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The Maoris of the South Island

Chapter II — Manner of Life, Religion and Customs

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Chapter II
Manner of Life, Religion and Customs

The Maori people, before the coming of the pakeha, lived in their primitive simplicity, and indulged in various raiding adventures. They lived upon fish birds and roots of the fern and cabbage tree. A much appreciated food was the mutton bird, caught in season on the islands of Foveaux Strait. They relished a sweet drink of wine made from the berries of the kotukutuku tree.

The cooking was done almost entirely by women. A circular pit about two feet in diameter at the ground line and some sixteen or eighteen inches in depth was dug in the ground. In this, stones fiercely heated by fire were placed, on top of which was laid a layer of green leaves or fern fronds, whichever was readily available. Upon this was placed the food to be cooked. A generous sprinkling of water followed, and the latter percolating through the hot stones generated steam. The pit was then rapidly sealed with mats upon which earth was heaped and rammed home to consolidate it. The food was left to bake in this primitive oven for an hour or more, when it was expertly turned out by the native cook in a condition to satisfy a good appetite.

Their dwellings were primitive structures built of timber. Poles were set in the ground, and were covered with branches of trees. Reeds and flax were used on the outer walls. They were low structures having a hole for the entrance, and the owners had to bend their backs in entering or leaving. A square or oblong opening in front served as a window. Some of the whares had a sliding door at the right or left of the window. There was no chimney, and the fire was made on the earthen floor, and the smoke escaped as best it could. All cooking was done in the open air. The roof of the whare, page 22 in some cases, projected in the front and formed a verandah.

The usual dress for men and women was the cloak, wrongly named a mat. The piupiu was a kind of kilt and was made of strips of dressed flax attached to or hanging from a belt. This garment hung down to the knees and was much in evidence in the early days. They wore sandals of woven flax for footwear. A change in the native dress began in the whaling days, and the cloak gave place to a pakeha blanket. Gradually the pakeha form of dress became general.

The word tapu means sacred, but generally speaking it means the “setting apart” of certain persons or objects. This law is defined by Mr. E. Tregear in his useful book The Maori Race, as “the setting apart of certain persons or things by reason of their having become possessed or infested by the presence of supernatural beings, particularly of the spirits of ancestors who were the guardian deities of the tribe.” Again he wrote: “This great standard law of the Maori was inexorable and implied penalty. Every unfortunate happening or event was traced to some violation of the tapu. The dead were tapu. Those who handled a dead body were tapued and could not touch food with their hands. A person who was sick unto death was not allowed to die in his whare lest it should be rendered tapu, but the dying were taken into a temporary shelter so that the dwelling might not be destroyed. The head of a chief was tapu or sacred. This law had one great benefit inasmuch as places and things under tapu were as safe as if under lock and key.” A plantation of potatoes, or any other property, was safe from the hands of the dishonest if it had been made tapu; the most daring trembled at the idea of touching it. Mr. T. E. Donne, in The Maori Past and Present, points out that by the law of tapu the sanctity of marriage was maintained, and its violation was sometimes the cause of war. The man or woman who was unfaithful was condemned to die; and if a wife discovered that her husband was faithless, in certain cases, she had the right to kill the other woman. “A betrothed girl defended by tapu was as sacred as a vestal virgin of Rome.” Unfortunately there was no seventh commandment for unmarried young people. But page 23 tapu, if helpful in some cases, was an inconvenient institution in others. As a great chief was a tapued person, if he carried anything on his back, or if anything touched his head, it was tapued-viz., made sacred for his use. If he went into a cooking house all the things contained in it were rendered useless; if he blew the fire with his breath, no food could be cooked in it. A tapued person could not touch food with his hands, but he must be fed by others.

The foregoing quotations, largely from the writings of T. E. Donne, C.M.G., who for fifty years knew intimately the Maoris of nearly every tribe, gives weight to the accuracy of his statements. These descriptions throw much light upon the manners and customs of the Maori people of other days.

