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Legends of the Maori


page 259

It was the last kawanga-whare ceremonial performed by the priests of the old school of sacred wisdom, the last rite of its class in which the tohunga Maori carried out their duties with the complete karakia of the ancient religion. They were two of the very last of the priests and prophets of tapu, throughgoing believers in the efficacy of spells and charms and the wizardly ritual of their pagan forefathers. I count myself fortunate to have been an eye-witness of that taingakawa episode, for never again can such a picture be seen. The prayers and spells are not forgotten; there are certain adepts among the elder Maori who can recite them. But the men of the true priestly order have all passed to the Spiritland; the tohunga Maori can no more divine.

Never shall I forget that final scene in the kawanga of thirty years ago—white-headed, tattooed, savage-visaged Rangi-Tahau, a feather cloak about his shoulders, his plumed spear-headed taiaha in his hand, sitting on the gable-top of the carved house Rauru, reciting his invocations to the gods of his race for the removal of the tapu’s ban; while the sacred Fire of Tane blazed below, and the assembled people reverently intoned the Amen-like response.

It was no mere formal service of karakia to the gods of the Maori. There was death in the background; and the fatal spell was to cost more lives still before the tapu was appeased. So said Tangata Maori.

* * *

Te Waru, the warrior and tattooing artist, the chief of Ngati-Whaoa, was in sore trouble. He had transgressed the ancient law of tapu, and the gods had laid a heavy hand upon him in retribution for his trespass. His home was at the foot of Paeroa Mountain, one of those blue ranges of ferny hills and wooded gulches that rise from the pumice plains between Rotorua and the Waikato River. His hapu was a sept of the Arawa tribe. Te Waru was a man of skill and knowledge; he had fought under the renowned Te Kooti against the Government troops, and he was reputedly a sound strategist and wise in the practice of whakatakoto-parekura, that is, battle tactics. But all his war-lore availed him little against the tapu’s stroke, that unseen weapon that none can parry.

page 260

Te Waru had been building a new carved house in honour of his beautiful young wife, a chieftainess of a neighbouring tribe; a house which presently would be opened with all ceremony at a tribal gathering. The carvers were at work fashioning the great totara slabs into the images of ancestral heroes and deities of the race. One day, forgetfully, he entered the partly-finished house smoking his pipe. Now, it is a fundamental principle of the law of tapu that food, or anything in the nature of food, is an abomination to the gods unless the prescribed neutralising rites are observed. Tobacco is food; smoking is kai-paipa, or “pipe-eating.” No one may eat or smoke in a sacred place, or near sacred emblems; and the wood-carving art is a work of tapu, accompanied by numerous restrictions. It is not permissible to eat in or take food into a whare-whakairo until after the rite of kawa (kawanga-whare, taingakawa o te whare) to remove the domination of Tane-Mahuta, the Tree-god, over the semblances of atua and human beings carved from the trunks of his child, the totara tree. Workmen, their axes, chisels and mallets, are tapu until such a ceremony has been performed, as will hereinafter be described.

Te Waru, having thus thoughtlessly trampled on the tapu, was warned by a wise man of his people, an old tohunga, that it would not be prudent to go on with the house. He prophesied that if it were completed as intended either Te Waru himself or some of his family would die.

The chief of Ngati-Whaoa paid no heed to this advice, and continued to employ the carvers. Before long his young wife died. The house-carving was stopped, and the whare slabs lay unfinished. Some time later, Te Waru married again, and the fear of the tapu diminishing, he resumed the whakairo work. But scarcely had this been done than the second wife died. After this stroke from the unseen, Te Waru left the unfinished house alone for some years; fern grew around it; it lay under the ban of tapu. He married a third wife and she bore him sons. After a long interval, he resolved to finish that house, the ambition of his old age. Once more carvers set to work. Again the heavy hand of Aitua was laid on him: his wife and a child, or two children, died. This surely was enough to convince the most sceptical that the tapu’s curse could not be disregarded. The finished and unfinished slabs and posts were taken to a remote part of the kainga and were now indisputably under the ban of the gods and highly dangerous.

So things stood when Tāré, the white tohunga—the late Mr. Charles E. Nelson, referred to in an earlier chapter as an intimate associate of the priestly class—heard of these tapu-guarded carvings, and induced Te Waru to part with them, through the influence of Te Kepa Rangipuawhe, the head-chief of Tuhourangi, of Whakarewarewa. Tāré having obtained page 261 the slabs and posts, begun nearly half a century before, employed the three most expert wood-workers of the Arawa to make other carvings and complete the house, after the best style of Maori craftsmanship. “This house,” said Tāré to Te Waru, “shall be the finest carved house ever built by the Maori, and the tapu shall be removed from it by the most wise and skilful of all our Maori priests.”

So Anaha and Neke Kapua and Tene Waitere began the great task, and in three years all was done. The beautiful house, with the old carvings and the new built into it, stood ready for the rite of kawa-whare; a house measuring forty-eight feet by twenty-one feet, wonderfully adorned within and without in the height of the whakairo art. The toko-ihi, or front post, supporting the end of the ridge-pole above the porch, was one of the original tapu carvings; this and other posts and slabs were worked by Tara and Poroa, two old-time wood-artificers of that tribe of carvers, the Ngati-Tarawhai hapu of the Arawa. Poroa was the grandfather of Tene Waitere.

The house, more completely carved than any Maori building before or since that day, calls for some description here, preliminary to the story of the tapu-quelling ceremony. The warlike tekoteko or figure which crowned the front above the porch, surmounting the grotesque ruru mask at the junction of the barge-boards, represented Tutanekai, the lover of Hinemoa. The figure at the foot of the front pole, supporting the tahuhu (ridge-pole), stood for the god Tane-i-te-pupuke. A row of ngarara (lizards) crawling up the post represented the demon-monster Kataore (the pet of Tangaroa-mihi), which is said to have lived at Lake Tikitapu. On the pole were also carved two female figures, intended for the mythical goddesses Whatitiri and Niniwa. Within the sacred threshold one found himself confronting, like the Indian picture-writer:

“Figures mystical and awful,
Figures strange and brightly coloured;
And each figure had its meaning—
Each some magic song suggested.”

Here were the figures of ancestors and gods and goddesses of old—Maui, with splendidly carved and tattooed features, hauling up New Zealand from the depths of the sea; Tama-te-Kapua, the captain of Te Arawa canoe, mounted on his stilts, on which he was wont to go breadfruit (kuru) plantation robbing; Maui being snapped in two while in the act of trying to pass through the awful goddess Hine-nui-te-Po (the great Lady of the Night, i.e. Death), and the little birds riroriro (warbler) and tiwakawaka (fantail) laughing at the sight; and many another carved by the hands of a master workman. There were figures of strange monsters of the salt sea (maraki- page 262 hau), with long funnel-shaped tongues, into which they were sucking the fish of the ocean. At the top of the central post supporting the ridge-pole was a figure with outstretched arms supporting the roof like Atlas supporting the globe. This represented Whakaturia, the younger brother of Tama-te-Kapua, and illustrated a long legend. On the heavy sliding door was the tipua-Kura-ngaituku, a creature with bird-like claws and feathers, but with the head and breasts of a woman—a harpy of Aotearoa, huia feathers in her head, and two little birds cleverly carved nestling in her hair. And many another carving, a whole art gallery of gods and heroes. To the house the name “Rauru” was given, commemorating the reputed father of carving in New Zealand, more than six centuries ago.