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Legends of the Maori

Laments for the Dead

Laments for the Dead.

page 309

The Dirge of Rangi-Mamao.

THIS chant of sorrow for the dead came from Tamarahi Tomairangi. of the Ngati-Pikiao tribe. It was composed by Rangi-mamao, of Rotoiti, and sung by her at the tangihanga for her husband, Maihi. Tamarahi recited to me the original, from which I translate this version, when we were in camp at Tapuwae-haruru, Lake Rotoiti, one night in1996.

E tama—e!
O husband well-beloved!
The door of death
Has closed on thee;
And sadly now we raise
The atamira* for the dead
On which thy chieftain form
Must cold repose.

There in those shadowy realms below
Gaze thou upon
Thy weaponed ancestors.
The tribes of men go forth
To that dread borderland,
But none return.

So soon cut off art thou,
In whose embrace I once reclined!
The heavens sob and sigh;
I lift my weeping eyes, and lo!
The wondrous vision of the sky!
The star-canoe Raka-tu-whenua
Gleams in the spangled space,

And god-like Rehua shines.
And now across my sight there comes
Thy great canoe,
With high and decorated prow;
It sweeps across the sleeping lake,
And breasts Mokoia’s isle,
And onward swiftly glides,
Where deep Ngatuti’s currents flow,
And swirl dark Ohau’s tides.
O Sire, uplift thy shadowy sail,
And still sweep on!

* Atamira, a platform or low stage, a bier for the dead, with one end slightly elevated for the head. A dead chief was laid on the atamira, with his hair adorned with feathers, his body covered with the finest flax and feather cloaks, and his weapons arrayed about him.

page 310

Enshrouded now thou art
With the damp, dark weeds of Death,
The kelp that drifts and swirls
At Reinga’s ghostly gates—
On lone Pateko’s rocky isle—
There thou’lt be laid!

See, high in misty heaven,
Thy mountain-guardian,
Black Matawhaura’s peak of ghosts;
Here on Tapuwae-haruru’s sands
Grim Whiro, ogre-god of Death,
Grips at the hearts of men.

In that dim home of Death,
The kotuku,* the shy white bird,
Thy spirit friend shall be,
O husband well-beloved!
E tama—e!

† Pateko is a small rocky island, formerly a fortified place of refuge, in Lake Rotoiti, near Pachinahina Point, on the southern side of the lake. It is a tapu burial place of several hapus of the Ngati-Pikiao tribe.

‡ Matawhaura is a beautiful wooded mountain rising precipitously above Tapuwae-haruru Bay, at the eastern end of Lake Rotoiti. It is a famous range in local song and story. For generations the dead of the Ngati-Pikiao were buried in a cavern near its summit, on the side overlooking the lake, below the bush-grown ramparts of the ancient Pakipaki Pa.

* A poetic belief among some tribes is that the kotuku, the beautiful and rare white heron, is like a spirit, and that it is the companion (tapui) of the rangatira dead in the Reinga. In the original of this poem the expression is:—

“Ko te kotuku to tapui, e tama e!”

page 311
The Widow’s Farewell.

The Widow’s Farewell.

page break
page 313

A Dirge for Te Heuheu.

This funeral chant was composed a century ago by Te Heuheu Tukino, paramount chief of the Ngati-Tuwharetoa tribe (who was afterwards killed by a landslip at Te Rapa, Lake Taupo, in 1846), on the death of his father, Te Heuheu the first, a renowned ariki. The mourner likens the dead chief to a kokomako or korimako (bell-bird), which in the ancient ritual was on certain occasions killed and placed on the ahurewa, an altar of sacrifice (a sacred mound, rock, or post), as an offering to the gods.

The original Maori poem begins:—

Tataka kau ana
Nga manu o te ata;
Ka riro ko koe ra.
Haere ra, e Pa
I te hāhātanga o Pipiri.

The composer’s grandson, the late chief Te Heuheu Tukino, in reciting the poem, observed of it: “He mea tapu tenei, mo nga uhunga o nga rangatira anake” (“A sacred thing this, for the wailing-parties of chiefs only”):—

On fluttering pinions, sore distressed,
The forest birds distracted fly;
Farewell, my father, borne away
On winter’s breath. Alas! thou’rt gone,
A sacred offering to the gods.

Vanished art thou
In the dim dawn of day—
A nestling on the altar set,
While I, like snowy-breasted shag,
Swoop swiftly o’er the plain.

