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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 9 (December 1, 1934)

The Wisdom of the Maori

page 45

The Wisdom of the Maori

The Magic Screen.

The South Island place-name Kurow, that of the nearest township to the great hydro-electric works on the Waitaki, must have puzzled many people. It is popularly supposed to be Maori, but it looks more like Japanese. Really it is a corruption of Kohurau, the original Maori name of a hill there, which means literally “Many Mists,” a place shrouded in fog. There is a legend of this misty mountain which I have heard from the old Maoris of Moeraki. A warrior chief was once closely pursued there by his enemies, and as he panted his way up the range, with death very close on his heels, he recited an urgent prayer to his gods, a karakia or charm which brought instant response. A dense fog descended and concealed him from his foes and he escaped. These stories of magic mists are heard in many mountainous lands of primitive peoples.

Mention of those convenient clouds that befog pursuers at a critical moment brings up a memory of an old Arawa acquaintance of mine, who gave me a karakia which he had found efficacious himself in his fighting days of the Hauhau campaigns. He said it might be useful to me some day. The spell was called a “huna,” which means to hide or conceal. This is my translation of the brief prayer to the spirits of nature; an appeal to the spiders to weave their webs across the path behind him and to the “people of the earth” to hide him in the ground with them:

“O Spiders, hide my face,
Ants, obscure me from the foe,
O Ruwaimoko,
God of the lower depths,
Come forth from out thy cave
And let me enter it!
Let foemen search around,
Gaze up and down
See nothing but the empty land.”

Names of Power.

A correspondent writing from Hataitai, Wellington, has asked “Tohunga” to supply him with thirty Maori names with their meanings—“Each word to start with the letter ‘K,’ and be significant of something big, powerful, or an important event. It does not matter whether they are place-names, or of great chiefs, as long as the meaning relates to something important, especially denoting power.”

A rather large contract; however, “Tohunga” obliges with this list of words which are or have been used as personal names, and some of them as place-names, and which will fulfil the conditions specified:

Ka, meaning to burn (ahi-ka-roa is the term for continuously burning home fires or ancestral fires). Kaha, strong. Kaeaea, the sparrowhawk. Kawhaki, to carry away by force. Kaharoa, a large seine or drag-net. Kahu, the hawk; also a chief. Kahukura, the god of the rainbow, or the god whose aria or visible presence is the rainbow. Kahurangi, precious, a prized possession; treasure, also one of the most valuable kinds of greenstone. Kaitaua, warlike, army-destroying. Katoa, all, the whole (Te Ao-katoa, “The Whole World,” was a Ngati-Raukawa chief and tohunga in the King Country). Kanapu, lightning. Kapakapa-nui, repeated great flashes of lightning (there is a “lightning-omen mountain” of this name on the Western side of the Tararua ranges, overlooking Waikanae). Kiharoa, a long sigh or breath (there was a famous chief of that name on the Tauranga coast, and another at Rotorua, and a gigantic warrior named Kiharoa is mentioned in King Country traditions). Koiwi, strength, intensity (also bone). Kokiri, to charge, to dash; also a storming party. Kotiri, a meteor. Kawanga, the tapu-lifting ceremonial for a new carved house. Kotuku, the white heron, symbolical for an honoured guest (when H.R.H. the Duke of Gloucester visits New Zealand presently he will be greeted by the Maoris as “Te Kotuku rerenga-tahi,” meaning the rarely-seen guest, the visitor who comes but once, the lone-flying heron). Karawhiu, to whirl about, drive, swing around. Karo, to ward off a blow. Kauhanganui, a council or parliament of tribes. Kaumatua, elder, old chief. Kawau, the shag, cormorant. Kawaumaro, a war-party in fighting formation, ready to charge. Kopu, the planet Jupiter. Kumi, a huge fabulous reptile, a kind of taniwha. Kura, precious, a treasured thing; sacred knowledge, etc. Kumea, to pull, haul away. Koraha, a large open plain. Kauri, the greatest of timber trees. Kopi, shut tightly; a gorge or narrow pass. Kopuwai, a legendary monster who could swallow a river, and whose den was near the exit of the Kawarau River from Lake Wakatipu.

Heaven's Door and Window.

There is an aura of tapu about some of our ancient volcanoes, those long dead furnace cupolas that seem to have an air of watchfulness, as if they had not yet done with that eruption business. I have in mind at the moment Mt. Edgecumbe, the Putauaki of the Maoris, whose blue truncated cone springs at you, so to say, when you top the forested hill above Lake Rotoma, on the motor road from Rotorua to Whakatane. Our mountain climbers do not seem to have discovered Edgecumbe yet. They will find their problem there is not bush or cliffs but the high and tangled fern and scrub that clothe the steep-angled peak. In the crater at the top there is a little lake, and there is a very ancient forest of quite tall timber there, nearly three thousand feet above sea-level.

But the most enthalling thing about Putauaki, to my mind, is the magic garment of legend and poetry and witchery that the Maoris have woven about it. For many a generation the very summit of the eastern peak, the highest part of the crater rim, was the burial place of the chief people of the Ngati-Awa and Pahipoto tribes. The remains of persons of lesser rank were deposited in caves on the west peak, and near the foot of the mountain, on the north-west side, towards the old village of Otipa, on the bank of the Rangitaiki River.

Fine inspiring names were given to the top of the boldly carved mountain. The sharp eastern crown, the tribal necropolis, haunted by the spirits of the dead, is called Te Tatau-a-Rangi, “The Door of Heaven.” The central crater, with its little lake looking up to the sky like a blue eye, is Te Matapihi-a-Rehua, which means “The Window of the Star Sirius.” There is a mythological reference here which would take much explanation to make fully clear. Rehua, or Sirius, the brightest of the fixed stars, is often coupled with Atutahi (Canopus) in Maori poetry. Rehua and Atutahi have authority over the lesser stars, says the Maori. When small clouds drift around that mountain top, the Maoris say the spirits of the dead are hovering there.

At the lofty Tatau-a-Rangi there is, according to my Maori informants, who live at the base of the mountain, a deep, mysterious cavern (torere), a volcanic fissure of unknown depth. Its mouth is partly covered by a stone slab. Into this mighty doorway to the unknown the rangatira dead were lowered.