Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 34, 1901
This text is also available in PDF
(2 MB) Opens in new window
– 69 –

[Read before the Auckland Institute, 7th October, 1901.]

To the Maori of past days there were practically but three causes of death, as follows: (1) Mate taua, or death on the battlefield; (2) mate aitu, or mate tara whare, death from sickness—i.e., a natural death; (3) mate whaiwhaiā, or death caused by witchcraft.

Deaths from makutu, or witchcraft, were, according to Maori ideas, exceedingly numerous in the days of yore, and still occur even in these times of the pakeha. Such deaths need not be the result of an active force, as in themātāai, the rua-iti, &c., to be hereinafter described, but may also be brought about by what might be termed a semi-passive or a semi-active medium, which is not dangerous to life until it be interfered with. of such a nature are the waro rahui, rongotakawhiu, pa, and trees or places endowed with tapu in order to prevent persons interfering with them, &c.

There is also a third class or kind of makutu, or witchcraft, which is non-aggressive, and which is merely intended to ward off the magic spells of others, and protect the life, spirit, and physical and intellectual vigour of the performer. of such a nature are the rites of the mātāpuru, ahurewa, ngau-pae-pae, &c

Yet another variety is that which not only wards off and nullifies the effect of the magic spells of one's enemy, but also causes such spells to recoil on the performer thereof, and so destroy him or them. Such are the kai-ure and ahi-whakaene rites. These two latter varieties of magic are known by the generic terms of “ripa,” “parepare,” “momono,” “whiti,” and “whakataha.”

– 70 –

After the above preamble I would wish to explain that the following notes on Maori magic comprise but a very small portion of the items of that extensive, far-reaching pseudoscience. For two reasons—first, such items, invading as they do all departments of Maori life, necessarily come under many headings, as “War,” “Birth,” “Marriage,” “Death,” “Woodcraft,” “Social Life,” “Sickness,” &c. Hence to give a description of all branches of magic would be to compile a practically complete account of Maori life, and would result in an article of such appalling length that it would probably be returned to me with or without thanks. (See Skeat's “Malay Magic” as an illustration, and the review thereof which appeared in the London Times.) The other reason is that I have already described many of the items in papers prepared on different subjects, that on “War” alone running to some 250 pages of foolscap. Again, practically the whole of these notes have been obtained from the Tuhoe or Urewera Tribe alone, and hence the article makes no pretence of being a compendium of the magic rites of the Maori of New Zealand as a whole. Rites, customs, and superstitions differ to a certain extent among the various tribes.

It was Bastian who defined magic as “the physics of mankind in a state of nature.” Moreover, it is quite clear to those who study the origin of religions, and also primitive cults, that the realm of magic must be invaded in either case in order to fully understand such cults and origins. Magic has ever been closely associated with religion. The Ark of the Covenant was the mauri of the Polynesian. The hirihiri of the Maori finds its counterpart in the bones or toe-nails of the mediæval gentlemen who struck work and declined to wash themselves. The tawhito and kai-ùre beliefs yet linger in European lands. Do not laugh at the magic of the Maori; our houses are yet partially of glass.

Belief in magic was formerly universal with the Maori, and is yet believed in to a very great extent. Tapu and makatu were practically the laws of Maoridom. Property, crops, fish, birds, &c., were protected by them. The old-time Maori had to carefully guard himself against magic rites, against infringing the laws of tapu, for a hair of his head, a shred of his clothing, a portion of the earth whereon he had left his footprint would, in the hands of an enemy, be sufficient to bring about his death. In every walk of life, during every action, whether eating, drinking, sleeping, or taking his walks abroad, whether among friends or foes, if no enemy were within a hundred miles, yet death ever attended the Maori and walked side by side with him, awaiting the opportunity to strike him down and despatch his spirit to the gloomy underworld—the Po, or realm of darkness, of oblivion.

