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Te Ika a Maui, or New Zealand and its Inhabitants

Chapter VII. Customs Relating to the Dead

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Chapter VII. Customs Relating to the Dead.

A View of the Reinga.

A View of the Reinga.

The Customs relating to the Dead varied in almost every part of the island, as did also the ideas entertained of their state after death.

The interment of the dead was considered as a duty of the highest importance, especially that of the chiefs; as for poor slaves, little thought was bestowed upon them; they were buried or not, according to circumstances. If the corpse laid in a spot where it was not offensive to the living, there it was left; if otherwise, a hole was dug, and it was thrown into it. But when a chief died, the mournful event was immediately page 98 made known; a loud howl or wail brought all the neighbours together, who joined in the doleful cry. Since the introduction of fire arms, the custom of firing off guns has been adopted, as a powerful aid to the human voice, in testifying sorrow for the dead. A native has no idea of silent grief. The greater the noise, the greater the sorrow; and the longer it is kept up, the greater the honor paid. Every friend or relative shows his respect for the dead, by the number of guns discharged; this is called he maimai, aroha.

One of the first things was to make the kaheru, or spade, which was required for the digging of the grave; when such was needed, this was rendered sacred by the karakias which were repeated.* * Whilst it was being made, and until the interment, the body laid in state, dressed out in the finest mats, and ornamented with feathers; the mere, the gun, and spear being placed by its side. The grave was then dug in the house of the deceased, in which the body was placed in a sitting posture, the limbs being retained in that position by bandages. The body still being dressed in the best garments, adorned with the family ornaments of green-stone and shark's teeth; it was then wrapped up in a fine sleeping mat, the grave was covered over with planks and a little soil. It is still usual to inter the property of the chief with him, especially all things which have touched his person during his illness, such as garments, &c.

* The karakia used on this occasion, is a very long one; the following is the commencement:—

Ko pi ko pa hua te ata,Closed up, closed up,
Ka kai e i nga,(In the womb of night.)
Kainga ngaki o teWith the early dawn,
Matua, i waihoEat the sacrifice of the dead,
I te ao nei,From the cultivation of your father,
Ko pi ko pa hua teWhich is left in the world.
Ata, ka kai-e-,Closed up, closed up,
E hinu ra, he taro ra,In early dawn,
Ko te kai, kai namuEat the spirit of the fat, the taro,
Ai, kia wangai ia,Your food to feed you is the fly,
Kai namu ki pai-rau ru,Eat it in Pairau your abode.
&c., &c.

Even Christian natives regard the spade used in digging a grave as being tapu, and do not like to use it again, except for the same purpose.

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In some parts, it was customary for the widow to spread her mat over her husband's grave, and constantly sleep upon it; but in former times, one or more of the chief's wives would strangle themselves to accompany and wait upon their lord in the other world; for this purpose, also, several slaves were killed, that the chief might not be without attendants. Sometimes, the chief wife would have her husband's head cut off, and dried, and then always sleep with it by her side.

In other places, the body was put into a kind of frame, formed by two pieces of an old canoe, standing about six feet high, and forming a hollow place, in which the corpse was seated on a grating, to allow the flesh, as it decomposed, to fall through. After a certain time, the skeleton was removed, and the bones were scraped; this was the Ngapuhi custom. In the south, where the body was interred, the first rukutanga tupapaku, or digging up of the corpse, took place about four weeks after the nehunga, or burial, when a feast was made by the relations and friends of the dead; on this occasion, the tohunga extracted two or more of the molar teeth of the corpse, which he tied to a small stick or fern stalk, and then laid upon the food, which was prepared for the oven; this was called te umu o te pera, or the oven of the putrified flesh.* The first was tapued for the tohunga; the second oven was for the guests. While the teeth laid on the food, a long karakia was repeated over them; afterwards the ornaments of the corpse, which had been buried with it, consisting of shark's teeth or green-stone, were removed, and worn by the relatives, for the ceremony appears to have been chiefly intended to wakanoa, or take off the tapu from the body, so that the ornaments might be again used, which otherwise they could not have been. When the ceremony was over, the two teeth were bored, and worn as ear ornaments by the nearest relative; the body was then again wrapped up in a fine mat, and reinterred.

