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Legends of the Maori

The Rite of the Kawa-Whare. — The Carved House and the Two Priests: a Tale Of Tapu

The Rite of the Kawa-Whare.

The Carved House and the Two Priests: a Tale Of Tapu.

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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.

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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.

The Tapu-Removal Ceremony.

The day came, in March, 1900, when the invited tribes assembled to participate in the ceremonies and festivities attendant on this lifting of the tapu. The house was enclosed with a tall stockade-like fence of manuka; it stood alongside the road at Whakarewarewa. Several hundreds of Maori of the Arawa and Ngati-Awa tribes gathered there, bringing their gifts of food to the owner of the house, and fine mats (whariki and takapau) to cover its floor.

Most important of all, the two most renowned tohunga Maori were brought by their people to conduct the whai-kawa ceremonies. The Arawa brought Te Rangi-Tahau; the Ngati-Awa brought their old priest Tumutara Pio. Ngati-Awa, it must here be explained, entered into the ceremony because Tene Waitere, the carver, was their kinsman, and Tene was anxious that old Pio should be the master of ceremonies. Herein entered the element of professional jealousy, as will appear; Pio and Te Rangi-Tahau were wizardly rivals, if not enemies.

The two tohunga were as dissimilar in appearance as can well be imagined. Pio was a small wizened ancient, white-whiskered, almost gnome-like. Te Rangi-Tahau, a burly warrior in his day, was still a big figure of a man, grim, tattooed of face, hard old eyes that held surface-glitter suggesting the battle-glare of other days. The pakeha called him “Te Kooti’s butcher”; certainly he had gloried in the war days in the summary execution of prisoners with his stone mere that bore the excellently sinister name “Te Ringa-toto” (The Bloody Hand). Te Rangi-Tahau had been the pupil (tauira) of a great priest of earlier days, Werewere Te Rangi-pumamao, of East Taupo. He was accredited with dread powers of magic; he was a man of strong intellect, and no doubt he possessed the faculties of hypnotism and telepathy.

The first ceremony to whakanoa or annul the tapu’s spell took place in the afternoon of a day in March. Ngati-awa, with their venerable page 263 priest, had this service to themselves; they stole a march on the Arawa, to the anger of grim spellbinder Rangi-Tahau.

This is what occurred within the marae of Rauru when the Ngati-Awa party entered. Tumutara the Wise, holding in his hand a twig of the rata tree, recited in quick, rhythmic voice a number of invocations to propitiate the Maori deities, to draw warmth to the house, to render the tapu harmless, and the house habitable with safety. A brown figure, naked to the waist, whence depended a flax garment, mounted to the roof of the big house and climbed to the ridge-pole. It was Tene Waitere, the carver. He took post on the house-top close behind the tekoteko which surmounted the front gable and stretched forth his arms horizontally on either side of the house—a singular figure, in the attitude of the crucifix. It was his work—he the artist, the very cunning worker, with the resounding chisel of his ancestor Rauru. Like a bronze statue stood Tene on the roof-top for some moments before descending. There was a hum of admiration from Ngati-Awa, and as the old tohunga below finished his first karakia to the tribal and national gods and invisible spirits the people again burst out with a loud shout in the last words of the incantation—

Haramai te toki, haumi-e!

Then with the rata twig (over which he had repeated one of the charms in his storehouse of incantations) Tumutara struck the carved maihi, or wide barge-boards in the front of the house, and next touched the toko-ihi, or front pillar supporting the ridge-pole, at the front of the porch, and the two beautiful carved pare over the doorway and window. The rata tree is sacred among the Ngati-Awa and Urewera in connection with such ceremonies, and always used in house openings like this. The Arawa and other tribes use the kawakawa shrub. The classic name of the rata is Te maro-o-Tane (the loin mat of Tane the God) as applied to its leaves. Tumutara told me a legend of the immortal Tane’s mythical house, “Te Tatau-o-Rangiriri” (The Door of the Angry Heavens); it was the first house over which the kawa ceremony was used, or in which it originated, in the remote mists of the past when all men were gods.

