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Te Rou, or, The Maori at Home

Chapter XIV. The Purification of the Corpse-Bearers

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Chapter XIV. The Purification of the Corpse-Bearers.

The sun had passed his noonday light, when a voice was heard in the camp of mourners calling for attention. It was the voice of Takaho, who said: “Hearken, O my children! I have slept since I last spoke to you; but my sleep was evil. My arm came against my breast, and I awoke by the blow; at the same time I saw a star flash across my right eye. What such evil omens portend the future alone will show. My arm has told me that evil will come from the death of our son, who was brought back by Tupu. The star I saw indicated forebodings of the death of some near relative of our daughter; and I also see that it is a woman who will die. Her death will be by her own hands, and will not be known until many moons after it has taken place. O my children! I weep and grieve to my marrow over you. You do not tell me what evil there is among you; but the gods have told me in my sleep that even now you burn with feelings of jealousy, hatred, and greediness towards each other. page 216 I have been young, and am now old, and have seen men and women of other times. I have seen a brave man go from his home to drive his enemies beyond the precincts of the nest in which his young ones and their mother rested. I have seen him brave death in various forms to save the lives of his children, whom he looked upon as the rock on which his name would be seen engraved when he had gone to the place of his ancient fathers. I have seen such a warrior come back to his home to find the fire of jealousy, hatred, and selfishness burning up the hope of that which he had fought to save. I have seen the hand that never grew tired of work or of war droop in a day, and at sunset spend its last power in thrusting his soul away from his home and children into the darkness.”

The old priest bowed his head and wept aloud; the tears chased each other down his red ochre-besmeared face, making lines through which could be seen the dark lines of his tattooing. His chest heaved; and every time he sobbed several among the sitting crowd of people joined him in chorus.

A young mother, with a child partly clasped in her arms, sat reclining with one hand on the ground and her head bowed over the child, who sat by her side on the ground plaiting her long, flowing hair, while the mother's tears dropped on his head. Some of them running down his face so ruffled his temper, that, in childish fury, he dashed them away with a rapid action of his hand. This drew the attention of some of the other women, causing them to remark, a child thus page 217 baptized with tears would cause more than ordinary misery and evil.

One girl asked the boy, “Why do you plait your mother's hair while she is weeping?”

“To hang you with,” answered the child.

The weeping mother looked up at this remark, and shuddered from a feeling of dread which caused her weeping to end.

Takaho, the priest, had sat down, and having taken off his garments, tied round his waist an apron made of karamu1 leaves, which hung down to his knees, and asked the eight corpse-bearers, “Is your work done?”

“No,” answered one of them; “we have only just finished the shed into which to put the dead.”

The shed spoken of is made with the leaves of the kawakawa2 and whau,3 and is called a wharau. It has only half a roof, one side and a half of each end covered. It had been put up near the old priest's house, who said, “Let them live in their house.”

At his command the corpse-bearers went naked to the canoe, and the four oldest of them took the body of the man, the other four took the body of the woman; those who carried the man took precedence, the others following some distance behind. The woman was laid along the inner side of the wharau, while the husband was laid with his feet to the side of his wife, and his head outside of the half roof.

1 Coprosma robusta.

2 Piper excelsum.

3 Entelea arborescens.

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The people now gathered round this house of the dead, and those nearest sat down in a circle, about twenty paces from the wharau, while the others remained standing. They sang, as with one voice, a song composed as a dirge for the dead:—

“How throbs my heart for you, O my children!
As droops the palm fern in the forest gloom,
So droops my beating heart for you.
O where—where are they who were fondly called
Come! children, come!
Gone! gone for ever! in the swift great stream—
O, my children, I live!
But on the slippery plain of life.
A lonely home!—a childless home now!
The sun's heat is vain warmth for me.
O thou distant mountain peak!
Thy chilling frost-tipped head
Was home and love to me,
If wrapped within thy snow.
I will hide me in the house—
In the house of death.
My memory now is blank;
I know not one act
Of kindness from the world.
Had the sea swallowed you,
Had the sliding hill covered you,
Then gods had done the act.
The seed of life is rotten now—
The gods have doomed us to perish!”

This was an old song, and only known to the old people, whose voices kept perfect time while singing it. The young people did not join in singing; but at the end of each stanza they took up the chorus of sobs, while the others rested for a short time, again to take up the wail.

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The old priest stood near his hut, leaning on his tokotoko (a staff about one fathom long, sharp at one end and blunt at the other). While thus leaning on his staff he wept, but uttered not a word until the lament was ended; then with his right hand he dashed the tears from his cheeks, and said: “When the heart weeps, the body loses life and power. A chief is a man, but the power of a chief is his people. Rest here, O children! while I go to the stream and purify those who have touched the dead, that they may eat again. Food is-life to the body, and the strength of the body is the glory of man.”

He stepped to a stage near his hut, and took two pieces from a heap of dried fern-root kept there, and from a corner of the little fence which encircled his hut he took a round pebble. With these in his hand he walked towards a bend of the river, where there was a thick clump of shrubs on the bank, and stood looking across the river.

The corpse-bearers followed, and stood in a row behind him. They were in a state of nudity, for they had dropped their garments when they had moved the corpses. As soon as the men had taken up their position, the priest turned round on his right, facing the men. He then stepped between the middle men, having four on each side of him, and when a few steps behind them, he began to kindle a fire. As soon as he had stepped behind them, the corpse-bearers sat down, resting on the calves of their legs, with their hands on their knees, and facing the river, nor did page 220 any one of them for a moment look to the right or left.

In a short time the priest had lighted a fire, on which he cooked the two pieces of fern-root; but he did not pound them. He then took in his right hand the pebble and one piece of fern-root, and in his left only the remaining piece; then with a stick which he held in his left hand, he dashed the embers of the fire here and there, and throwing the stick over his left shoulder, he walked up to the corpse-bearers, and stood at the back of the one on his left, and touched his right shoulder with the fern-root which he held in his right hand. This he did to each one in succession. The priest now stepped back, being still behind the corpse-bearers, until he again stood behind the right-hand man, when, holding out his arms extended in a line with his chest, he repeated the following incantation:—

“There is the offering; the offering is lifted up.
An accepted offering; an offering ascending.
An offering of power; an offering of life.

As he repeated the last sounds, the men sprang to their feet with a bound, and, turning to the right, faced the priest, who again repeated the above incantation, at the same time crossing his arms, being careful that the right should be above the left arm. He touched each man in succession on his right side of the head with the piece of cooked fern-root he held in his right hand, and the left side of the head with the page 221 piece he held in his left hand. The priest now repeated:—

“The sure bending of Tu;
Divide the offering, divide!
Repeat the defiance to the power of the gods.
E——E——E. Repeat the defiance!”

The priest now put the pebble into his mouth, which he pretended to swallow; but in a dexterous manner he put it back into his right hand, while taking into his mouth the piece of fern-root out of the same hand, which he ate, and then that in the left hand, and with a bound he passed the right-hand man and sprang into the river. The others followed him, diving and coming up some distance from where they had been standing; they then swam about a hundred paces farther up the stream, and landed, the priest being the first. Then they tied a few karamu1 branches in front of them, and went towards the settlement.

1 Coprosma robusta.

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