After two years, the bones were again dug up; this was called te Ruku-tanga tuarua, or the wakanoa-tanga tuarua, when the hahunga, or scraping of the bones, took place. This

* Psalm cviii., 28—“And ate the sacrifices of the dead.”

page 100 being considered an indispensable duty to the remains of chiefs, all the friends and relatives of the dead were summoned to assist, and a great feast was given on the occasion. The bones when scraped, were painted with red ochre and oil, and ornamented with feathers; they were then carefully wrapped up in a fine mat, which was also surrounded with several others; this being done, the sacred bundle was deposited in a small canoe, which was elevated on a pole, or oftentimes it was placed in a miniature house, similarly raised up, or else the bones were carried to the top of some sacred tree, and there left on a small stage; sometimes they were put in a hollow trunk, or conveyed to a cave or fissure of the rocks, where they were finally left. But it was not uncommon to burn them; when that was done, it was called the tahunga, or burning.

When a person died, food was placed by his side, and some also with him in the grave, as it was supposed the spirit of the deceased fed on the spirit of the food given it.

At Taranaki, the child of a chief was buried in the whare tapu, i.e. its father's house, in the middle of which a grave was dug, and covered over with boards, on which the family slept. The child had a taro placed in each hand, so that if he descended into the reinga, he might have food. When the relatives thought that the body was sufficiently decomposed, they dug it up, and scraped the bones, which were afterwards placed in an ornamented basket, and suspended from the ridgepole of the mahau, or verandah, and from time to time the priest karakied over them, to assist the soul in ascending through the different heavens. If it did not reach the eighth heaven, its abode was not very comfortable. The tenth was regarded as the chief residence of the gods. Every time a prayer was uttered over the bones, it was supposed to aid the soul in its ascent. When asked why they placed the taro in the hands, if they thought the soul ascended to heaven, the reply was, they were not sure whether it ascended or descended; they knew the body descended, and they thought it probable the soul did the same; therefore, they put a seed taro in the grave, that, should such be the case, they might be right both ways.

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Many, however, of the Taranaki natives had no faith either in the ascending or descending of spirits:* they thought that the dead always remained near their bodies. That the wahi tapu (sacred places), which are generally small groves, adjoining their pas, in which they were interred, were also filled with their spirits; but if a person died a violent death, he wandered about until the priest, by his spells, brought his spirit within the sacred enclosure.

When a chief was killed in battle, and eaten, his spirit was supposed to enter the stones of the oven, with which his body had been cooked, which retained their heat so long as it remained in them. His friends repeated their most powerful spells to draw out his spirit from the stones, and bring it within the wahi tapu.

So also, when any were slain in battle, the friends endeavoured to procure some of their blood, or fragments of their garments, if the body could not be obtained, over which they uttered a karakia, and thus brought the wandering soul within this spiritual fold. These places are still looked upon with much fear, as the spirits are thought occasionally to wander from them, and cause all the sickness their relatives suffer. In them the tuahu, or native altar, the toko and the pataka, or stage for offerings to the gods, were placed: it was thought to be extremely dangerous for the living to enter either them or the houses where the dead were buried; in almost every pa nearly half the houses belonged to the dead. When the owner died, and was buried in his house, it was left, with all it contained; the door was tied up, and painted with ochre, to show it was made tapu, and then no one ever entered it again. These abandoned houses, being in every stage of decay, gave a very

* Whakaeke, a karakia to facilitate the ascent of the spirit:—

I ei! tena te huri,Alas! this is the turning over,
Te huri ka whakarawe,The severing the link of life.
Te huri e whano ai koe,The turning over that you
Ki to tini,May join the many,
Ki to mano,The multitude,
Ki to kauariki,The ariki gone before.
Whakairi atu,Ascend the road
To ara ki te rangi.To heaven.

page 102 unsightly appearance to the pa. The reason assigned for burying in houses was, that the chief might still possess the power he had in life, and not seem to be deprived of any of his rights by death.

