The Spike: or, Victoria University College Review, June 1924
Mr. Best is nothing if not sympathetic in his handling of two systems of beliefs that he plainly thinks will find their ultimate repository in brotherly communion in the dustbin of religious curiosities. For, keenly alive as he is to the romantic carelessness of reality that characterises the Maori mind in its grapple with things infinite, he realises to the full that the culmination of the tussle is never a complete defeat. He possesses a remarkably keen sense of the poetic beauty that always seems to be engendered more readily from the friction of the mind of primitive man with reality than from the loose rubbing of the mind of civilised man with the screen of conventionalities that usually contrives to hide away the elemental facts and foundations of life. Indeed, one would be surprised to find it otherwise. For Mr. Best, a traveller in the Far West, a stout hand in the lumber camps of Canada, a wanderer in wildest Mexico, an intimate friend of the Maori in days when the Maori granted his friendship but rarely to the uncomprehending pakeha, is still a vagrant and a poet at heart, and the stirringly earnest expounder of a mythology of which he seems almost at times to be the devotee. But he is withal a realist uncompromisingly. And in his character as such he knows how real the fairyland of Rangi and Papa, of Tiki and Tane and Whiro may become. In the lecture before us, he tells how the prestige of the Maori race, their tribal pride, their civic institutions, their daily round of use and wont were all sustained and supported by their fervent faith in the directing and enlivening guardianship and power of these my thopoetic personification of earth and heaven, of light and darkness. Such was their faith that the man who believed he had displeased the gods by breaking some rite of tapu was convinced that he would die from their hands within twenty-four hours—and of the greatness of his faith lay down and died accordingly. Consider now the plight of a people so dependent upon the goodwill of their gods, so helpless if they believed their gods were alienated, when there came to their shores the sky-breaking white men of the antipodes, white men who told them their gods were false, that their worship was futile. Well might the Maori feel that the ancient mauri ora of the race was noa, its mana long since shed, the tapu violate, the moral code desecrate, and license paramount where law had prevailed of old.
What wonder that decadence set in long, long before the missionary destroyers of the code Maori could implant the code Christian! Shorn of his ancestral institutions, uncomprehending the new, the Maori saw the grandeur of the old simple life of fishing, fighting and feasting pass before his eyes and sink into the whirlpool of the commingled mixture of beer, bluestone, and kerosene that inaugurated and symbolised the new era. In New Zealand, as in so many lands, the advent of Christianity destroyed the older, more primitive faiths only to enshrine Mammon and European commercialism in lieu thereof."I come to find Christians and spices," said Vasco de Gama when he landed in India. "I come to find Christians and broad acres" might well have been the parallel comment of Edward Gibbon Wakefield in 1839. For nopage 52
Maori strong in the faith of the dead gods would have dared to outrage their pride by alienating their land (and his) to the tipua, the sea-demons of the north.
How the Maori ever came to accept uncomprehendingly the God of the white man to the destruction of his own ancestral gods might have remained forever an unsolved problem in the strange psychology of the Neolithic mind had it not been for Mr. Best. For the exchange of the familiar morally potent gods for the unfamiliar, incomprehensible and therefore morally powerless God of the pakeha seems at first sight a poor bargain. So indeed it proved. But the Maori did not see it in that light until it was already too late. How he actually did see it is powerfully told by Mr. Best with all the verve of the born teller of tales in his story of how Christianity came to Maungapohatu. We shall not spoil his tale by retailing it here.
Appreciative as Mr. Best is of the departed glory of Maori tradition and custom, he is not maliciously destructive of the Christian tradition that killed and replaced it. And herein he displays that; Avideness of sympathy and broadness of outlook that we noted above. For although he deplores the ignorance of the early missionaries, he realises that they built worse than they knew, and that their motives were of the highest. And he is ready to acknowledge and appreciate the changed attitude of modern churchmen such as the Rev. A. Hopkins, the Rev. W. J. Durrad, and Father Le Roy. Nevertheless, no one realises more fully than Mr. Best that in some respects the ancient Maori tohunga taught a code that was vastly superior to certain of the dogmas promulgated by the Rev. Samuel Marsden and those who followed him.
"The religion introduced by these energetic and assuredly courageous men," he says, "was that of our own forbears, plentifully besprinkled with hell-fire and burning lakes. It was now that the Maori learned, to his amazement, that the human soul has a troublous time of it when he leaves this world and fares out upon the Broad Path of Tane. No longer, as of yore, was he to lead a carefree life in Rarohenga, where the ex-Dawn Maid ever protects the souls of her descendants, or ascend by the whirl wind-path to the uppermost of the twelve heavens, there to be welcomed by Mareikura, the celestial maids of that supernal realm. His doom was to be case into a furnace of so fierce a heat that it can destroy immaterial qualities, an all-embracing fire in a drear region where the diet consists of brimstone and treacle."
And Mr. Best knows, too, that the Maori religion was not to be condemned in too facile a manner. The conversion of the heathen may be a very worthy object, but a strict searching of heart to determine who is the heathen is a praiseworthy preliminary. And after all, Mr. Best hints delicately, is it not possible that tohunga and priests, Maori and Christian, were all heathen together. For Christian origins are knit up with the cultures of far-away Babylonia and further Sumeria, the legendary cradle home of our own far-voyaging Maori. In the name of Io the Parentless, Io the Supreme Being, of all things the parent, himself uncreate, it is probable that the Maori has preserved an Asiatic equivalent of Jehovah known variously as Yahweh, Iahone, Iahou, and Io. The legend of Adam and Eve and the serpent also is found in Maori mythology, and other parallels abound, such as the belief in the ingress or egress of the spirit in sneezing, which is preserved in the Old page 53 Testament story of Elisha's raising the daughter of the Shulamite from the dead. It may appear paradoxical to dub your Christian teacher heathen, but we cannot resist the reflection that Mr. Best is in sober earnest and entirely in the right. For he who clings to the unrecognised shadows of forgotten gods secure in the belief that they are the living substance of an ever rejuvenescent Deity, is your truest heathen. He is no pagan who discerns behind the Godhead the first troubled stirrings of the awakening spirit of man from its long puparial sleep, no longer oblivious of the ever unsolved mystery of the origin of the cosmos, or behind the belief in immortality the slumbering chrysalis enshrouded thought of aboriginal man in his explanation of the wandering of the thinly material soul in dreams and the cessation of the breath in death. Rather is he your true pagan who sheet-anchors his faith to the falsely facile world explanations of man the primitive. He it is who weaves thicker the warp and woof of the chrysalis. But despite his efforts upon a day will come a breaking of wings, and in the heat of the noonday a shrivelling of the old protection of superstition. It was very beautiful and very comforting while it lasted. But, alas! it was but a grub's paradise.
Such appears to be Mr. Best's faith. And the upshot of it all? Well, it is this: Let us no longer be intolerant of the beliefs of the Maori. But they are false. Well, how, think you, our own will fare in ten thousand years? Mayhap we were grubs together.