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The Maori: Yesterday and To-day

Chapter V. — The Law of Tapu

page 69

Chapter V.
The Law of Tapu.

Tapu was the “noli me tangere” of Maori Land. Literally the word means “sacred,” or “holy,” or “forbidden”; but its variations and peculiar applications are innumerable. There was a personal tapu and a local tapu; and tapu of some kind or another faced the ancient Maori everywhere. Invisible presences thronged the world of primitive man, and these had to be propitiated or exorcised. Tapu was the quarantine law; it served some of the same purposes as the old Jewish laws of prohibition. With the Ariki, the sacred high chief of priestly rank, or the tohunga or ordinary priest and expert in occult arts, lay the exercise of many of the mystic powers of tapu, and they were respected and often dreaded accordingly. Alfred Domett wrote of the tohunga class in his epic “Ranolf and Amohia”:

“Departed spirits were their dumb police,
And ghosts enforced their lightest law.”

The personal tapu of the priests was partly hereditary and partly acquired as the result of their instruction in the sacred house of education in the lore of the race (whare-kura, whare-wananga, or whare-maire).

The tohunga Maori possessed some of the strange powers that Indian priests and experts possess to-day. They had the ability to make people believe they had seen things which had no existence in fact. I have heard of numerous instances of these hypnotic powers. Telepathic gifts the tohunga of the highest class undoubtedly had, and page 70 many stories are told of the tohunga makutu who exercised the power of projection of the will for death-dealing purposes. Some of the singular tales of the occult power of the adepts in tohunga-ism are obviously exaggerations, but there was a strong basis of fact for many.

The ban of tapu is frequently applied to rivers, lakes or other waters in which people have been drowned. This was a needful prohibition against eating fish which might have fed on the dead. After the wreck of the steamer Wairarapa at the Great Barrier Island in 1894, with the loss of 126 lives, the Maori of that island, who live in a bay a few miles away, tapu'd all fish within a certain area for a long period. During this time of interdiction no native would eat or touch any food of the salt sea. As a great portion of the food of these people consisted of fish of all kinds, from snapper and hapuku to shark, besides oysters and pipi and other shellfish, the tapu meant considerable privation, but it was religiously observed for more than a year. In August, 1900, a number of Maori school children of Omaio were drowned near the mouth of the Motu River when crossing in a canoe. In consequence of these deaths a tapu was imposed on the lower part of the river and on the coast waters from Te Kaha to Opape, for a period of twelve months, and for four years in the more limited area between Tokaputa and Whitianga points. This prohibition was observed and enforced by the Whanau-a-Apanui tribe. As the sea around the coast is alive with edible fish of all kinds, the voluntary tapu was a very serious matter to the Maori. The strictness with which the tapu was honoured is illustrated by an incident which occurred many months after the drowning of the children. A chief of Maraenui, crossing the Motu River at the ford in his bullock page 71 dray, took a drink of water from the river. This was observed, and discussed among the Whanau-a-Apanui, and a long time after the incident occurred, a taua muru or “robbing party”—perhaps it would be better to say a “punitive expedition”—came from Gisborne, a hundred miles away, to inflict punishment for the infraction of the tapu. These champions of the Maori law were kinsmen of the children who had been drowned. After much talk, the offending chief was formally and officially muru'd. His drink of tapu'd water cost him nearly £50.

The hair of the head and beard was held in a mystical respect amongst the Maoris, just as it is amongst the Arabs and other Orientals. The Arabs, it has been recorded, bury the hair very carefully so that no one may employ it in witchcraft spells against them. This was exactly the Maori idea and practice. When Tuhoto Ariki, the ancient wizard who was found alive in the ruins of his hut at Te Wairoa, Lake Tarawera, in 1886, some days after the destruction of the place by the eruption of Mount Tarawera and Rotomahana, was taken into the Rotorua Sanatorium, he was shorn of his long shaggy hair. The loss of his tapu hair is said by the Maori to have hastened the old man's death, which occurred a few days later; the old sorcerer himself believed that with his hair much of his personal mana-tapu had left him. But as he was quite a hundred years old when he died, even the most powerful of Atua-Maori could not have been expected to retain him much longer in this Aomarama of ours.

The horror of cooked food or anything connected with food coming in contact with the head or any other sacred part of a high chief's person was an outcome of the tapu system. A story bearing on page 72 this was related concerning an old acquaintance of mine, the late Honana te Maioha, one of the leading chiefs of Ngati-Mahuta. In his youthful days he eloped with a woman of high rank from the Waikato, but one day his regard for her suffered a shock when he saw her working with the old women at the hangi, and allowing the steam from the newly-opened earth-ovens to reach her and envelop her sacred head. This was an unforgivable breach of the laws which regulate the behaviour of chiefs and chieftainesses, for to permit the polluting vapour from a food-oven to touch one's upoko-tapu (sacred head) was as bad as placing the cooked food itself thereon. So the indignant husband divorced his wife there and then, telling her that she had forgotten the duties and restrictions pertaining to her exalted rank; that she had shown herself wanting in the respect due to herself and her position, and that she was, in short, no rangatira.

