Art. XXX.–The Tohunga-Maori: a Sketch.
[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, 8th August, 1899.]
We have all heard of the Maori tohunga, or priest, and many, no doubt, have formed some ideas of his functions. If we want to know something more about him, however, there is no work that I know of in which this information can be found. It is true there are references to the subject scattered through many works on New Zealand, but nowhere is anything like a comprehensive account to be found; nor does this paper pretend to be anything more than the briefest sketch. It may prove of interest, however, if we bring into focus some brief notes such as may be gleaned from a study of the people of whom the priest was so important a unit.
We shall never know a very great deal about the priest-hood of the Maori race. From the very nature of the subject there are, and always have been, great difficulties in penetrating the dense atmosphere of mystery that surrounds their doings. The outward form of their observances has been seen by many, but the inner meaning and origin of their ritual will never be completely known to us. It must be remembered that the priests were a sacred class, and that their knowledge was guarded with extreme care, only to be taught to those of their direct descendants who were worthy and might be trusted. The extremely sacred character of all the ritual and much of the learning handed down from generation to generation prevented its communication to our own race, because white people, according to Maori belief, were not sacred—that is, they had no system of tapu such as the Maori had, nor did they hold things tapu to the Maori in any sort of awe or respect. Hence it came to be considered that the generality of white people were not fit subjects to whom these sacred things might be imparted.
It arises from this that those who had the opportunity afforded by daily intercourse with the Maori race, in the days when there still existed many of the tohungas of a high class were not trusted by them except in a very few instances. It was, moreover, the business of the early educated white men to counteract and destroy the influence of the priests as inimicable to the tenets of the religion they themselves taught. Under these circumstances, it is obvious that the Maori tohunga would not be communicative. Moreover, in the days of early contact between the Maoris and men of the white race the knowledge we now possess, that other races—neither
white nor what we call civilised—were possessed of systems of religion and ethics of a high character, had hardly dawned. It was the fashion then to set all such things down to the work of the devil, only to be approached with a view to their extinction. Could any one in those early days have secured the confidence of the old tohungas, it is believed that would stores of knowledge would have been disclosed that would have thrown a flood of light on the origin of the Polynesian race, their religion, and their ritual. But the opportunity was lost, and when men of our own race appeared who could sympathize with the old tohunga there were few or none left in the land. It is true that there have been tohungas amongst the Maoris up to late times—indeed, there are still a few left alive; but these are a degenerate crew, who would not have been worthy to take their place amongst the learned men of yore. They have become degenerate through their environment. They no longer possess the powers of old, because they have lost belief in themselves, in the same manner that the people have lost faith in them.
It is probable that Tuhoto, who was buried in his house at Wairoa Village by the eruption of Tarawera in 1886, was one of the last specimens of the bonâ fide tohunga of the old school. He lived for seven days in the ruins of his hut without food or water, and with no means of escape, until he was dug out by some of the white people. I saw him a few hours after he had been rescued, a decrepit old man, whose years must have approached a century (he was in the prime of life at the taking of Mokoia Island in 1823), with white and matted hair and beard, and indescribably dirty. He lived but a few weeks after his removal to the Rotorua Hospital, and, it is said, the contamination he suffered when his matted locks were shorn was the immediate cause of his death. This may well be believed when we reflect on the extreme sacredness of the head amongst all Maoris, and of the tohungas in particular. He would feel that he had been whakanoa, or made common, and that his personal tapu had been destroyed. This, preying on his mind, would kill him.
But whilst there are none of the real old tohungas alive in the present day, there are many old men who have in their younger days been educated as priests. The disturbing element of Christianity has, however, caused them to forget most of what they learnt. Still, it is from these men that we may expect to learn something of the old ritual and karakias, or incantations. To those they take a liking to they are communicative to a certain extent, but the information they have to impart is always given with many depreciative remarks on the old forms, and with evident fear that they will be laughed at.
If we believe—and I think there is no longer room to doubt it—that the Polynesians came originally from India, or dwelt for a long time in that country, we may expect to find amongst some branches of the race a certain amount of the knowledge of what, in Europe, is termed the Eastern culture, but which we from our position term Western. Some slight indications of the almost transcendental powers of the Indian people ought to be found amongst the Polynesians. A few traces of these will be alluded to shortly. But thinking, as I do, that the Polynesians were in India before the Aryan irruption, and that they gradually gave place to the latter after a contact of no long duration the amount of knowledge the Polynesians retain will be found to be much attenuated, and interwoven with their own peculiar cult, which is probably just as old as that of the Aryans. Contact between the two peoples, first as enemies, afterwards as neighbours, and again as enemies, must, however, have allowed time for Aryan influences to affect the Polynesians, and some of these influences may still probably be seen amongst the latter people.
