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Volume 20, 1887
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Art. XLIX.—Ancient Tide-lore, and Tales of the Sea, from the two Ends of the World.

[Read before the Hawke's Bay Philosophical Institute, 15th August, 1887.]


I had been lately reading some of the curious theories respecting the tides of the sea that were anciently held or advanced by the wisest and most civilized nations, or the philosophers of Greece and Rome; also some far more strange and peculiar notions held by Western Europe, and by Oriental races in more modern times, which, possibly, in a measure are still by them maintained: and this naturally brought me to a reconsideration of

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what the Maoris believed to be the origin and cause of the tides, which, being curious, and not wholly unlike what has been anciently upheld in other parts of the world, has induced me to write a paper on it. * * *

The New Zealanders believed that the ebbing and flowing of the sea was occasioned by a huge ocean monster, whose home was low down in the depths beyond the horizon, through its powerful and regular respiration, or ingurgitation and regurgitation of the water. Far-off foreign lands were considered to be lying beyond it. This monster's name was Parata; which term is commonly used figuratively and proverbially for any one unexpectedly meeting with great trouble—that such a person has fallen into the throat of the Parata. Indeed, in one of their ancient and prized myths, which treats in popular language of their first peopling New Zealand, one of their chief canoes, named the “Arawa,” is said to have really got into that difficulty, and was carried into the enormous mouth of the monster, from which fearful maelstroom it was with difficulty extricated by Ngatoroirangi, the courageous and cunning tohunga (= priest, or wise man) on board, who recited his powerful charm for that purpose, which proved effectual; the words of the said charm or spell being also preserved.*

Not unfrequently in former years (since the New Zealanders had learned to write) a laconic epistle, etched with a nail or fragment of shell on a fresh flax leaf, would be despatched from those in sudden private or local trouble to their relatives or friends, couched in these words: “Friends, listen! we have fallen into the throat of the Parata;” and that, like the fiery cross of the far north, would often be sufficient to secure their prompt and hearty assistance.

As might naturally enough be supposed among a superstitious people, abounding in charms and spells, witchcraft and incantations, the aid, real or imaginary, of such a powerful living being, whose irresistible and regular action was daily seen, was sure to be malevolently sought against their enemies: so one of their solemn maledictory spells begins thus:—

“Dreadful, big, beetling precipices, deep down in Ocean's depths, listen! obey! be quick and be scattered far off to the right and to the left, that the mighty Parata may go to work. Parata! hear! blow thy irresistible overwhelming tides strongly to the shore!”

This was done in order that the sea-side forts and villages (always close to the beach, and sometimes built on it) might be inundated, and so easily overcome, and the inhabitants scattered and, with their canoes, destroyed.

[Footnote] * Grey's “Mythology,” p. 72.

[Footnote] † Lit., “to the one side and to the other side:” “ki tetahi taha, ki tetahi taha.”

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Of course, we of to-day are a step in advance of our own forefathers in this matter; we can well afford to laugh at the power of such a charm or spell, based on such a belief; nevertheless the New Zealanders believed in it, and we may easily imagine that if, after solemnly uttering their spells by the priests at their pagan altars, and with all due and fearful invocations and ceremonies, a storm came on from the sea, or a high tide followed, such would be laid hold of as a favourable omen, and be sure to inspire them with extra courage in their fiendish work of destruction and slaughter! Besides, among a race like the Maori—keen and constant observers as they ever were of the appearances of the heavens and of the varied phenomena of Nature; who had proper significant names even for every day of the moon's age, with their lucky and unlucky days, as well as for the different stages and seasons of the tides; who knew all about times of flood and ebb, of high and of low water, spring and neap tides, with their numerous intermediate variations—it is likely that their tohunga, who had to utter the said powerful charm, would avail himself of his knowledge of the time of the spring tides to make it appear to be the more effectual.

