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Medicine Amongst the Maoris, in Ancient and Modern Times


page 54



It is only natural to expect that where the causes of disease were attributed to the gods, that some attempt should be made to propitiate them so as to prevent their anger. Thus we find various rites promoted for this end. Then as the health principle in man was represented by some material object as the mauri, there were certain ceremonies directed towards these.

Trbal mauri.

This was a sacred talisman that holds the health of the tribe. Best points out that with the people who inhabited the Bay of Plentye about Whakatane ere the arrival of the Mata-atua canoe in the 14th. century, the tribal mauri was the "makaka" at Whakatane. With the Mataatua tribes it was a sacred manuka tree that also grew at Whakatane whither it had been brought from Hawaiki. In sickness and distress the tribal mauri was appealed to by invocation, but it was also appealed to beforehand as a preventive measure.

Individual mauri.

The individual or family might also have a mauri. It consisted of some object which after having incantations repeated over it, was deposited in some sacred spot such as the tuahu or altar. So long as it was preserved from desecration the health of the owners of the mauri was preserved from sickness.

Tua rite.

This rite was repeated was performed about 8 days after childbirth at the place where the child was born. Its object was to remove the tapu from the mother and the child and also to endow the child with vitality and the qualities necessary to success in life. The gods were also invoked to protect the sacred life principle which was so necessary to the preservation of human life. The following is an example of a 'tua' incantation given by Best:-

Tenei tua ka eke
Kai runga kai tenei tamaiti
Ko tua o nga koromatua,
Tena tua ka eke
Ko tua o nga pukenga,
page 55 Tena tua ka eke
Ko tua o te putanga
Ki te whai ao
Ki te ao marama.

This rite has been performed
performed upon this child,
It is the tua rite of his ancestors.
That rite has been completed
The sacred rite of the priests,
That rite has been completed
The rite by which he will emerge
Into the world of light
Into the world of being.

The tohi rite.

The tohi rite followed the previous ceremony. It was conducted at the sacred stream. Best points out that it was performed for three purposes; (1,) to dedicate the child to his life's work, (2,) to strengthen and preserve him in battle, and (3,) to protect the life principle.

The invocation used was termed the "kawa ora". This protected the sacred life principle and endowed the child with a clear mind and with physical health.

The "tua ora" was a similar invocation for a similar purpose. During the ceremony two wands were erected, one the "tira ora", representing life and the other the "tira mate", representing death. The priest cast down the wand of death and left the wand of life standing.

page 56

Against makutu there were several precautions.


The individual, ere going on an expedition amongst strange tribes, was taken to the stream, between sunset and sunrise, and the protection of the gods was invoked against all evil demons that might be solicited by the evil art of makutu.

The "whakangungu paepae" or "ngau paepae" rite was also used in this connection, especially ere going out on war expeditions. The whole ceremony served as a primitive vaccination. All the wizard's arts in a strange land would prove of no avail against the person thus protected.


Amongst some tribes, it seems that recovery from one attack of makutu conferred immunity against subsequent attacks. A Whanganui chief related to me how as a boy, he and some other children annoyed an old woman warlock by poking sticks at her through the crevices of her hut. The old lady called upon her evil spirits and that evening my friend was struck down with illness. He developed a high temperature, had severe pains and raved in delirium. From his ravings a diagnosis was made. He was taken to the stream, the evil spirit exorcised and impelled in turn against the old witch. That same morning she died and her victim recovered. He informed me the treatment was so thoroughly carried out as evidenced by the death of the old warlock that no subsequent makutu could have any effect upon him. He challenged attack for he felt sure of his immunity.

In other cases again, I have heard of a man suffering from several attacks of makutu, so evidently he had devloped no anti-toxins. As the man himself said, though he was cured of each attack, he had not been treated sufficiently well to secure immunity.

(c).Precautions against spitting, eating, defaecating or leaving anything that could form an "ohonga" amongst people who were inimical, have already been mentioned.

When speaking amongst a strange people, one had to be careful lest the breath or "hau" from the mouth should be taken and bewitched. This seems to go a little further than the more substantial ohonga, inasmuch as the breath discharged from the mouth in the act of speaking, seems capable of being utilised as an page 57object upon which to work makutu. The speaker knowing the danger which he runs, repeats under his breath an incantation ere he commences to speak. One runs as follows:-

Taku waha i purua
Taku waha i titia
Taku waha i tauaraina
Na runga atu toku mana
Na raro mai tou mana.

Let my mouth be blocked
Let my mouth be fastened
Let my mouth be guarded from evil.
My power comes from a higher source
Your power comes from a lower source.

The reference to the power coming from an inferior source refers to the enemy who may attempt to bewitch the speaker. When the above incantation has been repeated, the speaker is safe. The breath of his mouth is protected and any attempt at makutu will fail.


