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Volume 38, 1905
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The Maori Hades. (Maori Ideas Concerning the Spirit-World.)

No paper on Maori eschatology would be worth notice unless it contained some explanation of the Native conception of the spirit, or soul, of man, as well as their ideas concerning the spirit-world. Hence some description of these matters here follows. Lest, however, their briefness cause comment, I may state that they are purposely curtailed, and for two reasons. In the first place, I have already published many notes on these subjects in my paper on “Spiritual Concepts of the Maori,” and also I propose to leave other matter, not yet published, for a paper on “Maori Religion,” should I ever be able to summon courage to attempt to describe such an intricate system. Moreover, methinks this paper is already quite long enough to try the patience of the hapless reader.

As observed, I have already attempted to record the Maori conception of the spiritual nature of man. This has been approached with no preconceived ideas of primitive religions, nor yet with any fanatical leaning towards any religion, primitive or otherwise. I have no pet theory to bolster up, nor do I wish to identify the Maori with the Lost Tribes. I would much rather they remain lost. The world can well spare them. Hence I hope to compile a truthful, if meagre, account of Maori beliefs.

The wairua, or spirit, of man was, according to Maori belief, equivalent to the ka of the ancient Egyptians, the shadowy self which leaves its physical basis (as in dreams) and wanders

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afar off. But the ka continued to abide in the body after death, whereas the Maori wairua leaves the body at death and descends to Hades, the underworld, “Te Po,” as the Maori terms it. Po signifies night; po uri = darkness; hence, apparently, “the realm of darkness,” or oblivion; although other evidence seems to support the idea that the underworld is by no means a realm of darkness, and that the dead lead there a life very much like life in the upper world. This world and this life are termed the “ao marama” (world of light), as opposed to the po, or world of death.

The Maori had neither evolved nor borrowed a belief in a soul, or psyche, which is judged after death and punished or rewarded as for evil or good deeds committed in this world. No such distinction exists in the Maori spirit-world. The old-time Maori looked forward to no condition of calm peace and happiness in the next world, nor to any sensual pleasures. On the other hand, however, he was not terrorised by threats of raging hell-fires waiting for him, as are we.

The Maori was ever a firm believer in and practiser of necrolatry, pschomancy, physiolatry, and oneirology.

If when a person's wairua is absent from the body it comes under the effect of spells of black magic it is destroyed, and its physical basis, the body, also perishes. But during such rambles it often discovers some danger threatening the body, and returns to warn it. On awaking from sleep a man might say, “So-and-so is trying to bewitch me, my wairua has warned me.”

A Maori dislikes to awake a person suddenly, as by shaking him. His wairua may be absent on a little jaunt: it is well to give it time to re-enter the body.

Maori religion is essentially polytheistic—very much so. And yet we see, in some very ancient and fragmentary tokens of a former cult, evidence that at some remote period in the history of the race either monotheism or something akin to it must have prevailed. I refer to the cult of Io.

Animistic conceptions teem in Maori myth—they form its most notable feature; and a very interesting monograph might be compiled on this subject. The anima mundi theory is quite Maori.

The wairua (spirit) of man is an intelligent, a sentient spirit. It leaves the body at death, and either descends at once to the underworld, or remains near its physical basis as a kehua, or spirit-ghost. These ghosts are much feared by the Natives, for they can inflict grievous injuries on the living.

Nearly all Maori gods may be termed ancestral, though I have never heard the term applied to Io—he who formed or

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was the origin or prototype of all other gods. Unless Io comes under that heading, moral gods are lacking in the Maori pantheon. Rongo and others were gods of peace, but their code of ethics was scarcely pure.

An ancestral god would succour and protect his descendants, unless they violated some law of tapu, when they punished the erring one with severity. But they were powers for evil: they imparted the power to the spells and rites of black magic practised by their descendants. They were also war-gods of great ferocity and of a pitiless nature.

Spirits of the dead were termed “kehua,” or “whakahaehae” (spirit-ghosts), or “kikokiko” (man-assailing evil spirit), or “atua” (demon); sometimes merely “wairua,” a term applied to the spirit of man, whether its physical basis be living or dead. The Maori has not the elaborate system of spirit nomenclature possessed by the old-time Romans, with their “lar,” “lemur,” “larva,” “manes,” and “penates.”