First let me say that the earliest record I have come across of the existence of a priesthood amongst any of the Polynesians is contained in the Rarotongan traditions, of which I was so fortunate as to procure a manuscript copy the year before last on my visit to Eastern Polynesia. The reference to it is not an extensive one, but the fact is mentioned in the mythical guise so common to these very ancient traditions. Whilst the people were living in Atia-te-varinga, the most ancient country of which that branch of the race has cognisance, the priests are shown to have done certain wondrous things, besides having functions to perform in the elections of the ruling chiefs, or Arikis. I have attempted to show in another place* that Atia-te-varinga is India, also called in the Rarotonga dialect Avaiki-te-varinga. This is the country in which the race originated according to those traditions; and here we find at this early date a priesthood already developed and acting in its sacerdotal capacity in connection with the ruling power. Trusting to the genealogical tables, the date may be fixed at about the year 450 B.C. when these priests are first introduced to our notice. The important functions they there performed have been continued uninterruptedly down to the present day; for, whatever the source of the traditions may be, the mention of the priests is frequent. They were the astrologers, magicians, poets, historians, often warriors, and, not least important, the navigators, where the great knowledge of the stars they
[Footnote] * “Journal of the Polynesian Society,” vol. viii.
possessed enabled them to guide their vessels from end to end of the Pacific, and even to the antarctic regions. They represented the navigating lieutenants of modern days. The tohungas were also the seers, as well as doctors of old. They combined with their astrology a considerable amount of astronomy, giving names to all the principal stars, besides many constellations. There are indications too that they were acquainted with the fact that the earth was round, or, at any rate, that it was not flat. This would, of course, become known to them through their voyages, by the appearance of fresh stars as they progressed either north or south. The following quotation from the teachings of one of the Hawaiian priests will show this knowledge of the fact that different stars are to be seen to the south of the Hawaiian Group: “If you sail for the Kahiki [Tahiti] groups you will discover new constellations and strange stars over the deep ocean. When you arrive at the Piko-o-Wakea [which was their term for the equatorial regions] you will lose sight of Hoku-paa [the North Star] and then Newe, the Southern Cross, will be the southern guiding-star, and the constellation of Humu [the star Altair in the constellation of Acquila] will stand as a guide above you.” Amongst the Maoris the names of several of the navigating priests who guided the fleet here in about the year 1350 have been preserved, and it is known from tradition that a Centauri was one of the stars they steered by.
The tohungas shared, in common with all, the poetic faculty, some of their poems being very fine in the original, but generally extremely commonplace in the translation, according to our ideas. But, then, we generally lack the knowledge of their ancient history, allusions to which constitute the charm to the Maoris themselves. One of the finest compositions in the language is the “Lament” of Tu-raukawa, a priest who flourished thirteen generations ago, but which has come down to the present generation—being handed on from father to son—and is still sung with extreme pleasure by many of his descendants. It is these allusions to their ancient history that served to keep alive the interest in and knowledge of the doings of their forefathers.
Perhaps the most interesting duty of the tohunga was that of the historian. With many branches of the race there was a special class of the priesthood that was charged with this branch of knowledge. I do not think that this system obtained in New Zealand, but that all priests were equally versed in the tribal and national history, as, indeed, were all the chiefs. The national records of the Polynesians, as every one knows, were preserved orally, and handed on from father to son with due ceremony and appropriate prayers. The powers of memory in races which have no written records are
acknowledged on all sides to be enormously superior to ourselves, for instance; and hence the history of the people was retained with the greatest accuracy and with surprising detail. This fact, however, is not sufficiently known to those who have not had experience of it. It was with wonderment that I once took down from an old Maori friend of mine 164 songs which he knew by heart. It was only necessary to quote one of the lines at any part, and he would sing the rest of the song quite correctly, just as he had dictated it. Another Maori friend of mine has written out 108 songs, whilst an old man of the Urewera Tribe has actually dictated to Mr. Elsdon Best over 380 songs, karakias, &c.; and he could generally tell the history of them, and who was the composer. These are feats that we, with our artificial memories, are incapable of. It was by memories such as these that Polynesian history has been preserved.
But in collecting their history care has to be exercised as to the source from which it is obtained or it will not be acknowledged by the tribes to whom it relates. Of this I will give an illustration. Sir George Grey's “Polynesian Mythology” is generally considered a standard work on the traditions of the Maoris. Now, the major part of this book deals with the Arawa traditions. These were written out by Wiremu Maehe-Te-Rangikaheke, who was at that time about thirty-five to forty years old. But Wiremu had never been educated as a priest, and consequently many old men of the Arawa Tribe will tell you that his work is a pokanoa, or unauthorised proceeding, and not correct, inasmuch as it leaves out much detail, and actions are frequently credited to the wrong individuals. They have told me this themselves. This book must be looked on, therefore, as an outline, the detail of which is subject to correction. These remarks will not apply to other parts of the work, for, as far as is known, they were obtained from the proper authorities.
