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A year among the Maoris: study of their arts and customs

Chapter I — Maori moko

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Chapter I
Maori moko

In order to reach one of the settlements of the great warrior race of the Pacific I set out by train from Wellington one evening, and the early hours of the next morning found me climbing a tortuous roadway through such a forest as might have been a beautiful dream suddenly transformed into a nightmare. First it appeared as a fairy-like vision, created by the great waving tree ferns, whose fringed and lace-like leaves wove a mesh of delicate green over the forest. Then the dream became tortured, the lacework was torn asunder, and the forest was revealed in a process of strangulation, battling fiercely with itself. Great tentacled parasites wound their heavy, grasping fingers stealthily around the splendid trunks of the giant trees, either crushing out their life or encasing them within their shell-like folds.

There are no gaps in this weird world of trees, for where a noble giant falls, a fairy tree fern soon sends forth its beautiful unfolding fronds, rapidly spreading out like a large but dainty parasol, and filling the gaping space with its gauzy foliage. The jungle of giant trees are studded with great bunches of parasitic growth, seeming at a distance, like huge bird's-nests posed amidst the branches, from which hang long trailing creepers. Upon reaching the ground these take root, and in the process of years destroy the growth which page 18gave them birth. The branches and the trunks of the trees are often covered with moss, which hangs down in fantastic festoons. Here and there decayed and blanched branches are silhouetted against the sombre green of the forest. Rank, heavy undergrowth never reached by the sun completely covers the ground and is curiously matted with a thick interweaving of creepers, roots, and moss.

Suddenly a rift in the bush reveals a bit of distance wonderfully in keeping with the foreground of virgin forest, but even more foreboding. It is the soaring mountain Ruapehu, grand and majestic, with great masses of steaming clouds belching from its fiery crater. What more fitting roadway to the home of a tattooed Maori, living with Nature in its fiercest and most violent mood, its most cruel struggles, and its great agonies of birth-giving?

Arriving at the Maori village, I found my visit had been looked for; my coming had been sponsored by a chief, and I was welcomed with the rare hospitality which is nowhere more cordial than amongst the Polynesians. A first impression of a tattooed Maori is that he is a true son of his environment. In thus adorning himself he seemed to show his desire to share in the great struggle of Nature all about him. It seemed as if primitive man had inflicted this suffering upon himself voluntarily, so that he might take part in this struggle. It was begun after the age of puberty, when the muscles had become firm, and continued until well on to middle age. The design is so well fitted to its space that it seems more like a growth with the human face and body, just as an eyebrow follows the page 19line of the frontal bone and the line of hair follows the curve of the temple down to the ears. If the decoration of the person came before all other decorations, and moko was intended to make the face more formidable, these primitive people achieved a great artistic success from the start.

My host made apologies for the fact that there were no longer any young men who knew the ceremony of welcoming an honoured guest. He was a powerfully built man, over six feet in height, whose face was partially tattooed, two great spirals having been begun. The last fully tattooed Maori, he said, had died some ten years before. In this village, as elsewhere, the women had their lips and chin tattooed. The chief took me to see his wife, who received me sitting on a mat on the floor, and we expressed our pleasure in meeting in true Maori manner by the hongi, or pressing of noses, accompanied on her part by a low minor sound.

I asked my host to tell me something of the origin of his people, and, weaving the mythical with the real, he explained how long ago there came from Hawaiki nine canoes. The names of these are still preserved, he said, in the tribal names of the descendants of the people who arrived in each canoe. Looking earnestly at me, he continued:

"The land was fished up by the hero, Maui, whose wicked brothers, in charge of whom he left his canoe, were not faithful to their promise not to touch the fish in his absence. They cut up the fish, and that is the reason of the unevenness of the surface of our country, its mountainous character."

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He impressed upon me that the old chiefs could recite their genealogy back to their ancestors who had arrived in one of the original canoes, and many of the lawsuits are settled, he said, on this evidence.

