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Legends of the Maori

The Sacred Fire—Rangi-Tahau’s Ritual

The Sacred Fire—Rangi-Tahau’s Ritual.

But the house was not free yet for the people to enter. More complete and even more dramatic was the taingakawa ceremony, which took place on the following morning, the Arawa priest’s service. It was before the priests or any of the participants in the ceremony had taken their morning meal, for the sacred rites must be performed fasting. The Arawa people of Rotorua and the Ngati-Tuwharetoa tribe of Lake Taupo escorted their high priest Te Rangi-Tahau to the sacred place.

The tohunga walked slowly up to the porch of the house, his carved and plumed taiaha, or spear-staff, in his right hand, and his pakeha clothes covered with a cloak of kiwi and pigeon feathers. After him came Te Hemopo, Te Poihipi, and other chiefs from Taupo; Kēepa Rangipuawhe and Mita Taupopoki, of the Tuhourangi tribe, grizzled old Te Waru, of Ngati-whaoa, and many other chiefs. All the people who possessed flax or feather garments wore them, and there were to be seen in the brown hands many a greenstone and whalebone club and hardwood taiaha of old.

The priest bore a branchlet of the kawakawa shrub (piper excelsum) which a boy had been sent up to the bush in the early morning to procure, and from which, in fact, comes the ceremonial word kawa. A twig and leaves of this were tied round the carved figure of the god Tane-i-te-pupuke at the foot of the toko-ihi, the front central post.

The service commenced with a ceremony that was a survival of the most ancient of human religions—the fire-worship of the Chaldees, the fiery rites of Baal. This was the kindling of a sacred fire, called “Te Umu-a-Tāné” (The Oven of Tane). Tene the carver, under the instructions of Rangi-Tahau, gathered some of the dry rushes on the courtyard ground and some manuka twigs and lit a small fire in front of the house, to the left of page 265 the central post as one looked from within, and, facing the window, or matapihi, beneath which is the seat of the chief. The people gazed silently and intently at the mystical rite. The sacred fire blazed up, and Tene, on the word from the priest, placed in it a kumara to be roasted.

Then the tohunga walked round to the side of the house, where a ladder had been placed for him, and, carrying his taiaha, climbed slowly to the top of the whare, to the front of the gable overlooking the porch. He reached the roof-ridge and stood up just behind the realistic tekoteko, the image of Tutanekai, which crowned the house.

As he was climbing up he looked down at the sacred fire and said to Tene: “Do not let that fire go out; keep replenishing it”—for the “Umu-a-Tane” must be kept blazing till the invocations to the gods were concluded.

All was dead silence within the marae as Rangi-Tahau began his ritual. He sat down with his left foot under him and his right leg over the right side of the ridge-pole, and, firmly grasping his taiaha, began, in a loud voice, this invocation, centuries old, used by his ancestor, the priest Ngatoro-i-rangi, when the Arawa canoe was sailing across the ocean from the South Sea Hawaiki to Aotearoa. This is the awa (prayer) of the Arawa:—

“Ka hura tangata uta,
Te tiakina atu
Ki tangata tai,
Ka hura tangata tai
Te tiakina atu ki tangata uta,
Pera hoki ra
Te korapa nui
Te korapa roa
Te wahi awa
Te toto e awa—

And so forth for many lines. This prayer was to make a “path” for the Arawa canoe, to smooth the seas for her voyage, and it is employed by all descendants of the Arawa at house openings such as this. The prayer ended with the invocation of Tu and Rongo, two of the chief deities of the Maori:

“Ka eke, ka takoto
Te hau no Tu,
Turuturu o hiki,
Whakamau o Rongo—
Kia tina.

The concluding words, “Hui-e! Taiki-e!” were taken up by the whole of the people, who repeated the words in chorus in a loud shout.

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It was a picture of ancient Maoridom, that white-headed warlock on the roof. When he came to the last two or three lines his eyes rolled and he seemed actually to project his eyeballs out of his head, as if of a verity possessed by a god, while at the same time, with a sudden quivering movement, he advanced the tongue of his taiaha with a jerk of his hand.

I was standing near Tumutara Pio all this time, in front of the house, where the ancient sage was squatted, with his followers. I saw his lips moving continually, while the other priest recited the ritual on the housetop. Pio was mumbling his own karakia all the time. What it was no one could hear, no one could know, but the people all believed, and so do I, that he was reciting spells to protect himself from the powerful wizardry of his rival.

Still seated on the roof-top, Rangi-Tahau recited this karakia for the toki (axe), that is, to remove the tapu from the axes, chisels, and other tools of the carvers. It is said to have been pronounced originally over “Tutaura,” the principal axe used in the making of the Arawa canoe at Tahiti six centuries ago:—

“Toki nui, toki nui,
Toki roa, toki roa,
Toki amoamo ake hoki au.
Taku toki nei.
Kia rahirahi tou pipi,
Kia rahirahi tou papa.
Na whea te toki nei?
A mana-hi.
Na whea te toki nei, a mana-ha?
Te mana-ha nui no Rangi.
Whakarongo, niu ake, niu ake,
Niu marire, niu marire.
Kai hara, kai hara, kai hara
Te tara wiwini, te tara wawana,
Na whea i toki?
Na Rua ai toki.
Oi! Homai te toki,
Taku toki nei.
He ripanga, he awhenga-ronga
No nga whano-whano.
Haramai te toki.


Haramai te toki, haumi-e!”

The opening lines meant:—

“Great axes, great axes,
Long axes, long axes,
Axes carried on the shoulder.

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Te Rangi-Tahau’s Rite, and the Sacred Fire.

