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Legends of the Maori

The Rite of Ngau - Taringa. — A Story of the Heuheu Family

page 162

The Rite of Ngau - Taringa.

A Story of the Heuheu Family.

The incident described in the last story was an illustration of one method of absorbing the hau, the sacred essence of wisdom, the soul of skill and knowledge. In the higher departments of learning and occult lore there was the custom of ngau-taringa, by which a venerable sage of the priesthood passed on the hau of his spiritual power, his mystic manatapu, to a near kinsman or other selected successor. In this rite the tauira, the pupil or successor, ceremoniously bit the ear of the dying ancient.

* * *

The supreme tohunga of the Ngati-Tuwharetoa tribe a century and more ago was Tai-Pahau, who lived at Waihi, that pretty village on the southern shore of Lake Taupo, near Tokaanu, a waterfall tumbling over the wooded cliff in its rear, the steam of hot springs coiling up close to the quiet waterside. Tai-Pahau was the uncle of the high chief Te Heuheu Tukino, who in his old age was overwhelmed by the great landslip at Te Rapa, near Waihi, with fifty of his tribe. At the time of this narrative Te Heuheu was in the prime of life, a powerful, very active warrior. The time came when the venerable priest, who was probably about a hundred years old, lay dying. He lay in his house attended by one of the youngest of his daughters, Te Wai-Aromea. Te Heuheu had marched out on a war expedition against the tribes of Lower Whanganui and the West Coast. He had gone as far as Poutu, on the shore of the lake Roto-a-Ira, some twelve miles from Waihi. When he left the home village with his fighting men he did not realise that his old uncle’s end was so near, otherwise he would have deferred his march.

On the day that Te Heuheu camped at Roto-a-Ira, the aged wise man felt that his end was at hand; he knew he would not see another sun rise. So he called to his daughter, and he bade her despatch a swift messenger to Poutu and urgently recall the chief, leaving the warriors in camp.

“Tell him,” he said, “that I am at the point of death. He will know what I want.”

The old man’s instructions were obeyed. The messenger departed at his utmost speed. It was already night; it would be late when the runner reached Te Heuheu, and it would be well after midnight before the chief came to Waihi. The dying tohunga waited patiently, he would know intuitively when his nephew was at hand.

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“Raise me up,” he said to his daughter. He was reclining facing the open door of the small house.

Presently he called to Te Wai-Aromea. “Turn me,” he said; “help me to turn so that my right side is toward the door.” This the woman did, and the old man sat there, propped up with thick mats; he sat in a listening attitude, with his head slightly bent, inclined from the door.

In a few moments a figure darkened the doorway and, stooping, quickly entered. It was Te Heuheu. By the light of the small fire that burned in the middle of the whare he saw his uncle and he knew from his attitude exactly why the dying wise man had sent for him.

Without a word, Te Heuheu bent down by the priest’s side, and opening his mouth, closed it tightly on Tai-Pahau’s right ear. The whole of the ear was in his mouth; his teeth closed on it close to the head.

The dying man gave two, three convulsive jerking gasps, and his spirit left his body. Te Heuheu loosed his tooth-grip of the tohunga’s ear, and with a parting murmur he pressed his nose to the other’s, in token of farewell. By that act of ngau-taringa* he had absorbed the hau of the dying man’s sacred wisdom and supernatural powers, which were very great indeed.

It was Te Heuheu Tukino, the grandson of the warrior Heuheu, who told me that story of the transference of knowledge by the ngau-taringa. He continued the narrative:

Te Heuheu stayed not a moment longer in the house of his dead uncle. He returned at once to his war-party at Poutu, by the track through the forest and over the Ponanga-Pihanga range. It was not yet dawn when he rejoined his sleeping warriors, who indeed had not known of his absence. He was a very powerful, tireless man, but even so he would not have done the bush journey so swiftly from Poutu to Waihi and back again had it not been for his recitation of karakia, the hoa-tapuwae, which supernaturally lengthened his stride, and smoothed the way before him. And when morning came he led off his war-party on the southward march.

“Now,” said Te Heuheu the younger, “the wairua (the spirit) of Tai-pahau became my grandfather’s guardian and guide, and all the tohunga wisdom of Tai-pahau became part of him. His uncle’s wairua was his counsellor and protector all through that fighting expedition. When danger from a more powerful foe was in the path, the wairua foresaw it and Te Heuheu took another route. Whatever tactics the wairua counselled Te Heuheu carried out. The spirit of Tai-Pahau forbade him to go on through Taranaki, and to this command he gave heed and he returned to

* Ngau, to bite; taringa, ear.

page 164 Taupo from Whanganui. Every threatening danger or disaster was averted or circumvented.

Te Heuheu further said that his grandfather was not able to transfer in like manner his sacred powers to the son, Patatai, later known as Horonuku.* The reason was that Te Heuheu perished suddenly, overwhelmed in the great landslide at Te Rapa (in 1846), and that Patatai at that time was absent at his birthplace at Rangitoto (in the King Country). Hence Horonuku, although a learned man, did not possess the peculiar occult wisdom which would have passed to him had he in his turn been able to perform the filial rite of ngau-taringa..

* Te Heuheu Horonuku, father of Te Heuhen Tukino, the narrator of this episode; he died in 1888.