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The Ancient History of the Maori, His Mythology and Traditions: Tai-Nui. [Vol. V]

Opinions Of the Press. — The Ancient History Of The Maori

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Opinions Of the Press.
The Ancient History Of The Maori.

There is no more mysterious and interesting people than the Maoris of New Zealand. Before the European settlement this chivalrous though cannibal race was living in the Age of Stone; yet they had a highly-organized society, and records of extreme antiquity and value. Of these records (purely oral) examples have been published by Sir George Grey, by the Rev. Richard Taylor, and by Bastian. Mr. White has now made a fresh collection of the mythical hymns and histories. The book appeals only to students, but for them it has the deepest interest.

Mr. White has printed the various versions given by various priests of the old faith. It was the duty of those men not only to remember the venerable legends, but to impart them with the utmost exactness to chosen hearers, who, again, handed them down unimpaired to a younger generation. The correctness of the tradition was maintained under superstitious sanctions (even now there are passages which the more or less Christianised doctors will not divulge to Europeans), and also by the supervision of the oldest and most learned of the initiate. The teaching was conducted with every circumstance of solemnity and tabu. Thus the whole process of securing accurate transmission may be compared to the modes by which the Vedas were preserved in the memory of the Brahmanic caste in India. An extreme minuteness of ritual and sacrifice in connection with these lessons may also remind us of Indian practice. Nor are the traditions of the beginnings of gods and men and of the world, of the Deluge, of the origin of death, at all inferior to the fables of the Brahmanas on the same topics; while the meditative hymns may be compared for sublimity and purity to that famous poem, Rig Veda, i. 129.

How, or when, or where the Maoris developed their systematic treatment of traditions and myths which they share with the rest of mankind is a matter for conjecture. Hints of an Indian origin have been ventured; but the subject is not discussed by Mr. White in this volume, nor do we propose to add a guess of our own.

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It is a peculiarity of the present collection that it is almost silent about Maui, the Maori “culture-hero;” while its cosmogonic legends resemble the Cronus myth in Hesiod much less closely than do the versions in Grey and Taylor. Examples of this will be given. But first the reader must remember that the Maoris have been, of all known backward races, the most metaphysical. Their grasp of abstract conceptions is astonishing, and it may be said that Heraclitus or Parmenides would have felt at home in the terminology of Maori philosophy. Thus, Mr. White gives the word “tua” as a term “limitless in meaning—namely, ‘Behind that which is most distant,’ ‘Behind all matter,’ and ‘Behind every action;’ it also means ‘the essence of worship.’” Yet, while possessed of such notions, the Maoris in their myths represent heaven and earth as beings with personal powers and passions. Their divine genealogies are on a par with those of Hesiod and the Orphic poems; and they have no scruple in recording divine weddings with the lower animals, and bestial ancestries of the families of men. These features of their mythology are precisely akin to similar absurdities among Greeks and Bushmen. We may say with the philosophical editor of the “Cabinet des Fées,” in the last century, that a similar ignorance everywhere produced similar stories. But, whether the metaphysical hymns or the mythical contes are the older, or whether they are of contemporary origin, though springing from different moods and faculties of mind, we cannot decide. But it may be observed that, as the foolish and disgusting fables are what we find semper, et ubique, et ab omnibus, while the Eleatic metaphysics are all but peculiar to the Maoris (the Amautas in Peru lived in a higher civilisation), it is probable that the myths are the earlier, while the metaphysical hymns are the fruit of later priestly reflection. This is plausible, because we do not (as far as our knowledge goes) find anything parallel to Maori metaphysics among races that do not possess an organized hereditary learned and priestly class.

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Such a class existed among the Maoris, and the hymns and iepoi Noyou were handed on from eldest son to eldest son. Now, a society—say that of Australians or Bushmen—which has not developed any special hereditary learned class is undeniably less advanced, less differentiated, nearer the beginning, than a society like that of the Maoris. The less differentiated society does possess the wild myths, as the Greeks and Maoris also do, but does not possess the reflective and metaphysical hymns. These belong to Quichuas, Egyptians, Indians, Maoris, peoples which have an organized meditative and sacerdotal hierarchy. Thus it does appear as if the wild tales were the more primitive, while the abstract conceptions are the fruit of special philosophic reflection.

