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Legends of the Maori

The Wizards of the Plains. — A Tale of Maori Magic

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The Wizards of the Plains.

A Tale of Maori Magic.

The primitive belief in the practice of makutu, the “black art,” has persisted long in such conservative districts as Taranaki. The peculiar interest of this illustration of the ancient faith lies in the fact that one of those concerned in the rites was a white man. It is a remarkable instance of the survival of purely pagan sacrosanct wizardly ceremonies up to the time of the present generation. The white man who was present at the ceremony was Kimble Bent, the runaway soldier, who died in 1916 after fifty years of life with the Maori.*

In the year 1879, Kimble Bent—Tu-nui-a-moa the Maori called him—after fourteen years of wild bush life, had emerged from his exile in the Upper Patea forests and was living with his Maori friends at the large native village of Taiporohenui, near the present town of Hawera, Taranaki. It was one of the principal villages of the Ngati-Ruanui tribe; in that fighting clan Matangi-o-Rupe, Bent’s chief, and to all intent his owner, was a leading man. Bent had had to wife Rupe’s daughter, a handsome girl named Te Hau-maringi-wai—“The Wind-that-Shakes-the-Rain-drops-Down”; she was lately dead. The youngest child of the Rupe family at this time was a boy of about ten years old, named Whai-pakanga. Now, this boy, at the date of our story, lay in a high fever, sick unto death. The family were in deep sorrow and were already thinking of making preparations for the funeral wake.

As the sick boy lay there in a little wharau, or hospital-shed, erected close to the entrance to the raupo-thatched house, a tohunga came to Rupe’s home. This tohunga was Hupini, the chief sorcerer and warlock on the South Taranaki Plains. He was a very great medicine-man indeed. He was popularly accredited with strange occult powers; with the ability to kill an enemy even though that enemy might be far away, by the projection of the will, and the hurling through space of his magic charms and spells. Killing by Maori “wireless,” in fact. Hupini was a man of about sixty, and belonged to the Whanganui tribe. He was tattooed of face, sharp and glittering of eye.

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Rupe suspected makutu, but he desired an authoritative diagnosis of the trouble. The tohunga looked intently at the invalid in silence for some moments, watched anxiously by Rupe and his family. Presently he turned to Rupe and uttered two words:

Kua makuturia!” (“He is bewitched”).

“Ha!” said Rupe, “I thought so. But who can have done this murderous thing? I have no enemies in the kainga.”

“Wait,” said Hupini, impressively, “wait. At dawn to-morrow be ready with the boy. I shall return then, and I shall tell you the name of the man who has cast his evil spell upon your son. Remain you there, all of you!”

Grasping his spear-headed walking-staff, the man of mystery left the Rupe household to digest his diagnosis at their leisure.

* * *

The sun had not yet risen over the dark woods that fringed Taiporohenui, on the following morning, when a little procession moved from Rupe’s manuka fenced courtyard and passed down the ferny hillside to a small stream that flowed around the outskirts of the village. A raw, cold mist lay over the plains and the ferny hills. The invalid—the turoro— was carried on a rough litter by Rupe and his white man, Kimble Bent. Hupini, the tohunga, walked in front; his lips moved in a half-heard runic chant. Behind the turoro’s litter walked Rupe’s mother and her children. At such a scene as this only the immediate relatives of the sick one could be present.

When the family reached the bank of the quiet little brook, slipping down through the ferns and overhanging shrubs, Hupini bade the bearers set the sufferer down. Then, watched in painfully intense silence by the little group, the wizard plucked from the centre of a clump of toetoe, or swamp-grass, three long shoots (rito).

Taking these toetoe shoots in his left hand, Hupini held them up in view of the watchers. Then he took one of them in his right hand, and raising it in the air, he said: “Tenei mo te iwi” (“This is for the tribe”), and stuck it upright in the ground, close by the margin of the stream. Taking the second rito, he cried: “Tenei mo te turoro” (“This is for the sick one”), and set it in the soft ground. Uplifting the third toetoe stalk, the priest, addressing Rupe, said: “Tenei mo te tangata kino nana i hanga kino te tamaiti nei” (“This is for the evil man who has wrought evil on your child”). This also he set in the ground. Then he said to Rupe: “The man who has bewitched your son is a close relative of yours. What shall I do with him?”

The father replied: “Tukua kia mate!” (“Let him die!”).

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The three toetoe stalks, spoken of as toko or pou (staff, pillar), stood in a row by the stream-edge. A curious thing now happened. Just as the father had replied, “Let him die!” Kimble Bent’s dog, which had followed the party down from the village, ran forward and pulled the third toko— the evil makutu man’s toko—out of the ground, and let it drop a few feet away. The priest did not interfere, but watched the dog with wonder and reverence in his eyes. Of a surety here was a sign!

