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

Chapter III — Fire Making

page 45

Chapter III
Fire Making

So far back in the history of the human race do we find the origin of fire making, that it is usually connected with a series of myths, or it plays its part in some religious observance. The Maoris, as well as other Polynesians, produced their fire by what is probably the oldest known method, that of the stick and groove, and this would indicate that their racial history goes back to remote antiquity. All these people who had lived in close contact with the forest must have come to know fire even before they had learned to create it, for close observation would reveal that branches rubbed together by a high wind would generate it. Indeed, it is doubtful if there have been tribes in any part of the world who did not know the art of making artificial fire. Usually, on closer study of those tribes who depended on an undying flame, it has been found that they had known the art at one time, but owing to its tediousness, particularly in a wet climate, it had been found easier to preserve fire and carry it about than to rekindle it.

The Maoris carried fire by means of a wick made of flax, which they protected from the wind, just as the Polynesians in the South Sea Islands carried it by means of a wick made of rolled bark-cloth, or tapa. In the tropics fish oil was burned in vessels, and the candle-nut or Kukui was employed in the same way and had the same lasting power as our old-time candles. These and the oil were used for purposes of illumination.

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Sir J. G. Frazer in "Magic Art" tells us that "when the natives of Materbert, off New Britain, are on a voyage they carry fire with them. For this purpose they press some of the soft fibrous husk of the ripe cocoa-nut into a cocoa-nut shell, and then place a red-hot ember in the middle of it. This will smoulder for three or four days, and from it they obtain a light for their fires whenever they land."

Primitive races who possessed fire but could not produce it cherished the belief that it came from the gods in the form of lightning or volcanic force. In the event of its being extinguished, most dire forebodings were pronounced. Amongst some of the older nations where perpetual fires were preserved in the temples these were extinguished upon the death of a king, symbolising the passing of his radiance, and fresh fires were kindled on the elevation of his successor.

Maui, the mythical hero of the Maoris, is associated with fire and its special creation for his home land. In his work on Maori mythology, Thomson relates that "soon after Maui completed his work (of fishing up New Zealand) one of the gods set fire to Hawaiki, but Heaven poured down torrents of rain to extinguish the flames, and the sparks taking refuge in certain trees, fire has ever since been obtained from their wood by friction."

A more generally accepted version of this myth is that Maui descended to the lower world and obtained from Mahuika, the goddess of artificial fire, who keeps the volcanoes alight, the seeds of fire. These he placed in the hollow of a Kaikomako tree, from the page break
Fire Making, Where the Woman Places her Foot on the Soft Wood

Fire Making, Where the Woman Places her Foot on the Soft Wood

page 47wood of which the soft under fire-stick was frequently made.

Another of the exploits of Maui is told by White. When Maui had fished up the island of New Zealand, he saw it was inhabited and that fires were burning. Taking hold of the fire he burnt his hands, which made him utter a cry of pain and run into the sea. He dived and came up with Te-puia-i-whakaari (White Island) on his shoulders. This island he set on fire and it has continued to burn ever since.

Present-day inhabitants of New Zealand cannot thank Maui for this adventure, for White Island has been the scene of several tragedies. The valuable sulphur deposits have been a source of temptation to a series of commercial companies, but the flat foreshore, where huts and store-houses have been built, has an unpleasant habit of subsiding. On the last occasion the deposits were worked the buildings and the sleeping staff disappeared into the bowels of the earth during the night, and were never seen again.

Special incantations were repeated by the Maoris during the process of fire making, but most work was done to the accompaniment of incantations. A piece of soft wood was placed upon the ground, and a pointed piece of hard wood was rubbed on it until a groove was made. The rubbing was continued with considerable pressure until the dust which collected in the lower end of the groove began to smoulder. If the wood were perfectly dry this would take place in two or three minutes, and in due course a flame would break out. With a wick of rolled flax the fire would be page 48carried to wherever needed. For ceremonial purposes the Maoris always produced new fire.