It has been stated that the spirits or souls of the chiefs of the Maori are believed to ascend to heaven at death. This is not an old-time belief among any Maori people I wot of, but is doubtless a modern idea, the result of missionary teachings. In the words of an old Native of Ngati-Awa: “Our ancestors never said that the spirits of the dead ascended to the heaves. Our parent Rangi [the Sky] never said ‘Let my descendants ascend to me.’ But Rangi said unto Papa [the Earth Mother], ‘Our descendants—treat them kindly, conceal them in many places—beyond, seaward, inland, in the realm of darkness.’ Friend, there were two men of my people, Ngati-Awa, who died. Their spirits descended to the reinga (spririt-land). Their parents sent them back to this world. They said that when they arrived at the rerenga-wairua they stood on the beach by the waterside until the waters receded and exposed a hole in the rocks. By this way they descended to the underworld. They came to a fence which was guarded by several persons, who told them not to pass under the fence, but to clamber over it. They did so, and went on. They saw great numbers of people, but they were all spirits. They at last came to their relatives and parents, and all wept together for some time, after which they were returned to this world of life. I have told you this to show you that spirits of the dead do not ascend to the heavens. The names of those two persons were Kukia and Toihau. They said that the spirit-world is a very good sort of place, and not shrouded in darkness, but light like unto this world. The spirit-world is divided into ten different divisions, according to the teachings of our ancestors. The spirits of the dead abide in the tenth division (Ko te ao tuangahuru te ao nohoanga o nga wairua).”

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“Now, when a Maori dies, his wairua (spirit, or soul) leaves and goes to the rerenga-wairua (spirit's leaping-place). On arriving at the resting-place on the last ridge (the taumata i Haumu) the spirit halts and laments, weeping, the world it is leaving. It also lacerates itself, in grief, with obsidian, of which there is much lying there. When the mourning and weeping are over, the wairua descends the cliff by means of the roots which are there, to the beach below. It goes on, and passes out on to the rocks. Gaping there is the hole by which the spirit descends to the reinga. The ocean-waters surge upwards through this chasm, the seaweeds are swirled round by the waters. Then the waters recede and leave exposed the abyss. Down into this the spirit leaps, and finds itself in the spirit-world. There the sun is shining, there is no darkness. It is just like this world. The spirit proceeds onward until it comes to the fence. Should it pass over the fence, that spirit will return to this world. But if it passes under the fence it is gone for all time, it will never-more return to this world. When the spirit reaches those of its relatives and is offered food, should it eat of that food it will never return to this world.”

Here in this narrative we see the spirit-world described as a place where no darkness prevails, a world lightened by the sun. This is the result of persons dreaming of having descended to the underworld, as in the case of the two persons quoted above. A person recovering from a trance would be said by the Maori to have returned from the spirit-world. In the case of Toihau, above quoted, another authority stated that he died, and that the spirit of an ancestor, one Te Nahu, came and led his spirit to the underworld, and also warned him that if he ate of proffered food in the spirit-world his spirit or soul would be lost for ever, and return no more to the world of life. So Toihau refused the food offered by the spirits of Hades, hence he (his spirit) was returned to this world, the ao marama. It was conducted back by the spirit of Te Nahu, who drove it forth from Hades with scourging. Back to this world came Toihau's spirit, and entered his body; so that, after being dead for three days, Toihau of the Children of Awa rose from the dead and lived again. This was evidently a case of trance.

The wife of Te Puke-nui was carried off by spirits, say the local Natives, and she saw the spirits of all the dead-and-gone people ere she returned here. This was evidently a case of dreaming.

Another case, quoted locally, is that of a woman who died, after which her husband married again. Then the spirit of the dead wife appeared and carried off the living wife, and had nearly succeeded in slaying her when rescued by her husband. But

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enough of these childish tales: they are most numerous among the Natives.

I have no notes as concerning the names of the different divisions of the reinga, or spirit-world. The following extract is from “Nga Moteatea,” p. 419:—

… ‘I te Reinga tuarua
Te whare i a Miru
Ko te otinga atu o te wairua
Kei wheau ake ki te ao.

(The second reinga, the abode of Miru, where for ever disappears the soul, lest it rise again to this world.)

The usual term applied to the spirit-world is “te reinga,” literally “the leaping-place.” Strictly speaking this is the name of the departing-place of spirits for the underworld, the entrance thereof. This entrance is often termed “te rerenga wairua” (the spirit's leaping-place). It is situated at the north-western extremity of the North Island of New Zealand. The spirits of all Natives who die in these isles are said to pass along the ranges until they reach the above place, whence they pass down to the underworld as described. It is said that Natives residing in the northern peninsula often see the spirits of the dead wending their way to the rerenga wairua, and that they know which are spirits of chiefs and those of common people. The spirits of chiefs always go on one side of food-stores, so as to avoid them, while those of plebeians pass underneath such stores.

