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Arachne. No. 3

The Poets' Skill

The Poets' Skill

In these waiatas the skill of our ancestors at expressing their ideas in the Maori language may be seen. In these days of Pakeha influence we are apt to be verbose and stilted, our mode of expression can be likened to a toddler taking a long time to go a little way.

In the days of our ancestors ideas were expressed pointedly in brief and euphonious idioms. Let us consider the following examples illustrating what I have said.


Na tona rite he paenga whakairo ki roto o Kaiweka

'It was as if carved panels had been cast up at Kaiweka.'

Explained in today s language, this means, 'It was like the whales cast up at Kaiweka, so many were the hundreds of braves, the hundreds of chiefs, the wearers of tattoo, the emblem of greatness'.


Ko ana kai makamaka i aroha nei an, ko te zoaka te toia, te haumatia.

'I fondly remember him for the food he gave away; his canoe was hauled without bidding.'

Expressed in today's language this would be, 'I fondly remember this man because of his generosity. When he went out to fish he returned with a haul and gave fish away to the many that awaited him. For that reason many gathered to haul his canoe ashore without being bidden.'


Tirohia mai ra
Aku pewa i taurite tenei ka titoko
Kai te ngaru whakateo e tere i Taupo.

'Look at my eyebrows
That were once even but now are jagged
like the waves whipped up at Taupo'.

Explained in today s language, 'Look at my eyebrows, hitherto they have been even, but since I have been stricken by an ailment they are uneven, like the waves at Taupo. When the storm breaks they are whipped up like the uneven jagged edges of trees.'


E kore au e mihi mei riro ana koe
I te puta tu ata i whakarakea i te awatea

'I shall not lament if death take you in battle;
it is disaster bursting upon the bright daylight.'

Expressed in today's language: 'I shall not lament, I shall not grieve over you if you were killed in battle while the sun is shining even if it is a disaster that sweeps men aside as trees are felled in the bush.'

There are innumerable examples. You, the students, can seek them out in these waiatas, or poetry of the Maori language.

The difficult waiatas are those filled with allusions to place names, names of ancestors and references to battles and catastrophes. The authors of the poems regarded these allusions as all-important. When reference is made to E koro i Tongariro, 'You old man of Tongariro,' the people of the Tuwharetoa tribe would immediately understand that the reference is to Te Heuheu, a chief and a holy man who was buried by a landslide at Te Rapa and whose body lies at rest on Mount Tongariro.

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Te Wharepouri lamented Nukupewepewa at Nukutawa and said:—

Nga tai tangi max o Manukau i raro
Ki Ngapuhi ra ia, ki Wainukumamao
Ki Morianuku.

The tides at Manukau below mournfully lament
And cry out to Ngapuhi to Wainukumamao
To Morianuku.

These names pass fondly through the thoughts of Te Wharepouri; they were the haunts of his loving friend Nuku, a man filled with noble thoughts who saved Te Wharepouri's wife and daughter in battle and returned them to him safely. It is his spirit that is speeding to the place from whence the Spirits take off for the Spirit World, Te Rerenga Wairua, and it travels there by way of the beach at Manukau, a name famed in the Maori world, and from there to the Ngapuhi district north of Auckland, and onwards until they approach the place where the spirits say farewell before taking their leave for Hawaiki, the Great Faraway, the remote Island, the far faraway land, the link with the Spirit World.

The Spirit rests but briefly at the lookout post at Morianuku with a backward glance, before it continues its journey.

Again we have this allusion—

Ka riro aku taonga i a Te Hanamai.
'All that was mine Te Hanamai has taken.'

Who can understand this without an explanation as to Te Hanamai's identity? Te Hanamai was an ancestor of the Ngati Whatua tribe, a chief of people afflicted with leprosy. Te Rohua's lament then becomes clear, for she was a beautiful woman in her time while she was in good health. When she was, however, afflicted with leprosy, caused by the hand of Te Hanamai, she was robbed of all that was hers, even to the beauty of her body.

For these reasons it becomes apparent that we must have the explanations of the many names that occur in the waiatas. Likewise we must have explanations of the Maori ideas and customs alluded to in the poetry. For instance:—


Whangaia iho ra ki te umu ki tahaki.
'Give him food from the oven set aside.'

That is, give him food from the oven set aside for chiefs, and not from the oven in which food for the multitude has been cooked.


Kore tohunga rnana hei wehe rawa ra ki te wai.
'No chief would ever separate by water.'

This alludes to the ceremony of thwarting love, in which a person is taken by the priest to the water's side and incantations are said for thwarting love.


Ra pea koe kei mua te waitapu.
'You are perhaps in front of the holy pool.'

This is the holy pool of the seers seeking out the causes of death and seeing whether death has been caused by sickness.