Kai Ure. Another curious rite is mentioned by Best. When a person has reason to believe that the art of makutu is being directed against him, he can resort to the "kai ure" rite to ward it off. He seizes his penis with his left hand and pushes the foreskin back over the glans penis, repeating as he does so:-

Kai ure nga atua
Kai ure nga tapu
Kai ure ou makutu &c.

Let the gods eat my penis
Let the sacred objects eat my penis
Let your magic arts be directed against my penis &c.

Against this potent incantation the black art of makutu will prove useless.

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When ill-omens were observed, certain phrases or incantations were repeated so as to avert or turn aside the impending evil. This was termed "whakataha" "to turn aside".

Thus on stumbling, the person would repeat the potent phrase:-

Kuruki, whakataha.

With the ill-omened rainbow, the following should be repeated immediately:-

Ninihi, papare
Aitua haere atu ki te po
Na runga atu toku mana
Na raro mai tou mana.

O Power-of-Evil turn aside,
O Death depart to the realms of night!
My power comes from a higher source,
Your power of evil comes from a lower source.

The other ill-omens could be treated in a similar manner.

But if at the time of the ill-omen, the person is preparing for a campaign or a visit to another village or tribe, he would be well advised to put off his project until the omens were propitious. The Europeans who were officers of the friendly Maori troops, were much annoyed during the Maori war, at the Maoris refusing to go out on some occasions owing to ill-omens having been observed. The Maoris were anxious to meet the enemy but from their point of view it was disastrous to disregard the warning of the gods. The loss of a day or so was well worth the advantage of going out with propitious omens or at least the absence of ill-omens.

The person to carry out the treatment of curing disease or in other words to exorcise the demon, was the "kaupapa" or medium of the attacking demon. He was enabled to do this by reason of his mana or power over his ancestral familiars. Hence the importance of a correct diagnosis. The "matakite" or seer, when he had discovered who the demon was, advised the patient to go to page 59 the right medium, who by his descent, had the power to drive out the demon. This the patient would do, confessing at the same time his "hara" or transgression of tapu of which he had been guilty. The medium would then call upon the demon to depart, sometimes in a very harsh manner. He would use phrases such as these, "Hence, slave, depart! Cease thy attacks, the sin has been expiated! Cease! To continue to punish out of mere revenge is the action of one of mean birth. Hence to the realms of night! This exorcism, which might be in the form of an incantation, was termed a "takutaku". It was the driving away of the disease demon. A piece of fern stalk or leaf of raupo might at the same time be placed with one end on the afflicted part of the patient. This was to provide an "ara atua" or path of exit for the demon. In some instances a piece of "puha" or green stuff was passed round the left thigh of the patent and tossed away with the demon which had entered therein. In some instances it seems that the diagnosing tohunga went straight on with the treatment, for after repeating the "hirihiri" or diagnosing incantation he would often repeat the "takutaku" or exorcising incantation. The treatment was usually conducted at a stream where, as we have seen, the diagnosis was also made. Here whilst repeating the various takutaku incantations, the priest would often dive down into the water and bring up gravel, water-weeds or rootlets which were placed against the patient's body as a path of exit and then cast into the water. Hence the words in some of the incantations:—

Haere ite pu
Haere ite weu
Haere ie more
Haere koutou a patu nei
Haere i tua, haere i waho.

Begone by the stem
Begone by the rootlets
Begone by the roots
Begone, ye who smite
Begone, behind, begone, outside.

page 60 The above incantation is one given by Best. Other phrases occurring in the takutaku incantations refer to the idea of the demon originating as an ancestral spirit for it was conjured to return to the underworld to the ancestors who dwell in that spirit land.

Haere ki nga tupuna
Haere ki nga pukenga
Haere ki nga wananga
Haere ki nga tauira
Haere ki te po oti atu.

Begone to thy ancestors
Begone to the priests of old
Begone to the fountains of knowledge
Begone to the initiated
Begone to the underworld and never return.

An interesting proceedure was the touching of the patient with a leaf of the karamu (coprosma) and then floating the leaf down the stream. As one of the Tuwharetoa tribe explained to me, the leaf bore the demon away out upon the vast waters, where at the great whirlpool Te Waha-o-te-Parata (the mouth of the Parata) situated in mid-ocean, it entered the portals of the underworld and there rejoined the spiritual powers which had sent it forth into the world to punish the transgression of their tapu. The interest in the leaf of the karamu being used in this manner as a canoe, so to speak, is that an ancient incantation used at funeral obsequies states that Death crossed over from Hawaiki to these islands in his own canoe. The name of that canoe was "Karamu Rauriki" (The Little-leaved Coprosma). It seems fitting that as Aitua (Death) came in a canoe bearing the name of the karamu, so the death-dealing demon which also comes under the generic term Aitua, should return across the ocean to the underworld on a canoe formed from a leaf of the same shrub. When the takutaku ceremony had been performed, the demon departed and the patient recovered. page 61When the patient was at the waterside and whilst the takutaku was being repeated, the tohunga usually sprinkled water upon the patient, to aid the process of purification. In some cases the patient was immersed in the stream.