There were rivalries and jealousies always existing between the priests of different tribes, and the young people had constantly impressed on them the necessity of adhering to the teachings of their own priests as being the only orthodox history or ritual; all other was wrong, and therefore dangerous. Hence we find at the present day the traditions of different tribes varying very much from others. I do not think this was always so. There was a time in the history of the race when the old beliefs and history were taught at great gatherings, when chiefs and priests collected from the far-distant isles of the Pacific to a central spot, and there the history was recited, and a vast number of ceremonies performed the faint recollection alone of which remains. This was the period of the original wharekura, or house of learning, which, in its New Zealand
form, has been described by Mr. John White. Here were to be found the whare-karioi, or houses of amusement, in which, no doubt, originated the Arioi societies of Tahiti—societies of strolling players that passed from island to island and acted scenes from their history, accompanied by much debauchery and many strange customs. These people were priests and historians, and the most learned of the race. But these institutions were of far greater antiquity than the time that the Maori ancestors sojourned in Eastern Polynesia; they were brought with them from distant India, where, according to Rarotongan tradition, they were first initiated by the great king or chief Tu-te-rangi-marama in the fifth century B.C. This gathering-place in Eastern Polynesia was at Raiatea, of the Society Group. Here came lordly chiefs in their gaily decked canoes, with flying streamers and drums beating, accompanied by large retinues of chiefs, warriors, priests, and servitors. Tradition says that from far Uea, or Wallis Island, in the western Pacific, to Rapa-nui, or Easter Island, in the far East, the people gathered to these meetings. They took place at Opoa, in Raiatea, the most sacred marae, or temple, in all Polynesia, and from whence stones were taken to other islands with which to found other maraes, to serve as visible connecting-links with this most holy of places. Opoa, in Raiatea, was the Polynesian Mecca. Tradition seems to infer that these gatherings broke up after a time, owing to the hostility of two factions, the Ao-tea, or eastern people, and the Ao-uri, or western people, resulting in murders, wars, and all kinds of evils. The origin of these troubles was due to the priests, and the inference is that schism in the common doctrines of belief was the cause.*
As yet we cannot fix with any certainty the date of this disruption, because the Tahitian accounts are not yet given to the world; but from the indications in Maori history it was probably about the end of the thirteenth century. From this period downwards it may probably be predicted that considerable differences in the rituals, beliefs, and histories of the eastern and western branches of the Polynesians will be found by any one who will pursue the subject. But that time is not yet. The Maori branch of the race belongs to that division referred to above as the Ao-tea, or eastern people. The meaning of these two distinctive terms, “Ao-tea” and “Ao-uri,” is the light and dark world, derived from the sunrise and sunset.
I have said that Maori priests were warriors. With a warlike people like the Maori this was only natural. There
[Footnote] * Much of this I learn from Miss Teuira Henry, one of the first of Tahitian scholars.
are innumerable instances of priests leading their tribes in time of war, and I think this is a custom dating from very ancient days. If this is so, it is obvious that if any crushing defeat overtook one of the tribes engaged in the wars many of the priests would be killed, and with them would perish much precious knowledge. There are indications in Maori history that some great catastrophe of this kind has overtaken their branch of the race at a period which may now be called ancient. It would lead me too far from the subject in hand to demonstrate this, but a close study of Polynesian traditions for many years has led to this—to me—inevitable conclusion.
Even when not engaged as a leader in warlike expeditions the priest had still very important functions to perform. As mata-kite, or seer, he had invariably to foretell from the signs and omens whether the result would be favourable or not. By these signs the chiefs were guided in their actions. Everything connected with war was tapu, or sacred, from the first preparations of the war-party to the return home, when the priest removed the sacred ban from all who had been engaged in the campaign. The reason of this was that man himself was sacred—he was the living representative of the mighty Tu (god of war), and hence the shedding of blood was a desecration of the tapu, and had to be cleansed, in the persons of the shedders, by appropriate incantations and ceremonies. No step during the campaign would be taken by the leaders without consulting the priests, and there is little doubt that hints as to the wishes of the chiefs judiciously given affected the utterances of the priests to the multitude. On starting from their homes the warriors all gathered at some stream which had been used for the same purpose from time immemorial, and there the tohi-taua was performed by the priest over every man, all kneeling on one knee at the side of the stream. With a sacred karamu branch, which was dipped in the water, the priest struck lightly the shoulder of each warrior, repeating at the same time a karakia, or prayer. If the branch broke in the operation that warrior would be killed in the ensuing fray; consequently they wisely stayed at home to assist in protecting those left behind. This ceremony is aptly called the “baptism of war,” which, indeed, is the translation of the term tohi-taua. After the day's march the priest decided on the camping-place by sticking his turu-pou, or staff, into the ground, around which the warriors slept. Instances are known in which an imminent defeat has been turned into a victory by the priest driving his staff into the ground and calling on his tribe to die or conquer there.
