Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 37, 1904
This text is also available in PDF
(8 MB) Opens in new window
– 88 –


The Maori terms for menstruation are paheke and mate marama. The former term is used also as a verb (cf. heke, to drip); the latter literally means “monthly sickness” (marama, the moon, the lunar month). The term atua is also sometimes applied to the menses. This word, which generally signifies “god,” or more correctly “ancestral spirit,” is also given to various obscure phenomena, as, for instance, menstruation.

Regarding lunar influences on women, native authorities informed Mr. Best that “the reason of this sickness being known as mate marama is because it affects women when the moon appears. It never affects them when the moon is lost to view—that is, during the dark nights (hinapouri) of the moon. Some women are affected when the moon is first seen, and others at various stages of its growth; some when the Turu moon appears (i.e., the seventeenth night of the moon). A woman is always affected at the same stage of each moon; the time of her paheke does not vary.” Another native, an old woman, said, “Women do not paheke during the dark nights of the moon, nor yet while suckling a child, although the child may suckle its mother for a long time.” When the moon appears, the skin of women who have chronic dysmenorrhœa becomes rough, like what we term

– 89 –

“goosa-skin.” When the moon appears, then women say, “The husband of all women in the world has appeared.” Another native, an old man, said, “The moon is the permanent husband of all women, because women paheke when the moon appears. According to the knowledge of our ancestors and elders, the marriage of man and wife is a matter of no moment: the moon is the real husband.”

There was, and still is, a certain amount of tapu placed on a menstruating woman. The discharge is viewed as a sort of human embryo,* an immature or undeveloped human being; hence the tapu. An aged native said, “The paheke is a kind of human being, because if the discharge ceases, then it grows into a person: that is, when the paheke ceases to come away, then it assumes human form, and grows into a man.”

A chief or man of rank avoids the sleeping-places of women, because contact with clothing or places polluted by the paheke would render him kahupotia, or devoid of the clairvoyant power. In this state he would no longer be able to observe the numerous signs by which ancestral ghosts warn their living descendants of impending troubles and dangers. “Son,” said an old Ngatiawa tohunga to Mr. Best, “never recline on the resting-places of women. Such places are unclean. The blood [i.e., paheke] of woman is there. They are the undoing of man. But should you happen to do so, then be sure that you conciliate your ancestors, that they may restore your sight, and continue to guard and preserve you from evil.” A man would perform the whakaepa rite in order to free himself from the polluting effects of the moenga toto, or unclean sleeping-place.

Australian blacks have a similar dread of pollution from contact with menstruating women. Those of the Leichhardt River, for instance, would immediately kill a woman who thus contaminated them. In their gesture language they had a special sign or signal for menstruation, so as to enable women to warn men of their condition, from a distance. It is stated that a blackfellow (N.S.W.) once slept in a blanket that had been used by his gin (wife). When he came to know that it was defiled, he thrust his wife through with a spear, and shortly afterwards he himself died from fear of the consequences of the pollution.

“If a menstruating Maori woman goes on to a sea-beach where pipi shellfish are found, all those shellfish will desert that beach and migrate to pastures new. Or if such a woman essays to cook the kernels of tawa-berries in a boiling spring, they will never be cooked, but remain quite hard, although those of other women, not in that condition, will be quite cooked. They believe also that if a menstruating woman goes to an ahi titi (a fire made

[Footnote] * See Kahukahu.

– 90 –

to attract the titi, or mutton-birds, and at which they were formerly taken in great numbers), no birds will be caught. For the birds will persistently avoid the fire, and will be heard crying out and screeching. Then the fowlers will know that a menstruating woman is among them. They will know it from the actions and cries of the birds.”

“The term paheke has, strictly speaking, three applications. It is the name of the discharge, it is the verb ‘to menstruate,’ and it is also applied to the day of the menstrual onset. The term koero is given to the second and third days of the period. When a woman does not desire to conceive, she will not cohabit with her husband during menstruation, or rather during the koero-tanga (koero stage), for such connection, she believes, would certainly result in pregnancy. She therefore abstains until three days after the period has ceased. Thus, according to Maori ideas, it is during the koero stage that the sexual act is most generally fruitful.”