The next quotation is from the Journal of Rev. James Watkin, which dates further back to the mission days of Otago. He writes under the date of June 5, 1840: “Their faith in the power of the priests is slavish, and all sickness is ascribed to supernatural power, or perhaps infernal agency, Taipo being the supposed author of disease, whatever it be. Taipo is a foreign word. Its nature and place and etymology I cannot trace, but it appears to mean the Devil and is of universal use.”

On another date he wrote: “The natives here think the slightest infraction of the tapu will be visited by death, but when I ask them why the New Zealand gods don't kill me who break the tapu … they say they cannot touch me-it is only the Maoris they can kill. Many New Zealanders die of nothing but the idea that taipo has seized them-they give up hope.”

When a person had been guilty of improper conduct the tohunga could recite incantations and cast a spell or curse upon the supposed guilty one and death would follow suddenly or in the course of a few days. Often people were taken ill and died at once, saying they had been “makutued.” Sometimes the tohungas were crafty and unscrupulous and they used this power with deadly results.

Under the law of Muru plunder was regarded as a duty. If a person committed some offence against the community, he was plundered. Even if he had not committed any offence page 24 himself, but was regarded as connected with one who had, still he was plundered. If a whare caught fire his friends would come to his aid and save all they could from the fire—and keep it. To plunder to “clean the slate” was the law. The only hope accruing from it one had, was the prospect of having his chance when a friend was in similar conditions.

The word utu means payment, satisfaction or revenge as the case may be. It was the Maori method of adjusting acts for wrong doing on the old Jewish principle of an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” If a person were away from home and someone during his absence stole anything from his whare, it was the duty of the offended to plunder the offender. Many of the causes of Maori acts of murder and aggression against the pakeha were due to this law of utu. The pakeha had trespassed upon Maori burial grounds and sacred places, or was guilty of moral offences-all this called for utu, compensation and satisfaction. The two laws of tapu and utu explain the causes of many of the murders of European sailors in the early days. Maori customs and particularly the law of tapu had been violated, hence utu was demanded. This was one of the causes of the Murdering Beach affair in Otago in 1817, when the crew of the ship Sophia suffered so severely.

It was due to the law of utu that the Rev. N. Turner and the missionaries of the Wesleyan Mission at Whangaroa, in 1827, suffered so severely. The chief, Hongi, had a quarrel with the chiefs at Whangaroa and utu was demanded from the Mission Station. It was a convenient excuse for Hongi to avail himself of the chance to appropriate the coveted goods and belongings of the Missionaries. Hongi ordered his men to attack the Mission Station. The dwelling-house and the out-houses, including the barn which contained a supply of grain and flour for twelve months, were burned to the ground. The books of Mr. Turner's library were torn up for the purpose of making cartridges-so complete was the utu, plunder. It was an unfortunate thing when an innocent person became the victim of utu.

The ancient Maori people were religious in their beliefs, page 25 and possessed many mystical conceptions, fears and rituals handed down from their ancestors. The Maoris of Otakou, as in the North Island, were polytheists. The word Atua was applied to the several gods or spirits who were regarded as controlling particular events. Mr. Elsdon Best has mentioned the native gods as being divided into four classes as follows:


The Supreme Being.


The departmental or tutelary beings.


Tribal gods.


Family gods; familiar spirits as the defunct forebears.

The term Atua denotes not only such beings as we term gods, but also anything believed to possess supernatural power.

The Rev. T. G. Hammond, in The Story of Aotea, states that the common everyday name for the Deity was Te Atua (The God), and in its etymology it is both interesting and comprehensive: “A” signifies the present, the future and progression; “A” conveys the idea of force, in forcing a way or driving from one; “A” is the root word of ako (teaching) and ariki (a lord or teacher); Tua signifies the past, or that behind, as “O tua whakarere,” that left behind. There is, therefore, without any unnatural strain upon the word Atua, conveyed the idea of a Being representing the past, the present and the future, and possessing knowledge and power.

Whilst the Maori of former days, as stated by T. E. Donne and E. Tregear, was a polytheist and belived in many gods, he also had the conception of a Supreme Being known as Io the parent and the permanent one. He believed that in the beginning great darkness prevailed in which resided the Great Power designated Io, the Creator and director of the Universe. This great Super-Power, Io was beyond the grasp of the human mind-the mainspring of all existence. Io wished for light and there was light; he then created the skies and the earth.

