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

Chapter VII — Customs and Beliefs

page 85

Chapter VII
Customs and Beliefs

One day as I passed through a hamlet on the shores of Lake Rotorua I heard mournful wailings, and upon approaching the cottage from which these piteous sounds came I saw what was obviously a funeral gathering. Not wishing to intrude I retired, but in my desire to learn something of the customs in such a case I made friends with some children who were playing near a cottage, on the porch of which sat an approachable-looking Maori woman. I expressed my sympathy, and in fairly good English the woman told me that a young man of the village had died, and a tangi was in progress. This is a plaintive wailing over the dead, but it also partakes very largely of the nature of a wake.

A number of friends and relatives had come from the adjacent hamlet, and these had to be fed and cared for. My hostess told me that a movement was on foot to stop the observance of the custom in so far as the feasting and other extravagances in hospitality are concerned. In the case of the death of an important chief, guests were so numerous and the feasting was kept up for so long a period that the community which was responsible for the entertainment were seriously impoverished. Even tribal lands have had to be sold to meet the expenses. Weapons and mats and other tribal treasures were given to visitors, but it was the custom to return these when a tangi was held at the visitors' pa. Two other women approached, whom I found I had met at Ohinemutu, but my hostess told page 86me not to go. The new-comers greeted me with a hand-shake, but my hostess, according to custom, seated herself and greeted them with the hongi, or pressing of noses, the common salutation, observed, however, only at meeting and not at parting. After the pressing of noses it is customary to have a little tangi or moaning, particularly if a mutual friend has been lost since the last meeting, and, not to appear neglectful, it is usual to moan just a little at the time of the hongi, even if no loss has occurred.

Recalling the practice of "willing to death" common throughout Polynesia, I enquired of my hostess if she had known of a case. She said that she had, although such happenings belong to the days when the tohungas, or priests, were powerful, and have been rare since the advent of Christianity. If a man had been willed to death, she said, and was fortunate enough to discover his ill-wisher, he would consult the tohunga, who could both save his patient and turn the tide of affairs so that the person who had willed the death would himself die. Tohunga and patient entered the water quite nude and faced the east. The tohunga then sprayed water toward the abode of the original ill-wisher. It was necessary, of course, for the person willed to death to know of the design upon his life, and it is said he rarely survived two days, and frequently expired at the appointed time.

Here, as elsewhere, I made enquiries in regard to fixed festivals, and found there had been few, that of baptism or dedication to service being the one most commonly remembered. None, however, had survived, though in the days before the coming of the page 87white man the tohunga recited incantations during the various stages of canoe or house building, crop planting, fishing, bird snaring, and, indeed, on all occasions of public welfare.

The law of tapu, as elsewhere in Polynesia, had a religious as well as a secular power, and swift punishment, or even death, followed its infringement. Some of the objects made tapu were painted red, the sacred colour. A chief on formal occasions would have his face so coloured, or even his entire person.

Of the large number of Maori legends, those connected with the hero Maui are probably the most widely known. Like all the other heroes, he was skilled in magic. It was he who snared the sun, and in his preparations for the feat he invented rope made from flax. He fished up the island of New Zealand with a hook made of the enchanted jawbone of an ancestress. This jawbone now forms the curve in the southern extremity of Hawke's Bay. While Maui was absent in search of a tohunga to officiate at the necessary ceremony, his brothers, contrary to instructions, cut up the fish, and this is said to be the cause of the mountainous character of the country. The many adventures of Maui have given rise to a set of proverbs, and reference to these in conversation and speech-making, as well as allusions to other myths and legends, give a finesse to the language of the learned, so that none but those well versed in mythology can understand it.

"These peculiarities of Maori mentality," writes Mr. Elsdon Best, "have the effect of making genuine old traditions, recitals, poems, and speeches of much page 88interest, simply because they were reflected in the language of the people. The mytho-poetic concepts pass into the common tongue; hence such matters as mentioned above teemed with allusions to personifications, with metaphor and allegory, with aphorisms and occult expressions. Here we encounter in a living language the figurative expressions and quaint sayings in which is preserved the mentality of uncultured man. Here are the fossilised thoughts of people of past ages being uttered by persons of our own day."