Te Rangi-Tahau’s Rite, and the Sacred Fire.

page break page 269

This is my axe,
So that your planks may be thin.
Whence came this axe?
’Tis the Great Power from Heaven.”

The people all joined in the stirring chorus in a loud shout. The chisels and other implements of the carvers were now free from the tapu which attaches to the woodworking craft. Then the priest repeated in quick, sharp tones, taking a breath at long intervals, his eyes glittering in the sunshine, an invocation to the powers of nature, the national and tribal gods, to ensure the freeing of the house from tapu. This was an extremely sacred kawa. It began:

“Hira mai ai te whekite o te rangi
Hira mai ai te ngawha o te rangi;
Pera hoki ra
Te kapua nui,
Te kapua roa,
Te kapua riakina—”

The chant invoked the powers of earth and sky, it called to the over-brooding spirits of the heavens, the bursting storm, the vast clouds, the far-extending clouds, the clouds high-uplifted. It went on to call upon deified ancestors by name. It ended with an imprecation upon evil-working influences; it addressed with a mighty curse the powers of darkness, as if they were personified in one body whose head might be eaten, the most dreaded malediction of the Maori: “Maku e kai to upoko.*

The ariki then slowly descended from the house-top, and pulling his feather-cloak about him, walked, staff in hand, along the side of the building to the rear corner, and back to the front of the house, where he pulled off some twigs and green leaves of the kawakawa branch on the frontal pillar. All this time the sacred fire of Tane had been burning away in a pyramidal blaze about eighteen inches high. The priest told Tene to take the kumara, which by this time was cooked, and follow him, and Anaha and Neke were also bidden follow and enter the house. Tene’s wife, Ruihi Rongo-he-kumi, of the Ngati-Tarawhai tribe, now came forward, under instructions from the priest, to “tread the threshold” of the new house, in accordance with custom, so that all women might be free to enter. Rangi-Tahau, before going into the house, stood in front of the carved page 270 front pillar, the figure of Tane-i-te-pupuke, and touched it with the point of his taiaha just below the kawakawa leaves, saying at the same time some words of his charm. As he and the woman stepped over the sacred doorsill, Rangi-Tahau put his left foot over first, for the reason that the left side (taha-maui) is the “side of the woman” (tama-wahine), while the right side (taha-matau) is the “side of the man.”

On entering the house, accompanied only by the three carvers and the ruwahine, or chief woman, Rangi-Tahau walked up to the stone fireplace, the taku-ahi, hollowed out of a square block of stone, dropped some leaves of the kawakawa into it, and pronounced part of the incantation. Then he went to the central house-pillar, the poutoko-manawa, carved in the representation of famous ancestors of the Arawa people. At the foot of this house-pillar there was another rite. Rangi-Tahau stooped down and with his hands scraped up some of the earth of the house-floor and formed it into small mounds (puké). In each of the little hills he stuck a small twig of the kawakawa, to symbolise the paths of war and peace, and then recited this karakia:

“Te turakina te puke kia Tu,
He hapainga te puke kia Rongo
Ko Rongo i te whiwhiro
Ko Rongo i te tamore,
Ta maua kia ita!”

The purport of this was a prayer that the symbol of Tu, the war god, would be overcome, and that the power of Rongo, the deity of peace, would prevail.

The cooked kumara, which was brought into the house, was broken into five pieces, one for each of the party of tohunga. The object was by the introduction of cooked food into the carved house to overcome the mana and malignant influence of the spirits, and destroy the dangerous tapu. After leaving the poutoko-manawa pillar, the priest and his followers walked to each post and carved slab in the house, slowly eating their portions of kumara, while the old man touched each carving with his staff, and recited a portion of his potent kawa.

The party remained in the house for about twenty minutes, and when they finally emerged from the semi-gloom of Rauru the work was done. The whare was now noa or common and free for all to enter with safety.

The rites which could not be seen, inside the house, were described to me privately by Rangi-Tahau after the ceremony; the old priest also dictated to me the various karakia he had repeated on the house-top and on the porch.

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The house opening was followed by a feast and by merry dances and chants, and that night Rauru was occupied by the Maori guests.

* * *

And then the sequel. The gods were not yet appeased. Te Rangi-Tahau, who was about to return to Taupo, died suddenly eight days after the ceremony. His death was popularly attributed to the counter-incantations of his rival Tumutara Pio, or in the alternative, to his having made a whati, a slip or omission, in his recital of karakia. No doubt the excitement and exertion of the ceremony had been too much for the old warrior, but the people would never think of attributing his death to natural causes. And Tumutara was not long in following Rangi-Tahau to the Maori Spiritland. He died at Te Teko soon after his return from the Rotorua ceremony. So passed the last two priests of ancient Maoridom, the last of the pagan primitives, so soon after their last kawanga-whare; each, said the Maori, victim to the makutu, the wizardly powers, of the other.

And old Te Waru? He was satisfied; the tapu was laid forever. He had himself been dubious about his friend Tāré Nelson building the house and using those tapu carvings, for the tohunga of his tribe had told him many years ago that more victims would be required before the tapu was propitiated; and he feared that Tāré or his wife—whom the Maori called Kura-ngaituku, because of her fondness for pet birds—would die. But when the news came of the deaths of the two tohunga who had bedevilled each other, Te Waru breathed freely again.

The old tattooing artist’s death was tragic, as I remember. A few years after that tapu-lifting ceremony he was burned to death as he lay feeble and alone in his thatched hut at Paeroa, close to the site of the fateful house which was to do honour to the beautiful wife of his youth.

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