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The Maori Race



No decoration has been considered so characteristic of the New Zealander as his tattooing. Not that tattooing is by any means confined to the Maori or Polynesian; there are few natives with which the practice either is not or has not been indulged in. Maori tattooing, however, is distinctive because the decoration or disfigurement of the face by its means is more noticeable in this country than in many others wherein the tattoo has been confined to the body or parts concealed by clothing. Much has been written on this subject, and much more will have to be written before the origin and full significance of Maori tattooing is known, and little will be attempted to be pointed out in this book more than a general sketch of the subject.

The tattooing (moko) of a man's face in late times followed a pattern almost invariable. It might be more or less complete; it might be of the slightest, but so far as it went the tattoo followed conventional lines. It was not a tribal mark, nor even a mark of distinction, for some great chiefs or priests had little or no tattooing, but its presence always showed a certain position in the wearer, for if completed and well completed it proved that page 258 property equivalent with us to large fees had passed from the subject to the artist who had decorated him. It might be considered a mark of manhood and of ability to play a warrior's part in the world; for often the process was commenced at puberty and took years to complete. It was thought to give a look of determination, and the wearer of an untattooed (papatea) face was not attractive to women. A man's face could not be tattooed fully at one operation; the inflammation induced in the tender flesh was so acute that delay was inevitable lest the victim of vanity should die. The person operated was laid prostrate, and at times had to be held down by several others. When the pattern had been outlined with charcoal on the skin, the operator dipped his chisel (uhi) shaped like a little rake or toothed hoe, into the colouring matter and struck the chisel with a piece of wood or a piece of fern stalk about eight inches long. Sometimes the chisel was not dipped into the pigment but a was of scraped flax (muka) with the pigment smeared thereon was drawn over the wound as soon as the incision had been made in the skin. The chisel was made from a piece of a bone of the whale bound to a piece of wood and was held in the left hand between forefinger and thumb; the right hand held the mallet (ta) or fern stalk between the third and fourth fingers. Sometimes the pigment was held between the forefinger and thumb of the right hand and the chisel drawn through the pigment so as to be ready for the next incision. A good tattooer was looked upon as an artist, and was a to- page 259 hunga; such a man would journey from village to village and be very amply rewarded for his work.

The pigment for face-tattooing was very carefully prepared. It consisted of soot made by burning carefully selected material, the heart (kapara or mapara) of white pine (kahikatea). Sometimes kauri-gum was added, or the greasy soot of burnt Veronica (koromiko: Veronica sp.). These substances having been burnt in a small kiln (rua-ngarehu) the soot was collected on a frame of flax-sticks (korari), mixed with bird-fat and given to a dog to eat, the fœces of the dog being kneaded up and stored for use. At other places the soot was merely mixed with dog's fat. Soot for use as colouring matter for tattooing the body was sometimes made from the burnt awheto or “vegetable caterpillar” (Cordiceps robertsii), but was not black enough for the face-moko.

Before describing the different kinds of face-tattooing it may be as well to refer to old legends as to its origin. In two of these it is asserted that men only used to paint their faces, not to tattoo. There is a story extant parallel to a certain extent with the Orpheus and Eurydice legend of the Greeks, for in the Maori tale a man named Mataora who had lost his wife went to the Underworld to search for her. When he arrived at the Door of Darkness and looked in, he saw forms resembling men walking about. He descended and meeting a person asked “Has any human being met you?” “Yes,” was the answer, “She has gone with her lip hanging down page 260 and with a sobbing sound.” The man went and came to a fire whereat tattooers were sitting. Uetonga, the chief artist, looked at the decorated face of Mataora and putting up his hand wiped off the design saying “Those above there do not know how to tattoo properly.” Mataora was thrown prostrate and the operation of tattooing was begun. While this was going on, Mataora to dull the pain called on his wife Niwareka (Great Delight) in song, which thus began—

“Great Delight! Great Delight!
Who has caused me to come to darkness
Speak of the pain of the beloved one,” etc., etc.

His wife hearing him call her name came to him and tended him in his pain. Niwareka and Mataora left the shades together in safety but she omitted to leave the present necessary from those who travel to Life from Death, and thenceforth no mortal was allowed to return from the Underworld to the homes of men. Mataora taught men the art of tattooing.20

A different version of the legend relates that Tama (Tama-nui-a-Raki) was deserted by his wife because she could not endure to live with such an ugly man, so he went down to the Netherworld to ask his ancestors to make him handsome. He flew down to the Shades (Reinga) in the shape of a white heron, and on arrival there and regaining his human shape he found that his ancestors were beautiful with tattooing. He told them that he wished to be made handsome, so they drew graceful curved lines all over his face and body. When Tama bathed it all came off. The process was page 261 repeated, and again the design was washed off. They told him that if he wished permanent tattooing he must go to his other ancestors Toko and Ha who were at the Door of Darkness with the spirits Tuapiko and Tawhaitiri who guard the entrance of the Land of Death. When Tama went to these they asked him what he wanted. “Your ornaments,” he replied, “I wish to be tattooed.” “Ah,” said they, “that is death right out.” “But you are alive.” “Oh yes; one can live through it, but it is as bad as death.” At last they agreed and the instruments and pigments were prepared. Tama was laid down and the operation commenced. It was so painful that he fainted. When consciousness returned he whispered “O Taka! O Ha! I am very ill.” The operator replied (with grim sarcasm) “I do not cause the pain, the instrument causes it.” After many days of suffering the work was done; Tama was carried to his house and laid by the fire. In two or three days the sores began to heal, and he found he had become a handsome man with permanent tattoo. When he returned to his home and children all the women remarked that his ugliness had disappeared and that he was now a noble looking man. So perhaps the pain was worth the bearing, as after much tribulation he saw his wife with “her face radiant with smiles and heard her voice of joyful greeting.”