Not a single ika-a-Tu, or fish of the god Tu (in other words, a slain man), might be eaten until the priest had first
performed the rigorous ceremonies connected with the removal of the tapu. Certain parts of the body were reserved for his special consumption, such as the heart, &c. He was ever at hand to communicate the will of his particular atua, or god, under whose protection, of course, the war-party was for the time being. On the return home his services were again in requisition to remove the tapu from the whole party, before which none of them dare come near their relatives and friends.
From birth to death the priest was in constant requisition to perform some ceremony connected with the every-day incidents of life of the Maori. Soon after birth—the number of days varied from tribe to tribe, but generally about the eighth day—the child received its name. This naming was called tua or tohi, and here the priest officiated by the utterance of appropriate karakias, and officially named the child. In cases of sickness he was applied to to ascertain the cause. In most cases this was set down to the infringement of some of the innumerable laws of tapu, or to makutu (witchcraft) by an enemy. As wizards, either to inflict injury on another or by appropriate means to avert the witchcraft of some other person, the priest had immense powers. To this subject I shall return later on. Again, at the marriages of people of distinction the priest was present, and used many karakias. It is generally said that there was no form of marriage amongst the Maoris. This, however, is only true of common people; with chiefs there was much ceremony and many karakias. When death came to take the warrior to his last resting-place beyond the reinga the priest had very important functions to perform. Probably we have more karakias preserved connected with the death ceremonies than others. They are evidently very ancient, and frequently couched in language which is extremely difficult to understand. My belief is they are so ancient that the meanings of the words have completely changed since they were first embalmed in these old karakias. The mere translation of them, therefore, even when this can be done, probably does not give the meaning intended originally, or even those known to the priests. The Maoris themselves are generally ignorant of the meaning at the present day.
Something must be said of the education of the priests. Little will be found on this subject in the works of those who have treated of Maori customs, therefore I must place before you the little I have myself gathered. Here, again, we are met with the difficulty that the esoteric meaning attaching to the ceremonies is lost. There can be no doubt that each step had a well-defined meaning at one time to which very great importance was attached.
It was, I believe, a rule that the priesthood descended from father to son, generation after generation. It was the duty of the father, or sometimes the grandfather, to teach the young pupil. Failing either of these the uncles would do so; but in such cases the remark applies more particularly to the education of chiefs rather than that of the priests. There are cases on record wherein the pupil went to priests of another family, or even another tribe, to acquire their education, and presumably this was in default of either father or grandfather. In such cases as last mentioned the inference is that the whole of the teacher's knowledge was not communicated to the pupil. There were certain branches of knowledge and karakias that were family or tribal property, and these were not communicated. Amongst the warriors of the tribe also there were certain things that belonged to the individual which were not communicated to others. Such were the kitao, or reo-tao, the prayers said over weapons to make them efficacious—these were secrets only known to each family. Several of this species of prayer have been preserved, for after the old-fashioned weapons became obsolete there was no longer any objection to the prayers becoming known.
It was at about the age of twelve that boys were first taught. So far as can be gathered, the first lessons took place in the whare-maire, which was a carved building used especially for the recitation of the tribal history, and which was very sacred. Here the origin and history of the tribe was taught, the genealogies of the ancestors down to the time of teaching—always considered very sacred—were recited, and tribal wrongs that required a blood vengeance enumerated. There were initiatory ceremonies connected with the first entry of the pupil into the whare-maire, but these I am not acquainted with, beyond that there were special karakias for the purpose. During the whole time of teaching the pupils were not allowed to leave the precincts of the house, food being brought to them by the women and left at the palings surrounding the house, for no female was allowed to enter the house whilst the course of instruction was proceeding—it was very strictly tapu. It is clear that certain karakias were also taught in the whare-maire, but some, I believe, were only learned in the woods and mountains, away from all habitation. These were probably some of the most powerful incantations pertaining to the priesthood alone. Here let me say that the knowledge of karakias was not confined to the priests; it was common to all, but there were certain classes of karakias used by the priests alone.
