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Medicine Amongst the Maoris, in Ancient and Modern Times



My impression is that the Maori suffered from very few diseases in the healthy days of old. There were no epidemics with the exception of a vague account of one to be mentioned later on. In searching through ancient songs and legends, one comes across a limited range of disease names. In an incantation of the Ngati-Maniapoto tribe, a tohunga seeing a man looking ill, asks the question, "Oh what is that which makes you stoop in pain?" The patient replies by enumerating a number of complaints which give man trouble.

He mamae noku
I te pahoahea, i te tauwi,
I te wharo, i te ngenge,
I te kopito, i te tu,
I te tutuki, i te wai,
Me pewhea?

I am in pain and distress,
Through headache and weariness,
Through coughs and tiredness,
Through pains in the abdomen and perforating wounds,
Through contusions and dangers from drowning.
What shall I do?

From the above, we get as medical cases, headaches, coughs and abdominal pains. In the classic song of Turaukawa, we have mention of coughs, papules and enlarged glands. Thus with the exception of witchcraft and leprosy, the diseases we hear of in page 20the unwritten literature, if one may use such a term, are minor complaints. From the healthy life and attention to hygiene such was to be expected. Though the commoner complaints among the Maoris were minor ones, he took them very seriously because as we have shown, the cause was invisible to his mind. Pain is a symptom which tells at once that the body is not in its normal condition. The pain in the head, in the chest, in the abdomen or other parts, at once informed the patient, not that he had the symptoms of disease or slight ailment, but that he was being attacked by the gods. Here the fear of the invisible in the way of the atuas and witchcraft was a very real thing to the neolithic mind and the longer fear remained the more serious the complaint became.