Throughout Polynesia these departing-places of spirits of the dead are situated on the western or north-western side of each island or group of islands. As we have seen, the spirits of the dead are supposed to return to Hawaiki, the fatherland of the race, which lies far to the west of Polynesia. This seems to discredit the Native belief in the underworld of spirits, but still both beliefs obtain among the Maori. Probably the under-world is the most ancient of these beliefs, while the idea of the dead returning to Hawaiki is a sentimental growth of later times, since the arrival of the race in the many-isled sea.

No information can be obtained from the Maori to show any ancient belief in different realms set apart for the souls of good and evil persons when death has claimed the body. In vol. ii of the Monthly Review (Wellington, 1890), in an article by R. H. Gibson on “Mourning Customs,” occur these words: “It is clear that the Hebrew people maintained for many centuries the belief that the abode of the dead lay beneath the surface of the earth, and beneath the bottom of the sea; that it was a land of darkness and of shade like death itself; a land of destruction and of confusion; a land of no action and of no knowledge, where existed alike the evil and the good,” &c. Here we

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have the old-time Maori conception of the reinga, or po, a gloomy underworld. At the time spoken of in the above quotation the Hebrews do not appear to have yet evolved, or borrowed, the idea of resurrection of the dead.

The Maori idea seems to have been that the dead met and abode with their kindred in the underworld, where-they lived on sweet-potatoes, fish, &c., but that there was no fighting there. It was probably the lack of any belief in the judgment of the soul, resurrection, punishment, &c., that caused the Maori to die without fear of the spirit-world, or the second life therein. However, we have now provided him with a somewhat warmer underworld Let us hope that he will enjoy it.

The Maori does not appear to have ever had much interest in his spirit-world, hence the description of it, even though given by old men, is vague and unsatisfactory to the ethnographer. Some say that spirits pass a certain time in each of the ten divisions of the underworld, until they reach the tenth. Some spirits are said to return to this world, the upper world, in the form of moths.

The name “mori-a-nuku,” or “moria-nuku,” is sometimes applied to the reinga, or the entrance thereto :—

Me ruku ware au te reinga tupapaku
Kei whakamau kau k

“The taumata i Haumu,” says a Native friend, “is the ridge where the spirit leaves its clothing, and so descends naked to the reinga, jumps into the ocean, and henceforward lives as a spirit.

Rukuhia, e tama! Nga rimu e mawe
I raro

Te rimu ki motau” signifies the seaweed through which the spirit passes in its descent. It often appears in Native songs :—

Ka rere whakaaitu ki te reinga
Te rimu ki motau—e.

There are two other expressions applied to the entrance to the underworld, but which appear only in songs, I believe. These are “pua reinga” and “tawa mutu.” I have never obtained any satisfactory explanation of these expressions from New Zealand Natives, but Mr. Percy Smith has traced them both to Rarotonga: “At the reinga wairua at Rarotonga, near the west end of the island, is the place where departed spirits go to join the great majority. There grows a pua tree, a species of Gardenia, and into its branches the spirits on their way to Miru climb. Those who climb on the rara mata, or live branches, return to life—i.e., they were only in a swoon, not dead. Those who climb on the rara mate, or dead branches, fall off into the clutches of Miru (called there Muru), and die for ever in the clutches of Muru and Akaanga.”

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In regard to the tawa mutu, as in the case of the pua reinga, the explanation comes from Rarotonga. Tawa (“tava” in Rarotongan) is the gulf or abyss below the pua tree into which the spirits of the dead descend. “Kua mate io [iho] ra a Kuiono, kua aere [haere] atu ra tona vairua [wairua], ka kake i te pua; ko te rere ra i tava [tawa]” (“When Kui-ono died his spirit left him and went and ascended the pua, whence it leaped into tawa”).

Here we have the origin of these two terms, preserved in song by the Maori of New Zealand for centuries. Tawa is known to the Maori as the tawa mutu, or last chasm.

Ka tuku tenei au ki te reinga
Ki te tawa mutu.

The explanation given by Paitini, of Tuhoe, is the nearest one to being correct that I have obtained locally. He said, “The tawa mutu is connected with the rimu ki motau at the reinga. It means the end of the spirit's journey.”

Kia tuku-pototia te tinana
Te pua reinga ki taku matua.