Having noticed the point in these legends that apparently in ancient days the tattooing was not permanent, it seems doubtful if Mataora (above mentioned) first introduced the page 262 tattooing chisel to men. It is said that the style of face-pattern so fully recognised as the Maori fashion, viz, that of the spirals, etc., is known as “the tattooing of Mataora,” but that the ancient mode was known as the “Dog-tattoo” (moko-kuri), probably from the idea that according to legend Maui tattooed the muzzle of the native dog. This fashion of tattooing consisted in rows of short straight lines alternately horizontal and vertical, repeated all over the face, except between the eyes, where a peculiar mark was made. In the original drawing of moko-kuri (made by me from the instruction of Mr. John White for his “Ancient History of the Maori”) the central forehead-mark took a shape resembling the letter S.21 There was another kind of tattooing, known as pukaewae, consisting of crosses, thus, X X X, marked on the forehead and cheeks. It was usually confined to women and was said to be the old fashion before the arrival in New Zealand of the Maori. There was still another variety of face-tattooing found among the Maoris at the time of the advent of the Europeans. Its record was fortunately preserved for us in the admirable drawings published with the “Voyages” by the draughts-men accompanying Captain Cook. This moko consisted of a few bold geometrical curves executed by “omission,” that is by excepting parts of the cheek from a closely-cut pattern produced by double vertical lines and single horizontal lines crossing at right angles as in a chess-board. (See Robley pp. 5-6.) It is really a transfer of the proper style of page 263 thigh-tattooing to the face22 and was apparently confined to the South Island, where even the women were sometimes to be seen with the men's face-tattoo, or part of it.23

Every part of the face-tattoo had its proper designation, but there is considerable difference between these in different localities. Some, however, received the same name everywhere, such as titi, the brow ornament; tiwhana, the curved lines over the eyebrows; ngu, the marks on the upper part of the nose; paepae, the upper spiral on cheek, etc.

The men were often covered with tattooing on the lumbar region, and on the thigh from the fork of the legs to about four inches above the knee. Each buttock or hip received a design in a bold spiral (rape), while the thigh was marked with a close pattern (puhoro), which made the wearer appear as if clothed with dark bathing-drawers. The ground-work of the skin in the latter pattern was made dark blue, with “excepted” brown lines of the untouched skin left vertically, and crossed with “excepted” geometrical figures.24 Sometimes this part of an enemy's skin, with the thigh-tattooing carefully preserved, was stretched over hoops of supple-jacks (pirita) and trundled backwards and forwards in contempt for the tribe of the former owner.

The body seldom received much tattooing of a regular pattern. A large spiral on each shoulder (rauru) was the most common. Single lines drawn round the ribs, or marked vertically on the back (these called tekateka) and also a bracelet on the wrist were some- page 264 times to be found, but the patterns seem to have varied with the taste of the wearer. The hands of a few persons were marked with signs known as kurawaka or putatara, and it is said that when the body of the Hawaiki chief Manaia was washed ashore it was recognised by the marking (whakairo) on the arm. The puhoro thigh-tattoo was sometimes repeated on the arm.*

The principal regular tattoo of women was confined to the lips and chin. Red lips were looked on with disfavour and the horizontal blue lines on the lips tended (in their ideas) to beauty. The pattern (whakatehe) varied, but generally consisted of a curl inward and upward on each side of the chin under the lower lip within three or four fine lines drawn vertically downwards from each corner of the mouth. Sometimes the face was marked with crosses or with short strokes all over (as in moko-kuri) or with dots. In the South Island there was greater latitude, and part of the man's face-tattooing was at times to be seen on a woman. Different kinds of marks (takitaki) were made on a woman's breast or back, but

* All readers interested in New Zealand tattooing should view with the utmost distrust the picture shown in the little book called “The New Zealanders” published in “The Library of Entertaining Knowledge” purporting to be the representation of moko executed on a white man, a sailor of the name of Rutherford. The marks on his breast are simply English-sailor tattooing, or else the perero tattoo of Rotuma, while the arm-pattern looks like Marquesan work, and not Maori. It is probable that except for a partial face-moko, his tattooing is as unreliable as his narrative, and that was full of lies.25

page 264a Maori Women and Girls.(South Island.)De Maus, Photo. page 265 there was no apparent common rule or design, nor were skilled operators considered necessary, as for the face-tattooing. If the space in the centre of the brow between the eyes, and if the back of the legs from heel to calf bore tattooing, then the wearer was a woman of rank. Markings on a woman's brow were called hotiki; between breast and navel taki-taki; on the thighs hopehope. A kind of girdle was marked on the skin round the waist, and known as tu-tatua. A woman was always tattooed on the mouth before marriage; no one would have a red-lipped wife. When a young woman of high rank had her lips tattooed, a day was set apart for the ceremony and honoured by the sacrifice of a human victim, a war-party being sent out to procure it by killing a member of another tribe. The carcase was eaten by all the assembled people. They were able in after days to mock at the tribe that had provided the sacrifice, saying “You supplied the victim at the lip-tattooing of our chief's daughter.”

