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Medicine Amongst the Maoris, in Ancient and Modern Times



The dwelling-houses were well built. The huge meeting houses had much of the wood-work elaborately carved, whilst the rafters were painted with various complicated designs in colours. The cooking and dwelling-houses were kept separate. The walls of the latter were made of thick layers of reeds and water-flags, whilst the roof was composed of thick layers of "toe toe" grass, arranged in such a manner as to be absolutely water-tight. The building consisted of only one room with an earthen floor. These dwellings were made air-tight and warm to make up for the lack of blankets. The door and one small window were always placed at one end of the building. The opposite end of the dwelling was devoid of any opening. The ventilation was, consequently, very bad, this being the weak point in ancient conditions affecting health. Amongst some tribes, page 4however, provisions were made for ventilation by having an opening in the roof near the ridge-pole, with a smaller roof over it to prevent the entrance of rain. This opening was kept closed with on old garment which was removed when the house became too close. Charcoal fires were kept burning in the houses during occupation. This, combined with the crowding in the common dwelling-houses, often resulted in serious complications taking place owing to the bad ventilation. As a boy I can remember having to be taken put of one of these houses owing to a violent head-ache and an attack of vomiting which came on after being exposed to the close atmosphere and charcoal fumes. These symptoms which have occurred at various times amongst all tribes have given rise to an interesting myth. Amongst the various folk with which the Maoris have peopled the mountains and forests are the fairy "patu-paiarehe". These folk are in constant enmity to man. Around the Tongariro mountain they were under the leadership of "Te Ririo". The "patupaiarehe" have under their special protection the wood pigeon (kereru) and the wild turnip (pohata). Should mortals be so foolish as to use in their dwelling-house, the charcoal from fires upon which pigeons had been grilled, or turnips cooked, Te Ririo and his goblin troppe would swoop down upon the house during the night. By means of enchantments and supernatural powers the occupants of the house would be plunged into deep sleep and the offending person or persons carried off into the hills. Some came back and told of their wanderings, whilst others perished from exposure or accident. There have been cases of people of weak mind wandering away and returning with wonderful tales of demons and gods. These incidents, no doubt, gave rise to the above version of the myth. The important fact known is that many cases have occurred of violent head-aches, deep sleep with rigidity of the body, which immediately recover on being dragged out into the open air, and the face being splashed with cold water. These cases were always looked upon as being due to the goblin tribe of "patu paiarehe" The real cause was never guessed. A still further myth of more ancient date is founded page 5upon the same idea. In the mythological tale of Tawhaki the scene is laid in Hawaiki, the distant birth-place of the race. Tawhaki and his brother Karihi sought vengeance against the race of Ponaturi who had slain their father Hema. The Ponaturi were a race living in the sea who returned to their homes at night. In the story the brothers arrived at the common sleeping house of the "Ponaturi" when they were absent. There they found their captive mother who concealed them after detailing the strategy by which the Ponaturi might be slain. When the "Ponaturi" returned in the evening and slept in their house, the brothers closed up all crevices and openings to prevent any rays of light entering and so preventing the appearance of the dawn making itself apparent to the sleepers. The myth was that sunshine was fatal to the Ponaturi who came out of the depths of the sea after sunset, and went back are sunrise. Every crevice being closed and no light entering, the Ponaturi slept on until the sun was high in the heavens. The door was then thrown open and all the Ponaturi slain by the rays of the sun according to the ancient legend. The truth of the matter is that they were already suffocated by the action of Tawhaki and Karihi. The Maoris saw the effect of foul air and they handed down, by legend and tradition their explanation of the cause.