Accounts vary as to the length of each session of teaching; but they were not of long duration, probably not more than ten days at each sitting. The effect of the karakias on the
pupils was supposed to be so powerful that one lesson is said to have sufficed on each subject. I have repeatedly been told that a long karakia would be learnt after once repeating, and learnt perfectly too. Here comes into play the wonderful memories of all savage races. It was considered as a matter of vital importance that the words of the karakia should be repeated without the slightest mistake; the dropping of a word, or the introduction of one not originally there, was fatal to the efficacy of the prayer. The belief of the old-time Maori was that such a mistake, or hewa, reacted on the reciter himself, and I have been told that in some of the very sacred ones such a mistake would cause the priest's death. Even a deviation in the pattern of the carvings made accidentally is said to have caused death. It will be seen from this that many of the karakias must be of immense age, and that it is probable we have at this day many that were in use before the Polynesians entered the Pacific.
On the conclusion of the teaching a special kind of karakia was repeated by the teacher, called a karakia-pou, the object of which was to indelibly fix in the memory of the pupil the various things he had been taught. There were ordeals also that the pupil had to undergo to prove his proficiency, but of these my informants were chary of telling me. The final one, called whakangau-paepae was of a nature I can scarcely allude to here.
But of some of the ordeals connected, I believe, with the education of the young priests a little is known. In mentioning them they will be given as told to me; not that I give full credence to the accounts received, but adduce them rather as illustrating the firm belief the Maoris had in them. These ordeals appear to have varied from tribe to tribe, which seems only natural when we come to know that the Maoris did not all migrate to New Zealand at the same time, nor did they come from the same place. With the Arawa Tribe, after the pupil had been duly poua, or had the lessons firmly fixed in his mind, he was taken by the priest to the tuahu, or altar, generally situated near the village, where a stone was set upright in the ground, though more generally the tuahu was represented by a rough enclosure of poles. Here the pupil, after providing himself with a small flat stone about 1 in. in diameter, was directed to cast it at the tuahu. If the stone broke the teaching was considered not to have been successful, and the pupil was put back until another session. If the stone did not break, then a further trial was made, as follows; The pupil, or tauira (which is the proper Maori name for one under instruction), took a stone in his hand—a hard, smooth, sound stone—and then by the use of a karakia called a hoa he would shiver the stone into fragments without injuring his
hand. It must be understood this operation is accomplished by the mental operation of willing and by repeating the hoa, not by a physical effort. The word hoa we have no exact equivalent for in our language. It means in one sense “to charm,” or “to destroy by the power of the will,” the spoken words of the hoa acting as the vehicle connecting the willpower with the object. The action of our Lord in destroying the barren fig-tree would be, according to old Maori belief, an exact illustration of the word hoa. The word is of very common use in old Maori narratives, always with this meaning of an exertion of will-power generally for the destruction of some animate or inanimate object, or to affect its state of being. Sometimes a flying warrior will use a karakia called a tapuae to hasten his flight. This is the use of the hoa in a sense beneficial to himself. Again, he will hoa a flying enemy in order to retard his flight; but the meaning is always the same, and the efficacy of the karakia thoroughly believed in by the old Maori.
If the tauira, or pupil, succeeds in the above test of his powers he next is directed to try them on some animate object, such as a dog or a flying bird. The process is the same in both cases, and, according to the Maoris, the bird was always killed if the tauira was proficient.
After this comes the final test, by which the tauira shall prove to his teacher that he is adept and accomplished in the highest art of the tohunga. From what follows it will be seen that this last ordeal is a very severe one. We may believe in it or not, but the old Maori had implicit faith in it, and fully believed their tohungas capable of exercising the power. The tauira was told that he must now exercise this power of willing to death on some near relative of his own—an uncle, aunt, brother, or sister, but never a child of his own, and, I think, never a parent. The selection of a relative was made in order that the pupil might thereby show that, in the exercise of his powers, he rose superior to natural affection—the dominion of the teaching priest was so powerful over the tauira, together with the delight felt in the acquisition of such extra-ordinary power, and the dread that it was known to excite in the multitude, were sufficient, say my informants, to overcome all feelings of love and affection towards the victim. The extraordinary thing is that in a race whose strongest passion was love of revenge these alleged exhibitions of the tohungas' powers on human beings never led to retaliation. So say those of their own race.
I have mentioned the karakia-pou, or-incantation to indelibly fix in the memory of the pupil the information taught. The word pou also has the meaning of “teaching”—that is, in its higher forms—accompanied by all the forms and observances
considered necessary in such cases. But there are other and very peculiar methods of fixing in the memory the lessons taught, and which were considered very efficacious in certain circumstances. If from any cause the son of a tohunga had not been fully educated, or, possibly, in cases where the father's knowledge had not been completely communicated until just before his death, it was the custom for the tauira, or pupil, after being taught all the father or teacher had to communicate, to bite the teacher's great toe. In other cases he would be directed to bite off the tip of the teacher's ear. In both cases the teaching was thereby supposed to become fixed for ever in the pupil's mind.
