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Explaining the Meaning and Purpose of Tapu

Explaining the Meaning and Purpose of Tapu

The word tapu has been so frequently used in the foregoing that some explanation of its significance should be made. Although the word is well known and the meaning also known to some degree by most pakehas, few have ever realised to what extent the custom of tapu affected old-time Maori life. This summary should deepen our respect for a word that is often used somewhat carelessly nowadays. Though the word is often used today as meaning sacred, the word prohibited would better convey the real meaning to the European mind. The rules of tapu were rules of negation or prohibition, paralleling the Biblical, "Thou shalt not" or "Such a thing thou shalt not do. "And, as in the Christian law so in the Maori, at the back of this particular law stood all that was religious in Maori life. Among savage or civilized page 37people religion is the, strong tie that binds the people together, however imperfectly it may be understood and practised. The Maori in his stone-age lacked the European laws, police, and cultivated intellect, all of which help to inculcate self control and thus preserved society. Tapu, backed by a belief in powerful, jealous and revengeful gods, took the place of these. So tapu entered into practically every phase of Maori life. Even to-day the custom has still a considerable hold among the people and even as English Royalty is to some extent restricted by customs which die hard, so the custom of tapu still exercises sway over present day Maoris, particularly those of the higher class.

The higher order of priests were especially held under the power of tapu, and particularly so those who were ariki or first born members of a family of rangatira rank. This, of course, was to secure added protection for them. In such cases the hapless priest had, as it were, a double load of restricting tapu hedging him around. Life must have been excessively irksome. He would have to be extremely careful as to each smallest action, each short journey, each contact made with any other human. Should he break one of the innumerable laws, then the gods would assuredly punish him, even to death. As an illustration of the restraint placed upon him we mention the matter of food. A tohunga under heavy tapu could not go near a cooking house, not any other place pertaining to cooked food. Nor could he partake of a meal within his own house, nor touch food with his hands. In the latter case he used a pointed stick named tirou as a primitive fork to convey the food to his mouth. No direct approach by any non-tapu person was possible and to solve the difficulty of meals, the food was conveyed to a suitable mid-way place by a waiter who then retired. A person bound under tapu then carried the food to the priest and in some cases fed him so that his hands should not risk touching the food. An incantation was recited, probably a form of whakau or grace before meat. When there was no tapu person or person of sufficiently high rank to act as servant the priest was often forced to take his meal direct from the ground with his mouth, an awkward predicament. In drinking, a custom known as tipae was adopted. The water was first poured into the troughed hands of the priest whence some of it would flow into his mouth. The signal "enough" had perforce to be given by the raising of the eyebrows or by an upward nod, tungou. Care was taken that the water vessel should not touch even the hands of the priest. Should it do so it would become tapu and could never be used again, but must be destroyed. The page 38head of the priest was holier than the rest of his person. If his hand was to touch his head he would at once blow with his breath on his hand to remove any excessive tapu. The interior of his dwelling was also very sacred and not as much as a drink of water would be taken within it. Food was usually taken on a small stage (puwhara-tapu-rangi) in front of his whare.

Perhaps the most serious of all would be the plight of the priest who, having himself broken some rule of tapu, would be deserted by his god. In this condition he would be exposed and defenceless against the powers of magic and other ills and dangers. His power, fame and knowledge would desert him and he would exist only as a kohiwi. This is an expressive term used to describe the standing heart wood of a dead tree, with all the sapwood and sap-bearing bark rotted away. The similar words kohiwi or iho are doubtless allied koiwi, a skeleton. A tohunga in this condition would be powerless in his own defence.

Not only were these laws binding upon the priesthood and important personages, but tapu affected the lives and actions of all members of the tribe, according to their social scale, and it had a far-reaching effect on all social life and individual behaviour. It was probably this that determined and built the Maori form of communal living as compared with the more separate form of family life as known among more civilised people. Regulating almost every action of man, the laws of tapu went far in the controlling of passion, the maintenance of order and the creating of discipline. No person might disregard or defy the laws. Serious desecration was punished by death, sometimes at the hands of the gods, supernaturally, otherwise at the hands of members of the tribe. Less serious infringements were often punished by the wrongdoer losing his property at the hands of his friends.

It will be seen that tapu combined both spiritual and secular laws. The power that made it effective emanated supernaturally as from unseen gods. The difference between tapu punishment and our modern Christian teaching regarding punishment, is that whereas punishment for hara, or infringement of tapu, fell on the Maori in the here and now of this world, the Christian teaching promises wrongdoers hell in the next world, a hell presided over by the arch-fiend in which the dead suffer indescribable torment for all time. Hence the system in which punishment fell at once was far more effective in preventing misdemeanours, crime and sin, than our Christian counterpart, the promise of hell. As the result, the old-time Maori was much more careful in observing religious customs than are modern Christians.

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One can readily imagine that the laws of tapu were far more irksome than any corresponding set of laws governing civilized society today. Yet these were the laws that brought Maori communal living to a very high pitch, built up a stalwart race, and produced an aboriginal race by comparison second to none in the world. All of this is readily admitted by ethnological students.