Old New Zealand: Being Incidents of Native Customs and Character in the Old Times by A Pakeha Maori
The Priest evokes a Spirit.—The Consequences.—A Maori Tragedy.—The “Tohunga” again.
These priests or tohunga would, and do to this hour, undertake to call up the spirit of any dead person, if paid for the same. I have seen many of these exhibitions, but one instance will suffice as an example.
A young chief, who had been very popular and greatly respected in his tribe, had been killed in battle; and, at the request of several of his nearest friends, the tohunga had promised on a certain night to call up his spirit to speak to them, and answer certain questions they wished to put. The priest was to come to the village of the relations, and the interview was to take place in a large house common to all the population. This young man had been a great friend of mine; and so, the day before the event, I was sent to by his relations, and told that an opportunity offered of conversing with my friend once more. I was not much inclined to bear a part in such page 144 outrageous mummery, but curiosity caused me to go. It is necessary to remark that this young chief was a man in advance of his times and people in many respects. He was the first of his tribe who could read and write; and, amongst other unusual things for a native to do, he kept a register of deaths and births, and a journal of any remarkable events which happened in the tribe. Now this book was lost: no one could find it; although his friends had searched unceasingly for it, as it contained many matters of interest, and they wished to preserve it for his sake. I also wished to get it, and had often inquired if it had been found, but had always been answered in the negative.
The appointed time came, and at night we all met the priest in the large house I have mentioned. Fires were lit, which gave an uncertain flickering light, and the priest retired to the darkest corner. All was expectation, and the silence was only broken by the sobbing of the sister, and other female relations of the dead man: they seemed to be, and indeed were, in an agony of excitement, agitation, and grief. This state of things continued for a long time, and I began to feel in a way surprising to myself, as if there was something real in the matter. The heartbreaking sobs of the women, and the grave and page 145 solemn silence of the men, convinced me, that to them at least, this was a serious matter: I saw the brother of the dead man now and then silently wiping the tears from his eyes. I wished I had not come, for I felt that any unintentional symptom of incredulity on my part would shock and hurt the feelings of my friends extremely; and yet, whilst feeling thus, I felt myself more and more near to believing in the deception about to be practised: the real grief, and also the general undoubting faith, in all around me, had this effect.
We were all seated on the rush-strewn floor; about thirty persons. The door was shut; the fire had burnt down, leaving nothing but glowing charcoal, and the room was oppressively hot. The light was little better than darkness; and the part of the room in which the tohunga sat was now in perfect darkness. Suddenly, without the slightest warning, a voice came out of the darkness. “Salutation!—salutation to you all!—salutation!—salutation to you, my tribe!—family, I salute you!—friends, I salute you!—friend, my pakeha friend, I salute you.” The high-handed daring imposture was successful: our feelings were taken by storm. A cry expressive of affection and despair, such as was not good to hear, came from the sister of the dead chief, a fine, stately and really handsome woman of about five-and-twenty. page 146 She was rushing, with both arms extended, into the dark, in the direction from whence the voice came; but was instantly seized round the waist and restrained by her brother by main force, till, moaning and fainting, she lay still on the ground. At the same instant another female voice was heard from a young girl, who was held by the wrists by two young men, her brothers. “Is it you?—is it you?—truly is it you?—aue! aue! they hold me, they restrain me: wonder not that I have not followed you; they restrain me, they watch me; but I go to you. The sun shall not rise, the sun shall not rise, aue! aue!” Here she fell insensible on the rush floor, and with the sister was carried out. The remaining women were all weeping and exclaiming, but were silenced by the men, who were themselves nearly as much excited, though not so clamorous. I, however, did notice two old men, who sat close to me, were not in the slightest degree moved in any way, though they did not seem at all incredulous, but quite the contrary.
The spirit spoke again. “Speak to me, the tribe!—speak to me, the family!—speak to me, the pakeha!” The “pakeha,” however, was not at the moment inclined for conversation. The deep distress of the two women, the evident belief of all around him of the presence of the spirit, the page 147 “darkness visible,” and the novelty of the scene, gave rise to a state of feeling not favourable to the conversational powers. Besides, I felt reluctant to give too much apparent credence to an imposture, which at the very same time, by some strange impulse, I felt half ready to give way to.