A custom of the old days in fire making was for a woman to place her foot upon the soft wood as it lay on the ground, while a man worked the hard stick in the groove. I was fortunate in securing an old photograph illustrating this practice, which has a special significance interpreted variously by different authors. Professor J. Macmillan Brown in his "Maori and Polynesian" says: "But here it is the man that does the work; the woman has only to stand and keep the horizontal piece of wood firm on the ground with her foot, whilst the groove is being rubbed into it. It is clearly a relic of a different constitution of the household from that which obtains in Polynesia; the woman has the attitude of master, the man is the worker and subordinate, although father-right or masculine predominance was almost universal throughout the region. Now though mother-right has remained the principle of the household in all the regions adjoining, they have advanced to the fire drill in which the woman has no part." The explanation given by the Maoris is much simpler. It was explained to me that as male and female were essential to all creation, so in the creation of fire the joint action of the sexes was symbolised. The woman, it seems, did not always retain her foot on the board until the spark was created, but often only touched it with her foot.

One finds that the idea of sex in relation to the generation of fire is fairly widespread. In British Columbia, J. Teit tells us, the pointed stick was designated the man, the softer grooved stick the woman. page 49When a spark was kindled it was said, "The woman has given birth." Frazer tells of the Hopi Indians of America kindling fire ceremonially by the friction of two sticks, which are regarded respectively as male and female, and he adds that the Australian aborigines call the upright stick the "child-stick" and the under one the "mother-stick" or the "mother of the fire."

Fire was used by the Maoris in felling trees, in making calabashes and carved boxes, and even in boring the open spaces in their wood carving. The only time I ever saw a Maori do really hard work was when one was showing me the process of fire making. Apparently the wood was not quite in the condition of dryness necessary to produce a spark by friction, and this suggested the question as to how fire could be produced on a hunting or fishing expedition during the wet season. My demonstrator had a ready answer. The sticks were very carefully selected and kept away from any damp. When a party went on an expedition, one man wore the sticks suspended round his neck, and hanging down his back beneath his mat or cape. This, it was explained, gave a peculiar slant to the back of the fire-sticks carrier.

It is a remarkable fact that though the Maoris used a drill made of nephrite, one of the hardest of stones, in boring holes in their meres and heitikis, they did not discover, or, having discovered it, did not make use of, a similar method in producing fire. This strange lack of cultural development in a race which in other respects shows the effect of long ages of mental and spiritual growth must continue to bewilder and fascinate students. The superimposing of various page 50migrations and the conservatism of the women of the conquered races probably account for the preservation of some of the old customs amongst the Maoris, as is evidenced in the married women of to-day having the lips and chin tatooed, while the men have quite abandoned the practice. Thus also we find the old method of fire making remaining here—the only part of the world in which it was retained until recent years—to carry us back, possibly beyond the neolithic age, in which they lived, to one of the earliest known primitive customs of mankind.

From the stick and groove manner of producing fire to the method of doing so with the fire drill seems only a change in the way of working the stick—from running it along a groove to holding it upright and twirling it between the two hands. Yet the two methods mark two distinct stages of mental development. Possibly the more primitive method had a sacred origin, and to deviate from its practice would have been considered a reproach to the gods. The fire drill was used in Australia and Tasmania and the Malayan Islands, as well as amongst the Esquimaux and the American Indians. From the hand-twirling drill to one with a cord is the next development, and the Maoris used this advanced type of drill for the working of nephrite, but not for fire making. With the fire drill a small hole was made in the softer wood, and into this the twirling stick, slightly pointed, was fitted. This facilitated the starting of the work. In the case of the cord drill a cord was wound round the drill and the two ends were pulled in turn. By keeping the stick going at a steady and rapid pace a spark page break
Two Men Making Fire

Two Men Making Fire

page 51was soon produced. A later development of this mechanism was a bow drill, which had the great advantage of requiring only one hand for its manipulation.

Many are the tales told of the interest displayed by the natives on first seeing matches. One old man informed me that he was the proud possessor of a box of matches in his youth, and these he used discreetly for pyrotechnic displays. Matches used to serve as well for payment of forfeits in games of chance, and in this connection there is the story so admirably told in a recent popular book on the South Sea Islands. A native playing for high stakes in matches at a game of poker "cornered" the entire stock of the island. Had it not been that a certain old chief retained the knowledge of making fire by friction there would have been no fires for cooking, and the nights would have been spent in darkness, for only an impossible price would tempt this high financier to part with his winnings.

