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Maori Agriculture

Peculiar Usages and Ceremonial Beliefs Pertaining to — Agriculture

Peculiar Usages and Ceremonial Beliefs Pertaining to

We have now to review some very singular beliefs and practices of the Maori people with regard to crops. These involved a ceremonial use of the skulls and other bones of dead and gone tribesmen with a view to causing fertility and an abundant harvest. The idea lying behind this, to us, amazing act, was doubtless a belief in an inherent, perhaps supernatural, mana or power pertaining to such bones. Such a belief would be evolved, perhaps, by a people practising ancestor worship. On the other hand some of these peculiar usages cause one to think that they may possibly be survivals of an old and abandoned custom of human sacrifice. Such sacrifices were made by many peoples of antiquity with a view to the production of good crops. The following note on the subject was collected by the late Mr. John White:—

"When it was seen that the kumara plants were of poor growth, betokening an inferior crop, steps were taken by the priestly adepts to remedy the matter. The cause of such an affliction was often held to be the neglect or wrongful performance of some ceremonial matter pertaining to the planting of the crop, or of something entirely unconnected with the crop, such as disinterment of bones of the dead. Hence it is seen that such a misfortune as a poor crop was viewed as a punishment inflicted by the gods for some transgression of the laws of tapu.

One method of averting the impending misfortune of a poor crop consisted of reciting certain ritual matter over the bones of the dead. A person or persons would be chosen to proceed to the toma [cave in which were deposited the exhumed bones of the dead] and fetch therefrom the bones of some person or persons to be used in the ceremony. Such bones would necessarily be those of a person of some standing and influence when living. The bones were placed on the ground at some place at or near the village, and the priestly adepts would gather around the covered remains in a circle, and recite or chant the appropriate karakia [charm]. A part of the ceremonial consisted of an elder tohunga taking page 194an uncooked kumara and, holding it towards the oldest of the skulls, which had now been uncovered, he recited these lines:—

"Kia kai mai koe i nga kai ngaki a tou tini, a tou mano i waiho i te ao nei, &c."

(Eat thou of the food cultivated by your many folk left in this world.)

The above performance was also gone through in some cases when the crop was planted, skulls of the dead being brought to the field and elevated on a stake or other object at the head of the cultivation. This was to ensure a vigorous growth and a good crop. In some cases offerings of kumara, taro, or leaves of these plants, are said to have been placed in the skull, between the jaws. When finished with the bones of the dead were returned to the cave.

When remains of the dead were brought to the village for such ceremonial purposes, relatives of the dead were given an opportunity of weeping over the bones. After the ceremony, such as the one described above, was over, male relatives of the dead approached the remains, female relatives remained in the rear, and both indulged in continued weeping and lamentation over the bones of their defunct relatives." A scene of this kind witnessed by the writer many years ago was a most impressive one.

Mr. White has also a note to the effect that, when a field was about to be planted, and prior to the recital of any form of ritual, four toko (staff or wand), provided by a tohunga, or priestly adepts, were stuck in the ground, one at each corner of the field. Bones of the elders or ancestors of the planters were brought from the cave of the dead and suspended from these staffs, or placed at their bases. Such staffs were used in many rites.

It must be noted that these customs and rites varied to a considerable extent in different tribal areas.

Dried or preserved heads were utilised in a similar manner, and were believed to be equally efficacious. Such remains were believed to add force to the charms of the priestly adepts. See Fig. 46 (p. 195).

The following paragraph is another illustration, preserved by Messrs. S. Locke and W. Colenso:—"Tia and his party did not return from Taupo to Maketu; they all died inland at Titi-raupenga, where their bones and skulls long were…. Those skulls were annually brought out, with much page 195

[Note added by NZETC as annotator:]

Description: Fig. 46. Two Dried Heads such as were formerly placed among growing crops. See p. 194

This image is not available for public viewing as it depicts either mokamokai (preserved heads) or human remains. The reasons for non-display are detailed in the policy regarding display of images of mokamokai. If you would like to comment on this decision you can contact NZETC.

page 196 ceremony, and placed in the kumara plantations, by the margins of the plots, that the plants might become fertile and bear many tubers."

In the Rev. Mr. Brown's Journal of 1835 occurs the following passage:—"Dec. 1. Last day of kumara planting. A large party assembled…. A human head, dressed with feathers, was placed on a fallen tree in their midst, and sometimes, in their horrid war dances, one of them would brandish about the head in his hand, and by this action apparently increase the savage exultation displayed in their fiend-like countenances."

It is hardly likely that war dances were indulged in at such a time and place; doubtless the performance was a form of haka. The head was probably used for the purpose described above.

The heads of slain enemies seem to have been equally as useful as those of friends as crop forcers, according to native evidence. When Tuhoe defeated the Arawa at Rere-whakaaitu some generations ago, they slew a chief of that tribe named Tionga. Having regaled themselves on his flesh, as also that of others, they carried his head home with them and placed it on a certain bird snaring tree (tutu) at Okahu, that it might cause that tree to bear an abundance of fruit and so attract many birds. Hence it is that the descendants of Tionga are now known as Tiaki-tutu, or the tutu guardians. Apparently this skull did its work well and achieved fame, for, some time after, we find the Awa folk of Te Teko asking for the loan of the head that it might be taken to their māra kumara to cause an abundant crop. Can these singular customs and beliefs be a survival of human sacrifice for similar purposes in past times?

