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Legends of the Maori

Te Ake’s Revenge — A Tale of Wizardry and Retribution

Te Ake’s Revenge

A Tale of Wizardry and Retribution.

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Episode I. Dawn-Maiden, and how She was Bewitched and Slain.

If the pakeha but knew it, there is scarce a headland, a bay, a conspicuous rock on our coasts, or a stream or a hill inland but has its place in the folk-talk of the old people, its song or its story, holding some adventure, some tragedy, or some incident of everyday life in the unwritten annals of the tribes that roved these shores and marched free-footed over the plains centuries ago. Human endeavour, the wars and food huntings made scarcely any impress on the land except the scarped hill forts; but the place-names remain, often mis-spelled and consistently wrongly accented by the pakeha. Often a name of some stream or peak has set me on the track of a legend or a song which, while explanatory of the place-naming, has opened up also a whole chapter of local history or an episode illustrating the ways of life and ways of thought of the people who lorded it over these lands before the Anglo-Celtic home-seekers let go their topsail-halliards and came to an anchor in a New Zealand bay.

* * *

Tuawera is the name of the Cave Rock at Sumner, that mass of black lava at the mouth of the Heathcote estuary, on the Canterbury coast, which thousands of years of sea assault shaved of its jagged asperities, rounding it into smooth coves and hollowing deeper the old caves left by the ancient gas bubbles in the fiery mass, until man was able to walk on level sand underneath the rock. The pakeha’s signal staff stands on the weathered old rock, keeping ward—a lazy one these days—over the ocean bar where the surf breaks white. No trace of the Maori here now; but there was a day when these sands of Sumner were a fishing camp ground for the brown men and women from the Pakihi-Whakatekateka-a-Waitaha, the ancient name for the Canterbury Plains, and rough sheds of branches and fern-tree fronds and raupo thatch, and also the cave of Tuawera Rock itself, sheltered the people who came here for their kai-mataitai (the food of the salt sea—fish and mussels, pawa and pipi, and an edible seaweed, the karengo). Their fishing canoes lay on the beach, their long fishing seines were stretched out on posts in the sun after each hauling, and strung on flax lines on tall poles shark and barracouta, hapuku and cod, sun-drying for the storehouses in the inland villages, powerfully scented the salt breeze and pleasantly tickled the nose of the aboriginal. Those were the pre-pakeha page 96 scenes about old Tuawera. The name of Tuawera Rock being translated is “Destroyed as by Fire”; it is an expression signifying the destruction of a tribe or hapu, likening a sudden calamity to the felling (tua) of a forest tree by means of fires kindled in the holes hacked in its butt, as was the way of the stone-age bushman. The key to the rock-naming lies in this historical tradition, told me by the last of the legend-keepers of Ngati-Irakehu, a sub-tribe of Ngai-Tahu.

* * *

Nearly two hundred years ago there lived on the shores of Akaroa Harbour a dour warrior chief whose name was Te Aké. He had a daughter who was the pride and beauty of the village, a girl by name Hine-ao, which means “Maid of Light,” or “Dawn-Maiden.” The poetic name sat fittingly upon this great-eyed brown girl of high degree, in form and face so desirable a vision in the eyes of the young men of Ngai-Tahu. The hapu to which Te Aké’s family belonged was Ngati-Pahurua, a small clan closely connected with the various septs of the mother-tribe. One of these tribe-sections had settled on the banks of the Opaawaho River, which is known to-day as the Heathcote—its Maori name, meaning “The Place of the Outer Pa,” otherwise “The Outpost,” has been corrupted into Opawa. The Opaawaho in those days ran through a great swamp, and “The Outpost” pa was built in a convenient spot where food was to be obtained in plenty. The name of this village of the marsh-dwellers was Poho-areare. Here dwelt the hapu of eel-catchers and wild-duck snarers, under a chief whose name was Turaki-po.

