Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 38, 1905
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Religious Rites of Eel-Fishing.

When a young man first went eeling the tohunga performed many rites over him, and recited appropriate karakia, invoking the gods to make him a successful fisher. Eldon Best, in our Transactions of 1902, gives a special karakia addressed to Tangaroa used at this ceremony, which caused a great haul of eels. When a young man made his first catch he gave to his priest an offering of the daintiest—a sign that the Maori tohunga knew how to look after his own interests.

Maoris in olden days when building eel pas or weirs put at each end of the weir a carved post, which, like all other Maori carvings, had a religious character, and thereby invoked the eel-deities to make it a success after their labours.

Eel-fisheries were as valuable to the ancient Maoris as goldmines are to Europeans. The failure of the eel-catch was often a great disaster. In the earlier days when Europeans first came to New Zealand, cuttings from swamp to swamp abounded;

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there the Maoris caught the migratory eels. These eel-drains are fast disappearing, and will presently be as extinct as the carved eel-posts, none of which have been saved for our museums.

If a tribe of Maoris owned the lower half of a river and did not dare, because of a powerful tribe, to fish the upper half, they chose a stone or log of wood, calling it a mauri; the priest sanctified it; and this was supposed to have the effect, aided by his incantations, of preventing the eels going beyond and thus being lost to them.

Not one of the first catch made by a young man was allowed to be eaten by women. Women in Mangaia must not eat eels.

There was nothing the prehistoric Maori did in relation to the catching or eating of eels that had not its appropriate ceremony or rites performed to the gods. Tangaroa married Te-ami-awatoa (Chilly Cold), and out of this appropriately named lady begat all kinds of fish.

In Mangaia Tuna was an enormous eel, lover of Ina-moeaitiu. Tuna assumed human form, and the angry deties threatened to drown the world because of this deed. He told Ina to cut off his head and bury it; then the flood ceased. Tunarua was a name sometimes applied to Tuna. Tinirau was the son of Tangaroa, the god of the ocean, and he also was god of fishes. The Mangaians said he was half a fish, and god of all fishes. He was born in spirit-land, and made of flesh torn from his mother's side.

Apparently the different tribes of Maoris worshipped different deities to help them when fishing.

If an eeling expedition failed to catch fish, the Maoris at once knew the gods were angry and it was no use going on trying until they went back to the pa and the tohunga had gone through fresh ceremonies and appeased their wrath. I was told this story in Wairarapa, where there are bare hills so steep that no vegetation clings to their naked sandstones. They are called taipos, or devils. If a Maori went fishing or birding between them in the Maungapakeha Valley, he might fail to get either birds or eels. The reason was that the Tinui taipo was angry, and would say to the Maungapakeha taipo, “This man has offended me; he shall catch no more eels or birds to-day.” That Maori might try as he liked, he got no more that day. After returning to the pa and reciting karakias he might thus appease the angry taipos, and next day they would allow him to catch plenty.