“The material used among the Tuhoe natives, from time immemorial, as a menstruating diaper is a variety of moss (generic term rimurimu) known as kohukohu or angiangi. It is probably Hypnum clandestinus. It is a light-coloured, fine, very soft moss, found growing on logs in the forest. As used for the above purpose it is termed a kope. It is not prepared in any way, but simply crumpled up and thrust into the vagina. After the discharge has ceased, the woman goes into the forest and buries the kope, each woman having a secret place where she does so. It would be a serious matter for her were her kope to be seen by any one. For they would probably make a great joke of it, and she would feel terribly humiliated—so much so, indeed, that she might commit suicide.”*

When an Australian aboriginal girl reaches the age of puberty she is subjected to very great cruelty, and undergoes in certain tribes most painful surgical operations. In the Arunta and Ilpirra Tribes of Central Australia she has to sit over a hole dug in the ground for two days without stirring away; in Victoria, cords are tied tightly around several parts of her body, causing great pain and swelling; but the most repulsive procedure is the horrible operation of atna-ariltha-kuma (atna, vulva; kuma, to cut), performed soon after the onset of menstruation. In this mitiatory or marriage rite the hymen and perineum are rudely lacerated with a wooden instrument, or stone knife. Such barbarities seem never to have been practised by the Maoris, nor indeed in any part of Polynesia, except perhaps on rare occasions, and with much less severity, in Fiji and Samoa. In New Zealand

[Footnote] * All the original matter in this paper pertaining to menstruation, pregnancy, parturition, &c, has been collected from the Tuhoe Tribe.—E. B.

– 91 –

no special attention seems to have been paid to the young woman at this time—she underwent no ceremony of initiation, and was not in any way tortured or operated on like her less fortunate Australian sister.

Like the Parsee woman, the Maori wahine is possessed by a demon during menstruation—or, rather, she becomes dispossessed of a malignant disease-dealing demon, the atuakahu previously referred to. The Hebrew woman was tapu (unclean) during the monthly period, and, like the Maori, “everything on which she sat or lay during this time, and every one who touched such things or her, incurred uncleanness.”

Thomson found that the Maori girls commenced to menstruate at thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen. He heard it stated that they commenced at ten years of age, but he disbelieved it. Moriori women reached puberty at from thirteen to sixteen years, about the same as the Maoris. “Among the Maoris,” says Batty Tuke, “the menstrual discharge appears at regular intervals within six weeks after childbirth.” The child-bearing period is said to extend from sixteen to thirty-five years of age, but Thomson knew of a native whose age must have been forty-seven when she gave birth to a child.

Every respectable Hawaiian family had a series of houses forming its establishment, including one named the hale-pea, the house of separation for the wife during the period of her infirmity. No such houses were found in Maori communities, nor did the menstruating woman paint her head and body with a mixture of red clay, as did the natives in New South Wales, nor with turmeric and oil, as did the women in various parts of Polynesia.

Thomson has noted menorrhagia and metrorrhagia among the Maoris, and says that sometimes menstruation is very irregular with them. He is of opinion that they are subject to the same irregularities as women in England; but these irregularities are perhaps not so common, nor do they appear to have so much influence on the constitution. Bennett* observed several deaths among the Maoris from niu toto (uterine hæmorrhage).

In cases of difficult menstruation a decoction made from flax-root (Phormium tenax) and a creeper called aka taramoa (Rubus australis) is used. Another medicine is made from the bark and berries of the rohutu-tree (Myrtus obcordata). Women suffering from dysmenorrhœa were usually isolated in former times. In native opinion it is the moon that is affecting a woman when thus suffering. The natives of the Tuhoe Tribe state that their women have more trouble during menstruation of late years

[Footnote] * Lond. Med. Gazette, ix., 1832, p. 436.

– 92 –

than they had formerly. With this increasing tendency to dysmenorrhœa there is an increasing lack of fecundity.

Pathological amenorrhœa, which is not very common among the Maoris, though perhaps more frequent among the half-breeds, is spoken of as he mate kino na te marama (an evil complaint caused by the moon). Such an illness may continue for a week, during which time the woman will take but little food. At such a time women have a great desire to drink cold water, but are not allowed to take much lest it should aggravate the trouble.

Amenorrhœa is termed papuni. To cure this a woman will, at dawn of day, go and bathe in a stream, and then on her return she takes a decoction made as follows: Four pieces of flax-root (Phormium tenax), and four pieces of the branchlets of a forest-climbing plant known as aka taramoa (Rubus australis), are cut up into small pieces and boiled in a vessel until the liquid is considerably reduced in quantity. When obtaining these roots and twigs they must be taken from the east side of the flax-clump and creeper, as the mana, or virtue, of them is on that side only, as regards their use as medicine for menstruating women. This singular superstition may be connected with the rising of the moon in the east, for when the same materials are being procured for the purpose of making a medicine for diarrhœa, or constipation, it does not matter from which side they are taken.

Vicarious menstruation has been observed among the Ruatahuna natives. A woman of the Hamua clan has a discharge of blood from the nose at each appearance (kohiti-tanga) of the new moon. This is termed her menses by the natives, inasmuch as the ordinary discharge is invariably absent.