To those who have heard the stories of the wondrous powers of the tohungas of old, told with all the circumstantiality of name and place, there comes a questioning doubt as to whether, after all, there is not something in them that lies beyond our ken—whether this old old race has not preserved a knowledge of forces that we have yet to acquire. However this may be, it is obvious that the belief of the multitude in the enormous powers of the tohunga would in many cases act as if those powers were real. It is a matter of common knowledge that if a Maori fully believes he is bewitched unto death he will die. They are peculiarly susceptible in this direction. They have extraordinary powers of belief. They are people in whom faith is a reality.
This brings us to another branch of our subject. No one who has studied the matter deeply will find a difficulty in accrediting the old tohunga with some knowledge of hypnotism, telepathy, and other “isms” pertaining to that class of mental phenomena. Here their great powers of faith come directly into play, for, as is well known, these mental sciences are based on faith or belief. Many of the powers of the tohunga can doubtless be explained by hypnotism due to conscious or unconscious “suggestion.”* Makutu, or sorcery, as practised by the Maoris, is largely the effect of hypnotism and suggestion conveyed by telepathy. Let a Maori once be told that some one has bewitched him—has exercised the dread power of makutu over him—and the suggestion, falling on ground prepared by faith, will rapidly effect its object. If there be a tohunga makutu, or whaiwhaiã, near, the sufferer will apply to him to use his powers to counteract the effect, and should the counter-suggestion be sufficiently powerful (or, as the Maori would put it, if the karakias are potent enough) the object of the makutu will recover. Is not this hypnotism, or some form of it?
I do not propose to touch on makutu any further, but it is
[Footnote] * I use the word “suggestion” in its technical sense.
a subject on which a volume might be written. It seems to me that the mysterious word ihi found in several combinations in Maori karakias will be found hereafter to represent their idea of hypnotism.
As to telepathy, there are several incidents known—some of them to European eye-witnesses—in which the old and learned Maori could influence persons at a distance—could, for instance, by conveying a telepathic message, bring back from a distance some relative or friend. All of this is accompanied by karakia as usual, which in this case is called an iri. It is known to be expressly used for the purpose of causing a meeting between distant persons, one of whom desires to see the other. I have had such a karakia applied to myself, and my friend was confident that we should meet soon; as a matter of fact we did meet, but I am afraid the necessary faith on my part was too much wanting to allow me to set down our meeting to the efficacy of his karakia, whatever he may have thought.
In all these things the karakia was a necessary adjunct. It represented the demand made by the Polynesian order of mind for some ostensible outward sign connecting cause and effect. Ask any old Maori what is the cause of deeds effected by incantation or invocation, and he will tell you it was the karakia itself, the form of words used. The mental operations antecedent to or giving rise to the karakia are not known or hinted at. In this I think they show that the origin of the karakia has been lost—that the real mental processes out of which arises their forms of hypnotism, telepathy, &c., are now unknown to them, though in the far - distant past the two processes were not separated.
It has already been stated that the efficacy of a karakia, whether used by priest or people, consisted in the absolute fidelity with which the formula was pronounced. The mistake of a word was fatal. They were recited in a peculiar voice, partaking somewhat of the nature of our intoning, in which the words flowed on in an even and rapid stream, broken only by the necessity for taking breath. That was the usual procedure; but there are some karakias whose effect only followed the unbroken continuous stream of words from beginning to end. In this case a relay of priests would be ready to take up the words so soon as the first one's breath failed. It is to be regretted that so much of the meaning of these prayers has been lost. They are so full of allusions to things we have no knowledge of that their translations are often, to our ideas, meaningless. Their name is legion, and they were applicable to every event in life. In the use of these karakias on every occasion the Maori was probably one of the most religious races known.
In cases where communication between gods and men was necessary, as it was when decisions on public events were desired, the priests were naturally the mediums. In war more particularly their services were in constant requisition to declare the will of the gods, or the nature of the omens and predictions derived from the utterances of the gods. The belief was in such cases that the god entered for the time into the body of the priest, and through him uttered words intended as a guidance for the people. Many such utterances have been preserved; they were in their nature frequently oracular, and so obscure that neither priest nor people could explain their meaning. Possibly this may be due to craft on the part of the priest, who, not feeling certain in his own mind as to the result, often conveyed the message in such form as to admit of more than one interpretation. It is quite clear from what we know of the relation of the priest to the gods, on occasions when communication was necessary, that they were for the time in a state of trance, or possessed—as they call it, urua. The process took some time; frequently the priest retired to his own dwelling, and there, by what process we know not, communicated, or pretended to do so, with the spiritual nature of the god. Let me say here that the so-called Maori gods made of stone or wood were not in reality gods, but merely their effigies, in which the spiritual god took up its abode for the time, on the intercession of the priest, in order to reveal its message. The Maoris were only idolators in the same sense as any other branch of the Polynesians. Their gods were spirits, though endowed with human attributes. Their idols or images were concessions to that faculty of the Polynesian order of mind which demanded a tangible representation of the unseen and spiritual nature of their gods. The priests often saw the gods in a trance, and on coming to themselves would declare the message to the people, often in the guise of a song, many of which are really pretty in the original.
