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Medicine Amongst the Maoris, in Ancient and Modern Times

The Tohunga or Priest

page 14

The Tohunga or Priest.

The medium between the people and the gods was the tohunga or priest. Tohunga really means expert, the man of skill, as in the terms "tohunga ta moko" (the tatooing expert), or "tohunga whakairo" (the carving expert). Everything which demanded skill or expert workmanship had to be carefully taught and the deities presiding over them had to be propitiated and their favour solicited by the requisite incantations and ritual. The most usual significance of the word tohunga, however, was the priest who mediated between the gods and the people. In all the various activities of life as the planting and digging up of crops, fishing, building and opening important houses, making canoes, baptising children and the various war ceremonies, the tohunga was an absolute necessity. Incantations of ancient origin had to be repeated at the right stage of the ceremony. A zmistake of one word led to disaster. When Tahau, a learned man of the Ngati-Tuwharetoa tribe, officiated at the opening of a large carved house at Rotorua, he made a mistake in the incantations. There were many there who noticed the error. Tahau had repeated these incantations times without number but at Roto-rua he made the fatal slip. That evening Tahau occupied the place of honour within the tribal guest house. In reply to the speeches of welcome, he seized his war spear and bounding up and down in the throes of impassioned oratory, he wielded the weapon as only a blooded warrior could wield it. Then he lay down upon his couch. His neighbour spoke to him after some time but receiving no reply, came nigh. The "wairua" of Tahau had sped to the departing place of spirits in response to the call of the gods for a broken incantation. At all events he was dead and the above is the reason of death assigned by his countrymen.

In sickness, which was essentially the punishment of the gods, the tohunga was called upon to act as the physician page 15of the tribe. With his methods we shall deal later.

The tohunga was the learned man of the tribe. The tribal lore and secrets of the priestly craft were in his keeping and were jealously guarded and preserved. The youth or neophyte entering the mystic calling, had to be qualified by birth before acceptance. He underwent an initiation ceremony in a neighbouring strem after which he became "tapu" or sacred. He could not touch food with his hands but had to fed by a person set apart for the purpose. He entered the "whare wananga" or sacred house of learning where he was taught the ritual and observances in connection with his profession. The teaching was usually conducted in the long winter evenings in the closed house with perhaps the only light coming from the gleaming embers of a charcoal fire. There is a phrase amongst the Taranaki tribes applied to a man of knowledge, "i tahuna ahitia" (a fire was lit) referring to the fire lit in the house of learning and thus implying that the knowledge of the person referred to was not the ordinary knowledge gathered from the exchange of ideas with others but it came from the highest of all sources, the sacred house in which the fire was lit. There was no influence from the outside world to distract pupil and teacher. The teaching was entirely oral. Lengthy incantations, songs and genealogies were repeated and committed to memory. There were various ceremonies to make the student of quick and retentive memory such as the tohunga biting his head or spitting into his ears to make them open, whilst after the course of study the student might bite his teacher's big too in order to fix the teaching in his memory. Thus without writing or artificial aids, an immense accumulation of knowledge was inscribed upon the tablets of never-fading memory. The marvellous Polynesian memory retained their cosmogony, genealogies going back a hundred generations, the ancient migrations, the voyages of the famous canoes and their systems of ontology, psychology, astronomy, psychomancy, eschatology, oneirology, and physiolatry. In the sacred house he graduated in the magic arts and sacred rites. He had a working knowledge of hypnotism