Major-General Robley, in the preface of his interesting book, "Maori Moko," the standard work on the subject, as well as a most valuable contribution to Maori lore, says:

"The beautiful arabesques in moko pattern might, I think, commend themselves to art students and designers, as well as to students of ethnology and folklore, for the native artist in moko must be entitled to the credit of great originality and taste in his patterns, and his skill was such as to class him among the world's artists. These designs seem to me to contain a mine of wealth to the modern student."

After showing its simple beginning in a design consisting of groups of three straight lines placed horizontally as well as vertically over the face, with a figure resembling the letter S in the centre of the forehead, General Robley goes on to say:

"This is a great contrast to the ultimate development of the art, when the winding arabesques of the device in the forms they took were not merely designed to ornament a surface of flesh, but in parts followed the conformation of the individual countenance."

Elsewhere he writes:

"With regard to the effect of the art on those who grew accustomed to it, I may mention that Darwin comments on the feeling it gave rise to. The Maori regarded the unmokoed face as common or plebeian; and, writing in 1835, Darwin says: 'So soon does any page break
A Tattooed Chief of the Early Days

A Tattooed Chief of the Early Days

page 21train of ideas become habitual that the missionaries told me even in their eyes a plain face looked mean, and not like a New Zealand gentleman.' And Earle, too, says: 'The art was brought to such perfection that whenever we saw a New Zealander whose skin was thus ornamented, we have admired him.'"

The impression made by moko upon the early settlers was not quite so favourable. John White says:

"But their whole countenance was much disfigured by the practice of tattooing…. The tattooing of the face of a New Zealander, answering the purpose of the particular stripe or colour of the Highlander's plaid, marks the clan or tribe to which he belonged. It is considered highly ornamental, and, in addition to the distinguishing lines or curves, the intricacy and variety of the pattern, thus permanently fixed on the face, constitutes one principal distinction between the chiefs and common people, and may be regarded as the crest or coat of arms of the New Zealand aristocracy."

In most of the Polynesian Islands the natives paint the face with red or yellow pigment, smear it with charcoal, and also wear masks to achieve a ferocious or other aspect, and it is said that tattoo or moko is the outcome of a desire on the part of the natives to give this a permanent form. Painting the face and rubbing the body with grease and charcoal were also done as a protection from the bites of insects, but this purpose has probably long been lost sight of. The practice has developed into a mode of decorating the human form in order to inspire such sentiments as were deemed admirable or desirable by the ruling class.

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In the milder climates of the South Sea Islands, the tattoo, while very beautiful in design, is but surface pricking which leaves the skin smooth; but the moko of the Maoris is really a chiselling of the flesh, actually done with chisels made of bird's bone, shark's teeth, shells and stone, and leaves channels in the flesh.

The tattooer seated himself on a floor mat with the patient's head on his lap. Sometimes the chisels themselves were dipped into the colouring matter, which was thus carried into the flesh. Another method was to apply the pigment to the cut with a mesh of prepared flax, and a similar mesh served as an absorbent of the blood which flowed freely from the incision. It was the general custom to draw the full design on the face in charcoal, and in a vessel filled with water the patient could see his face reflected. The portion that was to be carved was then scratched in with a sharpened bone, and the chiselling began. Yes, it was very painful, but it had to be borne without flinching, and it was the custom of the girls of the village to come and sing to the patient. But he might not be touched, as he was tapu; he must not even touch his own face, nor even feed himself. Food was offered to him at the end of a short stick, and water was poured into his mouth from a calabash. If he touched anything it had to be destroyed, as it could never be used again for a common purpose.

