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Legends of the Maori

The Stealing of an Atua. — A Tradition of the Otago Coast

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The Stealing of an Atua.

A Tradition of the Otago Coast.

On the most beautiful part of the east coast of the South Island, in a district where the curving bays and rocky headlands and warm blue seas have reminded European travellers of the Riviera, there is a green hilly peninsula crowned with the crumbling ruins of an ancient fortification famed in the word-of-mouth history of the Ngai-Tahu people. This is a projection of the Otago coastline just to the south of the Wai-kouaiti (properly Waikawa-iti) harbour or river-mouth, a peninsula usually called Karitane, but the original name of which is Huriawa. Near by, on the gentle slopes and levels richly grassed that go down to the sea, are the small farms of Maori folk; here are the Karitane and Puketiraki settlements, the headquarters of the Ngai-Te Ruahikihiki and Ngati-Huirapa sections of the Ngai-Tahu tribe.

Here on the slopes and knolls of Huriawa once stood the fortified town of Te Wera, a chief whose exploits in war are the theme of many a South New Zealand tradition. He was born some two hundred years ago; the events here described occurred probably about the time Captain Cook was exploring and charting these unknown coasts in 1770.

Te Wera, who was the warrior head of the Ngai-Te-Ruahikihiki and kindred clans, had a nephew named Taoka, who lived further to the South. Taoka, ambitious and quarrelsome, raised a feud against his uncle—the original také or cause was some trivial grievance—and he organised a large force, sailed up the coast and laid siege to Huriawa Pa.

When Taoka’s army arrived in their war-canoes (some came from Timaru and elsewhere northward as well as from Otago Heads) and invested the parapeted and palisaded hill-fort, they found the garrison fully prepared for them. In anticipation of attack, Te Wera had laid in a great stock of food, sufficient, it is said, to last his followers for nearly a year. Preserved birds (pigeon, kaka, weka), fern-root, and dried fish were the principal articles of food. The place was rich in kai-mataitai, the food of the salt sea, which includes mussels, pipi and edible seaweeds, as well as moki, hapuku and other fish which teemed in the surrounding waters, and even during the siege the people were able to go out on fishing expeditions under the shelter of the southern and south-eastern shores. The garrison must have been a large one in order to have held the great pa so successfully. The defences were of unusual strength for a South Island pa, page 214 which seldom displayed such a formidable array of parapets and terraces as those of the North. When I saw them first some thirty years ago the maioro, or scarped walls of the pa, were still well preserved, particularly on the eastern side facing Puketiraki, where the Maori engineers had taken skilful advantage of the steep fall of the land towards the sandy isthmus.

The main entrance to the pa, the inland gateway, was called “Te Kutu (Ngutu) a Toretore” (“The Lips of Toretore”). Taoka’s army pitched their camps on the long island-sandspit called Ohinepouweru, just to the north of the pa. Here they lived for many months, also occupying at times portions of the mainland. One camp was the cultivation ground at the Taumata-o-Puaka terrace, above the beach at the head of the harbour; an other was Tauraka-a-waka (The Landing Place of Canoes), near the present Merton Railway Station. Sometimes assaults were led against the great fort; these were always repulsed. Sometimes the attacking force cut off stragglers from the pa; these went into the cooking haangi.

The weak point of many Maori pas was their deficient water supply. The defenders exercised the utmost labour and ingenuity in building up massive defences, but were often very quickly reduced to sore straits for water, having no supply beyond that they were able to store up in canoes and calabashes. Huriawa, however, was well provided in this respect, for there was a small but always flowing spring in a dimpled hillside on the northern side of the peninsula. This spring is still to be seen, trickling out from the grass and rushes in its little green nook. Long after Te Wera’s day it was the water supply for Tamé Parata’s nearby whaling station—his crews chased the “right” whale. The little spring to this day is called Te Puna-wai a Te Wera (Te Wera’s Well). A trench or covered way led to it from the village above, so that the water-carriers might not be observed by the enemy. A short distance eastwards, further along the northern side of the peninsula, is a little horseshoe shaped, rocky bay called Te Awamo-kihi (Raft Cove). This baylet faces the opposite head of Waikouaiti Bay (Cornish Head, or North Head, Okuraero), and well commands the entrance to the harbour. Here Te Wera kept his canoes, the larger ones housed in reed-thatched sheds. This well-sheltered bay, its waters beautifully clear, was a famous place for pawa shellfish.