Mount Tongariro, the great volcano in the middle of the North Island, is referred to in legend, and its volcanic activity accounted for. The hero Ngatoro climbed the mountain, but before doing so he made his brothers promise not to touch food during his absence. They broke their promise, however, which caused Ngatoro, in his anger, to feel faint, and he called to the gods to send fire to him. The route by which the fire came is now the Thermal District about Rotorua and Taupo. The mountain became a volcano, while the hero was revived by the heat and descended to the plains below.

Sir George Grey, in his valuable work on Polynesian mythology, has told these and many other legends in full. I always found that intelligent Maoris knew the tales and were able to enlarge upon them, for they love to talk and particularly to embellish. At Lake Rotorua I was often told the story of Hine-Moa, the setting of which is the island of Mokoia. It is one of those legends which has become a living part of the locality.

Hine-Moa had fallen a victim to the charm of page break
New Zealand Bush, Showing the Tree Ferns in the Foreground

New Zealand Bush, Showing the Tree Ferns in the Foreground

page 89Tutanekai, who lived on the island of Mokoia. The maiden's relatives, however, disapproved of her choice, and watched her comings and goings. The lovers had agreed that when Tutanekai should play his flute in the evening Hine-Moa, who lived on the mainland, should paddle across in a canoe. Hine-Moa's relatives, however, suspected her intentions, and at the end of each day they carefully drew the canoes well up on dry land. One evening, as the strains of Tutanekai's flute floated across the waters, we are told "an earthquake shook" Hine-Moa to go to him. She collected six large gourds, and, having divested herself of her clothing, bound the gourds to her body to act as floats. Then she entered the waters of the lake, and set out to swim for the island. The night was dark, and she could only keep her direction by the sound of Tutanekai's flute. Three miles separated the island from the shore, but, aided by the gourds, which enabled her to rest at intervals, she reached the island just where the warm pool, Waikimihia, is separated from the cold waters of the lake by a narrow ledge of rock. To warm herself and to rest, Hine-Moa entered the pool. Presently a servant came to the lake for water. She spoke in a gruff voice, and asked whom the water was for. It was for Tutanekai. Then she demanded the calabash, and, having drunk, she dashed it on the rocks. The servant was sent again and again for water, and each time the calabash was destroyed. At last Tutanekai came down to the pool to settle accounts with the stranger. Hine-Moa hid herself beneath a ledge of rock, and lay coyly concealed. Tutanekai searched for the stranger in the darkness, and presently caught a page 90hand. Then Hine-Moa spoke and "rose up in the water as beautiful as the wild white hawk." Her lover threw a garment over her and led her to his whare, where they reposed till the morning, and thereafter, according to Maori custom, they were man and wife.

Fairies figure prominently in Maori legends. I found the people to be true believers, as all of us continue to be who remain children at heart. From the fairies was learned the art of making fish nets of the stiff and slippery leaves of the flax plant. There were malicious fairies, too, who, it is said, even caused the death of those who abused certain of their customs.

In olden times many were the tales told of monsters known as Taniwhas. They lived in the dark ocean caves, in the lakes, the rivers, and swamps, and were greatly feared. The stories probably had their foundation in the schools of seals and porpoises seen off the coast. Besides these, there were enchanted logs that were known to make their way against wind and tide, and in some cases their appearance was regarded as an evil omen or a prophecy of a chieftain's death.

Much credence was given to dreams, and important projects depended upon their interpretation. A notation from the works of Mr. Elsdon Best will illustrate more than anything else the ancient Maori mentality. A paper entitled "The Maori Genius for Personification" was read by Mr. Best before the Wellington Philosophical Society on May 11, 1920, and later it was published in the "Transactions of the New Zealand Institute," vol. liii., pp. 1-12. As Mr. Best explains, the passages were translated from a speech page 91made nearly sixty years ago by a teacher of the tapu school of learning. They show clearly how the superior minds of a comparatively uncultured folk broke free from Shamanism and a belief in malignant deities, and strove to conceive a supreme being of noble attributes; how the ancestors of the Maori, wrenching asunder the bonds of gross superstitions and seeking light from the darkness of ages, pressed forward on the difficult path towards monotheism.

"Though the primal being of Maori myth was Io, the supreme god, yet it was not taught that he begat any other being; but in some unexplained manner he caused the earth and sky to exist. These are personified in Rangi, the Sky Parent, and Papa, the Earth Mother, and these were the primal parents. Their progeny amounted to seventy, all of whom were atua, or supernatural beings. Among them was Tane, or Tane the Fertiliser, he who fertilised the Earth Mother, and who was the origin of man, birds, fish, vegetation, minerals, etc.

