Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (digital text)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

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

Opinions Of The Press. — “The Ancient History of the Maori.”

page break

Opinions Of The Press.
“The Ancient History of the Maori.”

Mr. White has now published the second and third volumes of his “Ancient History of the Maori.” Here we find Maori myths and traditions often repeated in many variants, for it appears that the different tribes often tell different stories. Yet there is a distinct endeavour to keep up a uniform and orthodox tradition among the tohungas, medicine-men, priests, and instructors. “Kirimahinahina was a tohunga who taught history incorrectly. It was he who told the younger Tura-kau-tahi that Tiki made man, whilst the fathers had always said that it was Io. Te-wera adopted a novel method of preventing his teaching surviving him, or his spirit escaping and perverting the mind of any other tohunga. Having made an oven capable of containing the entire body, he carefully plugged the mouth, nose, ears, &c., and then cooked and ate the heretical teacher.”

This is a valuable and pleasing example of orthodox methods in a barbarous community. The Maoris have a strong sense of the necessity for preserving oral traditions accurately. Yet even about Ru-ai-moko-roa, god of earthquakes, there is uncertainty, for (vol. ii., p. 2) he “was not born,” while (vol. ii., p. 4) we read the names of his father and mother. Thus, in spite of the well-meant efforts of Te-wera, the Maori Church does err, and has erred on many weighty matters of doctrine. For this reason Mr. White gives many versions of each myth. But, on a synoptic view, the discrepancies are usually so slight that a Maori Robert Elsmere need have found little cause to threw off the toika (or white fillet of the tohunga), and rush into such wilful error as Kirimahinahina.

We cannot but suspect that heresy and a hasty rationalising temper show themselves in the legend of Io. Hitherto we have distinctly held that Rangi and Papa, heaven and earth, were unborn, and the makers of things. But now it is alleged that “Io really is the God. He made heaven and earth.” How does page ii this coincide with the statement that Io is the involuntary twitching of the human body—an ominous kind of twitching? “By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes,” is the European expression of a similar belief. The myths are full of points of interest, but they do not tell a long tale well and coherently. We can but mark passages of interest. For example, the practice by which a man avoids his mother-in-law and a woman her father-in-law is well marked in early usage. Here (ii.,7) we have an example of an amour which resulted from not practising this avoidance, and which caused great scandal. Here, too, we find a legend of childbirth, which, before Tura's time, was invariably fatal to the mother. “Tura taught the art of cooking, and how children might be born with safety to the mother.” Tura was the first of men whose hair turned white. “Hence grey hairs, age, and decay have come on all men.” Here comes the tale of the Man in the Moon. He was Rona, who tripped in walking, hurt his foot, and cursed the moon. “She came down, and by the power of her rays drew him with his calabashes and a tree which he had laid hold of, and placed them in her bosom, where he and they have remained and may be seen to this day.”

The famous myth of Maui is told in many variants. A youngest child, an abortion like the youngest of the Vedic Adityas, Maui was the fire-bringer, the beater of the sun, the culture hero, who invented barbs to hooks. He attempted to conquer death, which was introduced into the world by the omission of some rites in Maui's baptism. His plan was to enter into his grandmother Night and be born again; but Night was awakened, either by the laughter of a bird or of Maui's brethren. Night snapped Maui, and ever since men have died. In the form of a dove he stole fire—like Yehl, like a Finnish hero, like the Gayâtri, like the wren in Normandy, like Prometheus in Greece. The sun used to set almost as soon as he had risen before Maui beat him and broke his wings. In vol. ii., p. 87, is the Maori version of the Myth of the Moon and Death, which is known in the Fiji Islands and among the Zulus. Has it been separately evolved, or has it been diffused by transmission ? In this case, as the waxing and waning of the moon suggests that man's life may wax after waning, either hypothesis is possible.

page iii

Maui said to Hina, the moon, “Let death be brief; and, as the moon dies and returns with renewed strength, so let man die and revive.” But Hina said, “Not so. Let death be long; and when man dies let him go into darkness and become like earth, that those he leaves may weep, and wail, and lament.”

