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Old New Zealand: Being Incidents of Native Customs and Character in the Old Times by A Pakeha Maori

Chapter IX

page 136

Chapter IX

The Tapu Tohunga.—The Maori Oracle.—Responses of the Oracle.—Priestcraft.

Then came the tapu tohunga, or priest's tapu, a quite different kind or form of tapu from those which I have spoken of. These tohunga presided over all those ceremonies and customs which had something approaching to a religious character. They also pretended to the power—by means of certain familiar spirits—to foretell future events, and even in some cases to control them. The belief in the power of these tohunga to foretell events was very strong, and the incredulous pakeha who laughed at them was thought a person quite incapable of understanding plain evidence. I must allow that some of their predictions were of a most daring nature, and, happening to turn out perfectly successful, there may be some excuse for an ignorant people believing in them. Most of these predictions were, however, given—like the oracles of old—in terms which would admit a double meaning and secure the character of the soothsayer, no matter how the event turned out.

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It is also remarkable that these tohunga did not pretend to divine future events by any knowledge or power existing in themselves; they pretended to be for the time inspired by the familiar spirit, and passive in his hands. This spirit “entered into” them, and, on being questioned, gave a response in a sort of half-whistling half-articulate voice, supposed to be the proper language of spirits; and I have known a tohunga who, having made a false prediction, laid the blame on the “tricksy spirit,” who he said had purposely spoken false, for certain good and sufficient spiritual reasons which he then explained. Amongst the fading customs and beliefs of the good old times the tohunga still holds his ground, and the oracle is as often consulted (though not so openly) as it was a hundred years ago, and is as firmly believed in; and this by natives who are professed Christians: the inquiries are often on subjects of the most vital importance to the welfare of the colony. A certain tohunga has even quite lately, to my certain knowledge, been paid a large sum of money to do a miracle! I saw the money paid, and I saw the miracle. And the miracle was a good enough sort of miracle, as miracles go in these times. The natives know we laugh at their belief in these things, and they would much rather we were angry, for then they would defy us; but as we page 138 simply laugh at their credulity, they do all they can to conceal it from us: but nevertheless the chiefs, on all matters of importance, continue to consult the Maori oracle.

I shall give two instances of predictions which came under my own observation, and which will show how much the same priestcraft has been in all times.

A man—a petty chief—had a serious quarrel with his relations, left his tribe, and went to a distant part of the country, saying that he cast them off and would never return. After a time the relations became both uneasy at his absence and sorry for the disagreement. The presence of the head of the family was also of consequence to them. They therefore inquired of the oracle if he would return. At night the tohunga invoked the familiar spirit, he became inspired, and in a sort of hollow whistle came the words of fate:— “He will return; but yet not return.” This response was given several times, and then the spirit departed, leaving the priest or tohunga to the guidance of his own unaided wits. No one could understand the meaning of the response: the priest himself said he could make nothing of it. The spirit of course knew his own meaning; but all agreed that, whatever that meaning was, it would turn out true. Now the conclusion of this story page 139 is rather extraordinary. Some time after this, several of the chief's relations went to offer reconciliation and to endeavour to persuade him to return home. Six months afterwards they returned, bringing him along with them a corpse: they had found him dying, and carried his body home. Now all knew the meaning of the words of the oracle, “He will return, but yet not return.”

Another instance, which I witnessed myself, was as follows:—A captain of a large ship had run away with a Maori girl—or a Maori girl had run away with a ship captain; I should not like to swear which is the proper form of expression—and the relations, as in such cases happens in most countries, thought it incumbent on them to get into a great taking, and make as much noise as possible about the matter. Off they set to the tohunga. I happened to be at his place at the time, and saw and heard all I am about to recount. The relations of the girl did not merely confine themselves to asking questions, they demanded active assistance. The ship had gone to sea loaded for a long voyage; the fugitives had fairly escaped; and what the relations wanted was that the atua, or familiar spirit of the tohunga, should bring the ship back into port, so that they might have an opportunity to recover the lost ornament of the family. I heard the whole.

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The priest hummed and hawed. “He did not know; could not say. We should hear what the ‘boy’ would say. He would do as he liked. Could not compel him;” and so forth. At night all assembled in the house where the priest usually performed. All was expectation. I saw I was de trop, in the opinion of our soothsayer: in fact, I had got the name of an infidel (which I have since taken care to get rid of), and the spirit was unwilling to enter where there was an unbeliever. My friend the priest hinted to me politely that a nice bed had been made for me in the next house. I thanked him in the most approved Maori fashion, but said I was “very comfortable where I was;” and, suiting the action to the word, rolled my cloak about me, and lay down on the rushes, with which the floor was covered.

About midnight I heard the spirit saluting the guests, and them saluting him; and I also noticed they hailed him as “relation,” and then gravely preferred the request that he would “drive back the ship which had stolen his cousin.” The response, after a short time, came in the hollow mysterious whistling voice,—“The ship's nose I will batter out on the great sea.” This answer was repeated several times, and then the spirit departed, and would not be recalled. The rest of the night was spent in conjecturing what could be page 141 the meaning of these words. All agreed that there must be more in them than met the ear; but no one could say it was a clear concession of the request made. As for the priest, he said he could not understand it, and that “the spirit was a great rogue”—a koroke hangareka. He, however, kept throwing out hints now and then that something more than common was meant, and talked generally in the “we shall see” style.

Now here comes the end of the affair. About ten days after this in comes the ship. She had been “battered” with a vengeance. She had been met by a terrible gale when a couple of hundred miles off the land, and had sprung a leak in the bow. The bow in Maori is called the “nose” (ihu). The vessel had been in great danger, and had been actually forced to run for the nearest port; which happened to be the one she had left. Now, after such a coincidence as this, I can hardly blame the ignorant natives for believing in the oracle, for I actually caught myself quoting, “Can the devil speak truth?” Indeed I have in the good old times known several pakehas who “thought there was something in it,” and two who formally and believingly consulted the oracle, and paid a high douceur to the priest.

I shall give one more instance of the response of the Maori oracle. A certain northern tribe, page 142 noted for their valour, but not very numerous, sent the whole of their best men on a war expedition to the south. This happened about forty years ago. Before the taua started, the oracle was consulted, and the answer to the question, “Shall this expedition be successful?” came. “A desolate country!—a desolate country!—a desolate country!” This the eager warriors accepted as a most favourable response: they said the enemy's country would be desolated. It, however, so turned out that they were all exterminated to a man; and the miserable remnant of their tribe, weakened and rendered helpless by their loss, became a prey to their more immediate neighbours, lost their lands, and have ceased from that day to be heard of as an independent tribe. So, in fact, it was the country of the eager inquirers which was laid “desolate.” Every one praised the oracle, and its character was held higher than ever.