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The Maori: Yesterday and To-day


Old beliefs, ancient religions, linger long after a primitive people has made outward acceptance of modern creeds. It is but natural that immemorial faiths, deep in the heart of the race, should be perpetuated to some extent, preserved by word-of-mouth instruction, as the real religion to which the people turn in time of sickness and stress. In such manner the respect for tapu is handed on. Strong, too, among many primitive folk is the belief in witcheraft and in the efficacy of certain spells for the relief of sickness and protection from the arts of wizardry.

The Maori-Polynesian religion, broadly stated, consisted in a reverence for the personified powers of nature, and a worship or propitiation of the spirits of ancestors. A belief in the animation of all nature pervaded and influenced the whole life of the Maori, and equally strong was his faith in the divinity of his great Ariki forefathers, ancestors who had long passed to the Reinga-land, yet whose spirits still held dominion over their descendants and were powerful to bless or ban. The Maori invested the elements and forces of the cosmos with names and human attributes; these and his reverenced dead stood to him for deities. That universal primitive religion which takes the form of animism is nowhere to be found more copiously embodied in priestly karakia, or ritual, and sacred legend than among the New Zealanders and the islands of Polynesia; and nowhere are ancestral spirits so venerated, their names held so sacred that page 50 their repetition is in itself a prayer. So carefully are the genealogies preserved that their recitation forms a large portion of many a karakia; any mistake in the repetition destroys the efficacy of the prayer or formula, and is even fatal to the suppliant.

The Maori, for all his primitive savagery, had not evolved the idea of hell. The prospect of an eternity of torment, on which the mediaeval pakeha founded his dismal religion, had not occurred to the Polynesian. He did not carry his hatreds into the other world. When the missionary of a century ago introduced the Christian hell to the Maori mind, even the cannibal declined to accept the alien theological horror, and annoyed the brethren by questioning its probability. The missionary for his part quite failed to grasp the sublimity and beauty underlying the old Maori religion. Few of the excellent men who pioneered the Churches in New Zealand took the trouble to investigate the system of beliefs they were supplanting. It was but natural that they should decline to study the faiths and practices that appeared to them nothing but “idolatrous abominations.” Indeed it is only within comparatively recent times that the intellectual nobility embodied in the heart of the ancient religion has come to be understood and appreciated by the student of faiths ancient and modern.

There is much that is sublime in the ancient cosmogonies. The Maori could conceive of uncountable aeons of Chaos and primeval Darkness (Po), gradually giving place to light until the Ao-māramai the World of Light was evolved. Ages upon ages of Nothing (Kore), as the old tohungas recited, preceded the gradual Dawn of Life and the coming into being of the Heavens and the Earth. Many tribal genealogies go back to the source of all things, page 51
Tumakoha, the ArawaTohunga. This learned man, a priest, mystic, bard and genealogist, was the highest tohunga of the old religion in the Arawa tribe surviving in modern times. He lived at Lake Okataina, and died about 1895. Like some other great tohungas he was not tattooed, because he was highly tapu.

Tumakoha, the ArawaTohunga.
This learned man, a priest, mystic, bard and genealogist, was the highest tohunga of the old religion in the Arawa tribe surviving in modern times. He lived at Lake Okataina, and died about 1895. Like some other great tohungas he was not tattooed, because he was highly tapu.

page 52 to the time when the world was “without form and void.”

The idea that seems most strongly to pervade the Maori mind, the conception that colours all his theories as to the origin of everything in nature, is the dual principle, the generative power of male and female, of the active and passive forces. Everything he endowed with sex, even the successive periods of Darkness and of Light, before man was. Light was to him the primal active generating force, operating upon Po, the Darkness, the passive, the receptacle for the mysterious Vivifier.

The following cosmological recital is the first portion of a very long genealogy which I obtained many years ago from one of the chief families of the Ngati-Maniapoto tribe in the King Country. The whakapapa or genealogy begins with the seldom-uttered name, Io, the mystic First Power, and then come the successive cycles of Darkness and Light, Night and Day, opposed to each other as Male and Female:

Whetu (the Stars)
(Female Element) (Male Element)
Te Marama (the Moon) Tera (the Sun)
Te Po-nui (the Great Darkness) Te Ao-nui (the Great Light)
Te Po-roa (the Long Darkness) Te Ao-roa (the Long Light)
Te Po-papakina (the Darkness that can be felt) Te Ao-papakina (the Light that can be felt)
Te Po-pakarea Te Ao-pakarea
Te Po-ki-tua (the Darkness Beyond) Te Ao-ki-tua (the Light Beyond)
Te Po-ki-roto (the Darkness Within) Te Ao-ki-roto (the Light Within)
Te Po-tawhito (the Ancient Darkness) Te Ao-tawhito (the Ancient Light)
Te Po-ruru (the Sheltered Darkness) Te Ao-ruru (the Sheltered Light)
Te Po-aio (the Calm Darkness) Te Ao-aio (the Calm Light)
Te Po-whero (the Red Darkness) Te Ao-whero (the Red Light)
Te Po-ma (the White Darkness) Te Ao-ma (the White Light)
Te Po-pango (the Black Darkness) Te Ao-pango (the Black Light)
Te Po-whakararu (the Darkness agitated) Te Ao-whakararu (the Light agitated)page 53
Te Po-kumea (the Darkness Drawn Out) Te Ao-kumea (the Light Drawn Out)
Te Po-whakarito Te Ao-whakarito
Te Po-i-runga (the Darkness Above) Te Ao-i-runga (the Light Above)
Te Po-i-raro (the Darkness Below) Te Ao-i-raro (the Light Below)
Te Po-i-matau (the Darkness to the Right) Te Ao-i-matau (the Light to the Right)
Te Po-i-maui (the Darkness to the Left) Te Ao-i-matau (the Light to the Left)
Papa-Tu-a-Nuku (The Earth) Rangi-Nui-E-Tu-Nei (The Heavens)