– 71 –

The ancient inhabitants of New Zealand are credited with having possessed the power of magic, as the story of Tama-o-hoi will show. This gentleman is also known as Te Mahoi-hoi, and is said to have been a past-master in magic—those forms of magic dangerous to life.

That strange person Tama-o-hoi was of the ancient people of this land. He was a descendant of Maui. His descendants are among the Maori people, and also the fairies who dwell upon the great ranges. Tama-o-hoi lived at Te Roto-iti, but his dwelling-place was underground.

There are three legends anent the feats of Tama-o-hoi or Te Mahoihoi: One occurred in the far-back period when mountains were gifted with the faculties of speech, locomotion, &c.; another just after the arrival of the canoe “Te Paepae-o-Rarotonga” from Hawaiki; and the third when “Te Arawa” canoe arrived.

In regard to the two names applied to our wizard, it is probable that Te Mahoihoi is the more correct, for this reason: This ancient personage is spoken of as an atua, or demon—a being possessed of supernatural powers. Now, in the Paumotu dialect “mahoi” means “a spirit”; in Tahitian “mahoi” means “the essence or soul of a god.” Among the New Zealand branch of the Polynesian race Te Tini-o-te-mahoihoi is a name applied to an apparently mythical people—spirits, elves, or fairies similar to Te Tini-o-te-hakuturi and Te Heketoro. Therefore Te Mahoihoi is probably correct.

In the days of yore the mountains grouped around Taupo Lake were very numerous. They lived together amicably for some time, but when Tongariro took unto himself two wives—Pihanga and Ngauruhoe (two mountains)—then dissensions arose, and the mountain family broke up, many leaving the district. Taranaki went to the west, and some went east, including Whakaari (White Island), Paepae-aotea (an islet off White Island), Mou-tohara (off Whakatane), Putauaki (Mount Edgecumbe), and Kakara-mea (Rainbow Hill, at Wai-o-tapu). Putauaki had two wives, Whatiura and Pohatu-roa (latter at Atiamuri).

Now, Rua-wahia (mountain) was coming along all the time. And there was a certain demon coming from the east. That demon was Te Mahoihoi. He was the person who had great knowledge of magic. The two met and quarrelled. Rua-wahia struck at Te Mahoihoi, who warded off the blow and struck back so stoutly that Rua-wahia was cleft in twain, as may be seen to this day. Look at Tarawera. Look at Ruawahia.

Such is the earliest feat of Te Mahoihoi on record. The name Tama-o-hoi we will drop. It appears to be used by the

– 72 –

modern migration of the Maori, those whose ancestors came in “Te Arawa,” “Mātātua,” and other vessels. The former and correct term is used by the descendants of the ancient people of New Zealand—i.e., of the Bay of Plenty tribes, the descendants of the old-time peoples known as Te Hapu-one-one, Te Tini-o-toi, Te Kotore-o-hua, Nga-potiki, &c. These latter are the people who have preserved many ancient Polynesian words not found in our Maori dictionaries, but many of which may be found in the dialects of Paumotu, Tonga, Mangareva, Rarotonga, Nukuoro, &c.—more especially such sacerdotal terms as “mahoi,” “puri,” “tŭrŭma,” &c.

We give a genealogy from Tangotango to Te Mahoihoi, but have not secured the generations from the latter to the present time:—

We commence again. Rua-wahia is the mountain that was interfered with by Te Mahoihoi. That was before the vessels arrived (i.e., “Te Arawa,” “Mātātua,” &c., the modern fleet of the fourteenth century). Waitaha-ariki-kore had arrived. His vessel was “Te Paepae-ki-Rarotonga.” It came to land at Tara-o-muturangi, near Mătătā. Waitaha went to Rua-wahia, where he met Te Mahoihoi. The latter looked at Waitaha and saw that he was a stranger, whereupon he commenced his magic spells, in order to slay him. But Waitaha proceeded to avert the evil spell; he raised his incantation, it was the tawhito, the whakakuruki:

Whakataha ra koe
E te anewa o te rangi e tu nei
He tupua, he tawhito to makutu
Kei taku ure e patu nei
Na te tapu ihi, na te tapu mana
Takoto ki rato ki to kauwhau ariki
Kuruki whakatah
Tau e patu ai ko koe ano
Haere ki te Po uriuri
Mau ka oti atu, oti atu.

