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Legends of the Maori

Chapter X. Celt and Maori. — Likenesses in Folk-Belief, Legend and Poetry

Chapter X. Celt and Maori.

Likenesses in Folk-Belief, Legend and Poetry.

Many a year ago colonists from the Scottish Highlands and from other Celtic lands were interested to find a remarkably close resemblance between the Gael and Maori in some of the everyday customs and in tribal beliefs and concepts, as well as in social and political organisation. It was men like Sir Donald Maclean who were the readiest to understand something of the Maori mind and to perceive the motives and the processes of reasoning which prompted actions that to most pakeha people were at first inexplicable.

Governor Sir George Bowen, in his dispatches to the Colonial Office, frequently remarked on the close resemblance between Maori clan customs and those of the Highlands, especially in time of war. The average Maori of that day, had he been transplanted suddenly to a glen in Appin or an isle in the Hebrides, would have been able to adjust himself quickly to the tribal and village life.

In reading Gaelic literature and records of Highland clans I have noted many a family likeness between Gael and Maori—and not alone the Scottish Celt, but the Irish and the Manx—in customs, spiritual belief, and poetic expression.

The twilight of the old gods has not yet gone in the forests and straths of the West of Scotland and in the mountain valleys of the Urewera and the kaingas of Taranaki. The clan and sub-clan systems tended to isolation and to the preservation of old secret faiths, old ways, old songs.

“The great Forester was abroad last night,” is a Highland remark that a Maori would understand as a phrase descriptive of death. In Scott’s Coronach for Sir Lachlan, Chief of MacLean, translated from the Gaelic, the dead warrior is likened to a stately tree shattered and uprooted:

Wide, wide around were spread its lofty branches,
But the topmost bough is lowly laid.

A favourite poetic figure of speech in Maori laments heard to-day at tangi gatherings is the comparison of a departed chief to a rata tree, or a totara—or, in the Ngapuhi country of the North, a kauri—fallen to the page 60 ground. There is a beautiful chant of mourning, “My Rata Tree,” expressing the idea that the people who once sheltered beneath the spreading branches and thick foliage of the great tree are now without protection.

There is a Highland belief that witches and some tribes of fairies fear water:

A runnin’ stream they daurna cross.

In legends of the Maero, the wild man of the bush, that I have heard from old folks in both islands, and as far away as the coast of Foveaux Strait, this weird and fearsome creature cannot cross a stream. “Running water for luck,” should you encounter a Maero.

Beinn a’ Bhri, a mountain in Lochaber, according to K. W. Grant, is a fairy haunt. Its presiding genius is a fairy woman, a “bean-shidhe.” She generally appeared to the houseless wanderers of the forest in the form of a gigantic woman. Hunters sometimes were visited by her when they camped in the recesses of the mountain. A traditional song is quoted:

The grizzled Cailleach, tall and stern,
Swift she glides o’er peak and cairn.

Set alongside this folk-myth of the Highlands some legends of our own fairy haunted mountains. There is the story of the Takitimu Range, in Southland, as told me many a year ago by two old men of Oraka, Te Paina and his relative, Hemi Kupa. There was a fairy woman, called Kai-heraki, who sometimes was seen by Maori out hunting the weka on the shrubby mountain slopes. Once a bird-hunter from Manapouri captured her, and intended to make her his wife, but she suddenly vanished as if by magic. The Maori say she is seen sometimes, looming gigantic through the fog, striding like an enormous spectre along the sides of Takitimu mountain.

There is the enormous witch-woman of Ben Cruachan. She was reduced to ordinary human proportions in Sir Walter Scott’s character of Norna of the Fitful Head. That strange figure came to mind when I first heard from the late Hone Tikao, of the Ngai-Tahu tribe, the story of Raukura, the female tohunga—a ruwahine, or wise woman—who anciently lived in a solitary whare on the high eastern head of Akaroa Harbour. The Maori named the headland Te Ruwahine, in memory of her. The Government maps to-day have it grotesquely disguised as Trueni Point.

The English critics have discredited Macpherson’s “Ossian” and declared it an invention. But the fidelity and authenticity of this hereditary poetic lore are warmly defended by the Scots of the glens. The speeches of the warrior chiefs and the dramatic images drawn from wild nature are often quite in the manner we are familiar with in Maori custom and history. Maori poetry is often much condensed, an idea concentrated page 61 in a word. Alfred Domett described a certain war-song as “the very pemmican of poetry.” Macpherson apparently found the original bardic lore of Ossian very much the same, and naturally amplified it in order to convey the ideas embodied in it to the English mind.

“The Cailleach (the old wife of the sea) is going to tramp her blankets to-night,” was the prediction of a crofter-fisherman of the West of Scotland, when a heavy storm was brewing along the coast. The olden Maori would have said that Tawhiri-matea, the god of gales, was about to launch an attack on Tangaroa of the ocean. To-day there is a proverbial expression used by the Ngati-Pikiao people who live at the eastern end of Lake Rotoiti, when the white-capped waves roll down the wide Tawhitinui reach of the lake before a westerly gale: E heru ana nga tamahine a Hinekura (The daughters of Hinekura are combing their hair).

It was a Maori custom, when a dead or dying chief was being carried to his home from some distant place, to erect a memorial at each camping ground on the journey. Near Ruatahuna, in the Urewera Country, a native showed me, some thirty years ago, a carved and tattooed figure, about three feet high, planted in the ground in the middle of a little cleared space in the manuka. He would not approach it closely, because it was tapu. It marked the spot where the chief Te Puehu was set down by his bearers one night on his last journey. It was a Scottish Highland custom, under similar circumstances, to build a cairn of stones. An example of this is given in an account of the carrying of a much-beloved wife of a chief to the ancestral churchyard in the West of Scotland. The whole man strength of the clan was employed in the task, in relays, and at each night’s resting-place on the way a cairn was raised, on which each man placed a stone in sacred memory.

The Irish, the Highland Scots, and the Maori alike have their holy isles in legend-haunted lakes. That beautiful little island, Motuwharangi, in Kereru Lake, at Tautoro, North Auckland, and Pateko, in Lake Rotoiti, also Pa-te-kaha, in Waikaremoana, are tapu places with associations resembling somewhat those that twine about the sacred islet Eilean Mowrie, in Loch Maree, with its saint’s shrine and ancient burial ground.

The “wishing tree” of old Scotland and Ireland has its counterpart in Maoriland. There are certain ancient trees in the Urewera Country and elsewhere venerated because of the supposed efficacy of a visit thereto and supplication to the ancestral spirit, in the case of women who desire children. The celebrated matai tree, called Hinehopu, on Hongi’s Track, between Lakes Rotoiti and Rotoehu, is to this day a kind of good-luck tree, for Maori travellers invariably lay offerings of leaves or ferns at its hollow foot, in pursuance of the olden uru-uru whenua rite of propitia- page 62 tion. Neglect of this little ceremony is sure to bring a rain-storm, say the Ngati-Pikiao people, the tangata whenua. Many a pakeha traveller now has heard about Hinehopu, and a motor-car often pulls up on Hongi’s Track and the occupants lay their green leaves at her foot and wish for all day sunny weather. The pakeha, too, has taken it upon himself to extend the scope of Hinehopu’s mana, and wishes for good luck at the races, or at the day’s trout fishing, and anything else that comes into his head. At Kura-ngaituku’s Rock (celebrated in the story of Hatupatu and Kura of the Claws), near Atiamuri, on the Waikato, a similar ceremony is observed.

Maori artifact