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

Chapter IV — Cannibalism and Obsequies

page 55

Chapter IV
Cannibalism and Obsequies

So many gruesome tales have been told of the maneating tribes of the South Sea Islands that quite a wrong impression has been obtained as to the extent to which cannibalism was practised among the Polynesians. As a matter of fact, human flesh was not commonly partaken of, and amongst the Maoris it was a particularly tapu dish. The custom had its origin in religion on the one hand, and in the necessity to sustain human life in the event of impending starvation on the other, but not in an inherent appetite for human flesh or a thirst for blood.

Human sacrifice has been common to most races, and all throughout history, until well into the Middle Ages, in European countries, it was the practice to sacrifice a serf or a slave, or even bury him alive under the foundations of a building, at the ceremony we call "the laying of the corner-stone." A similar act was performed by the Maoris when about to erect a council house, one of those wonderfully carved buildings over which, at every stage of the work, karakias or invocations were recited.

To kill a man and to partake of his flesh was to cast disgrace upon him and his people. It was done to satisfy a hatred, or to be revenged for a tribal injury or insult—the usual cause of war. It is said there existed a belief that the power and strength of the fallen foe were transmitted to those who partook of his flesh, but Thomson says it is erroneous to suppose that cannibalism was practised under that conviction, for no page 56man ever coveted the qualities of those he hated. The ceremony of a cannibal repast was a strict one, and the law of tapu was in operation. First, the priests took some of the flesh and offered it to the gods, and if a man had been killed for having caused the death of another, an offering of flesh was also made to the spirit of the avenged. Chiefs were then served with that portion which the particular tribe thought to be the abode of the soul—some say the heart, some the blood, and others the eye.

When Captain Cook asked the Maoris whether they ate the flesh of such friends as had lost their lives in war, but whose bodies had been prevented from falling into the hands of their enemies, they "expressed an abhorrence of the idea." It was considered such a disgrace for a Maori to have his body eaten that, according to Thomson, "… if crews of Englishmen and New Zealanders (Maoris), all friends, were dying of starvation in separate ships, the English might resort to cannibalism, but the New Zealanders never would." But the ancient Maori would never hesitate for a moment to kill a man who had violated a sacred tapu, and if, from his point of view, an insult to the gods had to be avenged, the body would be eaten in order to bestow upon it the greatest possible indignity. It has been doubted by several early writers whether the Maoris ever killed a slave expressly for the purpose of eating him, although slaves were killed for purposes of sacrifice, as well as to continue to serve in the world beyond as slaves to the spirit of a departed chief.

The privilege of eating human flesh was not accorded to all men, and to very few women. But eating the page break

[Note added by NZETC as annotator:]

Description: A photograph of mokomokai.

This image is not available for public viewing as it depicts either mokamokai (preserved heads) or human remains. The reasons for non-display are detailed in the policy regarding display of images of mokamokai. If you would like to comment on this decision you can contact NZETC.

page 57flesh alone did not satisfy the craving for revenge; it was carried much further. Skulls served as decorations on the stockades of a pa, and on the sticks which supported the flax for weaving. They also served as vessels for carrying water. The teeth were sometimes strung as a necklace, and tattooed skin taken from the thigh was stretched over a hoop, which was used as a toy. The larger bones were made into flutes and adze handles, the smaller ones into barbs for fish-hooks, spear-heads, and needles, and sometimes the bones of a human hand served as a hook on which to suspend garments. Could any insult be more thoroughly and basely avenged?

It was the fate of the first man killed in battle to be eaten, but there are no accounts to tell us how many more met a similar fate. Primitive man, in the intense frenzy of battle, was hardly likely to have stopped short of any of his accepted practices. After battle, and because he had shed another's blood, he was tapu, a condition which had to be removed by bathing in a stream and by certain priestly incantations. Cooled off and purified, the warrior was permitted to enter his own pa, where a triumphal war dance was performed. Orators strode the marae, weapon in hand, relating the prowess of the warriors. The brave deeds of ancestors were recounted, and great indeed was the honour if some act of valour performed by their own warriors could be added to tribal history.

John White, in his "Ancient History of the Maoris," gives the following graphic account of a cannibal ceremony:

"Peki-taka and Te-marae were killed in this war, page 58and on the death of Uru his heart was cut out and roasted in a fire, around which all the warriors of the attacking party stood in a ring, while the priests chanted the sacred chants, and the warriors stretched forth their arms and held them up on high towards the fire in which the heart was being roasted. After the priests had ended their sacred chantings, the warriors chanted aloud and in chorus the words of another chant, while the senior priest tore a portion of the heart and carried it in his right hand and threw it into the pa. This was done that the power of the attacking party might be able to overcome the resistance of the besieged, and that the pa might be taken by storm."

Mr. Anderson gives this account of the ceremony of Whaka-ta-huri-huri, the "causing to look backwards": "For each head carried a small hole would be scraped in the ground; and each head being held by a Tohunga, this waiata was sung: 'Turn thou; look back, look back! And with a farewell glance behold the road whence thou wast brought from all that once was thine. Turn thou; look back, look back!' As these words were being sung the warriors would dance; and every time they leapt from the ground the tohunga would raise on high the heads held by them. This was a farewell from the heads to their own land, and a challenge, as it were, for the survivors to follow. The holes were left as memorials of the fight."