At last the brother spoke, and asked, “How is it with you?—is it well with you in that country?” The answer came—(the voice all through, it is to be remembered, was not the voice of the tohunga, but a strange melancholy sound, like the sound of the wind blowing into a hollow vessel,)—“It is well with me: my place is a good place.” The brother spoke again—“Have you seen —, and —, and —?” (I forget the names mentioned.) “Yes, they are all with me.” A woman's voice now from another part of the room anxiously cried out—“Have you seen my sister?” “Yes, I have seen her.” “Tell her my love is great towards her and never will cease.” “Yes, I will tell.” Here the woman burst into tears, and the pakeha felt a strange swelling of the chest, which he could in no way account for.
The spirit spoke again. “Give my large tame pig to the priest,” (the pakeha was disenchanted at once,) “and my double-gun.” Here the brother interrupted—“Your gun is a manatunga; I shall keep it.” He is also disenchanted, thought I, page 148 but I was mistaken; he believed, but wished to keep the gun his brother had carried so long.
An idea now struck me that I could expose the imposture without showing palpable disbelief. “We cannot find your book,” said I, “where have you concealed it?” The answer instantly came, “I concealed it between the tahuhu of my house and the thatch, straight over you as you go in at the door.” Here the brother rushed out; all was silence till his return. In five minutes he came back with the book in his hand! I was beaten, but made another effort.—“What have you written in that book?” said I. “A great many things.” “Tell me some of them.” “Which of them?” “Any of them.” “You are seeking for some information, what do you want to know? I will tell you.” Then suddenly—“Farewell, O tribe! farewell, my family, I go!” Here a general and impressive cry of “farewell” arose from every one in the house. “Farewell,” again cried the spirit, from deep beneath the ground! “Farewell,” again from high in air! “Farewell,” again came moaning through the distant darkness of the night. “Farewell!” I was for a moment stunned. The deception was perfect. There was a dead silence—at last. “A ventriloquist,” said I—“or—or—perhaps the devil.”
I was fagged and confused. It was past mid- page 149 night; the company broke up, and I went to a house where a bed had been prepared for me. I wished to be quiet and alone; but it was fated there should be little quiet that night. I was just falling asleep, after having thought for some time on the extraordinary scenes I had witnessed, when I heard the report of a musket at some little distance, followed by the shouting of men and the screams of women. Out I rushed. I had a presentiment of some horrible catastrophe. Men were running by, hastily armed. I could get no information, so went with the stream. There was a bright flame beginning to spring up at a short distance, and every one appeared going in that direction: I was soon there.
A house had been set on fire to make a light. Before another house, close at hand, a dense circle of human beings was formed. I pushed my way through, and then saw, by the bright light of the flaming house, a scene which is still fresh before me: there, in the verandah of the house, was an old grey-bearded man; he knelt upon one knee, and on the other he supported the dead body of the young girl who had said she would follow the spirit to spirit land. The delicate-looking body from the waist upwards was bare and bloody; the old man's right arm was under the neck, the lower part of his long grey beard was dabbled with page 150 blood, his left hand was twisting his matted hair; he did not weep, he howled, and the sound was that of a heathen despair, knowing no hope. The young girl had secretly procured a loaded musket, tied to the trigger a loop for her foot, placed the muzzle to her tender breast, and blown herself to shatters. And the old man was her father, and a tohunga. A calm low voice now spoke close beside me, “She has followed her rangatira,” it said. I looked round, and saw the famous tohunga of the night.
Now, young ladies, I have promised not to frighten you with raw-head-and-bloody-bones stories; a sort of thing I detest, but which has been too much the fashion with folks who write of matters Maori. I have vowed not to draw a drop of blood except in a characteristic manner. But this story is tragedy, or I don't know what tragedy is; and the more tragic because, in every particular, literally true: and so, if you cannot find some pity for the poor Maori girl who “followed her lord to spirit land,” I shall make it may business not to fall in love with any of you any more for I won't say how long.