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Legends of the Maori

By the Waters of Holy-Brook. — Tales of an Enchanted Valley

page 186

By the Waters of Holy-Brook.

Tales of an Enchanted Valley.

The Waiteti is one of those dew-clear little rivers that spring up like fountains from deep springs under the ferny hills around Rotorua and flow in smooth, shiny twistings to feed the sky-blue lake. Above its mouth, where the weeping-willows fringe a pumice-sand shore, are the grassy ramparts of an ancient fortress of the Arawa people, the old pa Weriweri. On this green hill-face, within the lines of the stronghold, Matehaere and his wife and family had their home, on the very spot where their ancestral hero Ihenga built his fort five hundred years ago. There are not many places in New Zealand so saturated with legend as this campground of the brown immigrants from the far-away Eastern Pacific. The trench on the west side of the pa is, even to-day, after the lapse of five centuries, ten feet deep; the escarpment on the south flank, where Maori spades assisted Nature, is thirty feet high, and in olden times a stout stockade crowned the walls.

From Weriweri pa Matehaere and I made a pilgrimage one day up the valley of the Waiteti to a curious little valley of tapu, in the heart of the hills. We were following the footsteps of the old wise man’s long-gone forefathers. We passed through beautifully sheltered glens and dells that had held hamlets in other days; now all were deserted, gone back to the wild of fern. Maori tracks twisted in and out all over the lovely country, through the high fern and the bushes of glossy green tupakihi, with its black clusters of elderberry-like fruit, and the thickets of manuka, that in springtime are showered with delicate white blossom, till they look as if a snowfall had powdered the face of the country, and diffuse an aromatic fragrance, the most insistent of the grateful odours of the bush.

The Waiteti wound through these silent hills like a band of silver. It is an incredibly tempting sight for the angler in these parts to stand on the river-bank just above some still, clear pool alive with beautiful fish— particularly if it be just before the fishing season opens. In the spawning season the upper parts of the stream are full of the big rainbow trout; you will see them lying there on the bottom in the sun-warmed reaches, as still as so many rocks, until, perhaps, you are tempted to drop a stone into the stream for the fun of seeing them scatter, like a shoal of mullet before a shark.

Walking up this quiet valley we saw the old homes of Matehaere’s clan, where generations ago burned their home-fires, where their thatched huts dotted the river-banks, and human voices livened the now desolate page 187 places. Two miles up the valley from the point at which the stream intersected the main road, we came to a place where the little river took the character of a mountain-stream, and ran in rapids excitedly, whitening itself in cataracts and spray. On either side the banks were clothed with fern and flax, and here and there with groves of the cabbage-tree, from which the river took its name. On a ferny knoll, where we had a good view of the stream, bending round in an arc below, and sending its water-music far through the still summer-day air, the old soldier of the Arawa halted and said:

“Let us rest here awhile, and I will show you the sacred place of my ancestor Ihenga.”

Across the valley there was an unusually large ti palm, or whanake, as it is more often called here, growing on a tiny flat on the opposite bank of the stream, the right. It was a monster of the cordyline tribe, a palm with a trunk of remarkable height and an immense bunchy head.

“See yonder whanake tree,” he said, “and the smaller trees that grow around it, in a clump? That spot is called Te Motu-tapu-a-Ihenga (The Sacred Grove of Ihenga). It was close by there that Ihenga once had his dwelling-place, and in that grove of trees was his sacred place, where he, as an ariki and priest of his tribe, retired to invoke the gods and to work divinements. That great whanake is said to have been planted there by the hand of man; this our people frequently did, because the tree was pleasant to the eye, and a rough garment was made from its long leaves. That tree is tapu, because of Ihenga, and also because the place was used as a burial place by Ihenga’s descendants.”

Then, turning to the right, Matehaere pointed down into a little valley that dipped abruptly at our feet, a palm-dotted dell, through which a tiny stream crept down and searched its way to the Waiteti. The valley was shaped like a shallow cup; one side opened to allow the creeklet to reach the river. That little stream, said the old man, was the sacred river Wai-oro-toki. On the opposite side rose a steep fern-covered hill. Its name was Te Whakaeke-tahuna; it was the first fortified hold which Ihenga built in this Lakeland, and was occupied by him before he lived at Weriweri and made his waterside fortress there.