"All things that exist, said the Maori, are a part of Rangi and Papa, the primal parents—that is to say, they originated with them. Nothing belongs to the earth alone, or to the heavens alone; all sprang from that twain, even unto the heavenly bodies that gleam on high, and the heavenly bodies of all the other skies above the one we see, and all those bodies are worlds.

"It was taught in the tapu school of learning that water is one of the chief constituents or necessities of life. It is moisture that causes growth in all things, other necessary agents being the sun, the moon, and page 92the stars. Lacking moisture, all things would fail on earth, in the heavens, in the suns, the moons, and the stars of all realms. Clouds are mist-like emanations, originating in the warmth of the body of the Earth Mother. All things possess warmth and cold, all things contain the elements of life and of death, each after the manner of its kind.

"It was Tane (personified form of the sun) and Tawhitimatea (personified form of winds) who sent back the mists of earth in the form of rain as a means of cherishing and benefiting all things, for all things absorb moisture, each after the manner of its kind. Air, moisture, warmth, with various forms of sustenance, were the origin of the different forms around us, of the differences in such forms as in trees, in herbage, in insects, birds, fish, stones, and soils; these things control such forms and their growth. Hence death assails all things on earth; in the waters; in the sun, the moon, and the stars; in the clouds, mists, rain, and winds; all things contain the elements of decay, each after the manner of its kind.

"Again, there is no universal mode of life and growth among all things; each lives, moves, or grows after the manner of its kind. All things possess a home, or receptacle, or haven of some kind, even as the earth is the home of many things. Even the wairua (spirit) has its abode in all things; there is no one thing that does not possess a spirit or soul, each after the manner of its kind. And inasmuch as each and everything possesses an indwelling spirit or soul, then assuredly everything possesses the elements of warmth, each after the manner of its kind.

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"Now, as all things in all the realms of the numberless worlds are so constituted, it follows that the female element pertains to all things. Everything has its male and female elements. Lacking the female element, nothing could survive, for by such, combined with moisture, do all things acquire form, vitality, and growth. Warmth is another element by means of which things are nurtured, and each supports all. Even stone is formed of earth, moisture, and heat, and so endowed with life and growth after the manner of its kind.

"Now, as such is the intention of Io (the supreme being)—that is, to arrange the functions of all things— even so the denizens of the heavens were appointed as guardians and directors of all things in all the heavens, on earth, and in the heavenly bodies. The twelve heavens are connected with the moons, but the sun is above all—it is the controller of all things.

"Because all things are influenced by good and evil—by anger, jealousy, ambition—and because all follow some form of leadership, even so was it that guardians were appointed to watch each realm and report their condition to Io. And because of the differences that exist in all things, thus it is that all possess strength and weakness, goodness and evil, justness and lack of justice, each after the manner of its kind. Hence, the guardians were appointed as lords of the twelve heavens, of the earth, and of the spirit world. As these beings appointed as guardians are the salvation of all things by promoting their welfare, and are the emissaries of Io; thus it is that all eyes and all ears are directed to Io-matua, Io the Parent, page 94for he is over all. He is the very acme of all welfare, of life, the head and summit of all things.

"Since Io is the head of all things, all things become tapu through him, for without a lord nothing can become tapu, and so he is termed Io the Parent. Since he is termed Io the Parent, and represents the physical and spiritual welfare of all things, we see that the origin of such welfare is with the parent—that the parent holds and controls all the welfare of everything. And since all things are centred in him, there is nothing left to be controlled or directed by any other god or being. All things in the twelve heavens and in all realms are thus gathered together before him. It is now clear that there exists nothing that does not come under his sway; all comes under Io the Parent.

"All things possess a wairua (spirit or soul), each after the manner of its kind. There is but one parent of all things, one god of all things, one master of all things, one soul of all things. Hence all things are one, and all emanate from Io the Eternal…."

One more quotation from the same paper by Mr. Elsdon Best. "After the rebellion of their offspring the Sky Parent wished to punish them, but the Earth Mother said: 'Not so; though they have erred, yet they are still my children. When death comes to them they shall return to me and I will shelter them; they shall re-enter me and find rest.' Hence the burial of the dead."