Io corresponds with the Jewish Jehovah.

There was a chief and tohunga at Waikouaiti in Watkin's day, who emancipated himself from witchcraft and belief in malignant deities, but he still believed in Io, the Supreme Head page 26 over all things, and who was the shadow of One from Whom all things proceed. This chief and priest was groping after the true God. But, as before stated, the Maoris were polytheists, and believed in many gods. Watkin wrote in his report to the London Mission Board: “These people have many gods, as an old chief gave me to understand the other day, by saying there were ‘plenty tens,’ and lifting up his hands and repeating ten, ten, ten many times over. The rainbow is considered to be a god.”

Another quotation is: “The natives appear to know no good or beneficent deity… the chief of the gods among them being feared, not loved.” The old chief and priest Korako, told Mr. Watkin that the atua was angry with him for visiting the Mission-house; still he continued his visits and Watkin wrote: “I shall see whether the anger of this deity will prevent his visits.”

There were also the spirits of ancestors and relations who were supposed to take varied forms, and to appear to men, and such apparitions were regarded at atuas. They often came in birds, dogs, lizards, fish, and sometimes in the form of insects. For this reason many Maoris regarded the tuatara with much concern. The present writer, one day speaking to an educated Maori lady, happened, in the course of conversation, to mention the tuatara, and at once she shook from head to foot.

Among the many gods venerated, Maru was the god of war; Tangaroa (Takaloa) was the god of the fishermen; Rongo was the god of agriculture; Kahukura was the god of the rainbow. The various gods were approached with ceremonies and incantations. The thunder and lightning were expressions of offended deities. Religion to the Maori, however, offered little comfort. His life was filled with dark and disagreeable thoughts, fears and anxieties: a God of love as revealed in the New Testament did not enter his vision.

The Maori believed in a future life, but his belief was very vague, and yet there was the idea that the soul of man survived. His body might decay, or be consumed by fire, but the soul and spirit lived on and passed into Po (darkness).

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The Maori believed that when a person died the spirit passed to Te Reinga, the most northerly point of New Zealand, near Cape Maria Van Diemen, known as the “spirit's leap.” The spirit slid down and entered the abode of the dead. In the journey toward Te Reinga all souls or spirits journeyed from the south to the north. When the spirit reached the Leaping Place, according to Mr. Edward Tregear, an authority in these matters, “it stayed a brief time weeping and lamenting that it had to go down into darkness and leave the world of daylight where dwell all friends and things beloved of man.”

“The Maoris were possessed,” writes Watkin, “by a constant fear of the Supernatural; life and immortality had not been brought to light by the Gospel. The Gospel had not been heard. They were sitting in the valley of the shadow of death … The natives appear to know no good or beneficent deity. Maue (Maui), the chief local god here is more feared than loved. May they soon know the Blessed God, who is good to all, and whose tender mercies are over all His works … Had an interesting conversation with Korako who is an aged man, one of the most aged in New Zealand; he unites in himself the offices of chief and priest. He has an extensive knowledge of the language, customs and superstitions of his countrymen. The New Zealanders have, from his account, an expectation of a future state, and a better one than the present, where they reside much in the same fashion as in this world, having more to eat and less to do, a Paradise!”

The following is from Watkin's manuscripts and shows the attitude of mind of a warrior towards death. “A great warrior among these people died. His name was Kahu (Hawk). His ruling passion was strong in death, for when in the article of death itself, he caused himself to be raised on his mat and supported in a sitting posture, gave his last advice and parting address on this wise: ‘You stay, you stay, I am going to the clouds. I am dying a mean death in my house and not an honourable death in a fight. You, when I am gone — away to the war! Kill plenty of your enemies as payment for my death.’ This old warrior died in his darkness. He had been a great fighter in his time. During the last war page 28 with Te Rauparaha he had performed some surprising feats of valour. It is said that in one battle he had killed ten men with his own hand. One hundred of the northerners fell at one time, many of whom were eaten. Ten of the most handsome heads completely tattooed were preserved and brought to Waikouaiti, where they were sold to American ships. The price for each being one keg of gunpowder or two muskets.”