One sign of grief was cutting the forehead and face with a piece of obsidian, until the whole person was covered with blood; this was always done by the wives of the dead. The tohunga, also, cut off the hair of the relatives, and cast it into the fire; and they eat fern root in the morning. Kainga i te ata te aruhi.

When any friends arrive at a pa, it is customary for them to cry over all those who have died since they were last there. They weave a chaplet of green branches, or of a beautiful lycopodium; * one of the elder females of the party, who acts as chief mourner on the occasion, has a chaplet of dog's hair round her temples, sometimes it is very tastefully made, of a kind of black sea-weed; they then present themselves before the house of the dead, and begin the cry in a low plaintive tone; the lady, who leads the ceremonies, throwing about her arms, and slowly raising her head and eyes to heaven, then casting them down again, and crossing her arms on her breast. Until a person is accustomed to these scenes, he can scarcely refrain from weeping too, it appears so very natural, and the wail seems to come from the very bottom of the soul. The virtues of the dead are repeated, and the following wail is used on such occasions: for a male—He— — —taku makawe hi. Alas, the covering or glory of my head, alas. For a female—Haere e hine e wai i te ara o tupuna, kia karanga nui mai kei o kui ha, kei o matua, hei karanga mai ki a koe. Go, O lady, pursue the path of your ancestors; call loudly to your female and male ancestors, they summon you.


He pihi mo nga Tupapaku.A lament for the dead.
Taku hei* he piripiri, My fragrant bundle the piripiri,
Taku hei mokimoki,My fragrant bundle the mokimoki,
Taku hei tawiriMy fragrant bundle the tataka,
Taku kati taramea,My sweet juice of the taramea,
Te hei o te pounamu,The companion of the green-stone,
I haramai ai — o,Is gone—alas, to
I runga te Angai-ia-ana.The Angai — e —.

* Thu hei was a little acent bag or bundle tied to a string and worn round the neck.

This was called He Pare or Taua.

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The tangi, or wail, was not confined to the dead; whenever friends met, the tangi was raised, they cried over each other. This ancient custom probably arose from the insecurity of life in former days; those who had escaped from their constant fights, when they met, cried over each other as though they had been dead: even we sometimes cry for joy, at seeing any dear friend, relative, or child, who has had any great deliverance from danger; the custom naturally becomes general amongst a savage and warlike race, like that of the Maori.

When the dead were buried, the following pihi was used, by the side of a running stream, in which a staff was stuck.

To ko kai i te po, Place a staff for the po or night,
Te po nui, The great po,
Te po roa, The long po,
Te po uri uri, The dark po,
Te po tango tango, The gloomy po,
Te po wawa, The intense po,
Te po te kitea, The unseen po,
Te po te waia, The unsearchable po.
Tena toko ka tu, Behold the staff stands,
Ko toko o The staff of
Tane rua nuku. Tane rua nuku.

This was followed by one for the living. Another staff was then stuck in the water, and the priest said:—

Toko kai te ao, Place a staff for the day,
Te ao nui, te ao roa, The great day, the long day,
Te ao marama, The bright day,
Te ao whekere, The gloomy day.
Tena toko katu, Behold the staff stands,
Ko toko Ikurangi, The staff of the end of heaven,
Ko toko te wai ao, The staff of flowing light,
Ko toko te ao marama, The staff of the bright world,
Oti mai ki te ao. This is all for the day.