For thou art gathered up by Tu,
The all-consuming god of war.
Depart thou by thy sacred way,
To the great dwelling of the gods—

O sweet-voiced bird!
My cherished kokomako-e!
Bell-bird from Pungarehu’s woods,
That once in dawning gaily sang—
Alas, thou’rt gone!

A sacrifice thou art,
On sacred ahurewa high,
Impaled by the wizard-priest;
By Uenuku, vengeful of the gods,
Devoured art thou!
Alas, alas!

page 314

The Lament for Hikareia.

This beautiful waiata-tangi was composed and chanted by the chief Hori Tupaea (head of the Ngai-Te-Rangi tribe), of Tauranga, for his younger brother Hikareia, who was killed in battle by the Arawa in 1836 at the fall of Te Tumu Pa, on the coast between Tauranga and Maketu. It is sung at the present day at tangihanga gatherings throughout the Bay of Plenty country:—

Kapokapo kau ana nga whetu i te ata,
Ko Meremere ano taku e hiko atu,
Tau hokai ana Kopu i te ata;
Ko taku teina tonu tenei ka ora mai,
Taku tau kahurangi
Ka makere i ahau.
Aaku i tuku atu i tc hinapouri,

Nga titahatanga i waho o te tahua.
E whano ana ra ki te kawe-a-riri.
Kia tu mai koe i mua
I te upoko i te whana,
Tukuturi i te nui Titahu,
Kia puhia koe te paura o tawhiti
Kia whakamurahia te ahi a te tipua,
Kia whakatuki—Aue, te mamae, ra-i!

Haehaea koe ki te naihi-tipua,
Kia rewa tou hinu ki roto o Kaituna.
Iri mai, e Pa, i runga i te atamira,
Kupa mai, e te hoa,
Kia rongo atu au
I te takirihanga mai
O te ata na i-i!

Me whakahoki koe
Nga mata tahuna a waho Tauranga,
Ma Opotiki koe,
E hurihuri iho i te papa o te waka
I titiro iho ai tou kiri rauiti
To mata i haea ki te toroa-a-tai,
Toroa tataki no runga i Karewa, na i-i!


Vainly twinkle the many stars,
Quivering in the morning sky,
Meremere alone shines forth for me;
Great Kopu’s glory strides across the dawn—
’Tis as if my brother came again,
Restored to life—My loved one,
Alas, for ever lost to me!
I let you go into the Darkness
On the downward slope of the field of strife,
For such is the fate of war.

You would stand in the very front of battle,
At the head of the assault;
Kneeling to receive the volley
You were shot down by the gunpowder from afar,
Ignited by the demon fires—
Thus did you fall in death—
Ah me! The pain of it!

Your body was scarified with the knives of death,
Slashed with obsidian knives beside Kaituna’s waters;
There on the death stage lies your noble frame.
Your spirit’s now about to take its flight.
Ah, that I could once more hear you
In the glimmering of the dawn.

Your body must be returned to the sandy shores
That lie without Tauranga bay;
Let those of Opotiki
Tenderly handle you in that sacred canoe.
Once more I gaze upon your voiceless form,
Your face scored with the tattooer’s chisel,
From the ocean-roving albatross
That soars above the isle of Karewa.

page 315

Meremere (Venus, usually as evening star) and Kopu (Jupiter) are often addressed in elegies, and a dead chieftain or relative is often compared to the brightest stars of heaven.

The Maori of the period of this dirge was fond of introducing lately-learned English words into his speeches and songs. Thus, in a passage here we have the curious expression “Naihi-tipua,” a compound of “knife” and the Maori word for demon or the supernatural. The old man who dictated the poem explained that this death-knife was mata-tuhua, the sharp flakes of obsidian with which mourners scored their faces and breasts and which were used to cut up bodies.

The reference in the last two lines to the tattooed face and the albatross is explained by the fact that in ancient times the uhi or small chisel used by the tattooing artist was usually made from the wing-bone of the albatross. The Bay of Plenty tribes made expeditions to Karewa Island, which was a breeding place for the albatross and many other sea-birds.

page 316

An Arawa Lament.

The Pathway of the Dead.

