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Legends of the Maori

Chapter II. Tane-mahuta, The Soul of the Forest

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Chapter II. Tane-mahuta, The Soul of the Forest.

“The solemn and beauteous Tane, who gathers his stateliest,
ever-green, trees-waving daughters
Into forests, the sunny, the songster-bethridden…”

Alfred Domett.

It was with the trees and ferns that Tane-Mahuta clothed his mother Papa after the parting of the primal parents. That is, the surface of this Earth was thus covered, and when man first spread abroad on the face of this world this soft protective garment of forest clad the greater part of the land. The forest is Te Wao-tapu-nui-a-Tane (the vast sacred woods of Tane). An old-fashioned Maori will sometimes speak of a great forest-tree as “Tane,” he has in his mind the poetical belief that the trees of the forest are Tane-Mahuta’s children. The bark of trees is Te kiri-o-Tane (the skin of the lord of the forests). Te riu-o-Tane (the hollow trunk of Tane) is applied to a canoe, a chopped-out tree log.

The Polynesian-Maori venerated the Wao-Tapu-nui-a-Tane. He would not lightly lay hands on those tall and splendid sons of the Forest Father towering so far above him. The noble kauri, the totara, the rimu he would not fell without pious ceremony. When the timbers hewn with great labour from these trees, especially the totara, were carved for a fine house, they were doubly tapu because they were shaped in the form of gods and venerated ancestors, and so there were special rites and ceremonies and prayers to free them from the tapu. This ritual will be described in one of the chapters in this book dealing with the tapu-lifting ceremonial. (See the story of the Carved House, “Rauru.”)

The totara was an especially valued tree; in Maori fancy it was the child of Tane-Mahuta and the forest-goddess Mumuwhango. It was the timber most prized by the canoe makers and the wood-carvers. When this child of Tane, or any other large tree, was felled for such a purpose a ceremony was performed with the first chips that flew from the tree-cuts; and fronds of fern were laid on the stump to cover the raw, naked wounds of Tane. The sacred fire kindled by the priest in which the kumara was ceremonially roasted, to be eaten by the priest and carvers at the opening of a new house, was Te Umu-a-Tane (the Forest God’s oven).

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Most lovely of all the children of Tane are the ferns of this land of Aotearoa. They make a sub-forest of tenderest foliage, sheltered by the towering chieftains of the Wao-Tapu. Botanists tell us there are a hundred and forty species of ferns in our land; from the tall tree, the mamaku or the ponga, that spreads a drooping, langourous crown of soft fronds overhead, to the daintiest tiniest filmy fernlets, that mat the logs and treetrunks or tremble in humble beauty on the ground. Plumed and fronded, harbouring smaller ferns upon their boles, the larger ones rise as graceful as a tropic coco-palm. They lean out over forest waterways, the black-stemmed fern tree cyathea medullaris the king of them; the Maori calls it the korau or mamaku (strictly speaking, its edible pith is the mamaku). There is the silver fern tree, the ponga; it is New Zealand’s most favoured badge. Songs of mourning compare the sorrow-stricken one to the fronded mamaku:

“Ah me, my children,
I bow my head with grief
As droops the mamaku fern-tree.”

Loveliest of all is that ariki-tapairu of the forest, that princess of ferns, the feathery-soft todea superba, called by the pakeha the Prince of Wales’ feather, by the Maori the tété or heruheru; it loves the cool shades where the bush twilight ever reigns. It is the fairy of the ferns in the sacred forest of Tane-Mahuta.

Many poetic aphorisms and metaphors concern the children of Tane. There is one that comes from the Ngapuhi tribe, it belongs to the North Auckland country, Ka kata nga puriri o Taiamai. It is a beautiful and meaningful expression of the Bay of Islands and inland thereabouts. Literally it means “The puriri trees of Taiamai are laughing,” but to the Maori mind it holds more than that. It symbolises delight, the joy and gladness aroused by pleasing news. It signifies the smiling face of Nature on a summer day, when all seems to go well with the world. It is a greeting, a phrase of congratulation, a term used in honour of a welcome guest. There is music in the name Taiamai when pronounced rightly, with the stress on the middle “a.” Taiamai is the country around Lake Omapere, in the heart of the good North land, a rich and pleasant country, embossed with the graceful cones of long extinct volcanoes. There the puriri tree with its spreading branches of glossy dark green foliage, is the forest glory of the land; the most plentiful and the most friendly of trees; a living emblem of strength, durability, imperishable qualities.

There are the birds of the forest, the “wing-flapping children of Tane.” As with the felling of a forest tree, the taking of birds in the bush was attended with careful ceremonial. The first bird speared or snared in page 11
Spirit of the Forest.

Spirit of the Forest.

page break page 13 a fowling expedition was placed apart as an offering to the forest deity. There were sacred mauri of the forests, usually certain stones set at the roots or in the branch-fork of some rata or other tree; sometimes they were roughly carved timber or rocks. These bush shrines were karakia’d over, made tapu with prayer-charm, so that the forest would continue to be abundant in birds, a perpetual source of food supply for the people.

There is a beautiful idiomatic expression for the morning chorus of the bellbird and tui on the edge of the forest: Te waha o Tane, e ko i te ata (the Voice of the Forest God, the Chorus at Dawn). Here ko is short for korihi, which bears a curiously close resemblance to the word “chorus,” its exact English meaning.

Maori artifact