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Te Ika a Maui, or New Zealand and its Inhabitants

Chapter IV. Tapu

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Chapter IV. Tapu.

A Tatued Chief Eating with a Fern-Stalk.

A Tatued Chief Eating with a Fern-Stalk.

This singular Institution, which pervades the entire extent of Polynesia, may perhaps be most correctly defined as A religious observance, established for political purposes. It consisted in making any person, place, or thing sacred for a longer or shorter period; if it were a person, during the time of the Tapu, he could not be touched by any one, or even put his own hand to his head himself; but he was either fed by another who was appointed for the purpose, or took up his food with his mouth from a small stage, with his hands behind him, or by a fern stalk, and thus conveyed it to his mouth; in drinking, the water was poured in a very expert manner from a calabash into his mouth, or on his hands, when he needed it for washing, so that he should not touch the vessel, which otherwise could not have been used again for ordinary purposes.* Places were

* A similar custom prevailed in Israel—see 2 Kings iii., 11.

page 56 tapu for certain periods; rivers until the fishing was ended; cultivations until the planting or reaping was completed; districts until either the hunting of the rat or catching of birds was done; woods until the fruit of the kie-kie was gathered.

The Tapu may be considered as having been of two kinds, private and public; the one affecting individuals, the other communities.

A person became Tapu by touching a dead body, or, by being very ill; in this respect it appears to bear a very close resemblance to the Mosaic law relating to uncleanness.

The garments of an ariki, or high chief, were tapu, as well as everything relating to him; they could not be worn by any one else, lest they should kill him An old chief in my company threw away a very good mat, because it was too heavy to carry; he cast it down a precipice, when I inquired why he did not leave it suspended on a tree, that any future traveller wanting a garment might take it? He gravely told me that it was the fear of its being worn by another, which had caused him to throw it where he did, for if it were worn, his tapu would kill the person. In the same way, Taunui's tinder box killed several persons who were so unfortunate as to find it, and light their pipes from it, without knowing it belonged to so sacred an owner; they actually died from fright. If the blood of a high chief flows (though it be a single drop) on anything, it renders that tapu. A party of natives came to see Te Heuheu, the great chief of Taupo, in a fine large new canoe. Te Heuheu got into it to go a short distance; in doing so he struck a splinter into his foot, the blood flowed from the wound into the canoe, which at once tapued it to him. The owner immediately jumped out, and dragged it on shore, opposite the chief's house, and there left it. A gentleman entering my house, struck his head against a beam, which made the blood flow; the natives present said, that in former times the house would have belonged to that individual. To draw blood, even from a scratch, was a very serious matter, and often was attended with fatal consequences.

A chief's house was tapu, no person could eat therein, or even light his pipe from the fire; and until a certain service page 57 had been gone through, even a woman could not enter; the chief being sacred, had his food to himself, generally in his verandah, or apart from the rest. No chief could carry food, lest it should occasion his death, by destroying his tapu, or lest a slave should eat of it, and so cause him to die. A chief would not pass under a stage or wata (a food store). The head of the chief was the most sacred part; if he only touched it with his fingers, he was obliged immediately to apply them to his nose, and snuff up the sanctity which they had acquired by the touch, and thus restore it to the part from whence it was taken. For the same reason a chief could not blow the fire with his mouth, for the breath being sacred, communicated his sanctity with the fire, and a brand might be taken from it by a slave, or a man of another tribe, or the fire might be used for other purposes, such as cooking, and so cause his death. The chief power, however, of this institution was principally seen in its effects on the multitude.

