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Legends of the Maori

Episode I. Dawn-Maiden, and how She was Bewitched and Slain

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Episode I. Dawn-Maiden, and how She was Bewitched and Slain.

If the pakeha but knew it, there is scarce a headland, a bay, a conspicuous rock on our coasts, or a stream or a hill inland but has its place in the folk-talk of the old people, its song or its story, holding some adventure, some tragedy, or some incident of everyday life in the unwritten annals of the tribes that roved these shores and marched free-footed over the plains centuries ago. Human endeavour, the wars and food huntings made scarcely any impress on the land except the scarped hill forts; but the place-names remain, often mis-spelled and consistently wrongly accented by the pakeha. Often a name of some stream or peak has set me on the track of a legend or a song which, while explanatory of the place-naming, has opened up also a whole chapter of local history or an episode illustrating the ways of life and ways of thought of the people who lorded it over these lands before the Anglo-Celtic home-seekers let go their topsail-halliards and came to an anchor in a New Zealand bay.

* * *

Tuawera is the name of the Cave Rock at Sumner, that mass of black lava at the mouth of the Heathcote estuary, on the Canterbury coast, which thousands of years of sea assault shaved of its jagged asperities, rounding it into smooth coves and hollowing deeper the old caves left by the ancient gas bubbles in the fiery mass, until man was able to walk on level sand underneath the rock. The pakeha’s signal staff stands on the weathered old rock, keeping ward—a lazy one these days—over the ocean bar where the surf breaks white. No trace of the Maori here now; but there was a day when these sands of Sumner were a fishing camp ground for the brown men and women from the Pakihi-Whakatekateka-a-Waitaha, the ancient name for the Canterbury Plains, and rough sheds of branches and fern-tree fronds and raupo thatch, and also the cave of Tuawera Rock itself, sheltered the people who came here for their kai-mataitai (the food of the salt sea—fish and mussels, pawa and pipi, and an edible seaweed, the karengo). Their fishing canoes lay on the beach, their long fishing seines were stretched out on posts in the sun after each hauling, and strung on flax lines on tall poles shark and barracouta, hapuku and cod, sun-drying for the storehouses in the inland villages, powerfully scented the salt breeze and pleasantly tickled the nose of the aboriginal. Those were the pre-pakeha page 96 scenes about old Tuawera. The name of Tuawera Rock being translated is “Destroyed as by Fire”; it is an expression signifying the destruction of a tribe or hapu, likening a sudden calamity to the felling (tua) of a forest tree by means of fires kindled in the holes hacked in its butt, as was the way of the stone-age bushman. The key to the rock-naming lies in this historical tradition, told me by the last of the legend-keepers of Ngati-Irakehu, a sub-tribe of Ngai-Tahu.

* * *

Nearly two hundred years ago there lived on the shores of Akaroa Harbour a dour warrior chief whose name was Te Aké. He had a daughter who was the pride and beauty of the village, a girl by name Hine-ao, which means “Maid of Light,” or “Dawn-Maiden.” The poetic name sat fittingly upon this great-eyed brown girl of high degree, in form and face so desirable a vision in the eyes of the young men of Ngai-Tahu. The hapu to which Te Aké’s family belonged was Ngati-Pahurua, a small clan closely connected with the various septs of the mother-tribe. One of these tribe-sections had settled on the banks of the Opaawaho River, which is known to-day as the Heathcote—its Maori name, meaning “The Place of the Outer Pa,” otherwise “The Outpost,” has been corrupted into Opawa. The Opaawaho in those days ran through a great swamp, and “The Outpost” pa was built in a convenient spot where food was to be obtained in plenty. The name of this village of the marsh-dwellers was Poho-areare. Here dwelt the hapu of eel-catchers and wild-duck snarers, under a chief whose name was Turaki-po.

One day a small party of people from Te Aké’s village on Akaroa Harbour set out on a visit to the Plains dwellers. Among them was the young girl Hine-ao. The travelling party reached Poho-areare Pa, and there they stayed for the space of some days. When the chief Turaki-po set eyes on the beautiful Dawn-Maiden, his strong desire went forth, as the Maori says, and he watched her with greedy admiration as she stood forth in the poi and the haka in the little village square lightly costumed for the diversion, her fair, well-rounded yet lissome young body bending gracefully this way and that and her great liquid eyes shining “like the full moon” in the excitement of the dance. And as they sat in the crowded meetinghouse at night, with the charcoal fire glowing at the foot of the central house-pillar, Turaki-po pinched the hand of Hine-ao, by way of making his desire known. But Hine-ao turned away in anger and would have none of the chief of the eel-catchers. When her travelling company cried their farewells to Poho-areare and heard the last “Haere ra!” from the villagers waving their good-byes on the river-bank, Turaki-po was an angry man indeed, for he had been rejected by Hine-ao in words which were few but biting.

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The chief sat in his hut, with scowling face, aglow with anger and bitter with disappointment, a prey to conflicting tugs of passionate feeling. He greatly desired the young Hine-ao, but, as he squatted brooding there, greater grew his passion for revenge. In his black and murderous heart he determined that if the Akaroa maid would not come to his sleeping-mat she should never share another man’s.

That night, in the thick darkness, when the night-fogs wrapped the Poho-areare kainga and no sound was heard but the mournful crake of the weka in the swamp and the gurgle of the black river as it went eddying round the elbow of land upon which the village was built—in the heavy midnight, Turaki-po squatted at the tuahu, the sacred place of incantation, just without the pa fence, working his wizardly deeds. He was a master of the Black Art, the man-slaying makutu, which he had learned from the venerable sorcerers Tautini and Irirangi, grim old warlocks who could kill an enemy even over vast distances, by the malignant projection of the will, kill him quickly if they wished, or kill him by degrees in slow and lingering fashion horrible to describe. The murderous rhythmic formulæ, long incantations couched in language fully explainable only by the priests, Turaki-po repeated in quick low tense accents with regular beat and cadence. They were the death runes, launched at the Akaroa rangatira girl.

And the spells of sorcery wrought their devilry. Some unknown power struck at the girl’s vitals; she felt the gnawing of the makutu even as she descended the moss-softened forest track from the heights to the lake-side expanse of Akaroa harbour. She came home to die. She lay on her mat-bed, refusing all food, and in but a little space her spirit had passed to the land of ghosts, and the wail of grief was heard in the stricken kainga. Grey-headed Te Aké, with the tears streaming down his tattooed cheeks, chanted his low dirge of farewell to the still form of his daughter Hine-ao, laid low by the Axe of Death, slain by the impalpable darts of Aitua.

Long the old man brooded over his perished child, revolving in his mind schemes of dark revenge, for Hine-ao had told him with her last breath how the chief of Opaawaho had sought her and how she had refused him; and it was as clear as the noonday light that it was the curse of the disappointed lover that had smitten her to her death.