Lustration or purification by passing through fire, as well as by the sprinkling of water, were both known to the Polynesians, but the use of fire for this purpose is not a custom among the Maoris. It is not uncommon in the Tahitian Islands and in Fiji, and I have seen it practised there. One devout old man in Tahiti told me that he had many times walked barefooted over hot stones. He had felt no sensation of heat on his feet, but his ears burned, or, more correctly, he felt the sensation of burning in his ears.

On the other hand, the Maoris have a ceremony of infant baptism which is not observed in the other page 52Polynesian Islands, the priest sprinkling water on the child with the branch of a tree. The same practice used to be performed on other occasions, notably when chasing away the spiteful or mischievous spirits that were supposed to cause illness or death; or in warding off the evil spirits when a native practised the once common "willing to death" upon an enemy. In the removal of the tapu there were also processes of lustration.

I spent much time in the Thermal District of New Zealand, where the manifestations of volcanic activity are varied and numerous, but the natives who live in those parts do not remember having had any ceremony of appeasing the gods of the nether world. In Hawaii, however, in the depths of the volcano of Kilauea, which I visited, even now we are told there dwells the goddess Peli, a fearsome damsel with hair of flame, and from whose mouth there issues such a fire as would seem destined to destroy the world. Her far-reaching hand, too, hurls forth great stones of lava. So awesome are the tales of her destructive powers and the magnificence of her manifestations that it only seems natural to be told, as I was, that in taking provisions for the trip from the coast to the volcano one should include a bottle of wine to be thrown into the crater as a peace-offering to the goddess Peli.

The Maori goddess Mahuika, who kept the subterranean fires perpetually burning, had her prototype in many lands. In the days of the ancient Greeks Vulcan, whose temple was on Mount Etna, was associated with volcanic or natural fire of the underworld. In ancient Peru new fires were kindled at page 53the solar festivals, and, as Prescott relates, "the sacred flame was entrusted to the care of the Virgins of the Sun, and if by any neglect it was suffered to go out in the course of the year, the event was regarded as a calamity that boded some strange disaster to the monarchy."

Sir Edward B. Tylor tells us that "the Parsees keep up an everlasting fire at Yezi and Kirman in their old Persian land." They did not worship fire, but were taught to face a luminous object in worshipping God. "The Parsee," he continues, "is the descendant of a race in this respect represented by the modern Hindu, a race who did simply and actually worship fire. Fire worship still forms a link historically connecting the Vedic with the Zoroastrian ritual, for the Agnishtoma, or praise of Agni, the fire where four goats are to be sacrificed and burnt, is represented by the Yajishu ceremony, where the Parsee priests are now content to put some hair of an ox in a vessel and show it to the fire."

Some of the fires that burned in this upper world had to be renewed once a year, and their renewal was always attended by a religious ceremony. This was the case amongst the Chinese, as well as amongst the older nations of the Western world. Voight relates that the ancient Prussians kept a perpetual fire in honour of the god Potrimpos, and if it was allowed to go out the priest in charge was burned to death.

E. B. Tylor relates that "the Easter bonfires with which the North German hills used to be ablaze mile after mile are not altogether given up by local custom…. The Solar rite of the New Fire adopted by the page 54Roman Church as a Paschal ceremony may still be witnessed in Europe, with its solemn ceremonial striking of the new holy fire." The Maoris, too, used bonfires as signals blazing from hill to hill.

Many of the ceremonies of ancient religions go back to the time when nations, like the Maoris, made fire by friction. This is still a part of the ceremony of the rekindling of altar fires. In all countries, in fact, there are superstitions about the hearth fire and its upkeep. Perhaps the most commonly known ones of our own day are those which predict that a girl who cannot rekindle a hearth fire will never marry, and which restrict the privilege of the kindling or upkeep of a hearth fire to the inmates of the house, or one who has known them for at least seven years.

In all Polynesian mythology and beliefs there seems to be a relation between fire and the sun. Maui's descent into the lower world for fire is in some way related to the sinking of the sun into the under-world for a renewal of its light and power. This mythical rather than religious idea may possibly be a lingering ray of their old beliefs brought from the land they forsook in far-distant prehistoric times.