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Medicine Amongst the Maoris, in Ancient and Modern Times

Public Health and Sanitation

Public Health and Sanitation.

Village Sites.

Owing to the fairly constant attack and defence that went on, not only between tribes, but also between sub-tribes, all villages were fortified. For this purpose the sites chosen were nearly always or hill tops and rising ground where the natural features assisted the work of defence. Hence the ground was dry. This was also promoted by the system of fortification. universally adopted. The hill sides were terraced with deep trenches to obstruct attacking war parties. Thus the drainage was good and sub-soil water a thing unknown. I have myself gone over old fortified village sites and found depressions between the sites of houses on the various terraces showing that smaller drains were made between the individual houses.


Each "pa" or fortified village had one or more privies called "paepae". These were made on the edge of the cliff or steep hill-side which bounded some part of the "pa". That privies are an old institution is proved by an ancient myth. The story goes that in the days when the gods took an active interest in mundane affairs, the eldest of the Maui brethren, Maui mua (Maui the first-born), after many adventures rescued his sister Hinauri and ascended to the tenth heaven. There he came to the court-yard of Rehua, one of the ancient gods. He sojourned there but finding the condition of the village filthy, he set about sanitary reform. He made wooden spades with which he cleaned up the village. Then on the edge of the cliff he made the first privy-'paepae.' He erected two uprights, across which he placed a carved seat named "te pae o kahukura" (the seat of the Rainbow god. Then to prevent any danger [gap — reason: text illegible]page 3 he put in a carved post in front of the seat for people to hold on by. This post was named "te pou o Whaitiri" (the post of the Thunder God). When Kaitangata, the son of Rehua, came home he used the privy, but owing to the upright holding post having been loosely put in, when he strained against it in the act of defaecation, the post came out of the ground and Kaitangata fell over the cliff. He was killed and his blood stained the heavens. To this day, when a certain red glow stains the heavens, the older people quote the ancient proverb:-

"katuhi Kaitangata,"

"Kaitangata stains the heavens with his blood." This type of privy was built from ancient times until the advent of Europeans led to the changing of the usual village sites. It is easy to see that the system was simple and efficient in ancient days. When Captain Cook landed on these shores, he visited many of the fortified villages. He was much struck with the presence of these privies, and with the fact that offal and rubbish were carefully disposed of. This led him to remark that the sanitation of these Maori villages was in a far higher state of efficiency than many of the cities of Europe.


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.


The food products grown by the race consisted of kumara and taro. The other carbo-hydrate foods consisted of the rhezdme of the fern (pteris aqualina) growing wild in large tracts, and various berries of the forest trees, as the hinau, tawa, and karaka, with the pith of the tree fern (mamaku) and a species of palm (nikau). In flesh foods, the rivers and sea were rich in fish and shell-fish, and the forests teemed with wild-fowl. There were no mammals with the exception of the Native dog and rat, both introduced by the Maoris, and two species of bats. Food was stored up in special food-houses by the various families to provide for the winter. Two meals a day was the number usually indulged in.

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Cloaks to wear over the shoulders and around the loins were woven by hand from the fibre of the phorndum tenax. For the finer dress cloaks, the fibre was beaten and prepared until it assumed a silky softness. Rough rain-cloaks were also made for protection against the inclemency of the weather. To show that the ancient people were careful, in spite of their stamina and endurance, of weather conditions, the saying of the Chief Taharakau which has been handed down for generations, may be cited. Takarakau and his friend set out on a long Journey one beautiful bright morning when not a cloud obscured the heavens. Taharakau's friend noticed that Taharakau was carrying a very heavy rain-cloak in addition to the dress cloaks worn by a Chief, and he asked the reason in a manner that showed that he considered his companion had taken leave of his senses. Taharakau replied in the cryptic manner of the ancients:-

Eroa raro, e tata runga
Below (the way) is long but the heavens are close.