It is a fine myth, but does not exclude the belief in a home of the dead whence one woman was rescued more completely than Eurydice. She loved a Maori, and hanged herself on hearing that he was already married. Her kin took up the blood-feud against the man, and he only saved himself by bringing her back from Po, or Hades. In the Maori Hades, as in Europe and America, he who eats the dead men's meat can never come back to earth. Apparently this lady had been cautious, and, by an artful and original dodge, she was restored to her people. But the person who suffered was the first wife of this queer Orpheus, for the public insisted on his marrying the lady he had rescued.

The comparatively historical traditions of New Zealand, the early invasions and the early wars, are obscure in the telling, and of no great interest. The Maoris were the Norsemen of the Southern Hemisphere. Within our own time many of them besought the famed Pakeha-Maori to lead them on a new quest, to conquer new isles. But they came to an old and world-weary man; had he been young romance would have gained a new chapter. They migrated with their women in their canoes; they obliterated, they devoured the old dwellers in the isles they mastered. It has been thought that they came from Java; that Hawaiki, with its volcanoes, is “Little Java,” iki being the Maori diminutive. The mystery of the race, and the astonishing abstractness of its metaphysics, remain perennial problems which science may never solve. No other people has such treasures of pure metaphysic imbedded in savage myth. The Orphic Hymns are the nearest analogies to the Maori Vedas. Mr. White's book is a treasure of knowledge about their religion, their ritual, their agriculture, their “land-grabbing,” their society, their arts, such as moko, or tattooing, and the discovery and use of greenstone. No book on the Maoris is so brilliant and poetic as the work of the Pakeha-Maori, which Lord page iv Pembroke edited, with, the epic on the English war, many years ago. But there is a very Homeric touch in the description of an ambush in Mr. White's volumes (ii., 276). It will be remembered that Homer contrasts the tears and terror of the coward in an ambush with the firmness of the brave. Here, too, we learn that a certain chiefs teeth chattered with terror, and that another warrior caught him by the leg. “Sit still,” he said, “and keep quiet. Wait till I stamp my foot, and then rise.” Tama-i-hara-nui's teeth chattered with fright as he sat cowering in the rushes,” exactly like some Greeks in ambush among reeds, in a vase of the British Museum. More than Homeric, with a chivalrous barbarism of its own, is the conduct of the chief who killed three of his kinsmen, because a stranger had protected them in war. “I could not permit you to boast that you had either slain or spared any of my family. The honour of our family demanded their death at my hands.” That was a very pretty punctilio. The folly of womanly economy is well illustrated elsewhere. A man's wife gave his atua, or domestic deity, the worst eel of many eels that had been caught, “a very small and thin eel.” The atua therefore betrayed her husband into the hands of his enemies. Much in the style of David's treatment of Saul is the conduct of Te-rangi-ta-mau, who found his enemy, Moki, asleep, and did not slay him, but laid his own dogskin mat across his foeman's knees. The Maoris do not seem often to have tortured their foes except (iii., 285) when they richly deserved it. If we may infer this clemency from the silence of their history, they were more sympathetic people than the Red Indians, less cruel, though decidedly more cannibal. A nobler race of barbarians has never been swept almost into the void by European colonisation. Yet the scarcity of cereals capable of cultivation and the paucity of edible animals in New Zealand make it doubtful whether these brave, philosophic, and chivalrous savages would ever have attained to a peaceful and stable civilisation of their own. They had separately evolved the art and mystery of spinning tops. It is to be wished that Mr. White would add to the traditions a volume on the very curious laws and customs of the natives of New Zealand. page v But perhaps he has not finished his collection of historical traditions, which, as the Maori texts are printed, seem no less valuable to the philologist than to the historian. The book cannot be too warmly recommended to students of the history and development of mankind and of society.