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Volume 38, 1905
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The Whare Potae (The House Of Mourning)

The name “whare potae” and “whare taua” both mean “house of mourning,” or “mourning-house” (whare, house;

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taua, mourning). The word “potae” means, as a noun, a hat, or any covering for the head; as a verb, “to put over or on the head.”

The term “whare potae,” which is the form used by the Tuhoe Tribe, is derived from the potae taua, or mourning-cap (perhaps more correctly a fillet or chaplet, inasmuch as it possessed no crown). This was an article of mourning attire, a token of mourning for the dead. It was in former times by a near relative of the deceased, as a widow, during the period of mourning. It is composed of a band or fillet woven from some fibre usually, and which is put round the head and tied at the back. It has no crown whatever. Attached to this band would be a quantity of black, dried seaweed, or the epidermis of a water plant or rush known as “kutakuta,” prepared as for a maro kuta,* and dyed black and brown, or left its natural colour of white and pale-yellow. These were attached by one end to the band and hung down, thus concealing the face and head of the wearer. Sometimes the tail-feathers (with skin attached) of the native pigeon, and those of the koko bird, were used to attach to the band. They swayed about when the wearer walked, or when affected by the wind. Chaplets of leaves of the parapara tree (syn., puahou and houhou—Panax arboreum) were also sometimes worn by relatives of the dead while in the whare potae—that is to say, during the period of mourning. The potae taua, with a crown, and no pendant strips, fibre, weed, or feathers, as figured on page 329 of Hamilton's “Maori Art,” is an unknown article to the Tuhoe peoples.

The expression “house of mourning” must not be taken too literally, like unto many other expressions of the Maori. Albeit a Native will ever say, speaking of relatives of a person recently dead, “They are within the whare potae,” yet he means that they are mourning for the dead. Although such mourners may be travelling, they are still spoken of as being within the whare potae. The term must be taken as implying the state or period of mourning.

Windows mourned their husbands for perhaps a year before marrying again. (Ka tae pea ki te tau e whare taua ana te pouaru.)

Bereaved persons, as a husband who has lost his wife, sometimes travel about for some time in order to forget their troubles. Thus a man may go and dwell among distant tribes for a year, or several years.

While mourners are within the whare potae—i.e., during the period of mourning, which may continue perhaps for a week or longer—these dwellers within the house of mourning are very

[Footnote] * Trans. N. Z. Inst., vol. xxxi, p. 647.

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careful in regard to taking food. As a rule they do not partake of food in the daytime, but only at night, and even then they eat in secret by going into some secluded hut by themselves, or at least where they cannot be seen by the people. Always they take their food under shelter, never in the open. If when travelling while an inmate of the house of mourning a person be overcome by hunger, and so compelled to eat in the daytime, be will go a space aside, break a branch off a tree, and stick the butt thereof in the ground. He will then sit under the branch while eating his food, thus likening the shade cast by the branch to the shades of night.

Tenei karanga, te whare potae, ehara i te tino whare, he kupu whakarite. Ko nga tangata kai roto i te whare potae, kaore e kai ao, engari kua pa rawa, katahi ratau ka kai. He kai ao, ara he kai awatea, hai heuenga mo te whare potae. Ka haere te tangata ki te wai, horoi atu ai i te aroha; na, kua kai ao.” (“This name, ‘whare potae’ it is not a real house, it is a figurative expression. Persons in the whare potae do not eat in the daytime, but only when quite dark; then they eat. Eating in the daytime—that is in daylight—means the dispersing of the mourners. A person will go to the waterside and, by means of a certain rite, wash away his grief. Then he will eat in the daytime.”)

It was not until the tapu had been taken off these mourners by means of a rite performed by the priest that they became noa, or free from tapu, and could take food in the daytime, or mix freely with the people. Cases are quoted where persons have so mourned for months. While persons are mourning they do not remain in a house, but move about, although not free from restraint, as the tapu is upon them.

