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Legends of the Maori

Two South Island Chants

Two South Island Chants.

page 299

The Song of the Axe.

A WOMAN of the Ngati-Wairangi tribe, of the West Coast of the South Island, Raureka, taught this chant to the people on the eastern side of the Southern Alps, about two hundred and fifty years ago. She was the first person to cross the great Alpine range, so far as tradition goes. Raureka lived at Arahura, and as the result of a quarrel with her people she left the West Coast, accompanied by a slave, and wandering up into the mountains at the head of Lake Kanieri, she discovered the pass now known as Browning’s Pass, and crossing the divide, travelled down the Rakaia Valley into the plains of what is now Canterbury. She fell in with a party of Ngai-Tahu men, who fed the starving pair, and at the camp fire she showed them a small greenstone axe and recited a song which was chanted when axes were used in timber-felling and other woodman’s work. Greenstone (pounamu) was then quite unknown to the East Coast people, and the little axe (toki) was a wonderful treasure. Later on, Raureka guided a party of Ngai-Tahu across the Alps by the way she had come, and so they met the greenstone-workers of Arahura, the river of the pounamu reef. This, as given by the old folks of Arahura, is the song of the axe that Raureka taught the Ngai-Tahu; she murmured it as she chipped at the stem of the ti, the kauru, or sugar-tree (one variety of cabbage-tree) of the South Island people:—

Whakaatu ra e taku toki
Ki te kauru.
Koia panukunuku,
E ra e hine,
I a pakurangi, e tama,
Na te hiahia,
Na te koroka, e tama,
I a Tane,* e tama,
Tane i ruka,
Tane i raro.
Ka rere te maramara;
Ka huaki ki waho;
Ka tipu mai i uta,
Ka takoto mai i waho,
E hura ki te ata,
Ko te ata o Tane.


I stretch forth my axe
To the head of the tree,
How it moves,
How it resounds, O children!
Because of my desire
For the lofty sons of Tane.
Tane, the Tree-God, towering above me—
Tane, felled and lying at my feet.
See how the chips fly from my axe!
Uncovered to the world are Tane’s children,
Once pillared lofty in the forest shades,
But now all stripped and prone,
Laid bare to the morning light,
The light of Tane’s day.

page 300

“‘Try Not the Pass!’ The Old Man Said.”

The ancient Maori route from Westland over the Southern Alps into the plains of Canterbury, by way of the Pass discovered by the adventurous woman Raureka (now called Browning’s Pass) at 5,700 feet, started from the shores of Lake Kanieri (properly “Kani-ere,” meaning the act of sawing greenstone), hence the Pass itself was named by the West Coast natives after the lake. The following song, composed many generations ago at Arahura, alludes to the difficulties and dangers of the old-time passage of the Alps, and was addressed to travellers setting forth on the mountain journey:—

E atu tu te tarahaka
A tuhoro ki Kaniere.
E Kahu-e!
A Purua ra e!
Pokipoki te weruweru,
Putawake te maipi.
E Aro e!
A Kume ra e!
Whakatahuri ki Poutini,
Kei mate koe i te ruha e,
Hiakaitia koe e nga pori.
To eat your flesh.


See yonder in the dawning light
The lofty mountain pass
Beyond Kaniere’s lake.
O Kahu, O Purua!
Cover well your garments
(For the streams are deep)
Lift high your feathered weapon;
O Aro, O Kume!
Turn back to Poutini,
Lest ye perish of weariness,
Lest those base tribes crave

Poutini is the classical or symbolical term for the West Coast, because of the tradition which speaks of the green jade-stone found there as Te Ika-a-Poutini—”Poutini’s Fish.”

Travellers stripped to ford the swift mountain streams, and the singer bids them have a care for their cloaks and their garments, which they fastened on their heads for the deep river-crossings.

Some of the tribes on the eastern side of the range were enemies of the West Coast people, hence the warning about cannibal foes who might be encountered.

* Tane is the forest deity; the trees are Tane personified. But Tane is also the lord of day, the sun; it is the light and the warmth of the sun that cause the growth of Tane’s forest trees.