Ere they had completed their Journey the sky grew overcast and a terrific thunder-storm came on. Taharakau went placidly on, protected by his great rain-coat, whilst his companion, soaked to the skin, and miserable, thought of the truth of Taharakau's saying.


The methods and ideas in connection with disease were inseparably connected with their religious beliefs, or rather views of the supernatural. To throw light upon their medical practice it is necessary to detail briefly some of their spiritual concepts.

That the Maori's power of abstract thought is very high is conclusively proved by Elsden Best, who had the advantage of living amongst the most conservative of Maori tribes, the U[unclear: r]eweras. This tribe has preserved ancient incantations and modes of thought down to comparatively recent times.

The Maoris were polytheists. Like other races on a lower culture stage, their gods were the offspring of their imagination and fear. They were to be dreaded as gods who pun-page 7-ished and thus the appropriate ritual, observances and incantations had to be gone through to propitiate them in order to avert disaster and misfortune. In this they were like the Romans whose religion was not a theology: "it did not teach men what the gods were in themselves: but only what were the duties which men owed to them, and how they might secure their favour*". With the Maori as with the Roman, the customs of his fathers required him to repeat certain incantations and offer certain sacrifices (the first fish, bird, fruits of the earth) at certain times and seasons. This was his bounden duty (religio). In the case of the Maori there was a large element of fear which prevented his haggling and making such close bargains with his gods as the Romans did.


The manifold manifestations of nature were personified as seen in the early genealogical tables which are an attempt at a cosmogony. Some of these forces are deified as gods. The Maori word "atua" means not only gods, as Europeans use the word, but demons, sprites and fairies. When firearms were first used against them, the Maoris fled from them with the cry "They are atuas".

Like many other races, they shared the idea of the earth-mother and sky-parent. Originally the sky (Rangi-nui) and the earth (Papatu-anuku) clave together in close embrace. Their children, Tu Matauenga (ancestor of man), Tawhiri matea (God of Storms), Tangaroa (god of the ocean, fish and shell-fish), Tane Mahuta (god of the forests and birds), Rongo (god of cultivated food) and Haururmia Tiketike" (god of uncultivated food), conspired against their parents to force them apart and let light into the world. This, they accomplished. To these gods incantations were repeated on appropriate occasions, as to Tu-mata-uenga for success in war, to Tane, when taking one of his children in the form of a tree to build a canoe, and to Rongo for success with crops. In fishing, besides the incantations, the first fish caught was returned to the ocean to propitiate Tangaroa and ensure a good catch, whilst the first fruits of the page 8earth were offered to Rongo. In these cases neglect of ceremony brought disaster, in the way if ill success in war fishing, crops, or bird hunting as the case might be. Besides as these principal gods, there were others of equal status, so to speak. They were mostly war gods, as may be readily understood from the warlike character of the people. Such were Maru, Rongomai, Kahukura and others, to whom the priests repeated incantations and went through certain ceremonies in time of war. The various tribes differed as to the god to whom they owed allegiance. Maru amongst the Whanganui tribes was a jealous god who was always hungry. In bird-hunting in the forests, the first killed bird had to be offered to Maru else he punished the offender by causing him to become insane, lose his way and meet death through accident or starvation. Hence he was known as "Maru-tangi-kai"-Maru who cries for food-and young people were carefully enjoined to observe the law. It is easy to follow that amongst these tribes the few accidents which occurred were invariably attributed to angering Maru by not giving him his due. The origin of all these gods took place in Hawaiki before the migration to New Zealand. They appeared to the people by certain set signs, by natural phenomena as shooting stars or rainbows, or by natural objects as birds or fish.

From the time, place and manner of the appearance, the priests interpreted whether success or disaster would attend their war party. So far as I can understand, the ordinary ailments of life were not in the province of these principal gods, but were rather the work of minor deities, or demons. The Maori term is "Atua", which applies not only to the gods we have enumerated, but also to a host of minor godlings or rather demons with whom we shall have to deal. These mino gods originated in a number of ways. Nearly all those whom I can trace, originated since the race came to New Zealand. No doubt the older godlings have been forgotten. They all emanated from man entirely, or in conjunction with the shades of the dead. In this respect they correspond to the page 9larvae or lemures of the Romans.