The Maoris, like the ancient Britons, offered human sacrifices. The only deities the Maoris knew were capricious beings. Of such they lived in constant fear. Every misfortune was interpreted as the malevolent action of some god who needed to be conciliated, and who required to be restored to good humour. The Maori could conceive of no more costly sacrifice than that of human life. Thus the blood of men was required.

Strange to say, before the coming of the missionary a form of baptism was observed in some of the tribes. The Rev. Samuel Leigh, Wesley an missionary at Whangaroa in 1822, was much surprised at this. The ceremony was as follows: the tohunga took the child in his arms, asked for the name desired and dipped the infant three times in water and returned it to its parents. Sometimes sprinkling was the mode of baptism. The priest sprinkled the water on the child with a branch of a tree. He then addressed the atua in a karakia requesting that the child's heart may be as hard as a rock; that when he dances the haka his enemies may be seized with convulsions and fall into his hands. After the ceremony a feast is provided and a worthy present given to the tohunga.

Hei Tiki. The word hei means neck, thus neck tiki. It is made of greenstone (pounamu) and is a true jade. The tiki is meant to be hung from the neck of the person wearing it. This emblem was held in great veneration, and was supposed to represent the first man. The first male created by Tane was named Tiki. The origin of it and its mythical secret was known only to the old tohungas and is lost in the mists of ancient times. It was also used to represent a legendary person or an ancestor; it was sometimes laid down and page break
“Port Otago,” 1840, from d'Urville's Voyage to the South Pole. The first Maori church was erected on the slope of the kaika Ruatitiko above this spot. The landing place for ships was nearer to Weller's Store at Te Umu-Kuri.

“Port Otago,” 1840, from d'Urville's Voyage to the South Pole.
The first Maori church was erected on the slope of the kaika Ruatitiko above this spot. The landing
place for ships was nearer to Weller's Store at Te Umu-Kuri.

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Weller's Whaling Store where Watkins held his first service at Otakou. From the oil painting by Mrs. A. Colville, by permission of the Otago Early Settlers' Association.

Weller's Whaling Store where Watkins held his first service at Otakou.
From the oil painting by Mrs. A. Colville, by permission of the Otago Early Settlers' Association.

page 29 wept over when old friends met after a long time of parting. This was done in memory of the departed one to whim it had belonged. It was not worshipped, but it was thought to bring the owner or wearer good fortune. Some of the Maoris who fought in the World War II took their tikis with them, and when they looked at them they thought of their warrior ancestors of the “long ago.”

The Tohunga was an important person in the life of a Maori community. The Ariki-tohunga (high priest) was still greater, and exercised almost unlimited power. He was the medium between the gods and the people. In Taranaki, in particular, there were schools of the “higher learning” called Whare-kura which were built by priestly hands. These buildings were dedicated by the sacrifice of a dog or perhaps a man. The students of the Whare-kura were initiated into the higher mysteries of the Maori race. Those so trained became skilful in their profession. The aid of the tohunga was invoked in great crises in life — birth, sickness and death. Before the warriors started upon then: expeditions he prepared them, and then afterwards freed them from the tapu of blood. If a great tohunga happened to pass a food store and his shadow fell upon it, it became tapu and the food must be destroyed. Even the whare in which he lived was tapu. The rain from the roof was tapu, and if a person drank the water he would be under a curse and die. The ordinary tohunga may be termed a wizard or even a sorcerer. He practised the art of witchcraft. He was a seer, prophet, astrologer, naturalist, poet and historian.

Very often his priestly practices had a baneful effect upon the people. He was an expert hypnotist, physiognomist and ventriloquist. A successful tohunga lived on the fat of the land. Judge F. Maning in his Old New Zealand gives a graphic description of such. The tohunga was the authority regarding the sacred myths, songs, chants, lore and genealogy of the Maori people. They were committed to the memory and he could recite them at will, and thus he handed them down to succeeding generations.

