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The Maori: Yesterday and To-day

Chapter XIX. — The Shrine of an Atua

page 222

Chapter XIX.
The Shrine of an Atua

Old Rangiriri took his pipe and tobacco and box of matches out of his pocket and laid them on the ground beside a flax bush. “Now,” he said, “we shall enter the urupa, the sacred burial-place of my tribe, and view the Whetengu pa. And should you have tobacco or pipe with you, it will be well to leave them here with mine, for it is not right to contaminate sacred places with anything of that sort. Perhaps the tapu might not have any influence over you, because you are a pakeha, but it certainly would smite me were I to violate it by taking tobacco, which is food, into the shrine of the gods.”

We had dismounted and tethered our horses to the shrubs on the crest of a long ridge, the Tihi-o-Tonga (“Pinnacle of the South”), which swells gently up from the plains of Rotorua and falls precipitously on the southern side to a wooded valley. South of this sudden cliffy break, the valley stretches away for two or three miles, then rises again into wild and bold volcanic country, the forested ranges of Paewhenua and the cone of Haparangi. On the crest of the Tihi-o-Tonga are the fern-grown walls of an ancient pa, long deserted and abandoned to wild Nature, to the flax and fern and the black-berried tutu thickets. From the shadowy woods below came the song of the tui, now like a flute and again ringing like a bell.

To this lonely beautiful spot, the blue lake of Rotorua spread out to the north, and many a misty purple peak cutting the skyline to the south, Rangiriri had brought us to see one of the most sacred page 223 spots of the Arawa country, the holy of holies of his hapu, the carved stone goddess Horoirangi and the tuāhu of the pagan priests. He was the last keeper of these relics of his tribe.

Rangiriri. [From a photo.

[From a photo.

Within the green ramparts of the old pa, on the edge of the cliff, was a clear space, surrounded by a low bank. This was the site of the sacred tuahu of the priests who once dwelt in the pa, the place where the images of certain of the tribal gods were kept, and where the operation of cutting the chiefs' hair with flakes of matā-tuhua or obsidian—a semireligious ceremony—was performed by the priests. page 224 To the east, and occupying the highest part of the ancient village, was the urupa, the burial-place. The bones of the dead had been removed, but the tapu of the tribe's departed ones, long gathered to their Earth-Mother, still clung to the sacred hill-top.

“I was born in this pa,” said Rangiriri, “and my grandfather was buried here. My grandfather was a tohunga, and he taught me many prayers and sacred ceremonies, and now I alone am left of all the men of my hapu who know the history of this sacred spot and who possess the knowledge necessary to avert the evils of the tapu. Let us rest awhile on this taumata in the sunshine and view the land, and I will tell you the story of this hill-fort, Te Whetengu, before we descend the path which is called The Steps-Carved-by-Tutanekai, and look upon the stone face of my goddess Horoirangi.”

And Rangiriri, a small-built wiry veteran who had carried rifle and tomahawk on many a wild forest trail in the campaigns against the Hauhaus, told of the building of this pa by his ancestor Paiaka. This Paiaka was a chief of the Ngati-Uenukukopako section of the Arawa tribe, and he lived between two and three hundred years ago. Paiaka named his hilltop-hold Te Whetengu, but when, after his day, it was occupied for a time by Tutanekai—the young chief of Mokoia Island for whose sake Hinemoa swam Rotorua Lake—it was called Te Pa-Arakari-a-Tutanekai (“The Fort-where-the-Path-was-Carved-by Tutanekai”) because he had steps cut down the cliff face from his pa to the bush below and to the spot where the images of the gods reposed. Tutanekai and his hapu, the Ngati-Tuara, had come to the Tihi-o-Tonga for the purpose of growing kumara in the rich warm volcanic soil of these uplands—where their descendants raised fine crops of wheat fifty years ago—and of snaring and spearing the birds in the woods below.

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We descended the shrub-hung cliff by a slippery row of roughly-cut steps, hacked out with stone axes from the soft rock two centuries ago. Twenty feet below the edge of the cliff we came face to face with the carven atua in a recess sheltered by the cliff-wall and shrubs and ferns. A sphinx-like little effigy in stone looked out at us from the cliff on the right. It was a relief carving in the semblance of a human figure, with out-turned knees, its hands held in front of it. The figure was about two feet in height and about ten inches wide. It was covered with a smooth coat of beautiful red moss and a little aku forestvine that had grown up across it added to its appearance of great age. It was a perfectly preserved little figure except for its nose, part of which had been irreverently chipped off, but the friendly moss had endeavoured to repair the injury done by man. Rangiriri said that a Waikato and Ngati-Maru warparty, which passed through here a century ago on an expedition to Lake Taupo, wrought the damage, but that the gods squared accounts with the raiders for their sacrilege. They were defeated at the Motu-o-Puhi Pa, on Lake Roto-a-Ira, by Ngati-Tuwharetoa, and lost many men.