When the priest was urua, or possessed by the god, he must have been a terrible object to look on, according to the many accounts I have heard. He was like a furious raging madman, his body and limbs convulsed, his eyes protruding, foaming at the mouth, giving utterance to strange tongues; sometimes rolling on the ground, at others rushing hither and thither with furious grimaces and frantic cries. These fits gradually died away, and were succeeded by a long period of utter prostration. I need not point out that in some of these features we recognise what is sometimes seen in trance subjects amongst ourselves, as well as in certain states of clairvoyance.
There were other methods of communicating with the gods
besides those that have been indicated, one of which was no doubt due to craft on the part of the tohunga. This was by ventriloquism, which was frequently practised by the priests, more particularly perhaps when communication was desired with a deceased relative rather than a god. The voice came in a kind of whistling supulchral tone, and this was supposed to be the natural tone of voice of the dead. It will be remembered that Judge Maning, in “Old New Zealand,” gives a graphic account of such a communication with a deceased relative. In old times whistling was supposed to be offensive to the gods. In my young days I have often been reproved for whistling as likely to anger the gods.
In the early part of this paper I ventured to say that the Polynesians had retained some of the knowledge they brought with them from India, and which they probably acquired from some of the Aryan races. That they are acquainted with some of the feats of the Indian fakirs is obvious from their practice of the fire-walking ceremony, in which the priests took the leading part, always prefacing the operation by karakias. It is well known that the people of India can perform this feat, and that it is done at the present day. The Tahitians engage in it frequently, and I am assured by learned Maoris that their ancestors of a few generations ago could also perform the feat. I will here refer to a description of the umu-ti, or fire-walking ceremony, as performed last year in Rarotonga, in which a gentleman well known to most of us took part (see article by Colonel Gudgeon, Journ. Pol. Soc., vol. viii., 1899, p. 58; also Dr. Hocken, in Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. xxxi., 1898, p. 667).
We have all heard of the mango trick as practised by the people of India, but I think it will be new to you that the Polynesians are equally acquainted with it. Whilst in Tahiti two years ago the following was told me by a middle-aged woman, a native of Raiatea, who was remarkably intelligent and well versed in the history and customs of her race. Her grandfather was one of the old tohungas of that sacred island of Raiatea, and my informant declared that she, as a child, had seen him perform the following feat: The people were gathered together on the occasion of some feast or ceremony, when the tohunga, calling their attention, plucked from an adjacent tree a green bread-fruit. This he proceeded to bury in loose earth before their eyes. After repeating certain karakias the people all saw the bread-fruit leaves sprouting from the ground where the fruit had been planted. As they looked they saw the tree grow until it reached to 8 ft. or 10 ft. high; then came the flowers, and finally the fruit. I cannot vouch for the truth of this as I did not see it, but I have no reason to doubt my informant—at any rate, to doubt her belief in
what she saw. It is no more wonderful than the mango trick of India, and I would suggest the explanation is the same. To my mind it illustrates a phase of hypnotism with which we European people are not yet acquainted—in point of fact, that the operator has the power of hypnotizing large numbers of people at the same time.
The priesthood was divided into classes, of which I believe there were five, but I have never been able to ascertain definitely what were the particular functions of each. The ariki or first-born son of some exalted line of descent was a priest, besides being the hereditary chief of his clan. He had peculiar powers and duties which none other could perform. It is true that the ariki might not be a man of wisdom or an able leader, but, nevertheless, he did not thereby lose his high position in the tribe, and at certain functions his presence and actual participation in the rites was essential. None other could perform them. It was the same with the first-born daughter of a long line of chiefs, called a tapairu (sometimes a marei-kura). She alone could perform parts of certain ceremonies, and hence was she a priestess.
In all work connected with constructions in wood, such as houses and canoes, &c., a priest directed the undertaking, from the first felling of the tree, which must be accompanied by karakias to remove the tapu, for trees were the offspring of Tane-mahuta, the god of forests, birds, insects, &c., down to the last part of the decoration. If it were a house, he must by means of his karakias again remove the tapu before the building could be occupied, by use of the kawa-whare, a karakia of which we have many examples, some of them very fine (in the original). I am inclined to think it was a special class of priesthood that undertook the duties connected with woodwork, and this agrees which the customs of Samoa and Tonga, where our word “tohunga” has more the meaning of “artificer” than “priest.”
