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The History of Rongomai-wahine

The History of Rongomai-wahine

Over the main entrance door of the house of Takitimu has been carved a grotesque female figure with legs reaching right across the doorway. It is the custom in important meeting houses to have over the doorway such a figure representing the origin of the life of the tribe. The figure over the kuwaha of Takitimu represents Rongomai-wahine, of Te Mahia, the famous mother of the Ngati-Kahungunu people.

In explaining the reason for this pare over the doorway, we must go back to one of the stories which mythology tells of the beginnings of Maori life. We will tell the story as politely as possible and leave embellishments to the Maori orator who in years to come will pace the marae of Takitimu and explain in the picturesque adjectives of the native tongue the full details of the origin of such a carving to those who will be fortunate enough to be able to understand him.

Far back in the story of human origins, we are told that three sisters were brought into the world, the descendants of Rangi and Papa, the sky and earth parents. The first was Hine-nui-te-po, the great maiden of death: the second, Mahuika, was the origin of fire; the third, Hine-i-tapeka, was the origin of volcanic fire. Also living on the earth was Maui-tikitiki-o-taranga, commonly known as Maui, who was credited with many marvellous feats, including the fishing up of the North Island from the depths. There grew within Maui a rooted objection to the mode of life instituted by the three sisters, and he made up his mind to slay them.

He had only partial success in the destroying of the fire which was kept in the five fingers of the hand of Mahuika, After he had destroyed her four fingers, Mahuika, fearing the total extinction of fire, plucked off her last finger and cast it into a kaikomako tree. Thus the origins of fire have been preserved, for should all other means of generating it fail, it could still be page 87obtained by rubbing together two pieces of wood from this tree. Pennantia corymbosa. Maui then turned on Hine-i-tapeka, who in fear threw her treasure deep into the earth out of Maui's reach, where it became the origin of volcanic fire.

After this wholly unsuccessful attempt to wholly destroy fire, Maui turned to destroy death. He first went to Hine-nui-te-po, and argued with her as to the permanence of death. Maui's idea was that man should die as the moon dies, only to rise again. Hine would have none of this, but said, "Let man die for all time, that he may be wept over and lamented." The argument ended, and Hine persisted in slaying humans. She used her powers of black magic, and her dread formula expressed in the Maori tongue was: "Ka kukuti, ka kukuti, nga puapua o Hine-nui-te-po."

Maui decided to seek the very life of the maiden of death, and having persuaded a band of his people to accompany him, he set forth on the mission. As they travelled, Maui remarked, "What is the murmuring sound that I hear? It is the sound made by the puapua (pudenda muliebria) of Hine." On arrival they found Hine lying asleep. (Rokohanga atu e tuhera ana nga kuha, e hamana ana te puapua.) Maui's purpose was to seek the heart of the woman and crush it. He cautioned his people to be quiet and to make no sound. "When I reach her heart," he said, "then you may speak." He proceeded to enter the body of Hine by the passage through which man is born into the world. When he had passed but half-way through the tawhito of Hine, a bird, the woman's bodyguard, laughed loudly. Hine awoke and her puapua closed around the loins of Maui and he was crushed to death. So death came to the one who sought to destroy death, and immortality slipped from the grasp of man.

Maui entered the realm of Hine with evil purpose. It was to guard against any person entering a meeting house with evil designs against either house or occupant that the builders of old placed the pare of a protecting ancestress over the main entrance. Should an evildoer enter he would share the fate of Maui, either in loss of his life or of his prestige and power. The people of the tribe and their friends, on entering, were under the protection of the ancestress, and were free from spells and evil practices. A further reason for the carved lintel was that every person of the tribe entering the house honoured the ancestress from whom he or she, with the tribe, had descended.

It has been known in the past that certain high Maoris have refused to enter certain meeting houses lest they give honour to an ancestress not their own. This question was raised when the Maori King of the Waikato, King Koroki, arrived to open the page 88Takitimu House. In certain circumstances it might mean shame and a lowering of prestige for a high born Maori to pass under the widespread figure of the ancestress of another tribe. In this instance, however, it was shown that Koroki had descended through a high line from Rongomai-wahine. Therefore he willingly entered the house with added rather than decreased dignity. Needless to say, the ceremony was not performed without the reciting of appropriate charms.

Rongomai-wahine was the principal lady of the Mahia Peninsula tribes when Kahungunu, having abandoned his former wives, women of high rank, whom he had married here and there on his journey down the coast, arrived at Te Mahia. The earlier origins of Rongomai-wahine are not very well known. It was probably because she was the mother ancestress of the tribe that her past line of descent was never challenged nor discussed, and thus became lost after her marriage to Kahungunu, who took over the leadership of the people.

The fact that Kahu was prepared to surrender his wanderlust and to settle at Mahia proves that Rongomai-wahine was a lady both of high rank and charming manner. Also significant is the fact that the tribe during Kahungunu's reign was never attacked nor molested apart from one raid by his own nephew, which raid proved more playful than destructive.

It has been claimed by the people of Te Mahia that Rongomai descended partly from Ruawharo, and partly from Popoto, who came on the Kuruhaupo canoe. The landing marks of this canoe at Te Awa-pata, the home of the chieftainess, are still shown as proof. It has been said that this canoe brought the first karaka tree to Aotearoa, and that the tree became the parent of all the East Coast trees. Many karaka trees have survived the axe and fire of the early settlers, and some venerable trees can be seen along the Mahia Coast.

Concerning the Kuruhaupo landfall, the Ngapuhi (North Auckland) narrative conflicts, in that the final landing place of the canoe is by the Northerners said to have been on their eastern coast, and that the canoe was petrified on a reef. The Tuhoe people have a third version, claiming that the vessel was disabled on the voyage and that part of the crew came on in the Matatua canoe. The Kuruhaupo, they say, was again made seaworthy and came to New Zealand in a quest for greenstone under the name of Rangi-matoru, with Hape as captain. The name of the canoe was changed so that her former owners might not claim her.

The claim of the Tuhoe people can be challenged by the fact that the same people claim Hape to have been the originator of page 89the tribe known as Te Hapu-oneone, one of the main tribes in occupation of the land when the Kuruhaupo arrived. By genealogical tabies, Hape preceded the main migration by six generations, or 150 years, and about 50 years after the arrival of Toi-kai-rakau in 1150. The same people also state that the Hapu-oneone were living in the pa Kapu-te-rangi when Taukata and Hoaki arrived, as is related in the passage dealing with the Te Ara-tawhao canoe.

The people of the Aotea canoe claim that the Kuruhaupo was wrecked and that the passengers were transferred to their vessel. It seems unlikely that the Aotea could have accommodated an extra canoe-load of passengers. The Aotea was well known to have come direct from Rai-atea Island, which accounts for her landing on the West Coast of the Island. The rest of the canoes called at Raratonga and followed Kupe's sailing directions, thus landing along the East Coast.

Another cause of confusion is the statement that Whatonga two hundred years previously, came to New Zealand in a canoe of the same name. If both accounts are correct there must have been two different canoes with the same name.

Whatever the truth concerning the Kuruhaupo, all are unanimous that she was one of the canoes of the main fleet. Not only do the Mahia people claim a connection with the vessel but also the Northerners, the Taranaki tribe wedged in between Tokomaru and Aotea, and the Maraupoko, Rangitane, and Ngati-Apa from Whangaehu to Lake Horowhenua. The matter is a fit subject for further enquiry, but the claim of the Mahia people as to the matter of the first landing place, and the fact that Rongomai wahine is descended from Popoto the commander of the cance, as is shown in the whakapapa in this book, gives these people the chief right to the claim.