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Medicine Amongst the Maoris, in Ancient and Modern Times

Conception of Disease

Conception of Disease.

To the Maori, disease was a supernatural visitation. It had no natural cause. It was intimately associated with their religious ideas if we use the term religion in the sense that the Romans used religio. Hobbes says, "the feare of things invisible is the naturall seed of religion." The pain and symptoms of disease sprung from unseen causes and so the "feare of things invisible" associated them with the gods who were manifesting their displeasure at some transgression, not of a law of nature but of one of the multitudinous laws connected with some or other atua or god. As Lubbock points out, "The science of medicine indeed, like that of astronomy, and of physiology like religion, takes amongst savages very much the character of witchcraft. Ignorant as they are of the processes by which life is maintained, of anatomy and of physiology, the true nature of disease does not occur to them. Many savage races do not believe in natural death and if a man however old, dies without being wounded, conclude that he must have been the victim of magic. Thus then, when a savage is ill, he naturally attributes his sufferings to some enemy within him, or to some foreign object, and the result is a peculiar system of treatment which is very curious both for its simplicity and universality."

Here we have the Maori idea in common with that of other races at a similar culture stage. The mere stumbling of the foot was not a natural thing due to thoughtlessness or the inequality of the ground. It was an omen of evil portent from the invisible gods and war parties have returned to camp owing to this. Outside of wounds in battle where the enemy and the weapon causing the wound were seen and therefore not feared as a supernatural manifestation, there was nothing natural. Accidents were due to supernatural agencies and it is interesting to note how the tribes adapted their ideas to their circumstances and environment. For page 18instance a seafaring tribe like the Ngati-Whatua on the many-armed Kaipara Gulf, with its winds and currents, would naturally lose a fair number of their clan by drowning. To meet the case they had a special god kawau who punished any violation of the sacred places of his priests by upsetting canoes at sea and so punishing by drowning. It might be easily argued that a storm arose and so a natural phenomenon was the cause of the disaster. But when the neolithic mind replied by asking "Who caused the storm?" it was difficult to explain. If a shag, the aria of kawau, happened to be about at the time of the accident which was more likely than not in a place where shags were very plentiful, the power of Kawau was vindicated beyond all question to the Maori mind. In the territory of the Arawa tribe, many cases of scalding and death occurred in the boiling springs of that thermal district. These cases again were no ordinary accidents but due to the god Te Makawe who punished in this manner those who transgressed against him. So throughout the various tribes there was no natural death except upon the field of battle. In the case of very old men, however, the Maori seems to have risen a step above his fellows by admitting death through senility, "mate kongenge." Yet in many of thos cases again death was often attributed to witchcraft or the punishment of the gods.