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Pioneering Reminiscences of Old Wairoa

The Fairy Folk

page 57

The Fairy Folk.

The peoples of Northern Europe need not "lay the flattering unction to their souls" that they have any monopoly of fairies and fairy tales, for "the little folk" have ranged over many lands, though they are more frequently associated with forests—deep, dark and impenetrable. Such, of course, was New Zealand as the first-comers from Hawaiki found it, except that on the shores of the North Island the glorious pohutukawa formed a beautiful fringe to the dark green mantle of the land.

There were giants in the land as well as fairies, for Te Otane, a son of Te Maha, was of such gigantic proportions that four ordinary men could get inside his belt (tatua), whilst the weapon he carried, called a maipi, was so ponderous that it took two men to carry it. The tale is quite as true as those in some of the works of Herodotus, Homer, or Virgil, whilst the story of Te Otane and his maipi is as likely to be as true as that respecting Polyphemus, whose staff was a pine tree.

But it is not of the giants of Old Wairoa but the little folk, the fairies, of whom I would write. Tuhoeland, now better known, perhaps, as the Urewera country, lying to the north-west of Waikaremoana, was once populated by a fair-skinned race of Maoris—at all events they had fairer skins than the Maoris of to-day, and many of them had a wealth of red hair. The whole territory was not only thickly populated by the people who were driven back from the coast, but page 58it was also inhabited by many gods, taniwhas by the legion, enchantment, mystery, and magic, overshadowing all as the mists overshadow Huia-rau.

Even to-day the Tuhoe folk speak of what they called the Tangata Whenua (the race of men that dwelt in this little region), a smaller, much more gentle, and fair-skinned people called the "Patu-pai-arehe," or the fairy people, probably as mythical as the banshee in Ireland or the Scottish benshie. But while it may not be possible to claim for Tuhoeland a monopoly of fairy-folk, it is true that nowhere in Maoriland are there such varieties of legends treating of patu-pai-arehe to be heard as in the wild and once turbulent land of Tuhoe, where nightly the kaumatuas, or learned men of the tribe, make the flesh of little children creep with tales of dread taniwhas, magic spells, and witchcraft; yet, endeavouring to calm the little brown bairns of the pas with stories of the kind and gentle patu-pai-arehe, partly clothed with the attributes of demi-gods, with bright white faces, and loving ways of living. Their lives, if they were mortals, were spent in a land of mystery, high above the sea-level, in a region where also dwelt taniwhas, fierce and unrelenting, their nightly accompaniments being weird wailings from the forests, groaning from the many caves in Tuhoeland, and awesome whispers from the still bosom of the Sea of the Rippling Waters.

The taniwhas were probably, in the Maori minds, remnants of handed down stories of crocodiles or hippopotami they had encountered in an ancient home far away. These were always page 59on the lookout to devour the unfortunate who crossed their path, quite unconscious of the doom that awaited them. But the ancient tohunga of Maoriland was as cunning in his way as the Indian fakir, the sorcerer of the Dark Continent, or the medicine-man, for he always had a charm of some sort or other—some karakia (prayer) or incantation to cure or to counteract the fiery, blasting breath, or to close the hungry jaws of the fiercest taniwha.

It was quite different with the patu-pai-arehe. These little people loved to wait about turn-offs or at the junction of forest tracks, and on the narrow footways of the mountain tracks, where two could barely pass. Here so admirably posted, they loved to bewilder the larger or darker-skinned inhabitants of the land, and puzzle him or her as to which was the right track to take: or they would be met with gambolling behind the myriads of tree trunks in the forest, still endeavouring to delude—always with a smiling face, for they always wore a bewitching smile. They were at all times ready to wheedle away to their far-distant forest homes or cave dwellings the larger and dark-skinned denizens of Tuhoeland, and they did this by the charm of their song or gesture, or both.

A similar gesture at the mouth of the Wairoa river once enabled Kahungunu to cross the river on his way to invade Heretaunga; but woe to the Maori who was so enticed away from his kindred. He was never seen again by his people. No legend ever tells what became of the myriads of such deluded wanderers, beguiled or enticed page 60away by the artful patu-pai-arehe. "Taken by the fairies" did not, however, signify that any ill had befallen them, any more than did the same phrase in Ireland imply torture or ill-treatment. Quite the opposite, indeed, for it had a religious meaning also.

The Arawa have a legend that on dim and misty days, when the mists hang low on Ngongotaha, 2,554 feet high, the old Maoris declared, "the fairies are abroad," and no one would venture up even after a pig, let the larder be ever so low; for could they not hear te-patu-arehe singing in their leafy bowers on the hilltop, at the trysting place of the fairies, Tuahu-o-te-atua, or the altar of the god.

There was one redeeming feature in the conduct of the Tuhoeland fairies, and that was that they had no power whatever over those men and women if the heart of the one to be beguiled was good and true. In other words, correct living saved the situation at all times. It was only over men whose minds were not pure or true, or who travelled from the correct path of life, on whom the fairies could cast their spells or magic power. There is a legend concerning the Whataroa peak, inland from the Waikaremoana road, that the land formerly could never be burnt off, because as soon as the natives set fire to it the patu-pai-arehe could be heard shouting "Tineia! Tineia!" ("Extinguish it! Extinguish it!"), and the flames, however fierce, would be smothered by invisible hands.

Korako is another name applied to the patu-pai-arehe, or the fairies of Tuhoeland, and it page 61probably meant white originally, for it is also the Maori name for an albino, many of whom can be found in Tuhoeland. The turehu were another brand of fairies who were seen mostly on rainy or misty nights. A certain sceptical Pakeha, endeavouring to destroy the patu-pai-arehe legend, has said that the "voices" heard were those of native frogs. A "Pakeha kino" surely! Why not permit the Maori people to have their wild romantic fairy tales, as well as the peoples of Northern Europe or the Indies. In any case, the voices of the elves of Tuhoe, and the people at the foot of Moehau, were far more musical than those of frogs.