Then the eyes of Te Mahoihoi weakened (momohe), and he

– 73 –

fled to Taupo, to Taranaki; hence the people of those parts are versed in the arts of magic.

In the above account are used some most singular expressions, which, when inquired into, lead us into various interesting channels of research. My aged informant said, “Te Mahoi-o-te-rangi, te tangata tena nana te makutu. He tama-tane tena mahi a te iwi Maori, e kore ia e kaha i te tama-wahine” (Te Mahoi-o-te-rangi was he who practised magic. That practice of the Maori people was a tama-tane—male child, or son; but it cannot contend against the tama-wahine—female child, or daughter). Here “tama-tane” seems to be a term applied to witchcraft, active magic, while the expression “tama-wahine” denotes defensive magic. I have nearly one hundred notes collected on these two expressions, and they appear to be applied to everything in the heavens, on earth, and the waters under the earth. It would take up too much space to go fully into the matter here. Tama-wahine is applied to the west, sometimes to the north, and to the ruahine who performs the closing act of all sacred rites—that is to say, the lifting of the tapu or sacredness—also to descent from Papa, the Earth Mother (the female line of descent), and to numberless other things

Here is another remark of my venerable authority. In speaking of Te Mahoihoi's encounter with Waitaha he continues: “Ko taua waha a Te Mahothoi, he waha rawhiti. Ma te tawhito anake a Waitaha e kore ia e ora, ahakoa waha rawhiti, waha hauraro, tama-wahine. Ka hu i te tama-tane, ka ora te rangi, ka ora te iwi” (That voice of Te Mahoihoi was an eastern one. The tawhito alone could not have saved Waitaha, albeit an eastern or northern voice, or the tama-wahine—(?)west. When the thunder resounds in the tama-tane—east—then the sky clears and man is safe). Here are more side issues. The latter part of the remark refers to oho rangi, a rite performed by the priests (tohunga Maori) in reference to certain sacred matters, in order to cause thunder to resound. The term “tawhito” is practically the same as “ure” (membrum virile). The latter is the ordinary term, while the former is the sacred or sacerdotal term, and which may be translated as the “Ancient One.” It was used when referring to the organ as being used in various rites, as to ward off evil, especially magic spells. “The tawhito,” said one of my aged teachers, “is the salvation of man.” But more of this anon.

After a perusal of countless notes I have evolved the following. I fear it is not a clear formula, but appears mixed and vague; but there is something of great interest behind these ancient, dim, and metaphysical abstractions:—

– 74 –

1. Tama-tane = waha rawhiti = east = male descent, and tawhito active, and active magic.

2. Tama-wahine = waha hau-raro = west = female descent, and tawhito passive, and passive magic.

3. In magic the latter prevails or is the most important, if backed by sufficient mana (power, prestige, intellectual, natural, and supernatural), mana, according to the Maori, being derived from ancestors.

4. Tawhito = ure = procreative organs.


5. Tama-tane = male = active force.

6. Tama-wahine = female = passive force.

7. Waitaha could not be saved by the male tawhito alone. It needed a blending of the tama-tane and tama-wahine (male and female forces) in order to preserve life. In like manner, when both the tama-wahine and tama-tane thunders have resounded, then the sky clears.

The whole being the results of the attempt of a primitive people to explain the male and female forces, and to apply such to all departments of nature. And probably these items are the remains of, and point to, a system of phallic worship, as practised by the ancestors of the Polynesian race in times long passed away.