Close by is a cliff face called Maukoroa, where the Huriwai people obtained horu, or red ochre, which was mixed with the oil expressed from the shark’s liver and used as a paint to decorate their canoes and their carved posts and houses, and themselves.

The siege continued for six months. One strange and dramatic episode relieved the long-drawn, wearying investment. It is a story in which authentic tradition is given a touch of the supernatural.

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On the hill where the survey trigonometrical station now stands, about half-way along the Pa Peninsula, and not far from Te Wera’s Well, was the sacred tuahu where the carved and tattooed wooden image of the god Kahukura was kept. This spot was called Te Irika (iringa) o Kahu-kura, meaning the place where Kahukura was suspended or raised up to view. Kahukura, whose aria or visible manifestation in nature was the rainbow, was the great deity or tribal guardian of Ngai-Tahu, and was always invoked in time of war. Similarly amongst many North Island tribes Uenuku—synonymous with Kahukura—was the war god. The image of Kahukura in Te Wera’s pa was under the charge of the priest Hatu.

One dark night two daring young warriors in Taoka’s army stole round the coast in a small canoe and landed on the beach on the south-east side of the peninsula. Here there are two large blowholes into which the sea rushes with great force in times of storm, spouting high up the sides of the crater-like pits. Waiting until low water the men crept up the arched passage into one of these blow-holes, and clambering up the steep rocks, wormed their way to the hilltop shrine of Kahukura. They found the carved image—which they had often seen from afar, displayed by the priests—and returning by the perilous way they had come, carried it off in triumph to their camp.

Next morning Hatu the tohunga went to his sacred place to consult the oracles. Kahukura, it was said, would twitch or move to one side or the other when the atua was invoked by the priests and these movements were interpreted as omens of good or evil. To his consternation his god had disappeared. Shouts of jubilation and the chant of the war dance were heard from the sandspit where the besiegers were camped, and Te Wera’s people saw to their anger and dismay the stolen image held up and dandled about by the enemy. Taoka’s warriors yelled taunts at the defenders of Huriawa, and loudly enquired whether they had overeaten themselves, or peradventure had exhausted themselves in amorous dalliance with their women-folk, that they slept so soundly.

But the atua-stealers’ joy and jeers were short-lived. Te Wera’s tohunga, Hatu, and his priestly coadjutors betook themselves to their prayers and magic spells at the tuahu of their missing god. They kindled a sacred fire and with intense mental concentration set about the task of bewitching their foes and regaining the holy image of their guardian. They besought Kahukura to return to them and aid them; they launched their appeals with all their fierce will power; they lifted their hands heavenward and invoked their many tribal deities and the spirits of their greatest ancestors.

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“Return to us, O Kahukura!” was the burden of Hatu’s call, as he stood there by the tall flax bushes that sheltered the altar of Huriawa. He stretched forth his arms towards the sands below where Taoka’s warriors displayed the captured image; he chanted a rhythmic prayer. And the final appeal brought amazing response.

In the space of an eye-wink the atua was torn from the hands of the tohunga who held it, and was borne through the air back to Huriawa. Or rather it bore itself—says the Maori—for was it not a god? It came flying through the air, straight back to the tuahu on the hill yonder, and it came to rest at its accustomed place and fell at Hatu’s feet.

In such miraculous manner was the carved palladium of Huriawa Pa restored to its holy place. Now it was the turn of Te Wera’s people to rejoice, and mightily did they hurl their jeers across the narrow water and dance resounding war-dances and chant terrific battle songs at the astonished and dejected besiegers. Frightened men, too, were they, those tribesmen of Taoka. The superior mana of their enemy could no longer be doubted. Of a truth the gods fought on Te Wera’s side.

Not much longer did Taoka and his men continue the siege. Discouraged by their want of success and convinced now that Huriawa was impregnable, they presently broke up camp, launched their long canoes, plied paddle and set sail for their homes. The long siege was over; and when the near coast was clear at last the pent-in garrison rejoiced in their new freedom and set to at their Karitane plantations once more. Greater than ever was their veneration for their protecting god, and profound their respect for tino tohunga Hatu, whose innate powers and magic calls could bring stolen gods flying through the air, home to their rightful shrine