Elsdon Best mentions another ceremony amongst the Ureweras in cases of a very serious nature. This was the "whakanoho manawa" rite for the purpose of causing the breath of life to be retained by a dying person. It was also said to restore life to those who had died. The incantation conjured the breath of life to return and remain in the patient that he might emerge into the world of life.

A similar rite was performed by the Tainui tribes. It was known as "whakapiki mauri". In the ceremony, the mauri has a similar meaning to 'hau', the vital spark of man. The idea seems to be that the mauri is weighted down and burdened by misfortune or disease. The whakapiki mauri ceremony was to cause the mauri to rise or emerge from the embrace of death. The case being very serious it was only a tohunga of great power who could successfully accomplish this task. It was also used in war. When the Ngapuhis armed with the first guns swept through the Waikato territory, Potatau the head chief of the Waikatos who subsequently became the first Maori king, was swept before the blast of war into the territory of the Ngati-Maniapoto. Here he took refuge, broken in spirit and hopeless of success. But the Ngatimaniapoto priests took him to their altar place and attempted the rite of 'whakapiki mauri'. Several tried without success until the greatest tohunga of them all commenced. He accomplished it successfully. With Potatau and a small select war party he laid an ambuscade for the Ngapuhi, surprised and overcame them. Thus did Potatau regain his lost territory. Without the successful rite of whakapiki mauri he would never have defeated the enemy.

Still another method of treatment was the ceremony of "ngan paepae." This consisted of biting the cross-beam or seat of a privy. The reason was that the privy was tapu. It had its super-page 62natural guardians who protected it from illegal interference. Thus faeces deposited in any ordinary place could be bewitched. but not so the excreta deposited at the privy. Anyone attempting to do so would be punished by the guardians of the paepae. The sick person was conducted to the privy or paepae in the evening and commanded to bite the cross-bar, the tohunga repeating incantations to expel the demon as he did so. This rite was especially used to avert witchcraft or to remove tapu.

It must be understood that during these various rites to expel the demons, the tohunga and patient were both tapu. The priest was repeating tapu incantations and besides expelling demons was calling up the aid of his own powerful gods. Ere they could return to the village, the tapu had to be removed by the whakanoa rite. They had to become noa or common. One of the usual incantations was repeated and a piece of weed, puha or fern root was passed round the patient's left thigh, touched against his body or bitten by him. The object used absorbed the tapu and it was deposited at the altar or privy or thrown into the stream.

Elsdon Best mentions the "whakaoho rangi" rite of causing the thunder to sound. It was performed by the priest to give prestige to the various rites that had been performed, If the thunder sounded it was an augury of success.

In removing tapu of a serious nature, the tohunga made a sacred oven of small size with a few stones. A piece of fernroot, a kumara or some puha (greens) were cooked or merely warmed and the patient enjoined to partake. He could eat or merely put the object to his lips and the tapu was removed. In the various steps of the ceremony there were appropriate incantions.


The treatment of makutu was similar to the above. It consisted of exorcising the demons that had taken possession of the patient at the command of the inimical tohunga. In the diagnosing ceremony of hirihiri at the waterside, altar or paepae, the wai-page 63rua, spirit, of the person who had caused the mischief appeared before the tohunga. In cases where a relative or friend of the patient went to the tohunga, the spirits of both the patient and the wizard appeared. The tohunga would tell the patient or friend who had wrought the evil and ask what he should do to him. The usual thing was to exorcise the demons and turn them against the wizard who died unless he was on his guard and had protected himself. Thus witchcraft was a dangerous weapon to use, for if the person against whom it was aimed was not killed, it was very apt to turn against the tohunga who had impelled the magic shaft.

In the cases of heriditary makutu aimed at causing a certain family to die out, the treatment after discovering the cause, was by means of the sacred oven to remove the effects from the patient's family or to obtain the bewitched object that had been concealed and by means of incantations remove its virulence and power.

Doubtful Cases.

Attention has been drawn to the necessity of correct diagnosis to enable efficacious treatment to be carried out. However even in primitive medicine there seems to have difficulties in the way of diagnosis. Amongst the Ngati-Whatua tribe, when dreams and other methods of diagnosis had been exhausted without success, they had recourse to a peculiar method of treatment in the hope that they might be fortunate enough to cure the patient. The patient or a friend of his in the early morning passed some urine into the hollowed palm of the hand. The hand must not have touched food that morning. The urine was painted on the afflicted part or in some cases drunk. My informant was careful to inform me that this proceedure was "kaia", theft, an attempt to steal success and good fortune.