Not only was the moko an identification; it was also a token of distinction. Originally only the free men were tattooed, never a slave. If the head of a slain enemy was tattooed it was treated with respect, and returned in exchange for the head of a relative slain by the enemy. page break
Deeply Tattooed Maori Chief

Deeply Tattooed Maori Chief

page 23These were preserved and revered by the family and tribe. Then came the "pakeha" (the white man), said my interpreter, "and he fought us with guns, and we must have guns, too; so we exchanged a tattooed head for guns and cartridges. Alas, we must give the pakeha what he demands. Sometimes he demanded a whole ton of prepared flax, which took many months for men and women to prepare. We gave the flax and we gave tattooed heads. Then they came for more and more, so we hid the heads and would not trade with them. Then the pakehas said we must. We could only have guns when we gave them heads. Enemies were hunted and slain for their heads, slaves were tattooed and slain for the purpose, and with the muskets for which the Maoris traded the heads the Maoris killed the pakeha in war."

"We love the beautiful in Nature," the old chief said, "the forces of which were personified in our religion, and moko fulfilled a desire on the part of the Maoris to appropriate to themselves some of the decorative beauty of Nature. Nature is beautiful, and also very cruel at times; moko is also beautiful, and it, too, causes suffering, the same as Nature you see."

And of course I saw. Who wouldn't under the circumstances? I thought of the western shores of his country pounded by the heaviest of seas, its rock-bound coast, and its iron-sanded shores, the weird manifestations of volcanic activity in the middle of the North Island, and this spirit of which he spoke seemed to be born of the resistance demanded of them. Not understanding such forces as we do, the page 24effect they must have had upon these primitive people can well be imagined.

"According to tradition," Thomson tells us, "the first settlers in New Zealand were not tattooed on their face, but soon after their arrival the custom arose of blackening the faces in going into battle, and when wars became frequent, in order to be always ready, Rauru suggested the idea of rendering the lines permanent…. A fish is the paragon of animals in New Zealand, and the tattoo marks are copied from the marks on their backs. It is a badge of royalty with the princes in India to carry among their trappings the emblem of a fish, and among the New Zealanders it is a mark of rank to have the streaks of a fish carefully cut on their bodies."

It is quite true that the designs of moko fit the forms of the face and the body as do the markings on the body of a fish. The analogy is good, and gives the idea of the markings really belonging to the surface they cover, but I do not know of any fish the markings of which suggest the designs of Maori moko.

John White mentions the following superstition connected with tattooing:

"The person to be tattooed must not eat fish or shell-fish without first holding some of it up to each and every part of his face; in doing this they reverence Tangaroa by letting him see the tattooing first, whalebone being used as the principal agent in marking the face, for the use of which, and also to be allowed to eat fish of all kinds, they thus appease him. If they neglected this, Tangaroa, the god of fish, will make the tattooing all out of proportion."

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One of the Old Time Maoris

One of the Old Time Maoris

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This must refer to the period after the removal of the tapu, for during that period the tattooed person might not touch food.

A charcoal of the burnt and powdered resin of the kauri pine, or a charcoal made of one of the many kinds of veronicas, was used as a pigment for tattooing, but neither were mentioned by my guide. He only knew of the Aweto Hotete, or vegetable caterpillar, which was burned and powdered. The design for each section of the face and body had a distinct name, that for both lips tattooed being He Ngutu Pa Rua, which I remember because a woman was so designated to me, and I took a note of it, believing it to be her name. Early settlers all have tales to tell of how the old Maori chiefs, who could not write, were able to draw from memory the whole or part of the design of their own personal moko, and it was commonly accepted as their signature on land transfer deeds. Their monuments also bore the personal moko, which was as intelligible as an inscription and as distinctive as a portrait. This personal or tribal design of moko has given rise to the theory that the moko has its origin in tribal totems.

When I commented upon the difficulty of keeping the design true in such a pliable surface as flesh, my interpreter told me that when iron and steel implements were obtainable they were substituted for the old Maori tools, and that the furrows were then cut more smoothly. Although not tattooed himself, he had in his youth seen it done, and he said that after the cutting of the flesh there was considerable swelling for two or three days, during which time there was much pain. page 26By the end of a week, however, the furrows had assumed normal size, and the patient was considered well again. The time of recovery largely depended upon the quality of the charcoal.