Rangi and Papa, the Sky-Father and Earth-Mother, were the parents of the following deities, who are the chief gods of the Polynesians and the Maoris:

Rongo (God of Cultivations and of Peace).*
Tane (God of Man, also Forests and Birds).
Tangaroa (God of the Ocean and Fish).
Tawhiri-matea (God of the Wind and Storms).
Haumia (God of Fern-root and Uncultivated Foods).
Ruai-moko (God of Volcanoes and Earthquakes)
Tu-mata-uenga (God of Man and of War).

To resume the genealogical recital: from Tu-mata-uenga the divine descent to Tiki, the first man, is as follows, each name representing a distinct stage in the evolution of man:

Aitua; Aituere; Aitu-kikini; Aitu-tamaki; Aitu-whakatika; To Kore; To Kore-nui; Te Kore-roa; Te Kore-para; Te- Kore-te-whiwhia; Te Kore-te-rawea; Kore-te-oti-atu-ki-te-po; Ngana; Ngana-nui; Ngana-roa; Ngana-ruru; Ngana-maoe; Hotu-wai-ariki; Tapatai; Tiki; Tiki-te-pou-mua; Tiki-te-pou-roto; Tiki-i-ahua-mai-i-Hawaiki (Tiki-who-was-made-in-Hawaiki), the first human being.

Following upon the begetting of their seven children (there are many others mentioned in legends and genealogies), came the separation of Heaven and Earth. For ages Rangi, the Sky-Father, and Papa-tua-nuku, the Earth-Mother, clung closely to each other and no glimmer of light penetrated to their numerous children. At length these rebelled, and forcibly parted the primal pair. It was Tane-mahuta who forced his parents apart

* Rongo was also the deity of Sound, according to Haré Hongi.

page 54 by standing on his head and thrusting Rangi upwards with his feet. Tane's limbs were the trees; it was with these forest-pillars that he propped up the leaning sky, so that the Sky-Parent henceforth dwelt on high, dropping down his tears on Papa's face in the form of rain and dew. “Tears” are a poetic euphemism for the procreating and fecundative powers of the Sky, the Clouds, the Rain, and the Sun. These potent influences Rangi showers upon his spouse the Earth, who in return brings forth abundantly of all plants and trees and foods, and who ever exhales her tokens of love or aroha in the form of mists and soft clouds. These vapours of aroha are night after night wafted on high to her Sky-Husband, her Tane, whose face and breast are so grandly adorned with myriads of stars. Papa (a term interchangeable, as word-students know, with the equally universal “mama”), is the all-nourishing, all begetting one, the great Mater Genetrix.
Beyond and above the personification of natural forces and objects, the Earth, the Ocean, the Wind, the Sun and Moon and Stars, there was the belief in a Great First Cause. This supreme being is Io, a name exceedingly sacred and not to be mentioned lightly. “Io was really the God,” says a Maori. The protection or shelter of Io (“Te Maru a Io”), is an expression in an ancient prayer. In a Ngati-Porou (Takitimu) cosmological recital, written for me by an old chief, Io is coupled with Hå as one of the two high deities. Hā, however, means the breath of life, the vivifying force. Io may be from the original iho, the core, the animating force of all things. Io is the Jewish Jehovah, the Greek Zeus.*

* “The word io, commonly used for “god” by the natives of Mangaia, Cook Group, properly means “pith” or “core” of a tree. What the core is to the tree, the god was believed to be to the man. In other words, the gods were the life of mankind.” When the missionaries spread the Christian faith, the islanders transferred its name Io oro, or “the living god,” to the Bible Jehovah. (Rev W. Wyatt Gill).

page 55 Like the original Jewish name for the supreme spirit, it was too sacred to be uttered publicly.*

If we resolve such names to their beginning we find that Io and Jehovah and their equivalents are simply the names adopted to denote Nature, the first object of worship of all peoples. The countless systems of theology to which the world has pinned its faith are artificial structures; the natural religion of man is the primal faith of all, the worship of the elements, the heavenly bodies, the mystery and magic of earth and sea and sky.

* Jehovah: “By mutual and sacred agreement they [the Talmudists] accepted Jehovah as the substitute for Jah or the mystery word Iao. Alone the initiated knew of it.” (“Isis Unveiled.”)

“Whenever the Eternal awakes from its slumbers and desires to manifest itself it divides itself into male and female. It then becomes in every system the double-sexed deity, the universal father and mother.” (“Isis Unveiled.”).

Our Maori wood-carvers illustrate this belief in their parata, the front end of the massive ridge-pole, that section in the roof of the porch or mahau of a decorative house. The under-side of this tahuhu is carved in a representation of Rangi and Papa, the Sky Father and Earth Mother; they are invariably represented in the act of sexual connection in the conventional fashion of the whakairo art.