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Legends of the Maori

Some Folk Tales of the Maori — The Death Leap of Tikawe. — A Story of the Lakes Country

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Some Folk Tales of the Maori

The Death Leap of Tikawe.

A Story of the Lakes Country.

One thing the traveller in a hurry seldom discovers is the local atmosphere of folk-lore, of olden song and story. This is the element that gives such a charm to the Scottish Highlands, and a thousand other places where the world makes pilgrimage. Our Rotorua lakeland country is wonderfully rich in human interest of that kind— chiefly brown humanity’s folk-lore, but none the less appealing on that account.

On one of my long-ago cruises around the shores of the beautiful lakes I had an old Maori friend with me, one who prided himself on his knowledge of the ancient ways and ancient unwritten literature of Lakeland; and sailing or paddling around the shores or at the camp-fire at night under the waterside trees, the tales of the times of old came forth— stories of fierce warfare, of tribal vendettas handed down from father to son, of love and romantic adventure. And songs without end; most of them tinged with melancholy, as is the Maori way, and to every song an explanatory legend.

* * *

A brisk wind whistled from the ferny hills above the Ohau, at the western end of Rotoiti, when we set our spritsail for the sail down the lake to Tapuwae-haruru, curving in a sandy half-moon below sacred Matawhaura mountain. Headlands covered with fern or forest came out to meet us as we drove eastward before the favouring breeze. The first on our right hand was a bold, island-like cape, jutting out in a high cliff face. This was Motutawa Peninsula; on its flat top once stood a strong palisaded village of the Ngati-Pikiao tribe. The lakeward front of the high kurae gleamed chalky white, a precipitous wall, which no assailant could scale. Its steeply sloping landward side was defended by trenches and stockades, but all now was lone where the busy pa once stood, and tangled bracken and tupakihi bushes clothed the storied hill. As we sailed past the ancient castle hill, Tamarahi told the story of a romantic tragedy which occurred there a century ago, and in camp that night I learned the farewell song of the lovely Tikawe.

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Motutawa was a famous suicide cliff of the Maori. A common method of ending one’s days in olden Maoridom, under stress of disappointed love or maddened jealousy, that drove men and women to self-destruction, was to hurl oneself from such a height as this. And Tamarahi’s story reminded me of that white Leucadian cliff whence “burning Sappho,” of Greek story, threw herself, after singing a hymn to Apollo. “There is a white rock,” says Strabo in his Geography, “which stretches out from Leucas to the sea and towards Sephalenia, that takes its name from its whiteness. The rock has upon it a temple of Apollo, and a leap from it is believed to stop love.” From this promontory Sappho dropped to her death, crazed by love for the fleeing Phaon.

The high-born young chieftainess Tikawe was the beauty of the kainga on Motutawa hill. She was happy there, until one fatal day her husband departed on a visit to the East Coast of the island. There, in the way of fickle men, he fell in love with a girl of the plains that slope down to Hawke’s Bay, and he remained with his new wahine in her home, where the town of Napier stands to-day. And poor Tikawe, here on Motutawa, watched and waited for her wandering one. She would steal out to the cliff edge and gaze at the far lakeside where the track comes in from the coast, and say to herself, “He will come; he will return to me.” But the moons went on, and at last Tikawe came to know that her husband had forsaken her for a woman of the Kahungunu tribe, of Heretaunga.

The perfidy of the absent one was discussed in tribal council in the meeting-hall that night. But Tikawe remained in her lone house, tossing on her flaxen whariki, devoured by the ragings of sorrow and scorned love. And in the morning, as the soft night-fog lifted from the face of fair Rotoiti, and the sweet birds rang their bell-notes in the woods, and the lake lay spread out before the hill pa, a smooth sky-image, a soft blue glimmerglass—in the morning Tikawe went out to die—die because of the shame that had been put upon her. She robed herself in her finest garments, the silky kaitaka with its graceful taniko border, and the corded korowai, woven by her own deft hands. With her precious greenstone tiki resting on her bosom, and a plume of feathers of the huia bird in her hair, she walked out from her house to the centre of the kainga, to the marae, where the people were gathered for their morning meal in the open air.

Standing there in the village square, Tikawe, drawing her garments close about her, sang with bowed head her swan-song, her waiata aroha, for the husband who had deserted her.

This, done into English from Tamarahi’s mournful chant, is the song she chanted that last morning of her life:

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“No tidings came of thee,
No sign from the winds of heaven,
And long I waited, asking,
‘Where is my loved one?
When will he return?’
And then, O faithless one!
’Twas Wera brought the evil news,
Those evil words that travelled slow.
In distant lands thou dwellest,
Where the salt-sea spray flies,
By far Whanganui-a-Rotu,
In Aitu’s home.
And here I go to death,
Grief tears my wounded heart—
That jewel once to thee so dear.
In my hair the huia’s plume,
Around me these soft flaxen cloaks.
Fair is the land I look upon,
Beautiful the calm face of Rotoiti,
The bright waters of the Koko-Hangarua
Spread out before me.
But now I gaze my last!
No more shall man approach me;
No more my body’s charms entice;
Desolate am I as the forests of Taheke!
Bitterness is in my soul.
Ah me!”

Then, after chanting her own dirge, she calmly walked to the edge of yonder pari, that white precipice on the pa’s lakeward side. With one last lingering look on the lake she loved, she dropped over to her death on the rocks far below.

“She ended her song,” said Tamarahi—”ka rere atu, ka taka, ka mate!” (she leaped—she fell—she died). And to this day that fatal cliff is known amongst the Maori as Te Rerenga-a-Tikawe (The Leaping-place of Tikawe).