Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Old-Time Maori

V Fire

page break

V Fire

The maori made his fire by friction, and used te hika ahi, the fire plough, to get his fire. Two pieces of wood which had been thoroughly dried were used. One, the kauahi, or lower stick, a piece of Mahoe (Melicytus ramiflorus), was generally 14 to 18 inches long, 2 or 3 inches wide, and 1 to 2 inches thick. This was very soft wood, and the stick could be used on both sides. Pate (Schefflera digitata) was sometimes used as a kauahi, but Mahoe was much preferred. The other piece of wood used was te hika, the rubbing stick, made from the Kaikomako (Pennantia corymbosa), a very hard, compact, and durable wood. The stick was scraped down with tuhua (obsidian) or shell to a rounded point at the end.

Te hika also means “generating stick”, and a man and woman would both take part in generating fire, as both took part in the generation of children. The kauahi or lower stick was kept in position by the woman, while the man worked in hika, or the generating stick. A small log is placed on the ground, with the lower stick against it. The lower end of the kauahi is held firmly in position by the woman, who stands with her foot on it, and the man kneels at the other end, which is raised up 5 or 6 inches from the page 272 ground. He holds te hika firmly, with his thumbs underneath, and his fingers placed flat on the outer part, with his right hand passing over his left. He begins rubbing the lower stick until a groove is formed about 5 inches long. The rubbing is slow at first, then a little quicker, with heavier pressure, until a hollow, a ¼ to ½ inch deep, is formed, and a minute heap of dust begins to collect at the lower end of the groove. When plenty of dust has been made, the man uses te hika again, working it backwards and forwards more vigorously and with greater pressure, and the hollow gets hotter. He knows by the smell when the fire will come. The hollow gets darker, and from the heap of dust comes a little smoke, then a little bright speck in the middle. “A kua ka te ahi,” the fire has come to life!

The burning dust is turned out of the hollow on to some dry kindling material of dry leaves or layers of bark and sticks which are already prepared. Some of the dry leaves are put on the dust, and this is blown gently with the mouth until flames come. Sometimes this burning dust is placed within a dry branch of the Manuka (Leptospermum ericoides), and waved gently from side to side so that the fire soon burns up.

Wood was the only fuel, and there was plenty of it. Rata (Metrosideros robusta), Tawa (Beilschmiedia tawa), Manuka (Leptospermum ericoides), Whau (Plagianthus lyallii), and many other trees made excellent firewood.

page 273

Burning logs were left in a hollowed out place in a wharau (cooking shed) with ashes thrown over them to keep the fire in, so as to start the cooking fires on the next day, or slaves kept them alight. Fires were not allowed to burn out except in the hangi, i.e. the cooking ovens. Slaves attended to fires for warming a wharepuni or wharewhakairo (large meeting house), and kept them going from a fire outside which was always burning. Only the embers were brought into a house, and placed in the hollow prepared for holding them. These embers would be replenished from time to time all through the night if there was a ceremonial gathering. The process of generating fire was so tedious and slow that care was taken not to let a fire out, either a fire for cooking purposes or one for heating the houses. A fire used for cooking would not be used for heating a house. Burning or smouldering logs were carried from place to place by slaves. A man would carry such a log a day's journey.

The old Maori was careful where he made his fires. If the hangi were outside, he would study the way the wind was blowing, and so place a shelter accordingly. If the hangi were in a cooking shed, he would be careful about the length and quantity of wood he used. I have never known a fire to occur in a Kainga Maori (home and village), nor a house to be burnt accidentally. A house would be burnt if a person died in it, or a woman gave birth to a child in it.

Sometimes a fire was lighted in a korua (hollow) made page 274 in the ground in the centre passage of a whare, between te roro (front) and the pou-toko-manawa (centre pole which supports the ridgepole), but nearer the latter. This fire would be made some time before the people entered the whare, and by then only embers would remain in the hollow. But the embers were usually taken in by slaves from a fire outside, carried between two flat pieces of wood. If the house was a large one, the hollow would be lined with flat stones, laid in a square or rectangular shape. Of ventilation there was very little, and only through a koro pihanga, the small opening with a sliding shutter which was used as a window.

The lighting of a whare was by oil with a flax-fibre wick. Oil from birds, or fish oil was placed in a hollow stone, about 4 or 5 inches in diameter and the same in depth, and in this the wick floated. If the house was a very large one, two wicks would be floated. Even this did not give a very bright light, but the Maori did not mind, and was quite happy with his dim light. Generally he had only the light from his fire.

