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Nation Making, a story of New Zealand

Chapter VIII. — The Tohunga

page 61

Chapter VIII.
The Tohunga.

Druids and Tohungas (priests).—Mysterious Powers.—A Terrible Tyranny.The Last of the Tohungas.—Incantations.—The Keepers of Traditions.The Hunchback.Story of a Tohunga:—A Tribal Feud.Migration of the Tribe.—A Native Fortress.—The Night of the Atua.—A Midnight Storm.—The Face of a Demon.—The Gate of the Spirit World.—The Sighing of the Sea.—A Voice from the Dead—The Father of the Tribe.—The Spirit Speaks.—'Be Warriors again.'—The Spell Broken.—Sunrise on a Dead Face.—The Shadows of the Demons.—A weary Old Man.The Master of the Demons.—The Words of the Ariki.—The White Bones of the Slain.Vengeance.The Warriors return no more.The Young Conquerors.The sweet voices of the Maidens.The Fathers of the New Tribe.—The Ventriloquist.

TheTohunga (priest) amongst the Maories, appears to have held a position, and wielded an influence akin to that of the Druids amongst our Celtic ancestors.

The two mysterious powers of rendering any person or thing Tapu (sacred), and of smiting any person with death by the Makutu (bewitching) made the despotism of the Tohungas a tyranny of the worst kind. The power of excommunication wielded by the ecclesiastics of the Middle Ages in Western page 62Nations, confined chiefly to refusing the rites of baptism, marriage and burial to a nation or individual, was as nothing to the mystic power of the Tapu in the hands of the Tohungas. From the birth of the infant to the death of the old man, the dark shadow of the Tohunga's power closely followed the imaginative and superstitious Maori. That he did not wither into an abject slave under such an influence, says much for the native manliness of his character.

When the Missionaries preached the simple truths of the Gospel to the Maories, they opened the dark dungeon of heathenism, and the Maories stepped joyfully from the prison house into the sunlight of Christian freedom. Release from the heavy bondage of the Tohungas, I think largely accounts for the primary wonderful success of the Missionaries in New Zealand.

Nevertheless, the Maori, like the rest of human kind, being very much a creature of habit, remained, long after he became a Christian, to no small extent under the influence of the old customs of Tapu and Makutu. As long as a Tohunga lived, though much of his influence had departed, he never ceased to be an object of dread to his tribe.

One of the most famous of the Tohungas was overwhelmed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Tarawera in June 1886. This priest, reckoned to be over one hundred years old, some days after the eruption was dug out of a partially buried house. Not one of his tribe would touch him, or come near him, page 63or even look at him, so great was their superstitious dread of him. He was carried to the hospital, where, after lingering a few days, he died, and the Last of the Tohungas departed to the Spirit Land.

The Tohunga was the sole medium of communication with the gods. By his incantations he claimed to control the spirits of the air, earth and water, and professed to hold converse with the inhabitants of the Spirit World. He was consulted on many of the small affairs of life. No new Waerenga (cultivation) would be commenced, no fishing party would cast a hook until the prayers to the gods had been offered by the Tohunga, or until, by his incantations he had restrained the powers of the demons. No warriors ever trod the war path, until the Tohunga had offered sacrifices to 'Tu' the god of war.

As already stated, in the Tapu, the Tohungas held a power, which bound the Maories in a bondage, that nothing but ancient and long-continued usage could have rendered bearable.

Associated with the Ariki or Great Chief of the tribe, (who was also occasionally a Tohunga), were the eldest son of the Chief, and a Hunchback (one or more of whom was to be found in every Maori tribe) as keepers of the tribal history, but the Tohunga was the chief depositary of the traditions, genealogies and folk lore of the tribe. The object of associating the Hunchback with the more official keepers of the records, arose I think from the circumstance, that in those warlike times, no man's nor woman's life was page 64safe, the Chief especially, was liable to fall in battle. In a massacre the Hunchback, being under the special protection of the gods, was spared, and so the traditions with more certainty, passed on unbroken from generation to generation.

By these means, Maori traditions have been handed down from times very remote, with what, in some cases at least, we are justified in regarding as singular accuracy, as may be seen in the greenstone tradition narrated in a preceding chapter.

My ancient friend Hohua (referred to in succeeding chapters), whose recollection of men and events of the long ago, was very clear, had many grim stories to tell. I may narrate one of a Tohunga, as it illustrates the unbounded influence the priests exerted over the Maori people in the olden times.

Squatting at the door of his house in the quiet beauty of a summer evening, with his face towards the setting sun, the ancient patriarch, in a thin yet firm voice, began his story.

'When I was a youth, there had been a long and bloody war between two tribes,' (whom I shall speak of as the Ngatikohatus and the Ngatipungas).