There is a place in the Okahu Valley, at Te Whaiti, named Nag Wahine-kai-awatea (the daylight-eating women), which name originated in this manner: When Te Wharau, of the Ngati-Whare Tribe, died, his widow (and other female relatives apparently) was cleansed from the tapu of the whare potae at that place by laving her body with the waters of the stream and having the whakanoa rite performed over her. Then she (and her companions) first ate food in the daytime since the death of Te Wharau. Hence the above name. Observe how place-names change in Maoriland. When the road was being constructed to Rua-tahuna in 1896,

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the precipitous rock cliffs at Nga Wahine-kai-awatea proved a difficult place for the roadmen to work at—so much so, indeed, that it was found necessary to use life-lines (ropes secured at the top of the cliff and allowed to trail down the rock-face) for the security of the workmen. At once the Natives renamed the place Taura-tukutuku (the trailing ropes), and the original name seems to have been discarded.

A koangaumu, or human sacrifice, was sometimes made in olden times in order to take the tapu of the whare potae (i.e., off the mourning) and its inmates the mourners. The act of so sacrificing a person would not break up the tapu, but such a sacrifice was always with the idea of imparting force, prestige, effectiveness to a religious function.

When Taupoki died at Te Whaiti a slave named Tapuku was slam as a koangaumu for the mourners. The body was cut up, a portion thereof sent to the Whirinaki people as a present, and the rest was cooked at Wai-kotikoti, just where the policeman's cottage now stands.

Ka mate te tupapaku, ka patua he tangata hai koangaumu mo taua tupapaku, ka kainga e nga whanaunga o te tupapaku. Ko taua patunga tapu hai heuenga mo te whare potae. Kaore e tangi te tangata i a ia e noho ana i roto i te whare taua. Kia koangaumutia te tupapaku; katahi ia ka puta ki waho, ka tangi, Ko te koangaumu hai whakanoa.” (“When a person dies, a man is slain as a koangaumu for the deceased, and is eaten by the relatives of the dead. That sacrifice is for the purpose of dispersing the mourners. A person does not wail for the dead while he is staying within the house of mourning. When the sacrifice has been made, then he will come forth and lament. The sacrifice lifts the tapu.”) Here is an allusion to the fact that practically no crying or wailing for the dead is indulged in by mourners while in seclusion, but only when they are surrounded by others, and have an audience. The Maori believes in public grief, he cares not to weep in private.

The person slain as a human sacrifice for the lifting of the tapu from the whare potae would be taken from another hapu or subtribe. After this rite was over the mourners emerged from the house of mourning and returned to their usual avocations. Although usually merely a metaphorical or figurative expression, yet it would appear that sometimes a mourner nearly related to the dead would remain within the “house of mourning” (by staying in his own hut) during the period of mourning. In the legend of Pou-rangahua it is stated that Kanioro his wife so mourned for Pou when he was thought to be dead, and on his return he found her still secluded within their house, which had become overgrown with mawhai.

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Sometimes a brother or sister of the dead would so seclude himself or herself for a time. Then it would be said, “Such a person in the whare potae.” “This action,” said a cynical old Native to me, “was hai whakananaha i tona ingoa” (to get himself talked about). He said also that people often did such things for the brief fame that it brought them.

The ritual act of lifting the tapu from mourners is similar to that performed over any person who is tapu from any other cause. The person or persons accompany the priest to a stream, pond, or spring set aside for such sacred rites, where they divest themselves of their clothing, and, clad in nought save a scanty girdle of green-leaved twigs, they are sprinkled with water by the officiating priest, who then repeats over them a karakua whakanoa, or invocation to free from tapu. one authority states that the mourners had their hair cut at this function, which is probable, as haircutting was often performed as a sacerdotal rite.

The apakura, or dirge, sung by mourners is usually an ancient composition. It derives its name from a famous ancestor, one Apakura, a woman, who dwelt in the isles of Polynesia in about the ninth century of the present era.* She is looked upon by the Maoris of New Zealand as a kind of “parent.” or teacher, of the art of mourning for the dead.

[Footnote] * “Journal of the Polynesian Society,” vol. viii, p. 15.