One day a small party of people from Te Aké’s village on Akaroa Harbour set out on a visit to the Plains dwellers. Among them was the young girl Hine-ao. The travelling party reached Poho-areare Pa, and there they stayed for the space of some days. When the chief Turaki-po set eyes on the beautiful Dawn-Maiden, his strong desire went forth, as the Maori says, and he watched her with greedy admiration as she stood forth in the poi and the haka in the little village square lightly costumed for the diversion, her fair, well-rounded yet lissome young body bending gracefully this way and that and her great liquid eyes shining “like the full moon” in the excitement of the dance. And as they sat in the crowded meetinghouse at night, with the charcoal fire glowing at the foot of the central house-pillar, Turaki-po pinched the hand of Hine-ao, by way of making his desire known. But Hine-ao turned away in anger and would have none of the chief of the eel-catchers. When her travelling company cried their farewells to Poho-areare and heard the last “Haere ra!” from the villagers waving their good-byes on the river-bank, Turaki-po was an angry man indeed, for he had been rejected by Hine-ao in words which were few but biting.

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The chief sat in his hut, with scowling face, aglow with anger and bitter with disappointment, a prey to conflicting tugs of passionate feeling. He greatly desired the young Hine-ao, but, as he squatted brooding there, greater grew his passion for revenge. In his black and murderous heart he determined that if the Akaroa maid would not come to his sleeping-mat she should never share another man’s.

That night, in the thick darkness, when the night-fogs wrapped the Poho-areare kainga and no sound was heard but the mournful crake of the weka in the swamp and the gurgle of the black river as it went eddying round the elbow of land upon which the village was built—in the heavy midnight, Turaki-po squatted at the tuahu, the sacred place of incantation, just without the pa fence, working his wizardly deeds. He was a master of the Black Art, the man-slaying makutu, which he had learned from the venerable sorcerers Tautini and Irirangi, grim old warlocks who could kill an enemy even over vast distances, by the malignant projection of the will, kill him quickly if they wished, or kill him by degrees in slow and lingering fashion horrible to describe. The murderous rhythmic formulæ, long incantations couched in language fully explainable only by the priests, Turaki-po repeated in quick low tense accents with regular beat and cadence. They were the death runes, launched at the Akaroa rangatira girl.

And the spells of sorcery wrought their devilry. Some unknown power struck at the girl’s vitals; she felt the gnawing of the makutu even as she descended the moss-softened forest track from the heights to the lake-side expanse of Akaroa harbour. She came home to die. She lay on her mat-bed, refusing all food, and in but a little space her spirit had passed to the land of ghosts, and the wail of grief was heard in the stricken kainga. Grey-headed Te Aké, with the tears streaming down his tattooed cheeks, chanted his low dirge of farewell to the still form of his daughter Hine-ao, laid low by the Axe of Death, slain by the impalpable darts of Aitua.

Long the old man brooded over his perished child, revolving in his mind schemes of dark revenge, for Hine-ao had told him with her last breath how the chief of Opaawaho had sought her and how she had refused him; and it was as clear as the noonday light that it was the curse of the disappointed lover that had smitten her to her death.

Episode II. The Seeking of the Spell.

The Akaroa chief grieved long for his slain daughter Maid-of-Light; then he set about his task of vengeance. Now, the Maori did not always take the most direct path to the attainment of his passion for blood-payment. Te Aké’s first impulse was to raise a war-party and march on page 98 Turaki-po’s swamp-pa, and slaughter the wizard chief and all his house and hapu. But as Turaki-po would doubtless be prepared, since the news of Hine-ao’s death had spread over the countryside, the father chose a more circumspect but not less deadly form of retribution.

So soon as the period of mourning for the dead girl was ended, Te Aké, with his brother and two or three slaves to carry their bundles of mats and food for the trail, set out on a long journey northward. For many days he and his companions travelled through the grassy plains and over the ranges until they reached at last a little coast kainga, where there dwelt the tohunga Tautini, the great sorcerer, the grey old keeper of all the occult wisdom of Ngai-Tahu. Untold stores of ancient lore, knowledge handed down through long generations from the days when the ancestors of the Maori lived on Asiatic shores, spell upon spell for all the purposes of life and death were locked in the brains that lay behind the shaggy brows of that wise old man. Steeped in tapu through and through, his sleeping hut, even the floor mats on which he rested as he squatted in the sun in his thatched porch-front, so sacred that none but he might touch them, the medicine-man was at once the venerated ariki, or priestly chieftain, and the dread of his tribespeople. From him and his co-priest Irirangi came most of such remnants of the ancient sacred knowledge as have been preserved to this day in the South Island by Ngai-Tahu.