If a fire occurred, neighbours would co-operate to extinguish it.

When a comet is seen above, a Maori will say, “Ko Auahi-turoa tera, nana i kare mai te ahi,” That is Auahi-turoa, who brought us fire. The old Maori belief is that Tama-nui-te-ra (honorific name of the Sun), the father of Auahi-turoa, thought that he would like to do some great thing for the people who lived in the world below. He tried to think of something page 275 that would be of great use to them, and would bring them comfort. He thought and thought, and decided that fire was the very thing which they needed, for it was not only useful in cooking, but also gave warmth and light. Tama-nui-te-ra spoke his thoughts to his son Auahi-turoa (personified form of comets) and said, “I want to send something very important to the people below on the earth, and I want this gift of fire to go through you.” And his son consented. Auahi-turoa then took the fire with him, and presented his father's gift to the people on earth, who thus became possessed of this wonderful thing, ahi.

While Auahi-turoa was on earth, he took as his wife Mahuika, the goddess of fire. They had five children, and they were named after the five fingers of the human hand, Takonui, Takoroa, Mapere, Manawa, and Toiti. They are known as the five fire children.

Maui wanted an excuse to go to see his grand-mother Mahuika and to find out how she produced fire. One night he put out all the fires in the wharau or cooking house of each family in the kainga (village and home). Early next morning, he called out, “Kua hemo au i te kai,” I feel faint for want of food. The slaves went to prepare him some food, but found that the fire had gone out, not only in their cooking house, but in all the other cooking houses.

page 276

Taranga, the mother of Maui, then said to the slaves, “Tikina he ahi ia Mahuika,” Go and get some fire from Mahuika. Tell her that all the fires have gone out on this earth, and ask her to give us some. But the slaves were too frightened to move, for Mahuika was an atua, a goddess.

So Maui said, “I will go and get some fire, if you will show me the way which leads to the place where my grandmother Mahuika lives.”

His parents, who knew the country well, said, “Follow that path which lies before you, and when you reach the place where your grandmother lives, you will find her sitting in front of her home. If she should ask you what your name is, tell her, for then she will know you. But we want to warn you, and we ask you not to play any tricks on your grandmother. You are noted for doing this, and we ask you not to do it to her.”

Maui replied, “No, I only want to get some fire, and I will return again to-day.”

So he went on his way, till he reached the place where Mahuika lived. He marvelled at the wonderful things he saw, for bright light seemed to shoot from all directions. He stood in awe for a long time, then spoke: “E kui e? Maranga ki runga, kai whea te ahi?” O Dame, will you rise up? Where is your fire? “He tiki ahi mai taku,” I have come to get some fire.

The aged Mahuika rose and said, “Aue kowai ra tenei tangata?” Who can this mortal be?

page 277

He answered, “It is I.”

She asked, “Where do you belong to?”

He replied, “To these parts.”

She said, “You do not belong to these parts, nor do you look like the people who live in this country. Do you come from the north-east?”

He answered, “No.”

“Do you come from the south-east?”

He answered, “No.”

“Do you come from the westward?”


She said, “Well then, you must have come from the direction of the wind which blows right upon my body.”

He replied, “Yes.”

“Then you must be my grandchild. What is it that you want?”

He said, “I have come to get some fire from you.”

She said, “Welcome, welcome: here is fire for you.”

The aged grandmother then pulled off the nail from her little finger, and when she did so, he was amazed at what he saw, for fire flashed out of the fingernail. And she handed this to him.

Maui turned as if to go away, but he only went a short distance and put the nail into water and so extinguished the fire.

He returned to Mahuika and asked her to give him another light, as the other one had gone out. She pulled off another finger-nail and handed the fire to him. He went away as before, and again put out the light.

page 278

This happened several times until all the nails from her two hands had been pulled off, and also the nails from her feet, except the konui (large toenail). She then realized that Maui had been playing a trick upon her.

Mahuika was full of anger at what Maui had done to her. So she pulled off the remaining nail from her konui, threw it on the ground, and said, “There you are!” Fire sprang up at once, and set fire to the ground.