Round the door-posts and the lintels and the carved slabs went the white-bearded priest and his followers, all heads bared. Tumutara tapped reverently the wooden images of ancestors and of fabulous demons, and ever repeated in quick monotone the prayers of olden Aotearoa to void the house of all evil influences, to bind firmly all its timbers, to hold it firm against all the assault of wind and rain, to make it habitable with comfort and joy. The sacred outer threshold (paepae-kai-awha) and the inner door-sill (paepae-poto) were exorcised.

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Outside in the splendidly carved maihi barge-boards on the front of the house were placed the chisels, mallets, and other tools used by the three carvers in their work. These tools were for the time being sacred, and special karakia were pronounced over them by the priest. Then once more Tumutara ended a karakia with a long expiration of breath, and all the people said—not “Amen,” but the ancient Maori equivalent:—

Haramai te toki, haumi-e!

Next came the ceremony of takahi-paepae-poto, or treading the threshold. In accordance with immemorial custom this was done by a woman of rank, an ariki, so that the house might henceforth be free to women to enter. A comely young married woman named Merenia Puoke, sister-in-law of Neke the carver, was selected for the ceremony. While the wise man recited his prayer Merenia stepped across the outer and inner thresholds, and thus ended that day’s ritual.

The Sacred Fire—Rangi-Tahau’s Ritual.

But the house was not free yet for the people to enter. More complete and even more dramatic was the taingakawa ceremony, which took place on the following morning, the Arawa priest’s service. It was before the priests or any of the participants in the ceremony had taken their morning meal, for the sacred rites must be performed fasting. The Arawa people of Rotorua and the Ngati-Tuwharetoa tribe of Lake Taupo escorted their high priest Te Rangi-Tahau to the sacred place.

The tohunga walked slowly up to the porch of the house, his carved and plumed taiaha, or spear-staff, in his right hand, and his pakeha clothes covered with a cloak of kiwi and pigeon feathers. After him came Te Hemopo, Te Poihipi, and other chiefs from Taupo; Kēepa Rangipuawhe and Mita Taupopoki, of the Tuhourangi tribe, grizzled old Te Waru, of Ngati-whaoa, and many other chiefs. All the people who possessed flax or feather garments wore them, and there were to be seen in the brown hands many a greenstone and whalebone club and hardwood taiaha of old.

The priest bore a branchlet of the kawakawa shrub (piper excelsum) which a boy had been sent up to the bush in the early morning to procure, and from which, in fact, comes the ceremonial word kawa. A twig and leaves of this were tied round the carved figure of the god Tane-i-te-pupuke at the foot of the toko-ihi, the front central post.

The service commenced with a ceremony that was a survival of the most ancient of human religions—the fire-worship of the Chaldees, the fiery rites of Baal. This was the kindling of a sacred fire, called “Te Umu-a-Tāné” (The Oven of Tane). Tene the carver, under the instructions of Rangi-Tahau, gathered some of the dry rushes on the courtyard ground and some manuka twigs and lit a small fire in front of the house, to the left of page 265 the central post as one looked from within, and, facing the window, or matapihi, beneath which is the seat of the chief. The people gazed silently and intently at the mystical rite. The sacred fire blazed up, and Tene, on the word from the priest, placed in it a kumara to be roasted.

Then the tohunga walked round to the side of the house, where a ladder had been placed for him, and, carrying his taiaha, climbed slowly to the top of the whare, to the front of the gable overlooking the porch. He reached the roof-ridge and stood up just behind the realistic tekoteko, the image of Tutanekai, which crowned the house.

As he was climbing up he looked down at the sacred fire and said to Tene: “Do not let that fire go out; keep replenishing it”—for the “Umu-a-Tane” must be kept blazing till the invocations to the gods were concluded.

All was dead silence within the marae as Rangi-Tahau began his ritual. He sat down with his left foot under him and his right leg over the right side of the ridge-pole, and, firmly grasping his taiaha, began, in a loud voice, this invocation, centuries old, used by his ancestor, the priest Ngatoro-i-rangi, when the Arawa canoe was sailing across the ocean from the South Sea Hawaiki to Aotearoa. This is the awa (prayer) of the Arawa:—

“Ka hura tangata uta,
Te tiakina atu
Ki tangata tai,
Ka hura tangata tai
Te tiakina atu ki tangata uta,
Pera hoki ra
Te korapa nui
Te korapa roa
Te wahi awa
Te toto e awa—

And so forth for many lines. This prayer was to make a “path” for the Arawa canoe, to smooth the seas for her voyage, and it is employed by all descendants of the Arawa at house openings such as this. The prayer ended with the invocation of Tu and Rongo, two of the chief deities of the Maori:

“Ka eke, ka takoto
Te hau no Tu,
Turuturu o hiki,
Whakamau o Rongo—
Kia tina.