The tohunga turned to Bent and said: “He atua to kuri! He atua ki a koe! Kia pai te atawhai i te tangata!” (“Your dog is a god! You, too, have a god! Be kind and harm not men!”) He probably thought that the white man had acquired a knowledge of the wiles of the evil eye (to a certain extent Bent did possess that knowledge), and therefore warned him to be careful.

Now the priest began his prayers. In quick rhythmic tones he uttered these words:

“Toko koe te po,
Te po nui, te po roa,
Te po uriuri,
Te po whawha,
Te po ka kitea!”


“This is the staff for the Night,
The Night become visible.
The Night sought for,
The Night of deep darkness,
The great Night, the long Night.”

This opening karakia was in effect an appeal to the gods to reveal the cause of the makutu. The Po, or Night, personified the powers of evil. A Maori “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee.”

Then the priest placed his hands on the two toko which remained upright and recited this short prayer:

“I unuhia a Nuku,
I unuhia a Rangi.
O tenei tauira,
O tenei ariki.”

The purport of this karakia was:

“Release the evil spirit (from this sufferer), O Spirits of the Earth. Release this evil spirit, O Spirits of the Sky! Let the evil fly from him, let it be cast from him, from the body of this sacred one, of this chief!”

This invocation ended, the priest took the two toko representing the invalid and the tribe from the ground, and going to a small tree which stood on the stream side, he carefully laid them in its fork. They were now tapu, and must not be allowed to lie about where anyone might unwittingly page 158 touch them. The toko pulled out of the ground by the pakeha-Maori’s dog was allowed to lie where it was.

Now the tohunga, his eyes fixed and fearful to look upon, recited in quick, sharp tones, a long prayer, his magic death-dealing incantation, the karakia whakamate. It invoked the powers of darkness (the day of lowering sky, the day of retribution). Its burden was, “Let this evil man, the worker of witchcraft, be destroyed, be utterly destroyed. Let him go unto the Night, the Great Night, the Long Night, the Night of Black Darkness!” The wizard ended his curse: “He oti atu ki te ao!” (“Thou art done forever with this world!”) on a long breath, with a quick forward jerk of his hand, and his glassily set eyes projected until they seemed to start out of his head.

The makutu-averting ceremony was over. The tattooed priest resumed his ordinary air and tone and said to Rupe: “Carry the boy back to your home. He will recover now. Before many days you will hear more news.”

The Rupe household, tapu dog and all, returned to their kainga. The boy began to recover fast, and in a few days was well. Faith had worked wonders. As for the enemy who—according to Hupini—had wrought the evil deed, Nemesis, in the form of the Maori Whiro, was on his trail. Hupini had told Rupe his name; it was that of a relative of his who lived at Parihaka, and who had a sinister reputation as a magic-worker and a caster of spells. In a week news came from Parihaka that this man was dead.

Of what did he die? It depends upon your point of view, pakeha or Maori. Who can tell? But in the minds of Rupe and his household—and also in that of the saturnine tohunga—there was no doubt whatever as to the cause of death. It was a clear case of makutu countering makutu, of a superior tapu slaying an inferior one, of curses recoiling upon the curser, of the biter bitten.

There are some questions which occur to one just here. Did Hupini have a hint conveyed to the Parihaka practitioner of the black art that he (Hupini) had bedevilled him? If so, did the first wizard have nothing in reserve, no superior prayer or tohunga that he could invoke to put the fatal spell on Hupini in return? Did the first wizard die of sheer fright at having been cursed by the second wizard? Or did he die unwotting the cause of his seizure, the fatal projection of Hupini’s vengeance-working will through space, the victory of mind over matter? Or was it just a coincidence—our material way of shrugging away anything we don’t happen to understand? Ko wai e mohio? Who can tell?

* * *

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The later history of the makutu’d and makutu-cured boy Whai-Pakanga may be told. When he was about seventeen years old he took a young girl as wife, and lived with her at the Waitara. At eighteen he died. His wife, greatly grieving, resolved not to survive her husband. She brewed an infusion of the leaves of the tupakihi (tutu) and wharangi shrubs—a deadly poison, well known to the Maori. Drinking this, she died in a very few hours. And Whai-Pakanga and his girl-wife were buried in the one grave.

Maori design

* Many episodes of Kimble Bent’s strange and perilous life with the Hauhaus were related by me in a book published in 1911, “The Adventures of Kimble Bent.” The old pakeha-Maori told me this true story of Maori magic in 1913.