A notable case of tapu illustrating the incident represented in Lindauer's picture of the tohunga which is reproduced on the opposite page, occurred in modern times in the Waikato. When the sacred bones of Potatau Te Wherowhero, the first Maori king, were removed in 1888 from a cave in the mountainous recesses of the King Country, and borne to Waikato, to the ancestral burial-ground at Taupiri, they were carried, wrapped in native mats, by old Te Wharepu on his back. The first part of the journey, as far as Whatiwhatihoe, was made on foot and fasting, and the chief who bore the great warrior's bones was in the native mind saturated with the tapu emanating from the remains. His whole body was for the time being extremely tapu, and as he dared not, according to his ideas, touch food with his hands, he had to be fed like a child, much in the manner shown in Lindauer's picture.

page 73
The Tapu Quarantine. This picture illustrates a Maori custom of the past, the restrictive law of tapu. The old man is a tohunga who has been in contact with the dead, and must not touch food with his hands or feed himself, for a certain period. He is therefore fed by the little girl, who is giving him a potato on the end of a fern-stalk. [From a painting by G. Lindauer, Auckland Gallery.

The Tapu Quarantine.
This picture illustrates a Maori custom of the past, the restrictive law of tapu. The old man is a tohunga who has been in contact with the dead, and must not touch food with his hands or feed himself, for a certain period. He is therefore fed by the little girl, who is giving him a potato on the end of a fern-stalk.
[From a painting by G. Lindauer, Auckland Gallery.

page 74

I was acquainted with a man who had spent a considerable part of his life under the quarantine of tapu. This old fellow, Patara te Ngungukai, was a practitioner of various branches of the tohunga's art in the Arawa Country some thirty years ago. He was a venerable relic of the cannibal era; in his day he had been a very active warrior and had won some local fame as the fastest long-distance runner in his tribe. When I knew the tattooed wizard he was the tribal bone-scraper, and my Maori friends warned me to beware of his tapu, which was of a particularly virulent kind; he had scraped so many bones in his time. It was his ghoulish duty, when the remains of the dead were exhumed after a lapse of about two years, to remove any flesh, scrape the bones clean, pack them up in bundles and remove them with appropriate ritual to the tribal ossuaries. There is a warm pool at Whakarewarewa, a tapu place called by an ancient Hawaikian name, Pikopiko-i-whiti, in which Patara and those of his profession cleansed themselves after the hahunga operation. Patara was always intensely tapu after such a task, and of necessity was a recluse.

The hahunga-tupapaku, or lifting of bodies, with the attendant bone-scraping, has been abandoned by most Maori communities, but some tribes in the middle parts of the North Island still practise it, or did a very few years ago. There was a ceremonial of this kind on a large scale in the Waimana district, on the northern border of the Urewera County, in 1915. Some hundreds of Maoris from Whakatane, Opotiki, Ohiwa and other parts of the Bay of Plenty, as well as the Urewera people, were engaged on several burial grounds in the Waimana valley, disinterring the remains of their relatives who had been buried there some years previously. The exhumations were accompanied by the chanting page 75 of laments. The bones were scraped, then packed in black cloth in bundles, about two feet in length, and old men of the tribes carried these to their final resting places. Several of these bearers of bones passed through Opotiki town with the bundles strapped on their backs. They were allowed to ride on horseback, but were not permitted to remove the packages from their backs until they reached the journey's end. The reason was that anything or any place on which the sacred burdens rested became tapu and could not be approached or touched.

A special form of tapu pertains to many family and tribal heirlooms, especially weapons and greenstone tiki or neck pendants carved in the familiar grotesque shape. The very sacred axe Awhiorangi, a relic of wonderful mana, is an example of these tapu treasures; it was brought from Tahiti to New Zealand in the canoe Aotea six centuries ago, and it is still preserved by the Ngarauru tribe, at Tauranga-ika, near the Waitotara. Another, of more recent origin, is the beautiful méré Pahikaure, a greenstone weapon which is the tapu talisman of the Heuheu family, of Ngati-Tuwharetoa. The curious carved stone bird Korotangi, brought in the canoe Tainui, is another antique treasure famed in song and tradition. Tiki and other greenstone ornaments were frequently buried with the dead, and were worn again by the living after the lapse of some years, when the remains of the dead were disinterred for removal and the ceremony of the hahunga, the bone-scraping. An antique relic of an unusual character is a very tapu greenstone headrest, called a kohamo, in the possession of the chief family of the Ngati-Mahuta tribe, Waikato. This kohamo, which is said to be the only one in existence, is a polished block of green jadeite or page 76 nephrite, the pounamu of the Maori, shaped and smoothed to fit the back of the head and neck as a rest. In size it is 11 inches by 10 inches, and 6 or 7 inches thick, and is said to weigh about 50 lbs. When a great chief was buried, the kohamo was placed at the back of the head, and was left in the burial cave until another high chief died, when it was removed. It is a relic deeply revered by the tribe, and when it was recovered from an ancient burial ground at Tangirau—“the Place of Many Wailings”—on the Waikato River side, in 1898, it was hailed with great excitement and much chanting of tribal tangi songs. There was a great gathering of the people at Waahi village, where it was placed in the care of the Mahuta family, and the old men and women of the tribe shed tears and murmured the olden waiata as they passed before the holy greenstone on which so many ancestral heads had reposed in death.

The late Mahuta Potatau Te Wherowhero, son of King Tawhiao, of Waikato.

The late Mahuta Potatau Te Wherowhero, son of King Tawhiao, of Waikato.