When the skilled artificer (tohunga) was doing his work of tattooing, he, the person operated on, and all the people of the village were tapu, on account of the blood on the operator's hand. At the conclusion of the affair, three ovens (umu-parapara) were lighted one for the artificer, one for the gods, one for the person just tattooed and for the rest of the people. To raise the tapu, the tohunga first washed his hands, and then taking a hot stone from the god's oven would throw it from one hand to the other, then replace it in the oven. page 266 This transferred the tapu to that stone, and the food cooked conveyed it back to the gods. The food in the god's oven when cooked was put into a basket and hung up in a sacred place.

Some curious ideas were connected with tattooing. Tangaroa being the god of ocean, to use the bone of a whale (the product of one of his creatures) for the tattooing chisel would annoy him; therefore he had to be warily dealt with. For this reason if a man while being tattooed wished to eat shell-fish, a common food with the coast tribes, some of the shell-fish had to be held up to every part of the face in order to let Tangaroa see the marks. If this was not done the angry deity would arrange that the rest of the tattooing should all be “out of drawing.” Another notion of this kind was that if children in sport tattooed a gourd (calabash) with face-tattooing the gourd was tapu, because it had become (metaphorically) a human head.

A song was sung by the operator while the process of tattooing a man was going on26 and it may be rendered thus:—

“We are sitting eating together,
Watching the marks over the eyes
And nose of Tutetawha,
Which twist here and there
Like the coils of a reptile.
Tattoo him with the chisel of Mataora!
Stay! nor send for your mate
Who is gathering heart-leaves of wharawhara. *

* The name of a parasitic plant: Astelia banksii. With the silky part of its leaves the women decorated their faces.

page 267I am the man who will mark
The man who will pay well
With beautiful tattooing;
But the man who will not pay
Crooked and wide will be his marking.
Strike up the music!
Tangaroa, arise!
Rise up, Tangaroa!”

The tattooing song for women was longer and of a more comprehensive character. In it the motive apparently made prominent was not that of inducing generous payment by promises of excellent workmanship if well paid for, but an appeal to the love of beauty. It commenced:

“Lie down, young lady,
Tra la la!
That thy lips may be tattooed,
Tra la la!
Lest, in thy going to the Hall of Assembly,
It should be said of thee,
‘Whither goeth this unlovely woman
Who cometh hither?’

Lie down, young lady,
Tra la la!
That thy lips may be tattooed,
And thy chin,
To make thee beautiful,
Tra la la!
Lest, in thy going to the Hall of Courtship,
It should be said of thee,
‘Whither goeth this woman of the crimson lips
Who cometh hither?’

Tra la la!
Yield thyself to be tattooed,
Tra la la!
Lest in thy going to the Hall of Sports,
It should be said of thee,
‘Whither goeth this woman of the naked mouth,
Who cometh hither?’

page 268

Tra la la!
It is tattooed! it is tattooed!
Tra la la!
Present thy chin to be tattooed,
Tra la la!
Lest, in thy going to the Hall of Bachelors,
It should be said of thee,
‘Whither goeth this woman of the ruddy chin,
Who cometh hither?’

Tra la la!
It is tattooed, in the spirit
Of Hine-rau-wharangi.
Tra la la!
In the spirit of Rukutia,
Tra la la!
In the spirit of Hine-te-iwaiwa.”

The rest of the song is of a very mystical character and is almost untranslatable, since nearly every word would require a chapter of explanation. It is, however, in the direction of commending the suffering girl to the care of the deities who, when she is beautiful (by tattooing), will take care of her.

Tattooing was often executed after death on heads preserved by embalming or smoking, as described in another portion of this book. Most admirable engravings of this post mortem tattooing (and indeed of most other kinds) are given in Colonel Robley's volume entitled “Moko or Maori Tattooing.” Those interested in the subject will find in that work a mine of valuable material, superior to any other on the subject at present available, and which will not soon be superseded. There is room in anthropology for a wide dissertation on Polynesian tattooing (handled in the comparative page 269 method), to be undertaken by some devoted scholar having funds for expensive reproduction of drawings and photographs.

[My own opinion upon Maori tattooing is that it is a debased system of letters. I refer, not to the modern curves and scrolls of the face-moko, but to moko-kuri and the other Polynesian systems in lines and dots. It was lost, as I conjecture, through the decay of learning among the priests. As this is a mere hypothesis, I have not obstruded it in the body of the work. Those interested may find part of the argument in my paper on the subject in Trans. N.Z. Institute, xxvi., 533—E.T.]