps have admitted, the Powers of Darkness are now and then mysteriously suffered to prevail over the Children of Light.

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* “We have lookers (God cut them off among us) that with their only (malignant) eye-glances may strike down a fowl flying; and you shall see the bird tremble in the air with loud shrieking kâ-kâ-kâ-kâ-kâ. Their looking can blast a palm tree so that you shall see it wither away. These are things well ascertained by many faithful witnesses.” (Doughty's Travels in the Arabian Desert.)