I scarcely need remark that such spells and invocations were not confined to the New Zealanders, or to uncivilized people like them. Plenty of such doings will be found among the records of the oldest and most civilized nations of antiquity.

* * * *

Formerly, and down to some years ago, the winding-track or course from Napier into the interior to Te Aute and Waipawa lay by the immediate bank of the River Ngaruroro; and one of the ugly and often dangerous places which had to be crossed at its mouth was a brawling, noisy watercourse, or fall, on the east bank, which drained the big marsh on the plains. This waterfall was called by the Maoris Wahaparata = Parata's Mouth, from the noise it made, from the ever-varying amount of water it discharged, and from it being disagreeable and dangerous; besides, as I have heard old Maoris say, it was affected by the high tides on the coast; and in this respect they may have been correct, as the sea is not far distant in a direct line, and the River Ngaruroro (and also the River Tukituki, which bounds the said marsh on its east side) is but a short distance from it, and both rivers are greatly influenced by the tide for several miles from their (one) mouth. Pliny relates instances of wells in cities near the sea being largely affected by the tides in his time. (loc. cit., book ii., chap. 100.) Many an early settler has come to grief in crossing that place—Wahaparata! I, myself, more than once, among the number; some having had to swim for it, themselves and their horses, when the water in the River Ngaruroro was high.

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Here I may briefly state that this word or name of Parata was also of great and ancient usage among the Maoris. The first time we hear of it was as the name of a principal chief, before the legendary period of their so-called migration hither to New Zealand; for thus it is stated in their legends:—

“Soon they fought; shortly after, peace was made; then they felled (the tree to build) the canoe ‘Arawa,’ this was done by Parata, by Wahieroa, by Ngahue.”*

In the old myth of Maui transforming his brother-in-law Irawaru into a dog, and the widow, his sister (Hinauri), becoming distracted over the loss of her husband, she goes off to the rocky cliffs at the seaside to commit suicide, and there utters her mournful dying dirge, beginning thus:—

“Ever lamenting:—
Henceforth I (am) ever imploring
To the stealthy-one of the ocean,
To the big Parata of the ocean,
To the huge monster of the ocean,
To the enormous whale of the ocean,
That (he) may come hither
That Hina may be swallowed up.”

So saying, she threw herself into the sea.

The word is also found in the ancient prayer or semi-incantation used by the tohunga at their old cannibal orgies, when initiating the young men and boys (chiefs’ sons), in order to their partaking of the flesh of their enemies slain in battle. Thus it begins:—

“This youth present gnaws,
This youth present strives,
This youth present eats,
This youth present eats man's flesh,
This youth present swallows parata:

which may mean “lords (of foes),” or “monsters,” or “great difficulties and dangers,” (or all together,) overcoming them as easily as “swallowing one's spittle” (a common Maori metaphor). The said long prayer or spell concludes thus:—

“This youth shall soon eat,
This youth shall soon swallow man,
Shall eat to-day,
Shall eat to-morrow (hereafter),
Sufficient now (for the first time) this youth shall eat.”

[Footnote] * Grey's “Poetry of the New Zealanders;” Korero-Apiti, p. viii

[Footnote] † Or, steep precipices in ocean's depths.

[Footnote] ‡ Lit. Paikea, a large species of whale with a white belly, deeply grooved longitudinally; one was stranded on the beach near Napier about 1847; also a Maori name for a long house with the doorway in the end. (See Note, “Trans. N.Z. Inst.,” vol. xiv., p. 20.)

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Parata is also the name of that part of a war-canoe that projects out at the bow, beneath the image or figure-head, and meets the rising waves; near this was the coveted seat or stand of the hero or warrior chief. Thus, the old song:—

“To stand firmly at the bow of the canoe (is to be) renowned.”

The term is also commonly used in their mournful poetical laments and dirges over their dead chiefs, in these (or similar) words:—

“The eddy-squall is over; the storm is passed away;
The Parata is gone; the big fish has left its habitation.”