And from another song,—

Heoti taku tatari ki te ope taua
I a te rama
Kia wawe taku iti te iria te pua reinga
Ki taku matua
Kai noho au i te ao
Whakaraukotetia e te ngutu.


Ka rumaki au ki te pua ki te reinga

As also,—

E noho ana i te ao marama
Te rumakina ai ki te pua ki te reinga
Ki oku hoa ka wehe i rau rangi.

And lastly,—

Peke ana au i te taingariu o Kanapanapa [a canoe]
Hai kawe i a au te pua ki te reinga.

All these are extracts from local songs, laments, &c.

Another expression sometimes noted is that of “te tatau-o-te-po,” or door of Hades—the gates of death.* One Apatari is said to be the keeper of the door or entrance to the reinga. Miru is said to be the ruler of the po, or world of darkness, the spirit-world. It is singular that two names are given to the underworld—the po and the reinga; as also two rulers of the realm of spirits—Miru and Hine-nui-te-Po. Possibly there is some distinction between them—perhaps two spirit-worlds. We

[Footnote] * “Journal of the Polynesian Society,” vol. vii, p. 55.

[Footnote] † “Journal of the Polynesian Society,” vol. v, p. 116.

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have seen that there are ten divisions of the reinga, or underworld, and in like manner there are ten different heavens.

Paerau” is yet another name that is applied apparently to the spirit-world. It may be one of the divisions of the under-world, or perhaps the name of some land where the ancestors of the Maori dwelt in the days of the long-ago, and is now confused, as is Hawaiki, with the spirit-world. We have seen that “Go to Paerau!” “Go to Hawaiki!” are expressions often used towards the dead in funeral speeches.

That species of lizard known as a kaweau (probably the same as the kueo) is a creature of evil omen. Should you see fresh signs of it in your house, or on a path you are travelling over, you may prepare to start for the underworld without delay. For that reptile was sent by your dead-and-gone relatives as a sign for you to join them in the reinga or spirit-land.

We were camped at Te Whaiti-nui-a-Toi. Our cook, a Native woman, got up one morning and proceeded to the messtent to prepare breakfast. There she saw fresh signs of the dreaded kaweau. She was taken ill and went to Rotorua, where she was treated by various Natives, ringa-tu ruffians of the shamanistic type. She said, “Cease your efforts, for I am going to die. You cannot cure me.” And they could not; but a white doctor could, and did, to the old lady's great amazement.

The same old lady once said to me, “I am inclined to believe that old persons who die regain their youth in the reinga. Because I went to the reinga last night [i.e., she had a dream] and I saw Kiriwera [an old woman recently dead], and she appeared quite young and nice-looking.”

When a Native says that he was at the reinga he means that he has been dreaming. An old man said to me, “I was at the reinga last night and saw my old friend—, who has long been dead. I could tell from his appearance and actions that it will be a fine day to-morrow.”

Again, “Kai te reinga koe e whakarongo ake ana; na, ka whakaororua mai tetahi mea e haruru ana, a ka oho ake koe i te moe.” (“You are at the reinga litening. You hear a distant noise resounding, then you wake up.”)

The expression “awhi-reinga” means “to embrace in the spirit-world,” as when a man dreams of meeting his dead wife. The term “mariko” or “po-mariko” appears to have some similar meaning, but it is not clear to me.

When a defeated war-party returned home there was a tangihanga on the village plaza, weeping and lamentation for the dead. After which, a party of the village people of both sexes, dressed in their oldest and most repulsive garments, would appear before the defeated warriors and perform that sort of haka (posture

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dance) known as manawa wera (seared heart), or whakatea. The performers indulge in much grimacing at the survivors, with other tokens of contempt, vexation, and indignation, on account of those slain. The following is a specimen of the words of the haka:—

Te kotiritiri, te kotaratara
O tai, o huki, o hope—e
Whakatitaha rawa te waha o te kupenga
Kia tairi
Hoki mai, hoki mai—e
Kia kawea koi ki tera whenua
Ki era tangata
Nana i ki mai
Uhi, uhi—e—e

In regard to the Maui myths, one of which—that relating to the mythical origin of death—we have already given: There can be no doubt but that the date at which this popular hero flourished must be placed much further back than that usually allotted to him by the Maori—about thirty-five generations —that is, if there ever was such a person. Max Muller held that Maui was a personification of the sun. If so, then his contest with Hine-nui-te-Po resolves itself into a struggle for mastery between Light and Darkness, between Life and Death. The sun entered the womb of Night to obtain life eternal.

