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Arachne. No. 3

Introduction to Maori Poetry

Introduction to Maori Poetry

Supplement to 'Toa Takitini'

This Collection of Maori Songs first appeared in the supplement to issues of Toa Takitini of September, 1924 (3) Waiatas), October, 1924 (13), November, 1924 (8), December, 1924 (11) and January, 1925 (5), making 40 waiatas in all. Those were all the waiatas I could collect and annotate for other things occupied my time and I had to lay the task aside. Last winter I took it up again at the request of that venerable gentleman, Archdeacon Herbert Williams. I continued collecting and annotating waiatas and publishing them in the supplement of Toa Takitini. Ninety in all were thus collected and are reprinted here.

Maori as a University Subject

The Board of Maori Ethnological Research made representations to the N.Z. University Senate that Maori should be a subject for the Degree of Bachelor of Arts like French, Italian and Spanish.

The question was asked : 'Where are the Maori texts for the students to read and study?' Williams replied: 'Here they are: Nga Mahi a Nga Tupuna—The Works of the Ancestors, written by Sir George Grey. This work could be revised, and Nga Moteatea—The Poems, also collected by Sir George Grey. Nga Mahi a Nga Tipuna, as revised by Archdeacon Williams, has been published by the Board of Ethnological Research. Nga Moteatea—The Poems, has been assigned to me by that old gentleman for revision.

'Nga Moteatea' and Other Collections

It has been my fervent hope for many years that the songs, the satires, the prayers of the Maori should be collected, that their authors and origins should be fully investigated and that they should all be fully annotated. The meanings of obscure words should be explained and also allusions to myths, to the old battles, to the catastrophes and sorrows that befell our ancestors. The time when all this should have been done was when the old people who possessed the knowledge were alive, but my time was fully taken up pursuing the knowledge of things Pakeha, and here I am now somewhat belatedly performing this task.

Many of the Maori waiatas have been collected and published in the following books:

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Book Author Year No. of Waiatas
Nga Moteatea George Grey 1853 533
Te Ika a Maui Taylor 8
Traditions & Superstitions Shortland 1856 9
Maori Mementoes Davies 1855 54
Ancient History of the Maori White 1888 110
Maori Songs McGregor 1893 421

Some may be found in Te Waka Maori and in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, the Transactions of the N.Z. Institute, the Dominion Museum Bulletins, and in the publications of S. Percy Smith, Elsdon Best and T. W. Downes.

Many waiatas are contained in unpublished manuscripts held by numerous collectors. While I was gathering the waiatas published here I had occasion to look through those collected by S. Locke, W. L. Williams, Elson Best and Tiwana Turi. Some again were sent to the Polynesian Society by Whatahoro and T. W. Downes. I collected some of the waiatas myself in the Ngatiporou district. More recently Ngakura Pene Haare, of the Ngapuhi tribe, Taite te Tomo, of Ngati Tuwharetoa (who is also of Raukawa descent), and the Hon. William Rikihana, M.L.C., either sent me waiatas or explained allusions in many songs collected by myself.

Some of these songs are contained in five or six different publications, each time in a different version. This came about through the popularity of such songs; when different tribes sang them additions or deletions were made. The same happened when they were copied, especially when the copyists were Pakehas not quite conversant with Maori. Mistakes were made and we who came after may never be able to rectify them.

The only possible way is to go to the tribe where the waiatas originated and study the words sung there; perhaps also the explanations are contained in the tribal traditions. For this reason these waiatas were published in the supplements to Toa Takitini and such explanations as I could give were added so that people might see and send in their versions or criticisms of my annotations.

"Utaina"—Load the Canoe

This is the motto on the seal of the Board of Maori Ethnology calling on us to load the remnants of the treasures of the Maori on to the canoe. Some of you may perhaps look askance at this and make the accusation that these treasures would be sold for money.

We have seen that our ancestors did not withold these waiatas altogether from the Pakeha. The songs were laid down in many books but the explanations were lost. Perhaps they had been given but they are nowhere to be found.

Would you rather that these waiatas were left alone with all their obvious mistakes? Taite te Tomo and Ngakuru Pene Haare have sent in their corrections. The call has gone out to bring all the treasures of the race to a focal point.