“Now, friend,” said Matehaere, “Ihenga the chief had three treasures. One was his god Utupawa, a stone carved in the semblance of a human being; it was brought to this country from Hawaiki. Hither Ihenga brought his god, and he sought for it a resting-place, and he set it up on yon ferny hill above the Waiteti, not far away from his home. His second treasure was his mokai, or pet, called Kataore, which was a creature in the form of a taniwha or huge lizard. He fed and cherished this strange page 188 creature, and it lived in a fountain-well, which you will see in the bed of the Waiteti. Long afterwards it became a man-eating monster, and it was killed at Lake Tikitapu. And his third treasure was the sacred rubbing-stone, Hine-tua-hoanga, which I will show you lying by the brink of that very tapu stream in the valley below us. And Ihenga’s friends and neighbours here were the fairies, the Patupaiarehe. They belonged to the fairy tribe of Mount Ngongotaha. But now let us go down into the valley and look upon the sacred waters and the hoanga stone of power.”

The old man led the way down through a tangle of shrubbery to the bottom of the little cup-valley, till we reached the Wai-oro-toki. The name means “Axe-sharpening Water.” It was a rivulet of coolest, clearest water that welled up from a little gushing fountain spring under the side of the hill, where a thicket of native shrubs almost hid it from view, and invested it with a mystery and gloom that, to the Maori, heightened its mana-tapu. Tall whanake gently swished their long sword-leaves, and now and then a soft air stirred the grey and dried dead leaves that drooped in bunches below the crown of green. The stream, only a few feet wide, but deep and still, flowed very silently, just moving the cresses and water-weeds that fringed it; it was so clear that you could see every stone and pebble on its sandy floor. It was a slumbrous spot; and old Matehaere, as he stood on the bank, seemed half-afraid to break the supernatural quiet of the sacred valley.

“No Maori will drink of this stream,” said he, after a while. “Its waters are tapu, for two reasons. One is that the sacred bones of Whakaue, one of our great ancestors, from whom the Ngati-Whakaue tribe takes its name, were buried in its source, dropped down into the puna, the river-well there under the hill. The other reason is that the very sacred axe-rubbing stone, Hine-tua-hoanga, lies by the river brink. It is death to drink of this water, though it looks so clear. The tapu would kill any Maori. Once two men drank of it unwitting of its history, and they quickly died when they discovered what they had done. And see, yonder is the axe-sharpening stone of our ancestor Ihenga. You are the first pakeha to look upon it.”

I examined the tapu relic. It was a flat block of grey stone, apparently a kind of sandstone, about three feet in diameter, lying on the creek edge, half in and half out of the water. In its smoothly-polished upper surface were three deep grooves, worn by generation after generation of men in their work of orooro-toki or axe-rubbing. It was a whetstone, used by the natives of the stone age for the polishing and sharpening of their axes, adzes and chisels. Many such whetstones or hoanga were in use, but this one is regarded by the Maori as exceptional, because of its antiquity, and because many generations of high chiefs and priests had used it for the page 189 polishing and sharpening of their stone weapons. Said Matehaere, as he stood at a safe distance from Hine-tua-hoanga:

“My forefathers, it is said, brought that axe-sharpening stone hither in the canoe Arawa from the distant island of Hawaiki, away in the land where they say it is always summer. What though it be very heavy, as you say? The explanation is easy; it was very light when first it was brought to this place, but through continual resting here, and through the tapu, it has become heavy! It bears a name of wonderful mana, for Hine-tua-hoanga, the Woman of the Whetstone, was a goddess of our remote ancestors; she was a stone, and it was upon her sacred back that the gods and our great ancestors ground sharp the edges of their stone axes. And we have a very ancient and sacred chant which is used when sharpening axes in this way; it was first used for the sharpening of the stone tools with which the trees were felled in Hawaiki for the building of the canoe Arawa to bring my ancestors across the Great-Ocean-of-Kiwa to this country. Let us climb to the hill above and there I shall recite the karakia.”

We crossed the sacred brook—the Maori evidently consider the tapu is well diluted when its waters mingle with the main river, for the Waiteti is under no ban as to drinking—and breasted our way up through the manuka and fern to the clear hillside above. And there, beside the fern-covered earthworks of the ancient pa Whakaeke-tahuna, Matehaere, last chief of Ngati-Ihenga, recited his strange old chant, for this most tapu relic of stone-age man. The karakia dates back at least six centuries; it was composed in Hawaiki and recited by the priests over the stone axes; every step in the process of felling the forest trees and working the timber was sanctified by the Polynesians with appropriate ritual, for the propitiation of the spirits of the forest of which Tane was the father and the guardian.