In former times, life in a great measure depended upon the produce of their cultivations, therefore it was of the utmost importance that their kumara and taro, should be planted at the proper season, and that every other occupation should be laid aside until that necessary work was accomplished: all, therefore, who were thus employed, were made tapu; so that they could not leave the place, or undertake any other work, until that was finished; so also in fishing and hunting; and this applied not only to those thus employed, but to others: the kumara grounds were tapu; no strange natives could approach them. Even the people of the place, if not engaged in the work, were obliged to stand at a distance from the ground thus rendered sacred by solemn karakia. Doubtless this was a wise precaution to avoid interruptions, and to keep them from stealing. No one but the priest could pass in front of the party engaged in gathering in the kumara; those who presumed to do so, would be either killed or stripped for their temerity. The woods in which they hunted the rat were tapu, until the sport was over, and so were the rivers; no canoe could pass by until the rahue (generally a pole with an old garment tied to it) was taken down. In the early days of the Mission, page 58 this was a great annoyance; the members of the Mission were often unable to communicate with each other, until the dreaded pole was removed; but at last they determined to observe the tapu no longer; the boat was manned, and they rowed along in defiance of the sacred prohibition. They had not gone far, however, before they were pursued; the boat was taken ashore, and all the articles in it were seized, amongst which were some bottles of medicine and pots of preserves; these were immediately eaten, and great wrath and indignation expressed; but by preserving a firm deportment, the natives were conquered; the medicine perhaps had its share in obtaining the victory, as they found they could not meddle with the European with impunity. They held a meeting, and it was then resolved, that for the future, as Europeans were a foreign race, and subject to a different religion, the tapu should not apply to them; and afterwards, as their converts increased, the permission was enlarged to take them in as well; and finally, the tapu became disregarded by all, and fell into disuse.

Those who were tapued for any work, could not mix again in society, until it was taken off, or they were “waka noa,” that is, made common, or deprived of the sanctity with which they had been invested. This was done by the priest, who repeated a long karakia, and performed certain rites over them.

If any one wished to preserve his crop, his house, his garments, or anything else, he made it tapu; a tree which had been selected in the forest for a canoe, a patch of flax or raupo in a swamp, which an individual might wish to appropriate to himself, and which he could not then do so, he rendered tapu by tying a band round the former, with a little grass in it, or by sticking up a pole in the swamp with a similar bunch attached. If a person had been taken prisoner in war, and a feeling of pity arose in the breast of one of his captors, though it may have been the general determination to put him to death, the desire of the merciful individual would prevail, by throwing his garment over him; he who then touched the prisoner with a hostile intention touched also his preserver. An instance of this kind occurred during the late war at Wanganui: one of the inhabitants was captured by the hostile natives, he was page 59 on the point of being put to death, (as a return in kind for our own narrow and barbarous policy to a native prisoner who was hung at Porirua,) when an old chief rushed forward, and threw his blanket over him; the man was spared, and afterwards was treated with great kidness [sic: kindness], as though he were one of the tribe.

Fomerly [sic: Formerly] every woman was noa, or common, and could select as many companions as she liked, without being thought guilty of any impropriety, until given away by her friends to some one as her future master; she then became tapu to him, and was liable to be put to death if found unfaithful.*

The power of the tapu, however, mainly depended on the influence of the individual who imposed it. If it were put on by a great chief, it would not be broken, but a powerful man often broke through the tapu of an inferior. A chief would frequently lay it on a road or river, so that no one could go by either, unless he felt himself strong enough to set the other at defiance.

The duration of the tapu was arbitrary, and depended on the will of the person who imposed it; also the extent to which it applied. Sometimes it was limited to a particular object, at other times it embraced many; sometimes it was laid on one spot, at other times on an entire district. Some persons and places were always tapu, as an ariki or tohunga and their houses, so much so, that even their very owners could not eat in them; therefore all their meals were taken in the open air. The males could not eat with their wives, nor their wives with the male children, lest their tapu or sanctity should

* A woman of rank would frequently be allowed to live with a slave for a time, without her being considered as belonging to him longer than she might feel disposed to remain, or until her friends might dispose of her to one of suitable rank. Te Heuheu allowed his young daughter to live with a common Pakeka, who was tramping about in order that he might be said to have an European belonging to him; but the chief of his tribe said they should soon take her away, and bestow her in marriage on a young man of rank. When this liason was formed against the father's wish, and there was offspring, the grandfather frequently destroyed it. A chief of Rotoaira, only a few years ago, thus destroyed the illegitimate infant of his daughter by cruelly tying it up in a basket to one of the rafters of his house, and there leaving it to perish; the mother, ill from the loss of her child, came to me for medicine, but she did not seem to grieve for her infant's death.

page 60 kill them. If a chief took a fancy for anything belonging to another who was inferior, he made it tapu for himself, by calling it his backbone: and thus put, as it were, his broad arrow upon it. A chief anxious to obtain a fine large canoe belonging to an inferior who had offended him, merely called it by his own name, and then his people went and took it.