Mr. White's account of the scholastic ritual of instruction and of “The School of Mythology and History,” with the sacrifices and ceremonies, should be read by all students of early races (pp. 8—13). There is also an astronomical school, and a school of agriculture, including lessons in applied magic.

As for the cosmogonic legends, they vary more or less in the versions of various tribes. In Darkness, the Divine (Atua) began his chant of creation, singing how Dark begat Light, and thereafter came a long string of mystic genealogies in the Orphic taste. Among the mythical parents is Raki (dry), some of whose children “dragged mankind down to death.” This Raki had an intrigue with Papa-tu-a-nuku, who was the wife of Taka (Tanga-roa). Cherchez la femme, says the sage: here she is. This affair of Papa led to trouble, and, in fact, was the Maori Fall. In Raki we may recognise the Rangi of Taylor's version, while Papa-tu-a-nuku is his Papa. They are Heaven and Earth. Originally united, like Ouranos and Gaia, in an embrace which darkened earth and their offspring, they were violently severed (Taylor) or, after Taka had speared Rangi, they were thoughtfully thrust apart, in a kindly spirit, by their children. This answers to the mutilation of Ouranos by his son Cronos, and his consequent withdrawal into the heights of air. Thus from the priestly meta-physics we suddenly drop into the page break popular myths. This particular tale is known in the Brahmanas, where Indra takes the part of Tane the Separator. It is very common in the Pacific Islands. Tane decorated Raki by sticking the stars all over him, as the Wolf did in a myth of the Navajoes (Schoolcraft, iv. 89). In one tribal version, at least, Raki requested Tane to lift him up (p.47). In others (Taylor) the Maori Cronos, as in Greece, is reproached for cruelty. The incantation chanted at the divorce is published by Mr. White (p.50).

Of the Deluge-myth there are variants. Ta-whaki causes it (p.55) by stamping on the floor of heaven till it cracked, the result being the same as when the windows of the heavens were opened. Much more elaborate versions are given (p. 172). Men increased and became wicked. Theological teaching by Para-whenua was neglected, and even ridiculed. The teacher made a raft, and uttered incantations to heaven; Rangi or Raki then, with some birds and some women, got on board the raft, and the Deluge came. All the scoffers were drowned. The Maori Noah, or Manu, landed when the flood subsided, and found not only that the wicked were dead, but that the earth had changed its appearance. Mr. Howorth will be pleased to hear that “Puta caused the commotion which overthrew the earth, so that the animals of this world” (e.g., the mammoth), “and the birds, and the moa, and others of the same kind were destroyed.” Thus the Maoris anticipated Mr. Howorth's theory of the moa. The ritual practised after the Flood still survives (p. 175). This appears a very strong proof that the legend is pre-Christian, and, in essentials at least, not derived from the missionaries.

The myth of the making of man out of clay recurs frequently. The making of woman, and how she became the wife of her fashioner, and how, when she knew this, she fled to Death, reminds one of the similar Brahmanic myth of Purusha (Muir, “Ancient Sanskrit Texts,” i. 25; “Satapatha Brahmana,” xiv. 4, 2). In Maori this daughter-wife became Hine-nui-te-po, “great daughter of darkness,” she who finally swallowed Maui, and caused the origin and universality of death. But the Maori cycle is not given in Mr. White's volume.

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The fable that an aquatic plant engendered the red clay whence man was made, or grew, reminds one of the Zulu myth that man came out of a bed of reeds. Tane married a tree, and his children were trees. He then made a woman out of mud and sand to be his wife.

Mr. White prints his Maori text in the original, and gives genealogical tables of the gods. His work is the fruit of many years of labour spent in collecting the holy legends from the learned class. Just in time he has come; and we look forward with much pleasure to the later volumes of a work which should be in every library of myth, religion, folklore, and ethnology. He will conclude with a Maori dictionary. Most of his old Maori friends are gone on the dim way to Po, the place of the departed. They were “men of noble and heroic spirit, who, while they acknowledged and dreaded the malignant power of the gods of their fathers, yet dared to disclose some of their sacred lore to one of an alien race.”