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Appendix D

page 255

Appendix D

Tohu and Aitua.
Signs, Omens, Tokens and Superstitions.

The number of items that may be given under this heading are as numerous as sands upon the famed beach of Te Mahia. It is most surprising to note the thousands of different omens and signs believed in by the Maori. Many of the tohu, or signs, are the result of observation and are correct and dependable; but many signs and omens are the fruit of superstition and are utterly absurd. Many activities, industrial and otherwise, of the Maori, were largely influenced by signs and omens. Great faith was placed in them with regard to war, fishing, hunting, etc., as we shall see anon. We give below a limited number of such items, as illustrations of their influence. These here given are of a general nature, but many others appear under different headings, as pertaining to war, forest lore, cultivation, sickness, etc., etc.

The word tohu, so much used in connection with these matters, simply means "mark, sign, proof." A certain occurrence may be a tohu mate (evil omen, sign of misfortune) a puhore (sign of non-success, as in hunting, etc.) or a tohu ora (sign of well-being, good fortune, etc.). Unlucky signs are usually termed aitua and lucky signs marie or waimarie.

A vast number of omens are derived from dreams, as is usual among primitive folk, and not unknown among peoples who deem themselves far above that stage of culture. The pseudoscience of oneiromancy was much cultivated by the old-time Maori and certain individuals of each community, often of the priestly class, were looked upon as competent oneiroscopists or interpreters of dreams.


To dream of courting with a pretty maiden is a sign of success; push on with your hunting, assuredly you will get a fine pig.

If you dream that the spirit of another person comes and attacks you, that is a kuku, or nightmare, and woe betide the page 256physical body of that spirit. He will, ere long, be overcome by some disaster. He cannot escape.

To dream that a person makes insulting gestures toward you is a moe whakanene and a puhore, or a sign of non-success. No use going hunting that day or accompanying a fishing party.

If, in sleep, your hand closes quickly, convulsively, as if clutching something, that is a kamu, and a lucky sign. You will, ere long, receive a present, probably of property or food. It is already on its way to you.

To dream that, when travelling and about to camp for the night, you light a fire on the track, is a sure sign of evil in store for you, or one of your companions. Always go aside from a track to make a fire.

If, when sleeping alongside another person he nudges you with his elbow, that is an evil omen for you, but you can avert it by pinching him.

To dream that you are having your hair cut it an evil omen for some one of your relatives.

To dream that you got to a place where you see people eating a meal without offering you any, is a sure sign of ill-luck for those people, they will ere long be plundered.

To dream that you are flying through space, pursued by another person, is lucky so long as he does not catch you, but unlucky if he does.

It is lucky to dream of taking two birds at once.

It is unlucky to dream that you see relatives drown. Soon someone will die.

To dream that you see a calabash of preserved food is un lucky for the owner of such food.

To dream that you see a house with a doorway in the rear wall is unlucky. (Native houses have but one doorway, in the front.) Or if a house stands so that the back wall of another house is immediately before its doorway, that is unlucky.

It is unlucky to dream of seeing a relative or friend wearing black garments, for very soon he will be departing for the next world.

To dream that you see your wife standing naked is a sign of losing some member of your family.

To dream of seeing some of your dead relatives is a sure sign of a coming storm.

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Tohu or Signs.

The most brave and renowned of warriors might absent himself from a fight, or withdraw at the last moment from an assault, if he noted some unlucky sign. Nor would he be blamed, or in any way be lowered in the estimation of his clansmen, on account of such an act.

It is unlucky for a leader of a war party, about to leave on a raiding expedition, to make a mistake or omit certain words, when reciting an invocation or performing tohi rites. Such a person will be told to stand aside and the next man in rank be asked to take over. Otherwise the expedition will be doomed to failure. The Maori calls this a hapa or "misfire," and if it be a break in the ritual, it is a whati or "broken down," which will be the fate of the raid.

It is exceedingly unfortunate for any member of a war expedition when his children cry after him. Of course the wives of the old-time Maori did not weep when their husbands went to war; but rather bore themselves proudly because of it.

To have a poor appetite is a bad omen. One of two things will happen ere long; a relative of the person will die, or someone will run off with his wife.

A dry, parched throat is an evil omen, and such is termed a miti aitua. It is the approach of coming misfortune, or death, that causes it to become dry.

If, when sleeping, you lie with your head toward the feet of another sleeper, that is unlucky for yourself. You are on your way to the next world.

If man and wife are sleeping together and in the same bed-clothes, and turn their backs against each other, it is a sign of a coming quarrel, which may result in a separation.

When out fishing, if you catch a fish on your hook by any other part than the mouth, it is a sign that someone is endangering your domestic peace. You had better go home at once.

If a woman receive a twitching on the inner part of the thigh, and her husband is abroad, it is a sign either of his being on the way home, or his courting with another woman. (The writer had a remarkable experience of this. After being away in another district for some time, and returning at midnight, he found his wife sitting on a chair in the kitchen with some food ready. "Hallo," he said, "what is keeping you awake at this time of the night?" She just laughed and said, "I had already received the message of your coming, it was my mother who interpreted me, so here I am anxiously waiting for the result.")