To these mentors then Te Aké resorted to learn such spells and rites as might enable him to work vengeance on his blood-enemy Turaki-po and appease the mana of his murdered daughter. His brother, tradition says, troubled not about spells and such esoteric matters but employed his time in making love to the girls of the seaside village. But Te Aké, with grim purpose, made request of the learned man Tautini that he should teach him his most powerful man-slaying incantations and rites, the thrice-tapu ritual of the makutu. He had laid before the sorcerer, as he made greeting, his baskets of presents from the south, greenstone ornaments and finely woven flax and feather garments, and carved pottles of preserved birds. These gifts opened the heart of the grim priest, and night after night, when other men slept, he imparted to Te Aké the dread secrets of his art, and after a curious rite intended to make his pupil’s memory retentive, he recited karakia after karakia, which sank into the memory of Te Aké never to be forgotten. It was from Tautini that Turaki-po’s incantations had been learned; but Te Aké had now acquired spells even more powerful than those of his enemy, whom he held henceforth in the hollow of his hand. And from Irirangi also, the second of the great priests, Te Aké learned karakia of incalculable potency, which enabled him to call the gods to his aid, the gods of earth, sky and ocean. Like Tautini and Irirangi, indeed, he was now a god in himself.

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Episode III. The Launching of the Spell.

When Te Aké returned from his expedition to the north, it was the time of summer, when the inland people came down to the sea coast and camped there, and spent long, glorious days in fishing and in scouring the rock coast and its far-stretching sandy beaches for oysters and mussels and the great pawa shellfish. And the dwellers in the riverbank pa, Pohoareare, men, women and children, launched their canoes and paddled down the slow Opaawaho, across the shallows of Ohikaparuparu, or, literally, “Fall-in-the-mud,” and so out past the black, tooth-like rock of Rapanui to the firm beach sands, where Sumner township stands to-day. With Turaki-po at their head they pitched their camp, and they hauled their great seines in the surf and paddled out to the hapuku and rock cod grounds, and speared flounders by torchlight in the shallows on the quiet summer nights, and their bivouac fires blazed cheerfully along the beach and under the shadow of the Cave Rock; and on the warm sands within the great cave itself, many a whariki sleeping-mat of flax was spread out by the brown fisher-folk after their long and happy day’s work in the gathering of the salt sea food.

* * *

Te Aké sat alone on a lookout crag that butted like a great sperm whale’s head into the Pacific, on the north-eastern face of Banks Peninsula. Far below he saw the smoke of fishermen’s camp fires rising through the mild, sweet air of the summer afternoon; the womenfolk were making ready for the evening meal against their men’s return from the sea. He saw the bold front of Otokitoki, where the Godley Head lighthouse stands to-day, topping fire-fused cliffs hundreds of feet above the snowy foam. Beyond, on the north, where the coast curved quickly into the bay, he knew his blood-foe was camped, and even as he looked he could see out on the gently breathing sea the dots that he knew were Turaki-po’s canoes making homeward after their day’s fishing. And sitting there on the sentry cape, naked, the deadly purpose of the vendetta giving a ferocity to his face, his eyes glittering, the chief of Akaroa repeated in a tense monotone his karakia to raise vengeance-working spirits from the deep. For from the deep sea must the death come upon Turaki-po; and so it was to Tangaroa and to the god-fish Tuhirangi and all the miracle-working maraki-hau and the countless demons of the ocean that Te Aké addressed his invocations. For a death stroke from the sea he called, an aitua which should come upon the fishers as a monster in the night. The Maori sorcerer of old, by dark virtue of his occult rites and his mana of hereditary priesthood, and his strange rhythmic incantations, held dominion over the creatures of the sea, page 100 and they came to his call from the waters of Tangaroa’s world. So say the old people to whom the tale of these mystic doings has come down.