The concluding words, “Hui-e! Taiki-e!” were taken up by the whole of the people, who repeated the words in chorus in a loud shout.

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It was a picture of ancient Maoridom, that white-headed warlock on the roof. When he came to the last two or three lines his eyes rolled and he seemed actually to project his eyeballs out of his head, as if of a verity possessed by a god, while at the same time, with a sudden quivering movement, he advanced the tongue of his taiaha with a jerk of his hand.

I was standing near Tumutara Pio all this time, in front of the house, where the ancient sage was squatted, with his followers. I saw his lips moving continually, while the other priest recited the ritual on the housetop. Pio was mumbling his own karakia all the time. What it was no one could hear, no one could know, but the people all believed, and so do I, that he was reciting spells to protect himself from the powerful wizardry of his rival.

Still seated on the roof-top, Rangi-Tahau recited this karakia for the toki (axe), that is, to remove the tapu from the axes, chisels, and other tools of the carvers. It is said to have been pronounced originally over “Tutaura,” the principal axe used in the making of the Arawa canoe at Tahiti six centuries ago:—

“Toki nui, toki nui,
Toki roa, toki roa,
Toki amoamo ake hoki au.
Taku toki nei.
Kia rahirahi tou pipi,
Kia rahirahi tou papa.
Na whea te toki nei?
A mana-hi.
Na whea te toki nei, a mana-ha?
Te mana-ha nui no Rangi.
Whakarongo, niu ake, niu ake,
Niu marire, niu marire.
Kai hara, kai hara, kai hara
Te tara wiwini, te tara wawana,
Na whea i toki?
Na Rua ai toki.
Oi! Homai te toki,
Taku toki nei.
He ripanga, he awhenga-ronga
No nga whano-whano.
Haramai te toki.


Haramai te toki, haumi-e!”

The opening lines meant:—

“Great axes, great axes,
Long axes, long axes,
Axes carried on the shoulder.

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Te Rangi-Tahau’s Rite, and the Sacred Fire.

Te Rangi-Tahau’s Rite, and the Sacred Fire.

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This is my axe,
So that your planks may be thin.
Whence came this axe?
’Tis the Great Power from Heaven.”

The people all joined in the stirring chorus in a loud shout. The chisels and other implements of the carvers were now free from the tapu which attaches to the woodworking craft. Then the priest repeated in quick, sharp tones, taking a breath at long intervals, his eyes glittering in the sunshine, an invocation to the powers of nature, the national and tribal gods, to ensure the freeing of the house from tapu. This was an extremely sacred kawa. It began:

“Hira mai ai te whekite o te rangi
Hira mai ai te ngawha o te rangi;
Pera hoki ra
Te kapua nui,
Te kapua roa,
Te kapua riakina—”

The chant invoked the powers of earth and sky, it called to the over-brooding spirits of the heavens, the bursting storm, the vast clouds, the far-extending clouds, the clouds high-uplifted. It went on to call upon deified ancestors by name. It ended with an imprecation upon evil-working influences; it addressed with a mighty curse the powers of darkness, as if they were personified in one body whose head might be eaten, the most dreaded malediction of the Maori: “Maku e kai to upoko.*

The ariki then slowly descended from the house-top, and pulling his feather-cloak about him, walked, staff in hand, along the side of the building to the rear corner, and back to the front of the house, where he pulled off some twigs and green leaves of the kawakawa branch on the frontal pillar. All this time the sacred fire of Tane had been burning away in a pyramidal blaze about eighteen inches high. The priest told Tene to take the kumara, which by this time was cooked, and follow him, and Anaha and Neke were also bidden follow and enter the house. Tene’s wife, Ruihi Rongo-he-kumi, of the Ngati-Tarawhai tribe, now came forward, under instructions from the priest, to “tread the threshold” of the new house, in accordance with custom, so that all women might be free to enter. Rangi-Tahau, before going into the house, stood in front of the carved page 270 front pillar, the figure of Tane-i-te-pupuke, and touched it with the point of his taiaha just below the kawakawa leaves, saying at the same time some words of his charm. As he and the woman stepped over the sacred doorsill, Rangi-Tahau put his left foot over first, for the reason that the left side (taha-maui) is the “side of the woman” (tama-wahine), while the right side (taha-matau) is the “side of the man.”

