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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 79

Maori Customs—Tohunguism and other Traditions

Maori Customs—Tohunguism and other Traditions.

The Maoris, probably because they live closer to nature (whose mysteries they do not understand) than the Europeans, are naturally superstitious. One of their strongest antipathies is to the lizard, of which they are greatly afraid, and which they look upon as truly an animal of ill-omen. The species of lizard known by the Maoris under the name of kaweau (probably the same as the kueo) is to them a creature of evil omen. Should you—they say—see fresh signs of its tracks in your dwelling, or should it cross your path, you may prepare to start for the underworld without delay, for the reptile was sent by your dead and gone relations as a sign that you are soon to join them in the reinga (literally the spirit leap), or spiritland.

According to the Maori religious convictions, as far as he has any, he has a belief in a future state. After the spirit departs from the body, it betakes itself unto the reinga, which the Maori believes somewhat vaguely to be in the underworld, and there the departed spirit joins its ancestors and all who have gone before. Strange to say, although the Maori while on earth has so many tutelar deities, he knows of none in the future state. On earth his destiny is guided by the God of the Rainbow (the God of War), the God of Darkness or Night, the God of Light, these being the principal Gods which are known collectively as the Atua. Subsidiary to these Gods are the spirits, or the Wairua. There are many of these who work for both good and evil, and affect the fate of the Maori accordingly. After death, however, page 10 according to his traditions and beliefs, he knows them no more. In the communion of his ancestors he finds calm, peace, and happiness. He looks forward neither to sensual or any other material pleasures, but on the other hand death has no terrors for him, as he is not looking forward to any diety to pass judgment on his actions during his mortal life.

The tapu, or sacred tohunga (or priest) in the old days was a very important person, and loomed largely in the life of the Maori. He presided over and directed all ceremonies and customs which were of a religious character, as they understood religion. The tohunga also pretended to power by means of the assistance of certain familiar spirits to fortell future events, and even in some instances to exercise control over the tribe and its affairs, including the affairs of the rangatira, or chief, himself. The belief in the power of the tohunga to fortell events was very strong, and the incredulous pakeha who laughed at their power was considered by the Maoris a person quite incapable of understanding or appreciating the plainest evidence. I must allow that some of their predictions were of a most daring nature, and happening to come true in many cases, there may be some excuse for the ignorant natives believing in them.

It is also remarkable that the tohungas did not pretend to divine future events by any knowledge or power inherent in themselves. They pretended for the time being to be inspired by the familiar spirit, and passive in his hands. This spirit entered into them, and on being questioned, gave a response in a sort of half whistling, half articulate voice, supposed to be the proper language of spirits. I have known a tohunga who, having made a false prediction, laid the blame on the trickery of the spirit, who, he said, had purposely spoken falsely for certain good and spiritual reasons, which he then explained.

Amongst the fading customs and beliefs of the old times the tohunga still holds sway, and he is often consulted by the natives, though not so openly as was the case sixty-eight years ago. He is still firmly believed in, even by natives who are profes-sed Christians, and the inquiries are often of vital importance to the enquirer. A certain tohunga was quite lately, to my knowledge, paid a large sum of money to perform a miracle. There is no equivalent word for the English word miracle in the Maori language, but of my own knowledge he was requested to accomplish an impossibility, and accepted payment for the attempt. The Maoris are very jealous of any knowledge on the part of the white man of their rites, as they know the pakeha laughs at their belief in them, and they consequently conceal them from us as much as possible. The tohungas, or priests, page 11 have undertaken, and do to this day, undertake to call up the spirit of any dead person, if paid for performing the miracle, and I have witnessed many such exhibitions. Of course, the departed spirit never does come back, but the tohunga craftily makes such explanations that the faith of the simple Maori is in no way shaken by his failure.

It should be explained that the tohunga of the olden days, and he of the present day, are quite different persons. The tohunga of the old times was legitimate in his professions, as far as such a person could be said to be legitimate. Only chiefs, and the sons of chiefs, of the highest rank could be possessed of the sacred power, and even they from their youth upward had a special training in Maori lore, customs, and traditions, as well as the supposed spiritual gift. Now a days a race of impostors has sprung up, who pretend to have the same power, even though they have neither birth nor training, which were some of the qualifications formerly required, and whereas the old tohunga was not necessarily mercenary, the motive for the present day tohungas' practices are almost invariably greed and avarice. To[unclear: b]ungaism under such circumstances is a doubly accursed evil, and being as generally exercised amongst the Maoris as I know it to be to their fatal detriment. I think the paternal Government, in the interests of the Natives, should adopt every measure possible to put a stop to it. I think it was a great mistake that Dr. Pomare, who was doing such excellent work for the Maoris in disabusing their minds of these superstitions, and who was teaching and training them as to how they should rule their lives and actions in the interests of their health, should have been suspended in the interests of retrenchment. If he is not to be reinstated in his former position, I contend he should be stationed either in Levin or Otaki, at a stated salary, so that he could give his time, and the benefit of his undoubted skill and knowledge to the whole of the Maoris on this coast.