Long Te Aké sat there on his solitary rock-top, making his appeal to the gods of wind and wave and all strange life that lies in the black waters. He ended at last, with a quick jerk forward of his shaggy head, his eyes set in a glare, and seeming almost to start out of their sockets as he uttered the final words of his cursing prayer, “Ki te Po” (“To the Night”).

Episode IV. A Great Fish from the Sea.

The dawn of another soft summer day spread over the Maori world, and the gentle swell of the Tai-Rawhiti came mildly pulsing in from the vast smooth expanse, meeting the crescent of white sands in a long murmurous ear-soothing snore and pause and snore and roll again. No wind yet stirred the just-waking face of the deep; a morning when the smallest kopapa canoe could have been launched where at other times the great rollers came thundering in upon the shore in a smashing cannonade. The kaka parrot screeched his “Get up” cry in the dark thickets that filled the valley almost to the beach, and presently the bellbird and the flute-tongued tui set the shores and hills ringing with their sweet tinkle and gurgle and bing-bong of bush song.

Soon the fisher-folks’ camp began to show signs of life. A woman, with a rough cloak of flax about her shoulders, came sleepily out of one of the sapling and fern-frond shelters that leaned against the black Cave Rock. Throwing off her garment she stretched her arms and yawned, and stood there awhile listening to the bird-song of the morning, a strong, firm, tall figure, in all the rounded vigour of young womanhood, a Juno statue limned darkly against the yellowing dawn. She walked a few steps along the sands, stooping to pick up pieces of dry driftwood, and turning to the shallow holes where the cooking fires were daily kindled, she set to at the task of lighting the haangi for the morning meal.

But the meal was not enjoyed leisurely by the lords of the fishing camp. Scarcely had the people seated themselves about the mats on which their food baskets were laid, when a youth who had walked to the sea-edge scanning the tideway for signs of fish shoals and the morning sky for weather omens, suddenly clapped eyes on a sight that set him quivering with astonishment. A flock of seagulls hovered over a long, black mass which lay like a half-tide rock just in the wash of the little surf on the point of the sandspit which ran out on the opposite side of the estuary. A moment later and a yell like a war-cry rang out over the sands and brought the kainga to its feet, as a whaleship’s crew scuttles up at the look-out man’s cry of “Blo-ow—there she blows!”

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Launching the Spell.

Launching the Spell.

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He ika moana! He ika moana! He tohora nui, kua pae ki te oné!” A fish of the ocean, the cry went, a great fish of the ocean—a great whale, stranded on the shore!

Down to the water’s edge the whole camp came dashing, and with wild cries of astonishment and delight they verified with their own eyes what the young sea-watcher had discovered.

“Launch the canoes,” cried Turaki-po. Several of the long dug-out fishing craft were shoved into the water, and into them tumbled the naked brown men. The paddlers sent their canoes swiftly shooting across the outflowing tide of the estuary and out they dashed on the opposite sandbank, and in a few moments were clambering over the stranded monster.

It was a dead paraoa, a sperm whale, a rich haul indeed, for its flesh was the sweetest meat to the Maori, and from certain of its bones he could fashion his long, curved broadsword-like weapon, the hoeroa. The receding tide left it lying almost dry and clear of the water, and the fisher tribe made the most of their time before next high tide. Turaki-po ordered all the camp dwellers to set to work to strip the flesh off it, and men and women laboured with fierce delight, cutting into the blubber with obsidian knife-flakes and sharp shells and tearing off strip after strip of the whalemeat. Fires were kindled close by on the sands and the toilers took brief spells to feast on half-cooked slices of the blubbery flesh, and set to again with renewed, savage energy. It was the feast-day of a life-time.

So there on the hot and shining sands the mother-naked tattooed toilers sweated at their oily work, and canoes went to and fro across the river mouth loaded with whale meat for the camp. But Turaki-po sat by himself on the beach, silently watching the workers. His behaviour was strangely listless for such a man of fierce action.