'The Ngatipungas had lost many warriors in the long blood feuds. Sometimes they won a bloody victory, but the Ngatikohatus were too strong. The cultivations of the Ngatipungas were destroyed, and many of their villages were deserted. The songs of page 65maidens and the shouts of warriors were heard no more in them.

'After many reverses, they were at last driven from all their villages on the plain. Their Tohunga, a year before, after many incantations, had told them that "Tu" the War god was angry, that their safety lay in making their cultivations around the ancient fortress of the tribe in the recesses of the forest of the mountains, and when these were ready for the harvest, for the remnants of the tribe to retreat thither.

'They hearkened to his word, and when the first frost lay white on the plain, they abandoned their ruined homes, and went to dwell in the old Pah, in which ages before, their ancestors had lived in quietness.

'The Pah was strong. It was perched, like the nest of a bird, on the top of a cliff. The walls of the rock were washed, on all sides but one, by a broad, deep stream. The open side looked towards the Waerenga (clearing) in the forest made by their ancestors long ago. That land was good. Taro and Kumaras grew in abundance.

'Then they had no pigs nor potatoes, for none of those which Captain Cook had given to the Maori tribes, had yet been put in the ovens. But in that land the fern root grew strong, and that was their chief food. The river of the forest was full of eels. They fixed across the river posts of Totara for the Patunas (eel weirs), in which, after the Tohunga had made the incantations, they caught eels in great plenty.

'The forest, so long silent, was full of pigeons and page 66Kakas (parrots) which fell an easy prey into the cunning snares set for them, for the Karakias (spells) of that Tohunga were strong.

'Then the Ngatipunga made a Taiapa (a palisade) of strong posts, with the faces of their ancestors carved upon them. In front of this, after many days' toil, they dug with wooden hoes, ditches across the narrow neck, and piled up the earth mingled with fern stalks, into high banks behind the ditches.

'So the Pah was made strong, and the Ngatipungas slept quietly and dwelt there in peace, for they knew they were safe from the attacks of their foes the Ngatikohatus.'

At this point the old man's voice faltered, and for a few moments his eyes, with a far-off look in them, rested on the crimson glory of the sunset. Then he turned his wistful eyes to me, and recollecting himself, as it were, he resumed his story.

'It is long ago,' said he, 'but I seem to be young again, and I feel as if I were in the Pah of the Ngatipungas once more. The Pah was strong, and the Taro and the Kumaras had been put safely in the Ruas (pits) a second time, and the pigeons in their melted fat, filled many gourds.

'Then the Tohunga made great incantations. After many days, when the night of the Atua (god) was come, the full moon shone bright in the heavens, and the Priest gathered the Chiefs and all the warriors and women of the tribe into the ancient Runanga page 67house, which had been lined anew with reeds, and the carved ancestors of the tribe had been painted red, as of old, for they were very Tapu (sacred).

'The Tohunga made many incantations, and the people were in great fear. Then, black clouds covered the sky, and the bright shining of the moon was gone. The incantations of the Tohunga were strong, and the Uira (lightning) gleamed in the sky; the Runanga house was filled with its brightness, and the loud thunder roars became louder and louder, because of the strength of the spells of the Priest.

'Then the Ngatipungas were sore afraid. But the Tohunga made his incantations more powerful, until great trees were struck down in the forest by the fiery storm. The darkness in our meeting house was chased away by gleams of the lightning, which dashed through our house like the waves of the sea on the shore.

"The night was long, and the people were weary and afraid. But at last, the Priest by his strong Karakias (spells) made the storm end, and there was a great calm.

'Then the Tohunga rose up, and his face was more hideous than before. His tongue hung from his mouth, his eyes were red and swollen, and his face was as the face of a demon. His body moved from side to side, and he uttered unknown words which none of the tribe could understand.

The faces of the warriors were fixed upon him, but the women covered their heads, for the Priest stood stiff and still as though he were a stone. A bloody page 68foam covered his mouth and ran down his sacred garment.

'Then, a strange sound, as of the sighing of the ocean beach, when the spirits are travelling to Te Reinga (the gate of the Spirit World) swept through the darkness of the Runanga house, and the women and the warriors were silent with terror, for all felt that the dead was there.

'The sighing of the sea ended. We waited in fear for it to return. But it came no more.

'Then, in the silence, a scratching of the roof-beam of the Runanga house was heard. All heard it, and trembled.

'"It is a voice from the Spirit Land," said the hollow voice of the Tohunga. "Hearken."

'In the deep silence, we heard the voice.

'We listened and looked, and one of the carved ones, the most ancient ancestor of them all, who was the far-off Father of the Tribe, Te Punga himself—spake these words,

'"Tu the War god has been angry with my children. Their bones whiten the heaps at the gates of the fortresses of the Ngatikohatus."

