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Medicine Amongst the Maoris, in Ancient and Modern Times


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The exact diagnosis of the particular demon offended had to be made' are treatment could be instituted. With many, the symptoms were pathnognomic and the diagnosis self-evident. There was a series of events or omens, however, which informed one that disaster in the way of attack from a marauding war party, accident or disease was impending. It was threatening the person himself to whom the omens were vouchsafed, or someone akin to him. These me were observed in (a) natural phenomena, (b) incidents in their daily occupation, and (c) various physiological signs. Their name is legion but we will enumerate some of the most common.


Natural phenomena.

Rainbows. When the arch of the rainbow was low, and the colours deep and intense especially the red, its position had to be carefully noted. If the span lay across and before the path a person was travelling, then he must turn back, or evil will befall him or his house. It was an ill omen from the gods and must not be disregarded.

It was my fortune once, travelling with a party of my people by train, to see such a rainbow arching across the railway line some distance ahead of us. The old men were in a state of consternation, and one whose son was sickly offered up many prayers that the disasters might be averted. As we reached the dreaded spot, the rainbow had worked over the line and lay parallel with us. This was favourable to our party. We reached the end of our journey and found that a chief of the village had died, but he was no immediate relative of our party. This coincidence was claimed as a triumph by the old school.


Incidents in daily occupation.

There are many of these in every sphere of work, but we will quote two from the science of bird snaring.

(1)In killing the tui ( ) a screen of boughs page 47was set up in an appropriate place with a good perch placed before it. The hunter concealed behind the screen, by means of a leaf in his mouth imitated the call of the tui, which, attracted by the sound, lit upon the perch when it was promptly despatched by the hunter with a blow from a rod. If, however, as he struck, the tui twisted its body beneath the perch still hanging on with its claws, so that the hunter missed his aim, then it was an omen of evil portent. An enemy was near at hand, or disease threatened the hunter and his family.
(2)In snaring the kaka parrot, if, as the snare pulled the line of the snare, the kaka hopped up into the air off the perch so that the snare closed vainly beneath, it was ill. The hunter would unship the artificial perch and re-set the snare. If a similar incident happened, it portended disaster.

To this class belong stumbling, sounds and dreams. We will enumerate the common ones.

(I).Tutuki waewae. Stumbling of the foot. When upon any quest, this betokened non-success. If approaching a village it was a warning against attempted assassination, witchcraft or sickness in that village.
(II).Taha - muscular twitchings of the trunk or shoulders - If on the right it was an ill omen - on the left, good. The Maori would say "Taku taha he katau-he tahu aitua". My twitch is right-sided - it is a sign of evil.
(III).Takiwi - These were muscular movements of the arms, legs, or head causing sudden Jerks of the flexors or extensors. Flexion inwards of the arms was termed a "ruru" whilst flexion forwards of the head was a "whawhati" or "tamaki". They were both bad omens.
(IV).Whakamakuru ihu - a sound in the nose. In the left chamber it was good-in the right, bad. These omens are often mentioned in ancient laments, the poet often commencing "He aha kei taku ihu e whakamakuru nei" (Ah! what omen is this, that sounds within my nose,) page 48 and then going on to describe the death of the subject of his lament.
(V).Another class of ill-omen was a wailing, singing sound heard in the ears, due, no doubt, to cerumen. The ancients say that the sound of the voice could be distinguished, and a diagnosis made of the actual person ill or dying.
(VI).Dreams, naturally, played an important fact in diagnosis and prognosis. In this particular aspect of casting the shadows before, it was ill to dream of a wrecked house. Apart from war, dreams often foretold attempts at witchcraft. To dream that one was pulling string or cordage out of one's mouth was a sure sign of makutu, Another common warning of witchcraft was to dream that one had been speared and could not see the projectile sticking in some part of his body.

The Hon. Wi Pere, M. L. C., tells a tale of his youthful days when he was benighted at the home of a junior branch or his line. He had reason to know that they would have been pleased if he and his brother were out of the way, as considerable property would pass to the Junior branch. In the night he dreamt that he saw a spear travelling through space towards him. It struck him in the side and remained fixed there in spite of his efforts to remove it. He glanced down at his boots and noticed that part of the lace had been removed from one of them. In the morning he woke with a vivid recollection of the dream. He examined his boots and found part of one of the laces had been out off. He set off post haste to his home, consulted the elders who immediately diagnosed that the boot-lace had been removed as an "ohonga" for purposes of witchcraft. They sent a messenger to the only "tohunga" makutu" of the district who, finding the plot had been discovered, returned the piece of boot-lace.