Turaki-po, in truth, was secretly suspicious and frightened. He had had a curious dream, a moemoea, which he read as a warning, the previous night, and now his nerves were tingling and twitching. His own special and personal god was at work. The coming of this great fish was of a surety a work supernatural; but the strange fears that crept over him gradually overmastered his cravings. However good this treasure from the deep it was not for him. And so, possessed by a conviction that his own atua did not wish him to join in the whale-meat feast on the beach, he resolved to remove himself for a while from the danger area. It may be that he was possessed of a more sensitive nose than his fellows. Certain it is that he denied himself a share in the blubbery banquet. He quietly paddled himself across the estuary in the smallest of the canoes, and saying not a word to any of his people he set off homeward by the foot trail which skirted the foot of the hills. There he betook him to his spells for the page 104 averting of witchcraft and the machinations of his enemies. And on the sands at the Opaawaho mouth his tribespeople feasted long that evening, by the light of the great blazing fires of driftwood around the foot of the old Cave Rock.

* * *

The Curse Falls.

Next morning’s sun rose on a strangely silent camp. No early risers sang their snatches of song in mimicry of the gurgling and whistling tui; no smoke of oven fires coiled up in thin blue columns as the first flush of sunshine set the cave-riddled lava palisade of Redcliffs aglow with a rosy adumbration of the long-dead volcanic fires. The fishing canoes lay hauled up on the hard sands. The seagulls were astir, seeking their morning’s food, and a flock of sharp-beaked scavengers squabbled over the hacked carcase of the ika moana that evilly scented the good salt air. Motionless, soundless figures lay scattered about the camp fires, some out on the open sands, some in the mouth of the great black Cave Rock. They lay in contorted attitudes, their legs drawn up, their faces twisted and pain disfigured, their hands clenched and dug into the sand. It was a camp of the dead.

The sun rose higher, and curious seagulls came reconnoitring the silent bivouac; their shrill screams rang with echoes upon echoes through the hollow rock. At last one of the prone figures, a woman, stirred, rose with slow and staggering movements, as if awaking from a long trance. She stood awhile looking dazed on the sleepers around her. She called them, but no answer came. She shook one, and then another, but they were stiff and cold, and she uttered a yell of terror. Death had smitten her companions while she slept the heavy sleep of the surfeited.

The savage woman, aghast with horror, rushed from the rock of death, and raced along the beach towards the narrows where the great rock of Rapanui stood in craggy sentry-go over the tideway. Clambering round the point where the overhanging cliffs leaned above the trail, she ran along the muddy shores of Ohikaparuparu until she came upon a little camp of fisher-people from over the hills. To these she told the terrible tale, and then she passes out of our story again. Her name has been preserved in the oral tradition; she was Hineroto, and she was a daughter of the warrior chief Wheke, the son of the conqueror Te Rangiwhakaputa. She was close of kin to Te Aké, and that was how—says the Maori—she happened to be the only one spared when the angel of death smote the campers on the sand.

Ha! Kua ea te maté!” was Te Aké’s exclamation, when the news reached him at Akaroa. His words meant that his daughter’s death had been paid for, that vengeance had been wrought. That Turaki-po had page 105 escaped the fate of the rest was a pity, but to the Maori mind it was perfectly just and correct that his tribe should suffer for his misdoings. In Te Aké’s heart there was no possible doubt that it was his powerful karakia that had brought the death-dealing whale ashore at the camp of his enemy’s tribe. And Turaki-po—he, too, divined the hand of the gods in that tipi or death-stroke from the ocean. The great fish, it was clear, was saturated with a most terrible tapu, soaked through and through with tapu as whale oil soaks a mat, and it was clear also that this tapu it was that had slain the sleeping feasters as they lay there gorged with the monster’s flesh, and twisted them up in strange and terrifying contortions, suffering, as was the penalty of kinship, vicarious retribution for the murder wrought by their chief.

And from that day onward Tuawera Rock was shunned by the Maori fishers, for it was tapu to the witchcraft-smitten folk of Poho-areare, and never again did the summer-time flounder-spearers and the mussel hunters spread their sleeping-mats in its shadow. It was a place of ghosts, of dead men’s spirits, that whistled in the night. And the name by which the rock became known has carried down to our own times the memory of that midnight death-stroke from the gods.