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To feel a current of warm air when travelling at night, betokens the presence of a kehua (ghost, spirit of the dead) and is a sign of death.

If a person receive a tingling feeling on the nose, he is assigned to slanderous gossip. For when your nose is affected by such a sensation, it is often caused by people gossiping about you in a slighting manner.

If you gnash you teeth when you are asleep, know that a gift of food is on its way to you.

If, in the night, you hear sounds as of a company of women and children moving about, singing, talking and laughing, that is the sign of striking land. On the morrow will arrive news of battle lost. Such manifestation is termed parangeki. The nocturnal visitors heard by you were spirits of the dead.

If you are in camp beside a river or stream, and hear the waters thereof singing, babbling, like unto human speech, that is a pu-wawau and a virulent form of aitua. Death or serious ill-fortune is at hand.

To talk in one's sleep is moe nanu, if such talking is composed of articulate, intelligible words. This form is quite harmless, and has no significance whatever; but the tata-hau is emphatically ominous, misfortune is at hand when a sleeper indulges in tata-hau. This condition is when a sleeper talks nonsense, no intelligible words being heard.

If a dog barks in its sleep, that is a takiari and waimarie. By all means take that dog and go hunting. You will certainly secure a fine pig.

If, when rising to make a speech to a company of persons, you take off your cloak by means of pulling it over your head, instead of untying the strings thereof, you are liable to meet with some mishap. It is a misfortune to break down in reciting a song or to turn your back to your audience when moving about.

It is unlucky to sneeze. When a person sneezes, a bystander often repeats this formula:

"Tihe; Mauri ora
Tupu mauri ora ki te whai ao,
Ki te ao marama.
Tihe; Mauri ora a."

This in order to avert the omen. If a person sneezes while eating, it is a sign that he himself will soon be eaten. If he be eating, say, a potato, at the same time, then he himself will be eaten with potatoes ere long.

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It is unlucky, nay it is challenging fate, to interfere unnecessarily with the Earth Mother. Hence, if you level a site for a house and then abandon that site and build elsewhere, trouble will come to you. You have scarified Papa-tuanuku to no purpose.

If burning wood emits a jet of burning gas, such is caused by a spirit of the dead coming to obtain fire, and betokens a coming storm.

In launching a new canoe it is unlucky to launch her stern first.

To stumble on a war expedition means misfortune ahead. Better return home, but if travelling on a visit of friendship, it is a sign of receiving food. This is termed waewae-tutuki.

When a travelling war party stops to cook food on their journey, it is an evil omen for the warriors if they neglect to scatter or throw aside the koropae of the steam oven, the make shift oven lining of fern fronds or branchlets.

The kotipu, or crossing the path, is also a grievously ominous matter. To encounter, by chance, a war party bent on blood vengeance, is one form of kotipu. Such a person is at once slain, even though of the same tribe as his slayers. The above word means to "intercept." The term is more often applied to the act of encountering a lizard on the path when one is travelling. This is a dire omen, for the Maori has much superstitious dread of the lizard. He has ever believed that lizards cause the death of man by gnawing his vitals, and that the lizard is the form of incarnation of certain gods, or malevolent demons. The most dreaded of the lizards seems to be the moko-kakariki (green lizard). If a lizard "laughs" or "speaks" when you see it, you will, ere long, be either slain or severely burned. The Maori says that these creatures make a sound which they term kata.

It is unlucky to plan an uneven number of sets of rafters on a house, or plant an uneven number of flax plants in a hole. Beware of odd numbers. This is termed tauhapa.

If a person is travelling and passes by a place where a dead man lies and a tangi is in progress, it is korapa, and ere long he will be a dead man.

If a spider descends on its web line, from the roof of the house, that house will either be burned or deserted ere long.

It is unlucky not to stop and partake of food, when invited to do so, but the omen may be averted by eating the merest fragment, after which you can safely proceed on your way.

It was looked upon as a very unfortunate thing if a woman were to step over a male child, inasmuch as such an act would page 260affect the growth of the child, causing the child to be stunted. It was also bad form for a woman to step over the body of a man, an act of impertinence. This is termed kake.

Another unlucky act is the piki aro, which is to pass in front of a priest at a time when he is engaged in performing some religious rite.

To trespass on a burial ground, or cave where bones of the dead are deposited, spells almost certain death to man. The bones will turn on him and destroy him.

It is emphatically unlucky to disregard any rule of tapu, or trespass on any sacred place. If you suffer not at the hands of man, the gods will assuredly punish you.

A person travelling on the road if singing; it is a bad omen. When you hear a person so singing as he traverses the trail at night, you know that there is an aitua, or misfortune or death awaits him in the near future, but his wairua (spirit) knows all about it, and so gives him warning by prompting him to sing.

There are many different rites, charms, and incantations that were employed in order to ward off, avert or nullify evil omens, etc. Such charms and rites are termed ripa or parepare, and other names.