It was a beautiful little object, this atua, sacred as “Odin's mossy stone of power,” contemplating us silently from the wall of its tapu grotto. How many a wild savage scene it had looked out upon since it was first carven with obsidian axes from the rocky cliff! For here came the cannibal war-parties, headed by their leaf-girded priest with his offering, a human heart, and here rose the chant to Tu, the Angry-Eyed, the deity of war and blood.

Just opposite the carved figure and close to the foot of the stone stairway was a cave-like opening, a recess cut in the face of the cliff, about four feet deep, and the same width inside; the mouth was page 226
Image of the goddess Horoirangi, carved on the cliff at Tihi-o-Tonga, Rotorua. From a sketch by James McDonald, 1909

Image of the goddess Horoirangi, carved on the cliff at Tihi-o-Tonga, Rotorua.
From a sketch by James McDonald, 1909

page 227 much smaller, about twelve inches by fifteen inches; the sides were squared and shaped as if a wooden door once closed it. This rua or cave, Rangiriri said, was the sacred pataka, or storehouse of the gods, and in it was kept the image of the great wargod of the Arawa tribe, Maru-te-whare-aitu.

The stone-carven figure, said Rangiriri, represented the goddess Horoirangi, who was a deified ancestress of the Ngati-Uenukukopako tribe, a clan of the Arawa. It was carved out of the rock three hundred years ago, long before the steps known as the Ara-kari were cut. The image was the mauri or emblem which ensured the fertility of the land about the pa, and enabled the tribe to hold that land (“hei pupuri te mana o te whenua, hei pupuri te kaha o te tangata,” as Rangiriri put it), and it was also the guardian spirit which preserved the wild birds and fruits in which the surrounding forest abounded. At certain times sacred food was offered to the image by the Ruwahine or priestess of the pa, and incantations were recited before it. The firstfruits of the kumara harvest, and the first birds taken in snaring or spearing expeditions for koko (tui), kaka parrots, kuku (pigeons), and korimako (bell-birds), and other “wing-flapping children of Tiki” were also laid at Horoirangi's feet. After the sacred feasts were held, any remnant of food was carefully buried in the earth at the tuāhu or altar; it must not be left to be eaten by those not entitled to do so, for it was tapu, nor allowed to lie where any enemy could get it, for by its means he could makutu or fatally bewitch the tribe.”

The original Horoirangi, Rangiriri explained, was a wahine-atua, or deified woman, who was the wife of Taharangi, the younger brother of the chief Whakaue, who lived about three hundred and fifty years ago. But there was also a Polynesian goddess page 228 of that name, invoked by the ancestors of the Arawa tribe before the canoe migration from the islands of the Eastern Pacific to New Zealand.

And there was the story of the moss-fringed cavestorehouse. “The name of that pataka or rua,” said our tohunga, “is Pata-tō-rangi. In it my people kept the exceedingly sacred symbol of Maru, our god of war. This symbol was a lock of human hair, which was enclosed in a waka or wooden box hewn out of a block of totara. The box had a lid fitted to it, and was wrapped round with rimu bark, and with aka, forest vines. The priests came here to invoke Maru in time of war, and repeated the prayers when the war-party was about to set out; and here after a battle human flesh was brought, often the heart of the first of the enemy slain in the fight, and offered as food to the image of Maru. This manflesh (kiki-tangata) was placed in the pataka alongside the receptacle in which Maru lay.”

The pataka where the offerings from many a cannibal fight were laid is now empty. Maru has disappeared. Many years ago Rangiriri and another man of tohunga rank removed the waka-atua and its sacred relic from the shrine and concealed it in a cave below. The other tohunga was dead, and Rangiriri alone of all his tribe knew the hidingplace of the war-god. This was as well, for he alone in his hapu had the knowledge of the karakia necessary to avert the tapu's spell.*

There is another venerated relic in these secret places of the Tihi-o-Tonga. Down in the forest below us was a sacred stone, a tuapa or pae-manu, re sorted to in former times by bird-hunters of the Pa-Arakari. A practice of the Maori birding page 229 parties and one to be observed to this day in some native districts was the use of a pépé or call-leaf. This leaf, often of the raurekau shrub, is held between the lips, and a peculiar cry or whistle is made which quickly attracts the kaka and other inquisitive birds to the spot where the hunter is in hiding. The leaf used in the pépé method of bird-killing was first of all laid on the sacred stone so that it might imbibe the mana or power of the mauri, the emblem which stood for the productiveness of the forests, the birds, and fruits. Offerings of miro and other berries of the woods and also of the birds caught were laid before the mauri by the hunters, with appropriate prayers.

* Rangiriri died at Tarewa, Rotorua, in 1929. Some years after we visited the Pa-Arakari he chopped out the image of Horoirangi from the cliff with an axe—fortunately without damaging it—for fear it would be stolen by Rotorua curio-hunters, and it is now in the Auckland Museum.