On entering the house, accompanied only by the three carvers and the ruwahine, or chief woman, Rangi-Tahau walked up to the stone fireplace, the taku-ahi, hollowed out of a square block of stone, dropped some leaves of the kawakawa into it, and pronounced part of the incantation. Then he went to the central house-pillar, the poutoko-manawa, carved in the representation of famous ancestors of the Arawa people. At the foot of this house-pillar there was another rite. Rangi-Tahau stooped down and with his hands scraped up some of the earth of the house-floor and formed it into small mounds (puké). In each of the little hills he stuck a small twig of the kawakawa, to symbolise the paths of war and peace, and then recited this karakia:

“Te turakina te puke kia Tu,
He hapainga te puke kia Rongo
Ko Rongo i te whiwhiro
Ko Rongo i te tamore,
Ta maua kia ita!”

The purport of this was a prayer that the symbol of Tu, the war god, would be overcome, and that the power of Rongo, the deity of peace, would prevail.

The cooked kumara, which was brought into the house, was broken into five pieces, one for each of the party of tohunga. The object was by the introduction of cooked food into the carved house to overcome the mana and malignant influence of the spirits, and destroy the dangerous tapu. After leaving the poutoko-manawa pillar, the priest and his followers walked to each post and carved slab in the house, slowly eating their portions of kumara, while the old man touched each carving with his staff, and recited a portion of his potent kawa.

The party remained in the house for about twenty minutes, and when they finally emerged from the semi-gloom of Rauru the work was done. The whare was now noa or common and free for all to enter with safety.

The rites which could not be seen, inside the house, were described to me privately by Rangi-Tahau after the ceremony; the old priest also dictated to me the various karakia he had repeated on the house-top and on the porch.

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The house opening was followed by a feast and by merry dances and chants, and that night Rauru was occupied by the Maori guests.

* * *

And then the sequel. The gods were not yet appeased. Te Rangi-Tahau, who was about to return to Taupo, died suddenly eight days after the ceremony. His death was popularly attributed to the counter-incantations of his rival Tumutara Pio, or in the alternative, to his having made a whati, a slip or omission, in his recital of karakia. No doubt the excitement and exertion of the ceremony had been too much for the old warrior, but the people would never think of attributing his death to natural causes. And Tumutara was not long in following Rangi-Tahau to the Maori Spiritland. He died at Te Teko soon after his return from the Rotorua ceremony. So passed the last two priests of ancient Maoridom, the last of the pagan primitives, so soon after their last kawanga-whare; each, said the Maori, victim to the makutu, the wizardly powers, of the other.

And old Te Waru? He was satisfied; the tapu was laid forever. He had himself been dubious about his friend Tāré Nelson building the house and using those tapu carvings, for the tohunga of his tribe had told him many years ago that more victims would be required before the tapu was propitiated; and he feared that Tāré or his wife—whom the Maori called Kura-ngaituku, because of her fondness for pet birds—would die. But when the news came of the deaths of the two tohunga who had bedevilled each other, Te Waru breathed freely again.

The old tattooing artist’s death was tragic, as I remember. A few years after that tapu-lifting ceremony he was burned to death as he lay feeble and alone in his thatched hut at Paeroa, close to the site of the fateful house which was to do honour to the beautiful wife of his youth.

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* After the ceremony, Te Rangi-Tahau told me that this karakia, “Hira-mai,” would have prevented the catastrophe which befell Te Heuheu and his hapu at Te Rapa in 1846 had the old chief recited it when he went out in the storm to utter his prayers to the gods that fatal night of the landslip from the flooded hot-spring valley above the village. The belief was that Te Heuheu’s mana-tapu, combined with this prayer formula, would have allayed the destructive forces of nature.