Now observe, in a paper by Mr. Tregear on “Asiatic Gods in the Pacific,”* speaking of the ancient Egyptians, he says, “One of their gods was Moui … and this Moui had also the name of Ao, which we have seen is the Maori word for ‘daylight,’ &c. But turning to page 66 of the same volume we find that “moui” is a Polynesian word (Niue dialect) meaning “life, living,” and evidently connected with New Zealand “mauri” and “mouri” = “seat of life.” In volume ii of the same journal, page 77, we see that Taranga, parent of Maui among New Zealand Natives, is in the Hawaiian isles the name of Paradise, or Eden, home of the first parents. Hence “Maui” may be, or originally have been, a synonym for or personification of life or eternal life, which strove with the personification of death (Hine-nui-te-Po) for mastery.

In the Rarotongan genealogy given at page 48, “Journal of Polynesian Society,” volume viii, we see Maui given a place seventy-two generations back from the present time.

In some Polynesian myths Maui is said to have married

[Footnote] * “Journal of the Polynesian Society,” vol. ii, pp. 139–140.

[Footnote] † The letters “o” and “u” are interchangeable in the Polynesian dialects, as mau = mou and pou = pau.

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Hina, the Moon Goddess; in others Hina was his sister. Maui's full name was Mauitikitiki. In Tahitian folk-lore Hina marries Ti'i (Maori “Tiki”) the first man, who ruthlessly slew people, while Hina resuscitated them.*

It appears highly probable that the story of Maui is a very ancient myth of a contest between Life and Death, evolved by a primitive people in times long past away; that it has been moved down the changing centuries by oral tradition, and the hero thereof localised in many lands.

We have seen that the world of death is termed the po. This expression is also applied to the period when the universe was in a state of chaos and darkness, before the appearance of man. In lengthy genealogies of an anthropogenic nature we observe more or less names which are said by the Natives to belong to the po, or period before man appeared, after which came the names of human beigns. For instance, Tiki was of the po, not a person of this world. He married Ea, who was the first woman of the ao marama, or world of light-i.e., of this world. They had Kurawaka, who married Tane and so produced the genus homo.

It is said that residents of the northern extremity of New Zealand often see the spirits of the dead passing northwards on their way to the rerenga wairua, or departing-place of spirits. They recognise the spirits of persons who were slain in battle by their being covered with bloodstains. Also that houses in those parts are built facing east or west, so that spirits wending their way northwards will not enter by the door.

In regard to the name of Ea: This is the name of the king of the underworld in Babylonian mythology. His son was Merodach, who, with the goddess Aruru, was the creator of all existing things. Ea was also god of reproduction and of canals, but appeared under different names in his various functions, like unto Tane of the Maori.

When wending my way homewards one day last week I met an old Native woman, who saluted me with “Tena koe! Te mata o Te Unupo.” By which she probably meant that the sight of me recalled to her the memory of her friend Te Unupo, who died some months ago, and who was a frequent visitor at my camp. “Mata” means “the face” and also “eye.”

In Humboldt's account of his travels on the Orinoco he mentions a burial-cave of the Natives which he visited, and in which the exhumed bones of the tribe were deposited. “The Indians related to us that the corpse is first placed in the humid earth, that the flesh may be consumed by degrees. Some months

[Footnote] * “Journal of the Polynesian Society,” vol. x, p. 52.

[Footnote] † “The Religious Ideas of the Babylonians,” by T. G. Pinches.

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after it is taken out, and the flesh that remains on the bones is scraped off.” Many of the bones, he states, were painted red. This amiable Teuton was careful to rifle the cave tomb and carry off a mule-load of the human remains it contained.

It is with regret that I now bring this paper to a close and lay aside my pen, inasmuch as the article goes forward in very incomplete state. I have many notes on the subject which remain to be written up, but have not been able to obtain the assistance of any of the few men of knowledge left to verify and explain such items. They must be forwarded at some future time. “Kati te tangi; apopo tatou ka tangi ano.”

We have now at various times and in divers journals ushered the Maori into the world, and noted the quaint rites pertaining to reproduction. We have told of his origin, his religion, his myths and folk-lore. We have described his food-supplies, his amusements, his arts, and superstitions. His woodcraft and war-customs, his mentality and ideality, have been reviewed. We have married him, and watched him in his last hours. We have despatched his soul to the underworld, and cried him fare-well to the dim shores of Hawaiki. And I do not think that we can do much more for him. Nothing remains save the mate-mate-a-one.