Maui was greatly alarmed, and ran away as fast as he could from the flames which seemed to be following him and catching him up. So he turned himself into a bird and flew into the water, hoping to find a cool place. But he found that the water was getting hot from the heat of the fire. The flames spread over the forest, the land, and the ocean, and it seemed certain death for Maui.

He then appealed to his ancestors Tawhiri-matea, the god of wind, and Whatitiri-matakataka, asking them to send him help in the way of water to put out the fire which was following him. They immediately sent Te Apuhau (squalls), Te Apu-matangi (gales), Uanui (heavy rain), and Ua-roa (lasting rain), which put out the great fire of Mahuika.

Mahuika was nearly drowned by the great quantity of water which fell. She ran from it, as Maui ran from the flames of her fire, and only reached her home just in time to save some sparks of fire which she placed for shelter within Hine-kaiko-mako (the personified form of the Kaikomako tree, page 279 Pennantia corymbosa), and into a few other trees such as Mahoe, Pate, etc. This is the reason why the Maori uses pieces of these woods for generating fire by friction. It also explains how the fires of Mahuika died out.

A sister of Mahuika called Hine-i-tapeka has the fires of the underworld under her care. These fires sometimes break out in volcanic eruptions.

A special sacred fire, ahi tapu, was kindled in connexion with all ritual performances. This was a very old custom of the Maori, who firmly believed that fire was of divine origin. All of the Tohunga (priestly experts) had knowledge of generating fire by friction. This was taught in the Whare-kura, the Tapu school of learning, where they were taught. All ahi tapu, and all tapu ceremonial fires were generated by friction. It was most important that a new fire should be generated for each ceremonial by a Tohunga, while another one intoned a tapu chant suitable for the occasion. The karakia (chant) made the fire tapu, so that the Tohunga might place nga atua, the gods, in it. In the ahi tapu (sacred fire) would then be the beings to whom the Tohunga would make certain appeal.

Ahi tapu was used by the Tohunga for many things in his ritual performances, and some of the ritual functions were called “Ahi”, fires.

When there was war, the rites performed were Ahi marae, Ahi korakora, and Ahi takoha, but when the page 280 first enemy was killed, the rite performed was Ahi manawa. The rite performed over the bones of the dead was Ahi pure. Ahi taitai was a fire at which were performed rites suitable for the home, the birds, and the forest. Ahi toronga was a rite performed to kill the anuhe (caterpillar) which settles on the leaves of the kumara (sweet potato), and does great damage to the crops. The karakia used in connexion with first fruits was Ahi amoamohanga. Ahi purakau and Ahi tumu whenua were rites used in connexion with tree felling.

When a fire makes a hissing sound ending with a whistling sound, a Maori will say, “He atua, kai te tiki ahi mai ma ratau,” The gods have come to get fire for themselves. If it is just a soft hissing sound caused by the escape of gas, it is nga patupaiarehe, the fairies, taking some fire for themselves.

When people intended visiting another tribe in another part of the country, Ahi tapu (sacred fire) was used when performing the rite named Whakau to protect them from the evil influence of makutu (witchcraft). Several years ago, my mother and I with other relatives had occasion to visit another tribe many miles away from our home, because of the death of one of their members who had died in our part of the country. We accompanied the body back to her home. Before we left, one of my relatives visited a Tohunga, telling him about the journey which we were going, and saying that we needed page 281 protection from makutu for a certain period. Ahi tapu was used by the Tohunga, and the rite performed by him placed us under the protection of nga atua, the gods, for a time. He cooked some potato, of which each of us was given a piece. This we carried on our person at the waist. The cooked food was to drive away all evil influences which might be floating in the air, or which moved in space. The very air in a strange tribe's kainga was full of danger, and one had to take great care to prevent makutu taking effect. On our return a few days afterwards, the Tohunga removed the tapu which had protected us. This happened twice with me personally, but I know of other occasions when it took place among my relatives.

Evil spirits will not come near a fire. A man or men sleeping in the bush would light a fire as a protection from evil spirits. Ordinary fire was used for this.

Human hair must not be put into a fire. Should this be done, the person to whom the hair belongs will die. The fire must be extinguished at once.

Sometimes crops suffered from frost, and if a frost was expected, a piece of lighted wood would be carried by a man ki te wahi miinga (to the urinal). He waved the burning stick over it, while he repeated a karakia called “tatai whetu” (star recital), and as he repeated the words, he moved the forefinger of his right hand, as though counting the stars. This protected the crops.