'At these words, the Tohunga, whose face had been hidden by the sacred mat, let fall his garment, and said,

'"What does my Father say to his children?" The bones of the Priest rattled in his skin, and he covered them with his mat, but his face was turned again towards the carved face of Te Punga.

Every man was as a stone. None moved, nor page 69breathed, for all were filled with a grievous fear. Our knees shook together, a great trembling seized every warrior, and all covered their heads like women, and waited for the words of the Spirit of Te Punga.

'Then the carved lips of the Father of the Tribe seemed to move in the dim light from the oil of the birds, and he spake.

'"The Ngatikohatus dwell in my ancient home They fear nothing. They are as women amidst the Waerengas (cultivations). Let my sons be warriors again. It is ended."

'A great silence filled the house of the Runanga.

'The Tohunga renewed his incantations and muttered strange things in words unknown.

'The spell was broken. We breathed again. But the Tohunga lay stretched on the ground as one dead.

'Our life returned to us again, for the darkness had ended, and the light of the morning shone through the crevices of the Runanga house.

'But none moved. We were afraid.

'When the first rising of the Ra (sun) over the Maunga (mountain) came into the dark house, it fell upon the dead face of the Tohunga, and he moved, and slowly awaked out of a sleep, which we thought was the sleep of the dead.

'He seemed to know nothing, and his red eyes had no light in them. Slowly the breath came into his body, which had been dead, for few enter the cave of Te Reinga to speak with the dead, who ever return to the sunlight again. Because the shadows of the demons lay upon them they often sleep and awake no page 70more. But the incantations of the Priest were very strong, for he was a Tohunga Nui (great priest) and the Master of the Demons, and he lived,'

I sprang to my feet. The old patriarch had fainted and fallen back against the dead tree. I moistened his lips with water, and sprinkled a few drops on his face. In a little time he opened his eyes, and the light returned to his worn features, but he was very weary, and I asked him not to finish his story till the morrow.

In a few days Hohua recovered his strength. He was a wonderful old man. His recollection of recent circumstances was uncertain and feeble, but his memory for the events of three-quarters of a century ago, was remarkably clear and strong. With some little difficulty, I brought him back to the 'Master of the Demons' in the Runanga house.

'Yes,' he began, 'that Tohunga was strong and the demons were the slaves of his incantations.

'The warriors slept in the Runanga house for they were weary. When the women had made ready the food, they awoke them.

'When the warriors had eaten, they assembled in the Marae (the open space) and the women ate their food alone.

'Then the Ariki (the head chief) spake these words, "Warriors of Ngatipunga, yesterday we were women, to-day we are men. Let us obey the voice of the page 71dead, and bring hither the whitened bones of our kinsmen that moan to us, from the Pahs of the Ngatikohatus. They were slain in the battle. Their flesh was eaten by our foes. Their bones bleach in the sun. Let us paint them red that they may be Tapu (sacred). Listen to their voices which float at sunset on the wind from the South. They cry for vengeance. Let us wash our feet in the blood of the Ngatikohatus."

'After many Chiefs had spoken, we heard the Tangis (wailings) of the women for their dead.

'The word of all was "Vengeance."

'The Tohunga made many incantations and offered sacrifices to the War god. At the next full moon—the night of the god—the warriors trod the war path, and went to attack our enemies the Ngatikohatus, and bring back the bones of our kinsmen.

' I was but a boy, and remained in our Pah with the women and children.

' But the warriors of the Ngatipunga returned no more. Their bones made bigger the heaps at the gates of the Pah of their foes.

' After many days, the young warriors of Ngatikohatu came to our village, and found only desolate women there, for the Tohunga had gone to search for our warriors, but we saw him no more.

' The young conquerors dwelt in the Pah of Ngatipunga, for they were bewitched by the sweet voices and soft glances of our maidens, and they remained, for they were the only men left for our women to page 72nourish and live with. So these young chiefs became the fathers of the new tribe the Ngatihinekohatus.

'Enough,' gasped the ancient man, 'my voice fails, and my strength is feeble.

'It is ended.'

Hohua was exhausted and sad, and wearily sunk on the ground in front of his house. After a time he revived. I was sorry to have wearied him, but he said it was nothing. In truth, as he spoke of the long ago, he seemed to forget his great age, and the fire of his youth seemed to burn again within his thin and sinewy body. After this, though he had much to tell, I refrained from drawing him into exciting stories of the olden time.

Now the old warrior, Hohua the Land Tiller is gone.

It is well that the Maori people have escaped from the tyranny of the Tohungas. There can I think, be little doubt that the Tohunga in the old man's tale was a Ventriloquist, as indeed, were many of the Priests.