(1).The first group consists of the wairua (soul essence) of those who have died. A priest or chief of great power after death might return as an atua to the world of life, His descendants, especially is a priest, might call him up to consult him as to sickness, or war, and to use the dread which the knowledge of his communicating with families spirits, would inspire amongst the people. This inspired fear gave the priest immense power as it protected his property from theft, and his sacred places from contamination.
(2).Another group, so far as I can understand, were the offspring of a living woman and a man from the under-world, that is, of someone who had died. As a typical case in point let us take one of the gods of the Ngapuhi tribe. Eight generations ago, or roughly 200 years, there lived the celebrated Te Maawe, who, so tradition says, could fly through the air. His grand-daughter in her sleep was often visited by a figure of handsome human form who did not exist outside her dreams. He was recognised to be a shade, or a spirit, "he tangata no te po", "a man from the under-world." The woman conceived a male child who became the war-god of the tribe. He never died, but disappeared. He re-appears in bodily form to the tohungas who have the power to call him up. This is Te Nakahi.
(3).The third group consists of an actual man who bodily becomes an atua. An example of this is Puhi-kai-ariki, an atua of the Rarawa and Ngapuhi tribes. Puhi-kai-ariki was killed in battle some nine generations ago. The victors consigned his body to the oven, but when the hungry tribesmen opened up the oven Puhi had disappeared; by what means the historians record not, he reappeared in the sea as a taniwha, sea monster in the form of a whale and has ever since been an atua of those tribes.
4.The above three groups all have an influence in causing disease, but the most important group of all is the pres-page 10-ent. The above three groups all give expression to the fear that primitive man has for the dead. The soul or essence which disappeared at death was somewhere lurking about to punish him if he transgressed the laws. But more mischievous and deadly to the Maori mind was the spirit of those who had never reached full development. Such were still-born children, miscarriages, and abortions. If not carefully interred in some safe place, they would enter any living thing with which they came in contact, such as dogs, reptiles, birds, or fish, and immediately become a demon of intense malignity. These were the "atua kahukahu". It was not necessary even for an abortion to take place, for a careless woman allowing any menstrual discharge to be swallowed by a fish or other vertebrate animal, created another "atua kahukahu".

As an example of this class of demon, Te Makawe, the war-god of the Ngati-Whakaue tribe may be taken. Te Makawe originated by an abortion from a woman of high rank of the tribe. He appeared to the people in the form of a lizard when called upon by the priest or tohunga. There seems to have been no limit to the creating of these demons for the fact of some of them appearing as pigs, cattle, sheep, or horses, show that these originated only since the advent of white people. It may seem a paradox that they could enter gramnivorous animals like the sheep or horse, but it was quite sufficient for these animals to eat grass upon which menstrual fluid had fallen or diapers had been spread, to cause an atua kahukahu to originate within them.

A myth resembling the origination of demons of the second class is prevalent in districts inhabited by the "Patupararehi" or fairies. Men and women have been stated to have fairy wives and husbands who came to share their beds at night and disappeared ere dawn. Songs are on record supposed to have been sung by these "fairy" beings. Women have given birth to children by fairy fathers. In the case of an old man popularly said to have had a fairy wife, he page 11assured me that she was fair-complexioned, without tatooing, and of great beauty. She came at night and left ere dawn, and he copulated with her. He was married to a human wife at the time, who was much disgusted that he could not fulfil his marital duties owing to his frequent connection with his fairy wife.

These demons are represented by some material thing as in the case of the higher gods.