This was Matehaere’s chant for the sacred stone of the Wai-oro-toki:

Kaore ra ia, e hika,
He putanga ki te tonga,
Ko koe anake ra te putanga,
Ko Whakarewa-i-te-rangi,
Nana i tiki mai
Ko Poutini, ko Wharaua,
Ko te wai i tere ai te toki,
Ka kite ai i reira,
E tuhi ana, e rapa ana,
I te Whatu-kura-a-Tangaroa,
Kowhatu uira ra tena,
Kowhatu marama ra tena.
Ka hewa e rua
Tu mata-kurukuru,
Tu mata-karere,
Homai kia whakapiritia
Kia Hine-tua-Hoanga,
Hai oro i te toki.
He pua totara,
Kau orohia,
Kau orohia te Ati-tipua
Kau orohia te Ati-tawhiti.
Hai whakakoi ra, e hine,
E te mata o te toki,
Hai tuatua i te wao-a-Tane,
I te maramara o Tukehu,
I te tama ia ara
Na Mumuwhango,
Whai ara mo taua
Kia whiti ai taua
Ki-hi rawahi o te awa nei.


There is no road, no way to the far South Land, save by the will of the gods, save by thee, O Whakarewa-in-the-Sky, our guide to the distant places. Hither thou didst bring Poutini and Wharaua, axes made of the sacred greenstone; brought them o’er the ocean far. There, in that distant land, we’ll see, flashing and shining in the waters, the sacred treasure-stone of Tangaroa; the lightning-flashing stone, the bright and glistening stone. Banished be the tapu’s spell! I place the sacred stone on Hine-tua-hoanga, the goddess of the whetstone, that the

axe-blade may be sharp to fell the great totara tree. Come, ancestral shades! Come hither, ancient spirits, spirits of the distant places! Come sharpen me my stone axe-blade to hew me down the woods of Tane, to make fly the chips of Tu-kehu, the son of Mumuwhango, the forest child for whom we sought, to cross the flowing waters.*

page 190

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Above us on the south rose the blue and grey mass of Ngongotaha Mountain. We could see the remnant of the ancient forest on its summit, where, as Matehaere narrated, the fairy tribe Ngati-Rua dwelt of old. Ihenga made friends with those mountain dwellers, and songs learned from the Patupaiarehe are chanted to-day by some of his descendants. And sometimes there were unions of fairy men and Maori damsels. Indeed, from all accounts the Maori girl was never very loath for an amorous encounter with a fairy forester. But there was one drawback to these little affairs of the passions in the twilight bush. If there was a child, it would be an albino. You knew when you saw one of those freaks of nature that a fairy lover was responsible.

I told Matehaere about an albino woman I remembered well. Many years ago she lived on the bank of the Puniu River, in the Waipa country, and we used to see her now and again in the frontier township Kihikihi. page 191 The blue kauwae tattoo pattern on her chin and lips was a curious contrast to her unnaturally white skin, her flaxen hair and her weak eyes that could not bear the sun. The Maori said that her mother had been loved once upon a time by a fairy bushman who lived on Pirongia Mountain.

“Ah,” said Matehaere, “that was a famous mountain of the fairies, Pirongia, like our range of Ngongotaha above us yonder. There have been korako people, those unnaturally white-skinned folk, in our midst here. They were tapu, those korako. Our tapu has left us now, perhaps; at any rate the young people of our tribes will have none of it. Yet, to us older ones it is real enough. Does it not seem to you that this must be a tapu place? It may be that before long pakeha farms and homes will cover all this land. Then who among the new race on the Waiteti will know anything of the stories I have been telling you? Maybe they will find that holy stone of ours, and will wonder who made those strange marks upon it. Maybe they will even drink of that holy brook below and it will hurt them not. But while I live this Wai-oro-toki shall be Maori and altogether tapu. For the old gods still hold dominion over the silent places.”

* This ancient rune requires an explanatory note or two Tangaroa is the god of the ocean, and of fish and all other creatures of the sea. The greenstone is spoken of as “the sacred stone of Tangaroa” because it was in Maori legend originally a fish, turned to stone by some magical power. Tukehu is a name for the totara pine which in Maori mythology was the offspring of Mumuwhango, who was one of the wives of Tane-Mahuta, the creator and guardian of the forests, and of all that dwell therein. Tane is often used in Maori song as an emblematical term for a canoe; “the narrow path by which the ocean is crossed” is a canoe made from Tane’s forest-child. Our totara pine does not grow in the South Sea Islands; the word totara may have been an ancient name for some Hawaikian tree of another kind, such as the tamanu, one of the best of the South Sea timbers, or else it has been introduced into the karakia since the Maori came to New Zealand. As for the axe-sharpening stone, it is a block of the ordinary grey stone of the district, notwithstanding Matehaere’s picturesque account of its transportation from the South Sea Isles.