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The Gods of the Maori

The Gods of the Maori

Prior to departure the sacred gods were taken from their sacred places and stowed in the special compartments in the bow of the canoe immediately in front of the seat of Ruawharo, the priest. Carved out of wood and stone, the relics represented the children of Rangi, the sky parent, and Papa, the earth mother. They were the gods covering all that Maori life was dependent upon. Tawhirimatea was the origin and personification of the wind, thunder and lightning, and the elements. Tane-nui-a-rangi (great Tane offspring of Rangi) was the offspring and personification, of forests, trees and birds. Tangaroa, the Maori Neptune, was the ruler of the waves and the origin of all fish and deep sea creatures. Rongo, or fully titled, Rongo marae roa, personified peace, the arts of peace and agriculture, and all cultivated foods in particular. Uncultivated food, such as the rhizomes of the common bracken fern, a sure source of food, was represented by Haumia. Last, but certainly not least, we mention Tu-matauenga, who was usually referred to by the first syllable only. Tu was the supreme god of war and was treated as the most important offspring of Rangi and Papa. All male children were dedicated in the name of, and to the service of Tu.

Before passing on to a description of further gods we should mention that the Maori divided his gods into four classes. In describing these four classes we use names that are used by the East Coast tribes.

To the Supreme Deity, parentless, eternal, the Maori gave the name of Io or Iho. Iho was the creator of the heavens and the earth and all other life and creation originated from him. The Maori belief in Io was in fact a counterpart of the ancient Hebrew and the modern Christian belief in Johovah and it has even been suggested that both words have come from a common root in ages past. Differing from the Christian belief, however, was the belief that any suppliant approaching Io should be page 35spiritually as perfect and pure as possible. It was not sufficient for the person to be ceremonially perfect, that is made perfect by charms or prayers, but he must need be morally perfect. Also the high priests or arikis were the only ones who were acquainted with the ritual formulae and sacredotal expressions necessary in the approach to Io.

We have already named and described the group of gods, the offspring of Rangi and Papa, who were second only to Io. These can be called the gods of the origins, the origins of all life, whether that life emanated from the elements, the forest, the sea or the soil.

A further class of gods might be termed the gods of services and protection, the Hawaiikian gods, Maru, Uenuku, Rangomai, Kahukura and others. Many of these were personified forms of natural phenomena such as Te Po-tua-tini, Tunui-o-te-ika, Moko find a host of others.

A belief in the aid of friendly spirits was responsible for the naming of a fourth class of gods. All of these tipua had a part in the passage of the canoe, being unseen escorts in an element that was not always favourable. Te Whatahoro, in his account of the Takitimu, writes: "The tipua (demons) that conducted hither that vessel were Ruamano and Te Arai-te-uru. The pakake (whales) that sheltered and protected it were Hine-korito, Hine-kotea, Hine-makehu, and Hine-huruhuru. The kauika, or school of taniwha, that hastened the boat were Te Wehenga kauika, Rua-riki and Maurea." Others who accompanied the vessel were Tunui-e-te-Ika, Te Po-tuatini, Moko and others. This type of gods were by far the most numerous type.

The gods of the third and fourth classes were important for purposes of both war and black magic. Although the great god Tu was the one in whom was personified all pertaining to war, yet each local tribe seemed to have its own distinct lower class atua, with whom to consult as an oracle in regard to war and fighting. The reason for this was probably because the approach to the great war god would need to be made with elaborate ceremony and ritual, whereas a lower god could be approached more easily and indeed the ceremonies connected with appeals to such gods were often of a very gross nature. The differing status of gods can be clearly seen in the native custom, when falling a tree, and making a placatory offering for so doing. A certain part of the tree was reserved as an offering to Tane, and a lesser part for the local atua, thus discriminating between the two. In view of this discrimination the word atua seems unsatisfactory when page 36applied to all the classes, nor is the pakeha term "god" a more fortunate word. The local lower class god was held to be more dangerous to human life.

The Maori held no brief for any particular god, but sought the aid of the god whose prestige and powers were thought to be most powerful. An instance of this can be quoted from an incident occurring in the year 1836 during a battle at Toka-a-kuku (near Te Kaha, Bay of Plenty) on the East Coast. The atua or war god of the attacking force of Ngati Kahungunu was on this occasion the Christ of the Christian religion. The tohunga or priest of the attacking force had recently returned from the North Auckland where he had for a time been held prisoner by the Nga-puhis. While in the Northland he learnt of the Christian faith and also to read and write. It is on record that he used leaves for writing paper and charred sticks as pencils. More important to record, however, is the fact that he was so impressed by the personality and power of Jesus, that he adopted him as his god of battle to assure success.

As a further instance we may quote another battle, this one in 1865, when the East Coast people were involved in a war against the Hauhau people under the cult of Te-Ua-Haumene. Above the noise of gunfire could be heard the voices of the opposing forces, each calling on their gods for help. The Hauhau voices implored Rura, their god, "Tena ra e Rura e tukitukia," (There now Rura, smash them up) while the plea of the local fighters was, "Tona ra e Ihowa e tukitukia," (There now Jehovah, smash them up). Surely a high class religion can be assimilated and understood but slowly by a barbaric people.