These are in both cases termed "aria", the material form or form of incarnation of the atua. As an example these following atuas have the following aria:-

God. Aria.
Tunui-a-e-ika Kereru (wood pigeon)
Te huki ta mokonoko (lizard)
Makawe Shooting Star or lizard.
Nenuku Rainbow
Kahutia Kaeaea (sparrow-hawk)
Te Ringi māi hau Kuri (dog)
Te whiwhiro Whirlwind (awhiowhio)

Spiritual concepts:—

As regards himself, in his relationship to the "atuas" we have already stated that the Maori's attitude was to avert misfortune and disaster. Though there seems to have been a worship of Ioiowhenua who was a good and beneficent deity and of Rongo who corresponds to the Roman Ceres and promoted peace as well, the Maori lived in fear of his gods.

What corresponds somewhat to the European soul was the "wairua". This was the shadowy essence or spirit of man. It left his body in dreams and wandered off into divers places. In severe illness it wandered away and in fatal cases never returned. At the northern extremity of the North Island is situated "Te Rerenga-wairua", the "departing place of spirits". When anyone dies, the spirit or wairua leaves the body and travels north towards the departpage 12-ing place of spirits. Passing along a stretch of sandy beach, the hillock of "Te arai" is reached where the spitit leaves an offering-a piece of seaweed if he comes from the coast, fern from the fern lands of Taranaki, or nikau palm from the dense forests of Tane. Above the Rerengawairua is the Summit of Haumu where the spirit turns and looking back bids farewell to the world of light and of being. Descending the cliff by means of the hanging root of a pohutukawa tree he reaches the lone and desolate shore. Crossing to the dark hole in the sea besides which swirls the seaweed of Motau, he enters the portals of the Reinga or "under-world," there to dwell with the thousands who have gone before. Cases have been recorded of spirits coming back and their owners recovering and describing the wonders they have seen. Some spirits have returned after death as deified ancestors and correspond as we have stated to the larvae or lemures of the Romans. In witchcraft, or makutu ceremonies, the wairua of the person operated upon is seen and recognised.

"The hau" is the vital spark or living principle in man. It seems to represent the vital processes which make man a living entity. The wairua can leave the body as we have seen, but without the hau man cannot live. If the wairua does not return of course dies but the border-land between wairua and hau, where they are essential to life, is difficult to define. As Best points out, the wairua seems to be an active element, in that it travels, can foregather with other spirits, inform man of impending danger and thus defend his physical basis. The hau on the other hand is a passive element, and is acted upon by man's enemies, Thus in makutu it is the hau that is destroyed and causes man to die. In order to accomplish this, something that belongs to or has been touched by, the person to be destroyed must be obtained by the priest. This visible material object is termed "ohonga" and is the "ahua" of visible semblance of the invisible hau. It may be associated with the word page 13"hau" meaning wind which carries the idea of breath and so the visible movements and manifestations of life have come to be regarded as an intangible something necessary to life and summed up in the word hau. The "hau ora" rite is performed over young children to avert sickness and disaster in after life, or according to modern ideas, that their vitality may be strong and healthy to enable them to resist disease. Of course in the case of the Maori the latter part meant the propitiation of the gods of disease. It is interesting to note that fish and fowl had their hau and also the land, forests, and seas. These were necessary to ensure life, fertility, and abundance. The forest whose hau was destroyed produced no fowl, the sea no fish, and the soil no food. The material representation of the hau in these cases was the "Mauri" represented by particular stones &c. These were carefully concealed. Mauri was also applied to man in a way which I cannot quite follow as it seems to overlap hau. Amongst the Ngatimaniapoto tribe there is an ancient ceremony known as "whakapiki mauri" which prevented death or disaster if successfully accomplished. Of "manawa", "ngakau" &c., we will say little here except that "manawa", meaning the breath or heart, was looked upon as the seat of knowledge, power, and physical and mental strength, whilst "ngakau", meaning bowels, viscera, was looked upon as the seat of affection, of mental pain and of thought.

* Roman antiquities. by Prof. A. S. Wilkins.