If a chief wished to hinder any one from going to a particular place, or by a particular road, he made it tapu. During the disturbances between the Government and the natives, they tapued the sea coast, and would not permit any Europeans to travel that way, and so compelled some of the highest functionaries to retrace their steps.

Some years ago, a German missionary located himself at Motu Karamu, a pa up the Mokan; the greater part of the natives there, with their head chief, Te Kuri, were members of the Church of Rome; but his head wife, however, became his warm patron. When the priest arrived there on his way down the river, he scolded Te Kuri for suffering an heretical missionary to become located in his district, and applied many opprobrious epithets to the intruder. This very much incensed the chief's lady; she said her teacher should not be abused, and therefore next morning, when his reverence was preparing to continue his journey, she made the river tapu, and to his annoyance, there was not a canoe to be found which dare break it; after storming for some time he was obliged to return by the way he came, the lady saying it would teach him to use better language another time, and not insult her minister.

To render a place tapu, the chief tied one of his old garments to a pole, and stuck it up on the spot he intended to be sacred. This he either called by his own name, saying it was some part of his body, as te Heuheu made the mountain Tongariro sacred, by speaking of it as his back-bone, or he gave it the name of one of his tupuna, or ancestors, then all descended from that individual were bound to see the tapu maintained, and the further back the ancestors went, the greater number of persons were interested in keeping up the tapu, as the credit and influence of the family was at stake, and all were bound to revenge any infringement of it.

page 61

Another kind of tapu was that which was acquired by accidental circumstances, thus,—An iron pot, which was used for cooking purposes, was lent to a Pakeka; he very innocently placed it under the eaves of his house, to catch water in; the rain coming from a sacred dwelling, rendered the utensil so likewise; it was afterwards removed by a person to cook with, without her knowing what had been done; when she was told it was sacred, it had caught water from the roof, she exclaimed, We shall all die before night; they went, however, to the tohunga, who made it noa again by uttering the Tupeke over it.*

Sickness also made the person tapu; all diseases were supposed to be occasioned by atuas or spirits, ngarara or lizards, entering into the body of the afflicted; these, therefore, rendered the person sacred. The sick were removed from their own houses, and had sheds built for them in the bush, at a considerable distance from the pa, where they lived apart; if any remained in their houses and died there, they became tapu, were painted over with red ochre, and could not again be used, which often put a tribe to great inconvenience, as some houses were the common abode of perhaps thirty or forty different people. The wife of a chief was very ill, I therefore took her into my little hospital, where she laid for several days; at last, her husband came and carried her away, saying he was afraid of her dying there, lest the house should be made tapu and thus hinder me from using it again.

During the war, Maketu, a principal chief of the hostile natives, was shot in a house belonging to a settler, which he was then plundering; from that time it became tapu, and no heathen would enter it for years.

* The following is the Tupeke:

a ko te puru, ko te puru, koa,the dancing, the dancing of the legs,
a tohe tohe ki aue uethe striving the striving, that anger may be done away.
kia tu tanga tangai te riri ethe anger cannot reach,
e kore te riri e tae mailest the stomach be pierced
ki kai wara kopustand firm like the comorant
Kawantia ko ahaaha te ririand anger departs.

This, perhaps, may be the excuse of those heathen natives, who expose and abandon their sick; it is also something like the law of the leper.

page 62
The resting places of great chiefs on a journey became tapu; if they were in the forest, the spots were cleared, and surrounded with a fence of basket work, and names were given to them. This custom particularly applied to remarkable rocks or trees, to which karakia was made, and a little bundle of rushes was thrown as an offering to the spirit who was supposed to reside there, and the sacred object was smeared over with red ochre. A similar custom prevailed when corpses were carried to their final places of interment. The friends of the dead either carved an image, which they frequently clothed with their best garments, or tied some of
A Crief Praying to his God, and a Memorial Idol.