Tattooed heads of chiefs and the rangatira class who were killed in battle were kept and exchanged after peace had been declared. Should they not be kept, it was taken to mean that peace would never be concluded between the combatant tribes. Meanwhile, page 59as a taunt, the heads were stuck on the top of poles in prominent places in clear view of the enemy, or the victorious warriors carried them on high at the end of their spears, addressing them with insults and with jests. Preserved heads were kept by relatives, and served the purpose of family portraits. They were the most valuable of tribal relics, and were stored, oiled and perfumed, in elaborately carved boxes or finely woven baskets. Only on special occasions were they brought out for view, as when relatives came on a visit, and then they provided inspiration for a minor tangi. At other times they served as an inspiration to the youthful warriors, who were taught that for justice and honour no sacrifice could be too great.

In order to preserve them, the heads were subjected to a process of drying and cleaning called mokomokai. After the removal of the brains, the head was suspended on a pole over a group of heated stones. Around and over the stones a mat was arranged in the form of a funnel, so as to concentrate the heat upon the suspended head, and thus it was very slowly dried or smoked. From time to time the head was removed to permit the humidity to dry off, and then replaced and basted with fat. The drying process was sometimes effected by exposure to the rays of the sun. Other processes there were, all very similar. It is said that bodies were sometimes embalmed. The practice is considered to be one which goes back to the earliest home of the Maoris, long before they migrated to Hawaiki.

Dried tattooed heads which are to be seen in museums show the lips wide apart, with the teeth and gums exposed. It is said that the lips were so left only when page 60the heads were those of enemies; in the case of relatives' or friends' heads, the lips were sewn together. I do not remember ever having seen a dried Maori head with lips sewn together, but I have seen an old Peruvian head so treated, and the stitches were still there.

That most of the Polynesian races have been continually on the decrease since they have had the able and generous assistance of medical men does not signify that our materia medica can do less for them than their own old remedies. The decrease in the population of the Maoris down to the end of last century was occasioned largely by their having to change their homes from the hill-side pass to the lowlands. In the first place, trade, which meant the gathering and preparation of flax, brought them to the lowlands, and the hill fortresses were not of particular advantage against cannon-balls and bullets. With the introduction of firearms, too, intertribal warfare became a mere matter of the slaughter of those who were inadequately armed, and whole tribes perished before the onslaught of several blood-thirsty conquerors. But the white man also introduced something almost as deadly as firearms — diseases against which the natives had no resisting force.

In the old days there were the simple remedies for the lesser physical ills. Massage and steaming in an oven were the remedies for stiffness of the joints. Poultices were made from certain roots, which were pounded up or scraped with a sharp shell. Ointments were made from the fat of birds, and were used to keep the skin soft. The scalp was kept in order with a page 61preparation of lime, and fats and oils were used as pomades. Leaves of certain plants were chewed for their juice, but the solid matter was not swallowed.

Formerly the Maoris did not attribute all diseases and sickness to physical causes, but to the action of evil spirits, either willed upon them by an enemy or brought about as a punishment for the violation of the tapu. It was the duty of the priest, who was doctor as well, to find out whether a malady was purely physical or produced through the action of the mind. For the maladies of the body the priest had such remedies as herbs and massage, as well as prayers. For the troubles of the mind or witchcraft he had incantations, and through their use such evil spirits as had found entrance and lodgment in the body were removed. Evil spirits were also sought for in the stems of plants, and chased away by sprinkling water in the direction from which the spirit was supposed to have come. The patient often knew the cause of the evil visitation, and sometimes the person, presumably an enemy, who had wished him ill. If the patient was unable to remember in what way he had violated tapu or aroused the anger of an enemy, he consulted a matakite, or seer, who rarely failed to place his finger on the origin of the trouble.

Whereas the spirits of the chiefs and rangatiras mounted up through the seven heavens, it was believed the spirits of the common people went to reinga, or the nether world, the entrance to which is over the north-western point of the North Island. The site is quite well known, and the Maoris even to this day carefully shun it. Evil spirits, it was said, might leave page 62reinga and torment or annoy the living. I found also that caves were generally shunned, these having frequently been the burial-places of the bones of their chiefs, and for that reason tapu.

In the event of a severe illness, the patient was made tapu. He was thus really segregated and visited only by the priest, who at this time was doctor as well. The Maoris have been rebuked for neglecting their sick, but possibly in this custom we do not understand their point of view. At child-birth a woman retired to a hut by herself, and was made tapu, which had to be raised by the priest before she might be touched. Some accounts record that the tapu was not raised until after the baptism of the child, whilst others say that the woman was back at her usual duties within two or three days, and that the child was baptised later.

In the event of death, there were several ways of disposing of the body. The common people and the slaves were buried in the ground, or else dropped into the sea. The chiefs and rangatiras had more elaborate obsequies. Their bodies were first laid out in state. A chief's body might be placed in a sitting posture with the knees doubled up. A fine cloak would be draped about the body, huia feathers stuck in the hair, and a tuft of albatross feathers in one ear and a greenstone pendant hung from the other. Thus, the body would remain in state during the period of the tangi. While the feasting went on outside, the watchers inside the ceremonial house would keep up an incessant wailing, and women of the family, and sometimes others of the tribe, would gash their bodies with sharp stones, causing the blood to flow. It was said to be the custom page 63at one time for the widows to kill themselves, so that their souls might accompany that of their lord on the "long journey." In later days slaves were sacrificed to serve their master in the spirit world.

After the lying in state, the body was placed on a platform in a cemetery, or laid upon a structure among the branches of a tree. About a year later the bones were taken down to the river or stream, scraped clean, and with further ceremony were laid in the cemetery. Still another ceremony might occur at a later date, when the bones were disinterred along with those of other chiefs and nobles. These were placed in carved boxes and most cautiously hidden in some secret burial-place or cave. Even in modern times the precincts of the Maori dead are tapu, and held in great reverence by Maori and pakeha alike.