Legends of the Maori
Folk Beliefs of the Reinga and the Spirits’ Flight
Folk Beliefs of the Reinga and the Spirits’ Flight.
All through the Maori-Polynesian Islands we find the immeasurably ancient belief in the “spirit’s flight,” the departure of the souls of the dead for the far regions of the West, the original fatherland of the race. From New Zealand to Samoa, and more distant islands still, the old poetic legend is heard. It is the most deeply-settled article of faith of the Maori, a faith that one hopes will never leave the race. It is embodied in song and story and in the everyday talk of the people, and it is as familiar a fancy to the New Zealand-born pakeha as it is to the native race. References to the Reinga, or the Rerenga-Wairua, the Leaping-off Place of the spirits of the departed, occur in every speech and every lament for the dead. The souls of the dead are supposed to go to the extreme north-west point of New Zealand, the tail of this Ika-a-Maui, and thence vanish into the ocean, into the mystic profundity.
Cape Reinga, where the kuaka, the godwit, takes its annual flight for the equatorial regions, and the far-away northern continental lands, is the surf-washed rocky promontory where our Maori souls loose their last grip of this land and enter the ocean-door of Po; they return to Hawaiki. They follow the setting sun.
The belief clearly has its origin in the knowledge that the Maori originally came from the west and north-west. The later Hawaiki lay to the north-east, the islands of Polynesia; but the ancient faith preserves the tradition of the original migration from Asiatic and Indonesian lands. In New Zealand the north-west migration of the spirits’ flight is geographically correct, in accordance with tradition. In the tropic islands of mid-Pacific the direction is west. We find in Tahiti, in the Cook Islands, in Samoa and other islands the legend that the westernmost capes of certain islands are the jumping-off places for the land of hereafter. The soul returns to the land from which it came. In Samoa the point of departure for Pulotu, the paradise of tradition, is Falealupo, the extreme western point of Savaii Island.
Beautifully these Maori-Polynesian folk-beliefs link up with those of Gaelic lands—of Brittany, in France, of the Scottish Highlands, and page 49 of the West of Ireland, with its poetical tradition of Hy-Brasil, far in the west. As the islander of the Pacific went west to his happy isles, so to the Celt of old the souls followed the track of the setting sun. The fancy suggested by the sight of the sun sinking into its ocean grave is universal among those people who look out over the Western Ocean. Maori songs often employ the idea. “Wait, wait awhile, O sun, and we’ll go down together,” is an olden lament. The expression, “Gone West,” which became so tragically familiar during the Great War, originated, I think, with the Scottish Highland soldiers, but the idea is truly and exactly Maori-Polynesian. A phrase meaning “Gone West” is a very ancient Gaelic saying for death. When the origin of the expression was discussed by English and Scottish writers, some years ago, this Highland phrase was mentioned, and it was pointed out that it signified also up, or upwards. The Gaelic speakers among the kilted soldiers in the trenches began its use in speaking of their casualties, and it was turned into English.
Another aspect of the subject was discussed recently by the Rev. Dr. Edward Sugden, master of Queen’s College, Melbourne University, in his book on survivals of ancient Egyptian beliefs and customs. Dr. Sugden said that all the burial places of the Egyptians were on the western bank of the Nile, while all the inhabited towns and villages were on the east side. The mummies of the dead were ferried across the great river to their final resting-places; from this custom was derived the Greek myth of Charon and the ferry across the Styx. The author advanced the theory that there was a connection with this long-ago practice of the Egyptians, and he wondered whether the war-time phrase “may not have been used first by our boys in Egypt and have been started by one of them who knew something of the antiquities of the land of mysteries.”
This theory may be overstraining the possibilities; it is more reasonable to suppose that the Highland soldiers in France originated the expression. It may be that in the far-away past the ancestors of Celt and Polynesian alike derived such a belief from Egypt; but the natural impulse of every primitive race would be to associate the death of man with the setting of the sun.
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Dark and jagged, naked, washed by the never-resting surf, myriads of seafowl screaming about its cliffs, rocky Cape Reinga seems a fitting place for the age-long departure of the innumerable company of souls. It trends north-west; its neighbouring promontory on the west is Cape Maria Van Diemen; to the east is the North Cape. Below its dark, rugged slant to the east is Spirits’ Bay, a long, curving bight, where the kuaka page 50 gather for their end-of-summer flight northward. In contrast to the bold headlands are the beaches, sandy or shelly, flashing in glittering white or vivid yellow against blue ocean. Into one of these picture-like coves flows the glassy-clear stream Taputaputa, one of the little rivers over which the spirits pass in their flight to the north-west. In the northward-facing indent called Tom Bowling Bay there runs another stream, the Kapo-Wairua. The name means, literally, “Snatching Souls.” The reference is to demons that snatch at the spirits of the dead passing that way or from the eastern coast.