A Crief Praying to his God, and a Memorial Idol.

the clothes of the dead to a neighbouring tree, or to a pole; or else they painted some adjacent rock or stone, with red ochre, to which they gave the name of the dead; and whenever they passed by, addressed it as though their friend were alive and present, using the most endearing expressions and casting some fresh garments on the figure, as a token of their love. These were a kind of memorial idols, similar to the painted windows in Popish churches.

An inferior kind of tapu exists, which any one may use; a person who finds a piece of drift timber, secures it for himself page 63 by tying something round it, or giving it a chop with his axe. In a similar way he can appropriate to his own use what ever is naturally common to all. A person may thus stop up a road through his ground, and often leaves his property in exposed places, with merely this simple tohu or sign, to show it is private, and generally it is allowed to remain untouched, however many may pass that way; so with a simple bit of flax, the door of a man's house, containing all his valuables, is left, or his food store; they are thus rendered inviolable and no one will meddle with them. The owner of a wood abounding with the kie kie, a much prized fruit, is accustomed to set up a pole to preserve it until the fruit be fully ripe; when it is thought to be sufficiently so, he sends a young man to see if the report be favorable; the rahue is then pulled down; this removes the tapu, and the entire population go to “takahi” or trample the wood. All have liberty to gather the fruit, but it is customary to present some of the finest to the chief owner.

When Te Heuheu and nearly sixty of his tribe were over-whelmed by a landslip, with the village of te Rapa, where they resided, the spot was for a long time kept strictly tapu, and no one was allowed to set foot on it. I was determined to make the effort, and as several who were Christians had lost their lives in the general destruction, I told the natives I should go and read the burial service over them; viewing me as a tohunga (or priest,) they did not dare to offer any opposition. I went on the sacred spot, under which the entire population of a village laid entombed, and there I read the burial service, the neighbouring natives standing on the verge of the ruin, and on the surrounding heights.

It is evident therefore that the tapu arises from the will of the chief; that by it he laid a ban upon whatever he felt disposed. It was a great power, which could at all times be exercised for his own advantage, and the maintenance of his power; frequently making some trifling circumstance, the reason of putting a whole community to great inconvenience, rendering a road to the pa, perhaps the most direct and frequented, or a grove, or a fountain, or anything else, tapu, by his arbitrary will. Without the tapu, he was only “he page 64 tangata noa,” or common man, and this is what long deterred many high chiefs from embracing Christianity, lest they should lose this main support of their power.

Few but ariki, or great tohungas, claimed the power of the tapu; inferior ones, indeed, occasionally used it, but the observance of it was chiefly confined to his own retainers, and was often violated with impunity, or by giving a small utu or payment. But he who presumed to violate the tapu of an ariki, did it at the risk of his life and property.

The tapu in many instances was beneficial, considering the state of society, the absence of law, and the fierce character of the people; it formed no bad substitute for a dictatorial form of government, and made the nearest approach to an organized state of society, or rather it may be regarded as the last remaining trace of a more civilized polity, possessed by their remote ancestors. In it we discern some what of the ancient dignity and power of the high chief or ariki, and a remnant of the sovereign authority they once possessed, with the remarkable union of the kingly and sacerdotal character in their persons. It rendered them a distinct race; more nearly allied to gods than men; their persons, garments, houses and everything belonging to them, being so sacred, that to touch or meddle with them, was alone sufficient to occasion death.

Their gods being no more than deceased chiefs, they were regarded as living ones, and thus were not to be killed by inferior men, but only by those who had more powerful atuas in them. The victorious chief who had slain numbers, and had swallowed their eyes, and drank their blood, was supposed to have added the spirits of his victims to his own; and thus increased the power of his spirit. To keep up this idea, and hinder the lower orders from trying whether it were possible to kill such corporeal and living gods, was the grand work of the tapu; and it did succeed in doing so: during by-gone ages it has had a wide spread sway, and exercised a fearful power over benighted races of men, until the stone cut without hands, smote this mighty image of cruelty on its feet, caused it to fall, and like the chaff of the summer's thrashing floor, the wind of God's word has swept it away!