Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon


Chapter Four

page 34

Chapter Four

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.

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.

page 39

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.