Sick people are isolated in tiny shacks. A woman at child-birth was given a shack to herself, and it was proclaimed tapu. In the event of a death occurring in a house, the house was closed and never entered page 95again. The smaller shacks were destroyed, but the houses frequently became the sepulchre, the body being buried beneath the house. I have seen several such deserted houses in small hamlets along the Wanganui River.

My efforts to find out something about old healing processes were not successful. The day on which the old man danced the war dance for me, he took me from the tiny shack in which he lived to a much larger house. On the carved porch sat a woman, who from a distance appeared to be a giantess, but who on a closer inspection was obviously suffering from the disfiguring malady so prevalent throughout Polynesia—elephantiasis. Her arms were quite four times their normal size. Her face, however, had a pleasant expression. I asked the old man if she were his wife. He replied that she was not his woman, and probably anticipating my next question, he informed me that she was "just a fat woman." He was really aware that I knew better, so I ventured to ask him if the Maoris were well versed in the knowledge of the remedial effect of herbs. Maybe fearing where my questions might lead, he replied that he did not understand, and that the only Maori treatment he knew of was the lumilumi, or massage. Possibly because of its intimate connection with old Maori religion and priestcraft, I was not at any other time successful in gleaning any accurate knowledge of the old-time methods of healing. The most interesting account which I have found is given by Edward Shortland in his work on New Zealand, published in 1856.

"When a person falls sick the mode of treatment is page 96as follows: In the first place, his father goes to consult the matakite, or seer of the family, to learn the cause of the illness. Should the father be absent, the mother is the proper person to go. It generally happens that before the person has arrived at the house of the matakite, the latter has set out to meet him, and, without being told the object of the visit, declares to his visitor the cause of his relative's illness. The primary cause is always some offence against the ordinances of the established superstition, such as having left a comb in a cook house, or some other act equally absurd in the estimation of a foreigner, by which the sacred state of the sick man has been damaged and the spirit of his departed ancestors displeased. But the active cause is some infant sprite, who, commissioned as avenger, has entered into the patient, and is feeding on his vitals. The cure can only be effected by coaxing or driving out this spirit. The matakite's office is merely to inform the messenger what offence the sufferer has committed, and who the avenging spirit is. It is the duty of the tohunga, who is by education skilled in native rites, and has at command a variety of charms which he prescribes secundum artem, to find out the path by which the spirit came from the regions below to earth in order that he may be made to return by the same way he came. He thus proceeds: Going to the river or sea side, he dips his head beneath the surface of the water, while the relatives most interested in the cure remain seated on the shore to witness his success. Perhaps he does not succeed the first time, so he dips his head in the water a second time. If not then successful, a third time page 97is probably enough. Raising his head, he assures the anxious spectators that he has seen the path, and that the spirit came from below upwards through a flax bush, or by the stem of a toitoi, as the case may be. It still remains to discover the identical stem selected by the spirit, so the tohunga sets off to a neighbouring swamp to search for it, and at last, after many trials, discovers it, knowing when he has found the right one by a peculiar sound or cry issuing from it on being pulled up. Armed with the flax stalk he goes to the sick man's house, and, hanging it over his head, repeats a charm appropriate to the case. Then the spirit relents, and, seeing a path close at hand prepared for his return to the lower region, he departs, and straightway the sick man is convalescent."

The Rev. James Buller, who went to New Zealand in 1835, writes on the subject of burials in his book "Forty Years in New Zealand."

"As a mark of respect," he says, "the deceased was kept in state as long as possible. Dressed out in his best mats, his head bedecked with feathers, his favourite weapons at his side, the dead man lay upon his bier. Various modes of burial were in use. They would either dig a grave in a house or mausoleum, or make a frame by joining together two pieces of a canoe; or they would carry the dead body into the dark forest and leave it between the forked branches of a tree. In each case it would be in a sitting posture. His best garments would be left with him, and everything that had been about his person during illness. Some food was placed at his side that he might feed on the essence of it throughout his journey to the reinga.

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"When decomposition was complete exhumation took place. This was usually within two years of the time of death. A great feast was prepared, and there was again the plaintive wailing for the dead. The bones were carefully scraped and painted red, and wrapped in a mat. They then would be either placed in a small house resting on a pole, or taken to the top of some sacred tree, or, what was more general, carried to some lonely cave."