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A Description of the Whare-wananga

A Description of the Whare-wananga

Before we can pass on to a description of the lives of the great men whom we are to review, we must provide an adequate background by describing the Whare-wananga, or house of learning. This may be described as the University of the Maori, and it was one of the most exclusive Universities in the world. Nor is it an exaggeration to suggest that the stone age Maori, who had not even a written language, could enter a building and commence a five-year course of study that was worthy of the name given above.

There were various grades of teachers in each Maori community. The lowest form of teaching, that of the Whare-maire or black magic, was often given in small pas, but this school was never tolerated wherever there was a Whare-wananga. The teachers of the Whare-maire were low grade tohungas, perhaps those who were not fit to enter or could not make the grade to enter the higher institution. They were charlatans who with some knowledge of spiritism and the pseudo science of necromancy, were able to instil fear into the people and also to thrill them with "parlour" tricks. The school was the home of wizardry, shamanism and evil deeds. Females were permitted to enter the school, but its courses were naturally forbidden to any seekers after the purer knowledge of the higher institution. The sinister gods of the Whare-maire were Hinenui-te-po, the origin of death; Tunui-o-te-ika, represented by a flying star; Te Po-tuatini personified by a dog; Maru in the form of a shag; Moko in the form of a lizard, and a host of local tribal demons.

Another school known as the Whare-tatai the astrological school, was built outside the pa. The word tatai means "to recite genealogies, while tatai-irorangi denotes the study of the heavens, cultivation, navigation, etc. We can imagine that much practical knowledge was imparted in this school as it would be certainly important from the standpoint of the seasons for planting and page 49harvesting, for fishing and other food gathering expeditions. This school was often visited by chiefs and tohungas, and matters concerning entertainment requiring feasting, and visits involving journeys were discussed. Heavenly observations were made, the omens discussed. Knowledge gained in the Whare-wananga was imparted here, but no ordinary people could approach the house while the chief men were in conference.

A house known as the whare-matoro, or house of social intercourse, was also built. Here young and old took recreation. This house also had some educational value, as tales were recited here to the common people by the elders of the tribe.

In each village, too, were teachers whom we might call second grade. These experts knew the ritual pertaining to the departmental and tribal gods. They would be given prominence in connection with war, agriculture, fishing, woodcraft and the curing of sickness. We have already mentioned the names of these gods in connection with the Takitimu canoe. There is one addition, that of Haumia, the god of uncultivated food, such as fern-root, so important in the diet of the old-time Maori.

Whenever it happened that a woman was the first born member of a high caste family, she was made a priestess and possessed some of the powers of an ariki. Not being taught in the Whare-wananga, which no woman was allowed to enter, she would not have the profound knowledge of an ariki. Nevertheless she held a high position among her people. Among the descendants of Kahungunu were several such women, Hine-Matioro, the grandmother of Te Kani-a-Takirau, of Whangara: Hine-e-koia, of Te Aitangi-a-Mahaki, the ancestress of Rongo-whakaata Halbert of Gisborne; Hine-i-rukuhia, the grandmother of Paora Te Apatu of Wairoa; Mere-karaka, the grandmother of Te Hata Tipoki, also of Wairoa; and finally, Mihina-a-Rangi, the ancestress of the Maori King of the Waikato. These women attained special honour, occupying the position of temporal queens, and as such there lives were carefully guarded by their people.

The Whare-wananga, the highest source of knowledge, was in a very real way an exclusive institution. In the first place the building itself was erected by priests and selected members of high-born families. No commoners were allowed to help. Secondly, the pupils were chosen from important families.

As the underlying principle of the school was to preserve for all time the ancient lore, the history and genealogies of the race and all incantations necessary to important charms and ceremonies, it was essential that only the most brilliant young men should be accepted as entrants. Students being confined to page 50males, likely lads were tested as to their powers of memory. Those with the most retentive memories were accepted as scholars. A school term lasted three to four months, and although there was only one term in the year, during the winter months, the full period of learning occupied five years. Strict discipline was enforced on the students. All association with the ordinary members of the tribe was banned, and even strict separation from wives and families was demanded. Nor were the pupils allowed to approach any place where food had been, or was being, cooked. The rules of actual school hours were also strict, and such breaches as inattention, whispering, drowsiness, and restlessness were punished severely. One form of punishment was to compel a student to stand outside all night, and serious misconduct was punished by expulsion.

The building itself faced east, and had three compartments. In the easterly portion, the mahau, sacrificial offerings were killed. In an oblong courtyard named mua, in front of the mahau, the sacred offerings were made to the gods and all attendant ceremonies performed. In the centre of the courtyard there was usually a flax bush or tree fern growing, and nearby, a shrine. Here was erected a footless statue of the rainbow god, Kahukura. All human sacrifices were buried close to the spot, while the blood of the victim was offered to Mua and the heart to Tu. Owing to the presence of the gods, the whole locality and all it contained, animate or inanimate, was highly charged with an extremely potent tapu.

The middle portion of the building was the classroom proper where instruction was given. Sacred fires were lit in this building, and near the rear pillar was buried the ahurewa, or sacred talismanic stone. This was the most sacred spot in the house, and important ceremonies, such as protecting the people from witchcraft, were performed here. The third and westerly division of the house was the room where the chief priest, who alone was allowed to enter here, performed the sacred rites to Io, the Supreme Being. From the whole description no doubt the reader will notice the striking similarity of the Whare-wananga building to the sacred tabernacle of the Hebrew people as described in the Old Testament.

First year students were termed pia, or beginners. As proficiency advanced the degree of tauira was won, signifying that the person so named possessed much occult knowledge and knew the tribal traditions. Later he would become a tohunga, but this would not admit him to the advanced priesthood, which position page 51was reserved for first-born members of families of rangatira rank. The difference between a tohunga and an ariki was that the former relied upon his acquired knowledge and powers for his popularity, while an ariki was a holy person, the medium between his people and the gods.

Tests of proficiency in the Whare-wananga were as follows:

1.He must hurl a stone at a shrine. If the stone broke he was unfit and must remain for a further term of learning.
2.By incantations to be able to break a stone into fragments.
3.He must utter a prayer so potent that by his willing a flying bird is killed.
4.By incantations to be able to render himself invisible.
5.To be able to control the tempest at sea and the storm on land.
6.To be able to command the taniwha or whale, and also demons, to do his will.

There were many other qualifications, too numerous to mention here. Probably the most difficult and important feat, and one rarely attained, was that of fleetness of foot to the extent that the graduate was able to take such giant strides that it may rather be said that he flew from place to place rather than strode. This feat was known to the Maori as tapuwae, as we shall shortly explain in conjunction with the story of our hero Rongokako.