As the souls approach the land’s end they think of their old homes in this world of light and of the dear ones they have left behind them; and they halt on the rocky ridge of Haumu and gaze backward over the painful way by which they have come. They weep in high, thin, wailing voices like the whistling wind, and they lacerate themselves with sharp splinters of obsidian (mata-tuhua), as people did at funeral gatherings or tangihanga, and those volcanic-glassy flakes and knives are there on the trail to-day. They pluck green leaves of shrubs, which they weave into kopare, or death chaplets, for their heads. The streams that here and there in this long peninsula ripple down from the hills cease their low music as the ghosts pass by. The path goes along the broken knife-back ridge until the ultimate cape is reached, the Reinga, or leaping-place, sacred to the countless army of the dead. Here there grew a great and venerable pohutukawa tree; the blossoms were called in legend Te Pua o te Reinga—The Flowers of Spirits’ Flight. The branches (now broken off) bent over the dark, unrestful ocean; some of the roots went searching like wizardly fingers for the water. By these boughs and roots the spirits descended, the one after the other they dropped into the tideway, where seaweed swirled like ocean monsters’ hair, and as they vanished into the depths the mihi-tangata was heard, the wailing of the innumerable dead greeting their coming to the Tatau-o-te-Po, the Gateway of the Hereafter. So, with the seafowl screaming their requiem, the winds of Land’s End whistling about the cape, the ocean murmuring in a thousand voices, the Wairua Maori departed from this land of Aotearoa.
The Maori say that the spirits leave various tokens of their passage along the coast. If it be the spirit of one who lived in the interior, it takes with it a small bundle of leaves of the nikau palm, and where it rests on the long road it leaves one of these leaves; a soul from the coast parts deposits a seaside grass (the pingao) here and there on the northward route. The departing ones tie knots in the wind-tattered blades of flax that grow on these stony ridges and sandy dunes. These flax leaves, say some, are twisted together by the gales that sweep across Muriwhenua’s page 51 wastes. But the Maori knows they are the signs left by the vanished ones, tied by the spirits to show those who come after them the way they have gone to the land of night. Another belief was that the origin of the reddish appearance of some of the fish caught hereabouts is that they are so coloured by the kokowai or red ochre with which the natives of old daubed themselves and their clothing. The doors of the kumara stores in the north always face the north, so that the spirits travelling from the south shall not enter and thereby tapu the food.
There are many ghost stories told in the kainga, such as the travellers’ tale of companies of strangers appearing in the distance on the great West Coast beach, all bound northward. These, in the distance, seem living people, but they all fade away as they are approached. The man of this world of light sees no one to hail as he reaches the spot on the beach where the travellers seemed to be, but if he looks back presently, as he journeys south, he will see these apparitions hurrying along the sands to their far north destination.
I have heard many a story of imaginary visits to the Reinga and of the return to this land of light, the Ao-Marama. An example of this belief was an incident which occurred a few years ago at a kainga in the Wairoa district, Hawke’s Bay. A woman who, to all appearance, had died, revived and lived for some days, and she gave her friends a vivid description of her visit to the Reinga and her meeting there with the souls of people whom she had known in life.
When the ancient tohunga Tuhoto Ariki was dug out alive from the ruined hut in which he had been overwhelmed by the Tarawera eruption at Te Wairoa, near Rotorua, in 1886, he looked around him in dreamy wonder at the transformed landscape. He was heard to murmur: “This must be the Reinga!” as he gazed with dim eyes on the grey pall of volcanic mud that covered village and hill and forest.
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In the beautiful old custom of chanting laments for the departed many a pathetic concept of the ancient Maori is preserved, and many a reference to the Reinga and its approaches is contained in these chants. This is a funeral song of the Ngati-Toa and Ngati-Raukawa. The poem, in the original, begins: “Kaore te mamae, e wahi pu ana te tau o taku ate.”
Alas! my grief
For the loved one of my heart!
Sleepless I lie from dark till dawn.