Tattooing, again, in former days was undertaken by the priest, and, needless to say, was accompanied by many karakias, and also songs. Several specimens of these have also been preserved. When the time came for the tapairu, or eldest daughter of a high chief, to be tattooed, a human victim, chosen from amongst the slaves, was sacrificed. This is one of the few occasions on which such sacrifices took place. The others that I know of were in the launching of a new canoe, in building a new pa or new house, when a slave was buried at the foot of the main palisades, or the pou-toko-manawa, or main pillar of the house. At the celebrated pa of Tawhiti-nui, near Opotiki, a skeleton was discovered at the base of each main post of the palisades not many years ago, when the pa was demolished.
I have mentioned the tapairu, or eldest daughter, as being in certain cases a priestess. There were other female priestesses also, amongst whom the ruwahine is an example, and she had certain special functions which could alone be performed by her. But of the female priestesses and their peculiar duties I must confess myself ignorant.
Amongst the many powers ascribed to the tohunga of old is that of influencing the dead. The following is an example of Maori belief in such matters, the story having been told to me by one who says that he witnessed the occurrence. The tribe had suffered defeat at the hands of their enemies at no great distance from the tribal home, and one of their toas, or braves, had been killed. The body was brought home, and there, as was the custom, was laid out in state dressed in all the finery of savagedom, in order that the relatives might wail over him in due form. The tribe were exceedingly anxious to-ascertain by some omen connected with the dead warrior whether they would be successful in their next encounter with the enemy. The priest was communicated with, who promised to procure the omen desired. As the people squatted in a ring surrounding the corpse at some ten paces distant, the priest advanced a few paces from the body of the people, girded with a strip of green flax as his only clothing, and then recited karakias, presumably of a very powerful nature, with the intent to induce some movement in the corpse. Nothing disturbed the current of his incantations but the low wailing of the immediate relatives of the deceased, whilst all eyes were turned on the atamira, or bier, where the subject lay. At a certain part of the karakia the corpse was observed to kori, or move slightly to one side, at which a great cry arose from all present, and the deceased was adjured to return to his loving relatives. But nothing more followed. This movement was taken as a certain sign of future victory.
Now, all present certainly believed they saw the movement, which was nothing new to them, for the feat had often been performed before by their priests. Is there any natural explanation of this, or was it mere fancy and delusion? I will venture to suggest that it may be explained by the fact of the subject being in a state of catalepsy, and not really dead, and that the priest, by exerting his hypnotic power, with the aid of telepathy had conveyed so powerful a “suggestion” to the body that the cataleptic sleep was for the moment broken, and hence the movement. Presumably, had the efforts of the priest been continued the subject would have returned to life. I did not witness this, and therefore can only tell you the story as repeated to me. The one thing certain about it is the entire belief of a large body of people in
the phenomena they witnessed. The above scene occurred at Rotorua many years ago.
The next illustration of the hypnotic power—as I think—of one of the old priests is drawn from the same district. The priest in this case was old Tuhoto, who has been referred to as having been buried for a time during the eruption of Tarawera in 1886. A very eminent Englishman took part in the séance, but as he has never to my knowledge given any account of it I retrain from mentioning his name, and give the Maori account as related by a well-known chief, formerly of Rotorua, but now dead. Old Tuhoto had for years resisted the efforts of the missionaries to convert him to Christianity; indeed, I believe he died in the firm belief in his native gods, and never recognised Christianity. It was important that the old man should be converted, for he still had a large following of Maoris, who hesitated to abandon their old creed for the new. Accordingly the gentleman that I have mentioned visited the old man at Mokoia Island, Rotorua, and there had an interview with him, using his utmost powers of persuasion, which were great, to induce Tuhoto to come over to the whakopono, or belief. But without success; the old man was so wedded to his ancient doctrines that he declined all overtures. He finally said, “If you can do this I will become a convert.” Picking up a dried leaf of the ti (or Cordyline australis), he held it at arm's length, and, saying a few words of Maori karakia, invited his visitor to look. Behold! the leaf was green, as if just plucked from a growing tree. The white man turned away, feeling that he was no match for the Maori tohunga.
That is the story of a Maori eye-witness, and, needless to say, he firmly believed that Tuhoto's power of karakia had effected the miracle. Is not this an illustration of the power of hypnotism as practised by the Maori tohunga? He was able, by so powerful a “suggestion,” to cause his visitor to believe that what he saw was a green ti-leaf, whereas it was in reality a dry one, the colour of which is brown.
Many other illustrations of the powers of the old Maori tohunga might be adduced, but time is wanting. I have endeavoured in briefest form to indicate the strength of belief that the Maoris had in the wondrous powers of their priests. Some of their powers are explained by processes which we are only just acquiring some insight into. Others are quite unexplainable at present; but the time will come when investigation will probably show that what we look on now as absurdities have some foundation in fact, and are the relics of a very ancient system of knowledge.