Major-General Robley gives the following information:

"The soot with which they are marked is obtained by making a hole, somewhat like a lime-kiln, in which kauri gum (to burn black) is burnt, or a wood called Kapara; on the top of the kiln is placed a Maori basket made of Korare besmeared with fat, to which the soot adheres. The black thus obtained is sacred, and is kept for generations, father and son being tattooed from the black made at one burning. The soot is mixed with oil or dog's fat."

Again quoting General Robley:

"The Uhi or chisel penetrated quite through the skin, and sometimes, as the Rev. Mr. Taylor says, completely through the cheek as well; in which case, when the patient took his pipe, the smoke found its way through the cuttings."

Although the charcoal is said to be black, through the skin it appears of a decided blue tone. I saw scores of women with moko applied to the lips and chin. The lips as well as a line following closely their contour, and a design from the lower lip and covering the chin, are all of this bluish tone. Rapa, as it is called when applied to the bodies of women, is considered a mark of distinction. The Maori men express a strong distaste for red lips. This must refer more particularly to the whites, as the Maoris themselves have lips but faintly coloured in red, as is the case with all brown-page break
Maori Woman with Moko on Chin and Lips

Maori Woman with Moko on Chin and Lips

page 27skinned
peoples. It is said that the Maoris found a fairer-skinned people inhabiting New Zealand, and when intermarrying with this fairer race they introduced the custom of tattooing lips and chin, thus making the women more of their own colouring. That women did not adorn their lips with moko until they married does away with the theory that it was an outcome of coquetry, or served as a sexual appeal, and likewise the desire to please on the part of the male does not seem alone to justify the suffering it entailed. Why should not a painted face make as strong an appeal? The appeal of moko would be a long drawn out one, for it was the work of years. At the age that its appeal should naturally be strongest there was little moko, for it could not be successfully done until the muscles were well formed and solid, and the man was well on in years before the work was finally completed.

Among the early travellers in New Zealand when moko was common were Ellis and Manning. The former says:

"The men, almost naked, were rather above the middle stature, of a dark copper colour, their features frequently well formed, their hair black and bushy, and their faces much tattooed and ornamented, or rather disfigured, by the unsparing application of a kind of white clay and red ochre mixed with oil…. The black and shining hair sometimes hung in ringlets on their shoulders, but was frequently tied up on the crown of their heads, and usually ornamented by a tuft of waving feathers … but their whole countenance was much disfigured by the practice of tattooing."

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Manning speaks of a tribe having concluded peace with a neighbouring tribe, and on the return "every man, almost without exception, is covered with tattooing from the knees to the waist; the face also is covered with dark spiral lines."

Crozet says:

"All these designs on the faces of the various chiefs are very varied, but the designs on the buttocks are always the same. They have also on both hands two little black engravings drawn very correctly in the form of an S. The chiefs were very pleased to show us the tattooing on their bodies, and seemed even proud and conceited about them."

The removal of hairs from the tattooed face was accomplished with a pair of mussel shells which fitted closely together. The hair of the head and of beard was cut by sharp shells and stone, and singeing was also resorted to. There is yet another facial decoration alluded to by Dr. Thomson—that of piercing the end of the nose—which I have not known elsewhere in Polynesia, although it is done in the Melanesian Islands. "They also perforated the cartilage between the nostrils, through which, on important occasions, bird's feathers were inserted. Captain Cook only saw one native so disfigured, but many are similarly treated, although it is more common among women than men. The human face, with a feather across it, possesses an indescribable expression, and sailors happily describe this custom as 'sprit-sail-yarding the nose.' "

Some tribes allowed the right thumb-nail to grow to an extreme length. The muscles about the knees were kept down by rubbing, this treatment page 29beginning in childhood. Broad nostrils were encouraged by manipulation, and the thumbs of the girls were also encouraged to bend backwards, in order to make them more efficient in the art of weaving.

To-day no Maori man lives who bears more than a few scrolls of moko, and that only on the face. It is rarely seen except upon the old men. The tattooing of the lips and chin of married women, however, is still a common practice.