In Wiedemann's booklet The Realms of the Egyptian Dead, the author states that, at an early period, dismemberment of corpses was practised in that land:—"It was divided into a varying number of pieces, but the severance of the head from the rest of the corpse was considered specially important. The pieces were buried in the cultivated land…. After a time, when the flesh had decayed, they dug up the bones, collected and cleaned them, and buried them in their final tomb in the sand of the desert."

There are in the Dominion Museum, some rudely fashioned phallic emblems from the Taranaki district that the Rev. T. G. Hammond thinks were used as a sort of cultivation page 197talisman or mauri in plantations, but the evidence seems to be scant. (See Fig. 47, p. 197.) Some have been fashioned so as to resemble a phallus.

The Bay of Plenty natives have preserved the following tradition of the introduction of the kumara into that region:—Many generations ago, some say about 400 years, other versions make it longer, a woman named Te Kura-whakaata, Fig. 47. Phallic Stones from Taranaki District. It is believed that these were placed among growing crops, though actual proof is lacking. See p. 196-7. page 198 walking the beach at Whakatane at early morn, came upon two castaways from a far land. These persons were Hoaki and Taukata, sons of a chief named Rongoatau whose home was in one of the far off isles of Polynesia. They reached these shores in a vessel named Nga Tai a Kupe. Their sister Kanioro is said to have been the wife of one Pourangahua of Turanga, who is also credited with having made a voyage to Polynesia in quest of the kumara. The woman conducted the castaways to her father's home on the cliff head above the present township of Whakatane where, on being provided with a meal, the seafarers were astonished to find that the kumara was not known in these islands. Under the supervision of the castaways a large sea-going canoe was made, and named Te Aratawhao, in which a crew sailed from Whakatane to the isles of Polynesia in order to obtain the coveted kumara. Hoaki sailed on this vessel, while his brother Taukata remained at Whakatane. We are told that the vessel made a successful voyage, safely reached the isles of Polynesia where the desired seed tubers were obtained. Prior to the return of the party to New Zealand the adepts of Hawaiki advised them to be very careful in their treatment of the kumara, and to closely observe all ceremonial matters connected with it, otherwise the mauri of the kumara would return to Hawaiki, a name which here stands for the isles of Polynesia. By mauri is meant the life principle or vitality of the tuber. They were advised to direct special care to the storage of the seed tubers, and, when safely housed, to conduct Taukata into the storehouse and there slay him, also to sprinkle the entrance to the storehouse with his blood—kei hoki mai te kura ki Hawaiki—lest the treasure return hither to Hawaiki. Even so, on their arrival at Whakatane, these instructions were carried out, and the hapless Taukata was slain as a means of preserving and retaining the mauri of the newly acquired product. We are also told that, for many years after the above events, at every planting season, the skull of Taukata was taken from the cave in which it was kept and deposited on the edge of the cultivation, and in each eye socket was placed a seed kumara. At the same time certain ritual was recited by priestly adepts with a view to the retention of the fruitfulness of the tuber, and to cause it to produce a prolific crop.

page 199

In his Nineteen Years in Polynesia, the Rev. G. Turner tells us that, in New Caledonia, "the teeth of old women are taken to the yam plantation as a charm for a good crop, and their skulls are also erected there on poles for the same purpose."

In his account of Maori life and industries, Cook wrote:—"We saw, near a plantation of sweet potatoes, a small area, of a square figure, surrounded with stones, in the middle of which one of the sharpened stakes which they use as a spade was set up, and upon it was hung a basket of fern roots: upon enquiry the natives told us that it was an offering to the gods, by which the owner hoped to render them propitious, and obtain a plentiful crop."

Mr. White tells us that, when the crop has sprouted well, and the young shoots well grown, some article of food was selected and held out in the hand as a kai popoa or sacred offering to Matariki (the Pleiades), a charm or invocation being at the same time repeated. The food so offered was then suspended on a pole or placed in a tree near the spot where the ceremony was performed. This performance took place at dawn.

The Dyaks of Borneo hold curious beliefs concerning the soul, or life principle of rice, and these much resemble the Maori belief described above. The Dyak belief that rice was originally obtained from the Pleiades, reminds us of the old Maori saying that the Pleiades are the food bringers, and of the myth that the kumara was first obtained from the sky world, from Whanui, the star Vega. Perry, in his Megalithic Culture in Indonesia, tells us that some of the folk of that region maintain that their ancestors learned the art of agriculture from an ancestor who had reached the Pleiades, where he acquired the knowledge. Here we recognise the myth concerning Rongomaui. These Indonesians employ certain ritual to ensure the flourishing of the rice crop, that is to protect the mauri or life principle of the plant. E. B. Tylor furnishes similar evidence in his work on Primitive Culture.

In the Sarawak region of Borneo the natives believe that the skulls of enemies cause crops to flourish.