The Board of Ethnology has spent nigh on £9,000 on the publication of modern works by Elsdon Best, Te Rangihiroa and others, explaining page 4 the customs and the migrations of the Maori. These writers received no monetary reward for their labours. Such assistance as was given was expended on the publication of their works.

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.

The Tunes

Maori poetry and song cannot be properly understood and memorised without a thorough knowledge of the tunes. How are these tunes to be learnt. The reason why some of the young people nowadays will not stand page 6 up and sing these songs is that they do not know the words of the songs. The words are being laid down in writing in the present collection.

Some of the tunes may be picked up by those who have an ear for music. However, the people able to sing these Maori songs are every day diminishing in number, the occasions on which they are sung are becoming fewer and a generation is growing up which is not very interested in these heirlooms of the Maori people.

The Pakeha has two means of recording the tunes of these Maori songs. First, it may be done by musical notation. The Hawaiian songs were dealt with in that way. Nobody has yet taken on this task, but maybe this will be done in the future.

The second method is by means of gramophone records. The Board of Maori Ethnology is giving this method much thought, and when this has been achieved the first of the methods mentioned, musical notation, may follow.

Classification of Maori Poetry

Maori Songs or Poems may be classified under several headings according to the theme and circumstances under which they were composed.

(1) Lullabies (Popo, ara, oriori)

When a child was born, a child of chieftain lineage whose ancestors performed feats of valour, a lullaby would be composed by its mother, father or grandparents. Some of the most famous Maori poems belong in this class.

The narrative would open as far back as Hawaiki, the feats of arms, the catastrophes would be recounted, and then would come the migration to these islands; the famous ancestors would be mentioned and the battles and disasters that happened here.

If perhaps an unavenged defeat or insult lay somewhere on the child's ancestral line, he or she would be incited to deeds of valour.

Associations of his ancestors with the brave chiefs of old would be recited and sometimes curses would be showered on the heads of the doers of the evil deeds that brought defeat and disaster upon the child's ancestors. Scholars are delving into waiatas of this type for allusions that will confirm historical data found in the tales of olden times. It is a well known fact that there is much Maori lore, the lore of the Whare Wananga—House of Learning, of the priests of the various tribes, contained in these poems.

(2) Laments (nga waiata tangi)

The majority of the Maori poems that have been recorded fall under the heading of laments. They are laments for the dead who may have died through sickness, accident, murder or some other disaster. In this class many of the most famous Maori songs are to be found and poetic style reaches its highest excellence. Genealogies tracing back to Hawaiki also occur in these laments. The lament of Turaukawa, a great chief from Taranaki (Nga Mokaka, p. 322) the lament of Rangiuia, the last of the priests of Te Rawheoro, the greatest of the Houses of Learning of the East Coast, for his child Tuterangiwhaitiri, are two of the greatest Maori poems recorded. Some of the greatest poems are the laments for Te Heuheu, killed by a land-slide at Te Rapa, Te Heuheu's lament for Rapaka and the lament for Tupoki, killed by Ngati Maniapoto at Parawera.

(3) Satires (nga patere, nga kaioraora)

Satires are works containing ridicule, curses, boasting or jeering. Here page 7 may be found some of the really base expressions of the language, curses are flung from party to party. Stories are told of low and base deeds perpetrated in the olden days. These poems are similar in cadence to hakas, they are recited in the savage style of hakas. The words are given emphasis by the hands, the body and facial expressions. When a patere is chanted on the marae it is almost as if the performers are engaged in battle, so greatly does the frenzy of the words excite them, even in these Pakeha days the Maori blood is then really whipped up.

(4) Love Songs (nga waiata whaiaipo)

Most of the songs of this type have disappeared. They lasted but a day and vanished with the death of their composers. Some have stayed and are sung today.

The vocabulary of affection is found in these songs. There were other expressions contained in these songs good enough perhaps for the cannibal days but requiring some toning down in the more modest modern times. Expressions of this sort were not peculiar to Maori in the embellishment of love ditties but find their parallel in Pakeha literature. Shakespeare is not free of them, but then he lived in the days of Queen Elizabeth, when such unrestricted expression of ideas about the relationship between the sexes was tolerated and often quoted in the assemblies of the rich and the great.

20 May, 1928

Translation: W. T. Ngata