They had their own altars (tuahu) or shrines before page 30 which they offered their incantations. The tuahu was a simple shrine, sometimes a heap of stones, and sometimes simple up-right slabs placed apart. Other shrines took the form of a post erected on tapu ground. The elder Maoris had a tradition about a tuahu at Port Chalmers above the quarry over-looking the harbour. This was a tapu spot, for to trespass there in the old days meant death. It may have dated back to the Waitaha period. It is known today as Lean's Rock.

A very significant aspect of the ancient belief was the Kura. There was, as before stated, in Taranaki a school of the prophets, the Whare-kura, or house of the higher learning, in which instruction was imparted in historical traditions, religious ritual and the mysteries that were known to the elder Maoris only. This wonderful store of occult lore was passed on from one generation to another. The ancient belief in the Kura is significant. The word in the Maori dictionary is defined as “red and glowing.” There is also Whenuakura, volcanic or red soil. There is, however, a far deeper meaning. Whenever the term Kura occurs in the structure of a word, or in the name of a place, it implies a sacred origin. The Rev. T. G. Hammond has written: “It is one of the basic words in the fabric of Maori mythology, and could not be named or discussed except under sacred conditions.” The word has a mystical significance which the elders of the Maori people have been slow to express. The Rev. T. G. Hammond, for very many years superintendent of the Maori Wesleyan Mission, in his The Story of Aotea, has given much information upon the weighty meaning of the word. He consulted the best authorities among his Maori friends, and he put the question, “What is the Kura?” It came as a shock to them. They looked in amazement and consternation and no-one replied. Such knowledge was confined to the tohungas and elders of the people. They were surprised that he, a pakeha, had a gleam of their mystical secret, the Kura. At length an aged man said, “Yes, that is an important word, it signifies power, knowledge, mana.” Then another Maori elder tried to make clear the meaning of the word and referred to the action of Joshua mentioned in the Bible (Joshua 4:9), “And page 31 Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of Jordan in the place where the feet of the priests which bore the Ark of the Covenant stood …” The Maoris recognised in the whole circumstance of the Children of Isreal crossing the Jordan and the setting up of the twelve stones as a memorial, a ceremony akin to their own ceremonies. Mr. Hammond also put this problem to Te Whiti, the “chief-prophet” of Parihaka. It was only a short time before Te Whiti died. Mr. Hammond said to him, “What is really the meaning of the Kura?” For a moment he was silent, and then suddenly he spoke like one inspired and said, “Yes, I will tell you the meaning of the Kura.” Then he quoted Genesis 32:38. “Thy name shall be no more called Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince thou has power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” The idea in the mind of the old chief was that men like Jacob could so wrestle with God in prayer that he would impart such knowledge—the Kura—that it would give them power with God and with men. Such was their belief.

“To those who do not know the inner life of the Maori,” wrote Mr. Hammond, “this may seem too idealistic an interpretation, but to me that experience with Te Whiti is among those things which time does not efface, and it is perhaps impossible to many in this materialistic age.”

The above interpretation is interesting seeing that it applies to an area on the Otakou Peninsula, wrongly named Taiaroa Head, where the lighthouse and flagstaff are today. It was known to the Maoris of the past as Puke-kura.

The Kura of the old Maori elders of the tribe of the Otakou Peninsula surely had a deep mythical meaning which applied to that particular locality, but the secret of it has died with them. It was surely a sacred locality, set apart, associated with their beliefs, aspirations and heart-yearinings. The question arises—had the Maori elders a dim and hazy conception of a more enlightened day—of the Coming One? This was the true Kura, red or redness of the Heavens in the morning light.

This was the message of the pioneer missionaries. It was the dawn or dawning of the Day. The Day-spring, the page 32 Morning-Star had visited them. The apostles of the Cross had come. They came to bring the true light — to give them the Christian conception of God, not a God of terror or revenge, but a God of Love. The pointed to Christ, the Light of the World, the light that “shineth in darkness.” Hundreds of Maori people in Otago accepted that Light and availed themselves of the Christian heritage.