For thou, O friend, art gone.
Yet, ’tis thy spirit that doth nightly visit me,
And like an angry gale
page 52 The cold death-wind doth pierce me through.
Oh, chiefs of old!
Ye have vanished from us like the moa bird,
That ne’er is seen of man.
O, lordly totara tree!
Thou’rt fallen to the earth,
And nought but worthless shrubs are left.*
Depart, O sire, and greet
The warriors who have gone before—
The men who rose in battle line
By sea and shore;
Where the land-breeze gently blows,
Or the wind of ocean roars,
Round the mountain cape of Whitikau.
I hear the waves’ low murmur
On the strand of Heiawe,
Where the spirits, ere they leave the world of light.
Cast one last look behind.
The rolling seas surge in at Taumaha,
Singing their surf-song for the dead
Who have forever vanished from our eyes.
Miru is one of the deities or guardians of the spiritland in Maori mythology. This conception is embodied in an ancient song which is still often chanted at funeral gatherings. I heard it, for example, at a tangi-hanga at Takapuwahia, Porirua Harbour, in 1906, sung by members of the Ngat-Toa and Ngati-Raukawa tribes:
E tomo e Pa,
Ko te whare tena
O Miru ra—e!
Nana koe i maka
Ki te kopai o te whare—i!
Enter, O Sire,
The Gates of that Dark Land
The Door of the Endless Night,
For that is the dwelling
Of (the goddess) Miru;
The Ever-Greedy One.
’Tis she who hurleth thee
To the dark corners of her gloomy house!
* Compare with Fingal’s Lament for Ryno and Orla, slain in battle:
“Like a tree they grew on the hills. They have fallen like the oak of the desert, where it lies across the stream and withers in the wind.”—Ossian.
In several Polynesian groups Miru is the terrible goddess of the shades, the Po, or gloomy spiritland. Miru catches the less fortunate souls in her cannibal net.
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The Ngapuhi people, of the Far North, among many other tales of the spiritland, have a story of a warrior chieftain named Patito, who returned from the Reinga for the purpose of testing the power of his son. This son, Toakai, was famed for his bravery, and his renown spread even to the Reinga, where the news of his deeds in battle was borne by the wairua of the slain. Patito in his day was a great spearsman, and he resolved to revisit the Ao-marama and put the warlike powers of his son to the test. His wairua assumed its olden earthly form and he appeared from out of the mists of the northland and confronted his son. The grim apparition challenged this young man to combat with his favourite weapon, the koikoi; it was a spear about the length of a man, pointed at both ends. In the contest the father proved the better man; the son could not parry his thrusts.
Having proved that he was still invincible with his old-time weapon Patito vanished from his son’s sight and returned to the Reinga. Had Toakai prevailed over his father, it is thought, it would have been a victory over death, but the powers of the dread spiritland are invincible.*
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The Maori is profoundly affected by dreams in which he sees the forms of departed kinsfolk and friends. In these visions the souls of living and departed are supposed to meet in the Reinga. The living, too, who have visited the actual scene of the Rerenga Wairua have fancied that they could hear the spirits of their dead ones calling them.
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* Patito, according to a Ngapuhi genealogy of Hare Hongi, lived twelve generations ago (300 years). He was a descendant of Nuku-tawhiti, who lived twenty generations ago. The son Toakai was the great fighting champion of the Ngapuhi in his day, but his father’s spirit was superior to him, according to the story (probably Toakai’s dream). All of the high chiefs of Ngapuhi and Te Rarawa are in one or the other of the lines of descent from Patito. Hare Hongi’s grandmother, Ri Maumau, a priestess, was of the tenth generation from him.
Hori searched the cabin for suitable taonga to appease his tupunas’ restless souls. He dropped several articles through the port-window of his cabin—which he shared with Carroll—but still the spirit voices called. Having nothing more of his own of any value, he was just about to sacrifice some of Timi Kara’s clothing when the owner came down and saved it. Timi and Captain Post did their best to cheer the old man’s depressed spirits, but he was still in a pouri mood when they landed at Auckland. The wairua of his ancestors still called him, he said, and he must soon go to join them.
It was not long after this that Hori, travelling by train between Auckland and Mercer, on the Waikato River, fell from a carriage platform and was run over and instantly killed. At the inquest it was stated that he was very short-sighted, hence the accident. And another soul joined the murmuring multitude at “the gate of the endless night.”