It had been brought to him only that morning by a member of the Junior branch, with the object of having one of page 49 those standing in the way of their inheriting property, removed. The dream gave warning, not only that witchcraft was impending, but also the particular method by which it was to be accomplished.

To dream of certain animals, or objects, which were the personification, so to speak, of certain "demons" was a sign that any illness which attacked the dreamer, or any of his family, would be due to offending that particular demon.

So much for the ancient prodroma which assisted the diagnosis of the impending attack of gods and demons.

As regards the diagnosis of existing disease it varied, as may be gathered, with the tribal locality, and their local system of disease demons.

With the Tauhourangi tribe, swelling of the big toe joint or ancle was caused by Tatariki. Instead of diagnosing gout or rheumatism, they diagnosed a disease demon. It served their purpose as effectively.

With the Rarawas, pain and swelling in the abdomen were pathognomic of Puhi-kai-ariki, and bone disease of Toketoka.

Though the patient might make his own diagnosis, it was necessary to get in a 'tohunga' to verify the diagnosis. The Tohunga, by a judicious system of questioning, would el[unclear: ic]it from the patient that he had transgressed one or other of the multitude of laws and observances surrounding one of the many gods. It was necessary to discover this "hara" or transgression, not only for diagnostic purposes, but that treatment could be proceeded with. The "tohunga" consulted his "atuas" or gods in making his diagnosis, and the gods revealed to him the "hara" or sin, even where the patient considered that he was free from any stain or blemish. The gods might speak to the tohunga through the medium of dreams or by clothing him with prophecy, when he spoke as one inspired.


A common method of diagnosis was for the tohunga to take the patient to a stream in the evening, where standing naked in the water he repeated powerful incantations page 50In the case of the forecasting omens, such as the muscular tremors and singing in the ears and nose, the "hirihiri" could be resorted to, to find out who was to be afflicted. Names of various people, distant and nearer relatives down to oneself were mentioned, and the tremors and singing ceased on mentioning the right person. This was simply to diagnose the person, and the "hirihiri" was performed wherever the person was when the omens came on. In the "hirihiri" rite at the water-side, the object was to find out the cause or sin, and the punishing demon. In the incantation, therefore, the names of various tapu objects are mentioned, and the one at which the patient gasps is diagnosed as the source of trouble. Elsdon Best gives one from the Urewera tribe:-

Kotahi koe ki te whare
Kotahi koe ki te kakahu
Kotahi koe ki te moenga
Kotahi koe ki nga whenua &c. &c.,
Thou art one to the house
Thou art one to the garment
Thou art one to the bed
Thou art one to the lands &c.

If the patient gasp at the word 'house', then he has trespassed upon some sacred house, or the ancient site of one and so with the others. Questioning the patient will then elicit confirmation of the diagnosis. In a similar way, mentioning the names of various gods will lead to a diagnosis.


It was natural also that any mental departure from the normal, should be looked upon as possession by some god.

Epilepsy and hystero-epilepsy: Persons subject to attacks of this nature were looked upon as being in communion with their gods, and after the subsidence of the attack the result of the communion was awaited by the people with a certain amount of confidence in its infallibility. The diagnosis of disease was often made by these people.

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Hysteria. Hysterical people, especially woman, throwing themselves into a hysterical condition and babbling nonsense were carefully listened to, for they were speaking with "strange tongues", the result of their communion with the supernatural powers. Their rambling discourse was analysed for the purposes of diagnosis. In the "hauhau" war against the Europeans, they were looked upon as oracles, and were termed "porewarewa" or mad people. Standing at the foot of the "niu" or upright post around which the devotees of the "hauhau" cult danced, they went into a frenzied fit in which their speaking "with tongues" foretold when and where they would meet the enemy, and whether victory or defeat would result.

Delirium during fever was looked upon as proof positive of possession by a demon. In the course of delirium mention of dogs or other animals gave the diagnosis of the aria of the particular demon causing the illness.

History. The history of heridity, or rather of a number of deaths in a family pointed to some permanent cause such as witchcraft. See further particulars of this in "whare ngaro" under tuberculosis.

Appearance of aria. Though more often seen in dreams, the aria of the demon sometimes appeared. The manner in which it appeared often had a diagnostic significance. The appearance of a lizard aria with its jaws covered with blood showed that it had been attacking someone. The medium could avert further dangers by propitiating the god.

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