The prevailing idea of the abode of spirits was, that they went to the Reinga, which is another name for Po or Hades; the word Reinga literally means, the leaping place. The spirits were supposed to travel to the North Cape, or land's end, and there passing along a long narrow ledge of rock, they leaped down upon a flat stone, and thence slinging page 104 themselves into the water by some long sea-weed, they entered Po, the Reinga being the passage to it.*

It was supposed that there were several compartments in Hades, the lowest being the worst, having no light or food, and there the spirits were thought gradually to pine away, and to be finally annihilated. Spirits were thought to require food, and to feed upon flies and filth; but they had also the spirit of the kumara and taro. Before a soul enters the Reinga, he has to pass a river called Waioratane, the keeper of which places a plank for him to go over; sometimes he will not do so, but drives him back to the upper regions, with friendly violence, in order that he may take care of the family he has left behind; so, likewise, if he has not partaken of the food of the Reinga, he may return again to the earth. If a person has recovered from a dangerous disease, or from anything which threatened his life, he is said to have reached Waioratane and returned.

The following account was given me of an old woman who was said to have died near Rotorua not many years ago:—She was taken ill and died, as they thought. They laid her out in the native fashion, on a bier in her house, and then rubbing the door over with red ochre, as a token of its being tapu, her relatives left her. Some days after, two natives were paddling along the coast in their canoe, when an old woman called to them to take her into the canoe. They landed, and were rather frightened at her appearance, her eyes being sunk in her head and glassy. She gave the following account of herself:—She said, she had returned from the Reinga; that after her death, she came to a water, where some one met her, and bid her run and call for a canoe, otherwise she would be stopped by a large bird; she accordingly ran with all her might, and called for one, which immediately came for her,

* The spirit of a person who resided in the interior generally carried with it some tohu or remembrance of the part it came from, such as a leaf of the palm tree; that of a person on the coast took with it a kind of grass which grows by the sea side. A portion of these tohus are left at its different resting places on its way to the Reinga; these little bundles of leaves so left are called Waka u's. A green bundle denotes a recent death.

page 105 with one of her deceased relatives in it, but she had only just time to get into it, before a great bird came and tried to stop her; she soon reached the other side, and saw a kainga, where they were just sitting down to eat their food; she recognized several of her acquaintance; they offered her a fresh-made basket with food in it, but her relative warned her not to eat of it, otherwise she could never return; so when they pressed her to eat, she would not touch it, and when she looked at the food they had given her, she perceived that it was filth. After some time, her relative bid her get up and return. She obeyed, and he told her that she might go back to the earth, as he wanted her to take care of his grandchild, for it was too young to be left, and she was the only relative remaining to bring him up. When she stepped into the canoe, another tried to stop her, and wanted to go likewise; it was her evil spirit. After some time, it was permitted. Her relative gave her two very fine seed kumara. When she reached the shore, the evil spirit likewise wanted to get out, and hinder her from doing so, but her relative would not permit him to leave the canoe. The banks of the coast were very steep; there she saw the roots of the pohutukawa, which she laid hold of to pull herself up by, but immediately she had put her hands upon them, a number of potiki (infant gods, the most malicious of all,) ran up, and were going to pull her down, when she bethought herself of the seed kumara, and threw one amongst them, and whilst they were scrambling for it, she climbed up, but before she could reach the top, they returned; she then threw the second kumara amongst them, and thus diverting their attention, she reached the top, and escaped, and safely arrived at her house, where her spirit again entered her body. She got up and tried to open the door, but could not, as it was fastened outside. She then managed, though very faint with hunger and weakness, to creep out at the window, and seeing a bowl with the remainder of the ochre in it, which had been used to paint her door, such was her thirst, that she drank it all off.*
There are many stories told of persons who have descended

* This poor woman appears to have been in a trance.

page 106 into the Reinga and returned. One is said to have gone there, who stated, that when he jumped into the sea, he found it was of no great depth; there was a large place below, into which the sun shone; he saw a door, which he tried to open in vain, it was fastened; so after having knocked some time to no purpose, he wisely determined to revisit the earth.

Another man went down, and there married a lady, with whom he returned to his own place. After some time she persuaded him to go back with her to the Reinga, so they went to the jumping place; when they got there, she told him to go first, but giving the lady the precedence, he bid her take the first jump; after some dispute, she at last did so; her timid partner, changing his mind, then returned home, and left his wife in the Reinga!

The Carving on a Tomb.

The Carving on a Tomb.