This chant was sung as a dirge by visitors from a distance, not by the tangata-whenua, the kinsfolk of the dead person:—

E rere e te ao
Ahu tonu mai uta,
E rere tonu mai
Runga tika tonu
Ki raro ra-e-
Ki te Aupouri,
Te Rerenga-Wairua.
Ko te ara tena-e-
I haere atu ai e
Aku kuru-pounamu.
Aku ipo kahurangi-e!
Naku i tuku atu
I te kaha o te mate-e!
Kaati ko te aroha
E kai nei i ahau-e.
He homai kia mihia
Nga mate tuatahi-e,
Nga mate tuarua.
Tenei matou-e
He hari aroha mai-i.
Ka hua te ngakau
E noho wairangi nei
E hoki ki te iti-e
Te riri a te atua.
Kaore i-a nei-e
He tikaro manawa;
Takirua te matenga-e
I te rangi kotahi.
Tena koutou-e
Arohatia nei
Te waihotanga iho-e
A nga kaumatua
A te iwi kua mate-e
E arohatia nei-e!


Far o’er my head
The scud streams northward,
Swiftly it drifts to the distant land
Of the Au-pouri, the mournful land
Where spirits flit to the shades.
That is the path which has been traversed
By the noblest of my people,
By my fairest of loved ones;
I allowed them to depart
For their travails were great;
But the sadness of affection
Bites keenly within me.
Let me greet them awhile,
Those who died first,
Those who followed them;
Here we bring our sorrows.
Methought, as the ignorant would do.
That the useless only
Would stir the gods to anger;
Alas, it was not so!
Death tore the life-breath from the noblest.
Greetings to all with whom we sorrow,
The remnant left to mourn,
Those left behind by the elder ones,
The people whom we loved.

page 317

The Omen of the Flax Bush.

A lament sung by the East Coast tribes at a tangihanga over the dead.

Haere re e koro!
Koutou ko o matua.
Unuhia i te rito o te harakeke,
Ka tu i te aroakapa.
Aku nui aku wehi,
Aku whakatamarahi ki te rangi.
Waiho te iwi nana i mae noa.
Kia mate ia nei koe, e koro!
Ko Atamira te waka, ko Hotutaihirangi,
Ko Tai-o-puapua, ko te Raro-tua-maheni,
Ko Araiteuru, ko Nuku-tai-memeha,
Ko te waka i hiia ai
Te whenua nui nei e!


Farewell, O Friend!
Depart to thine ancestral company.
Thou’rt plucked from us
As the flax-shoot is plucked from the bush
And held aloft before the warriors.
Thou that wert our boast, our pride,
Whose name has soared on high.
Thy people now are sad and desolate.
Indeed thou’rt gone, O Friend!
Thou’rt vanished like our ancestral ships,
The famed canoes Atamira, Hotutaihirangi,
Tai-o-puapua, Te Raro-tua-maheni,
The Araiteuru; and Nuku-tai-memeha,
The canoe that drew up from the sea
This solid land.

The allusion in this poem to the “shoot of the flax bush” (te rito-harakeke) was a reference to one of the old-time methods of divination practised by the priests before a war-party set out on the enemy’s trail. The omen-reader would pluck up the rito, or middle shoot of a flax plant. If the end broke off evenly and straight, it was a good sign, presaging an easy victory. If it were jagged and gapped, or torn, that was a tohu kino, or evil omen, a warning that a leading chief of the war party would be slain.

The Nuku-tai-memeha in East Coast legend is the canoe in which Maui discovered New Zealand, or, as the Maori has it, fished up the land from the ocean depths.

page 318

“Mourn with the Sighing Wind.”

This waiata-tangi was the late Sir James Carroll’s favourite song of affection and sorrow. He chanted it at the Maori gathering in Parliament House, Wellington, to wail over the body of Mr. Seddon on June 21, 1906. It is an ancient lament for a loved one taken away by death:—

No te ao te hua-ra-tanga
Riro ki te po;
Waiho noa hei tumanako
Ma te ngakau.
Kei tawhiti to-hou tinana,
Kei te reo o tuku;
Tenei au e noho ana
I te pouritanga,
Mapu kau noa atu i konei
Au koha hau raro—i!


What tender thoughts of thee arise;
My chieftain vanished in the night.
Nought is left my heart to cherish
But fond longing—fond and vain.
Thou art for ever severed from my side,
And spirit voices breathe thy name.
Here in this lonely world
I sit in dark despair,
And mourn with the sighing northern wind.

The lament was chanted by the East Coast people when they mourned over Timi Kara himself in 1926.

page 319

A Waikato Elegy.

“Loud Peals the Thunder.”

This chant for the hunga mate, “the company of the dead,” is a famous lament among the people of Waikato. It was composed for a woman of aristocratic lineage, by her husband, a chief of the Ngati-Mahuta clan.

Papa te whatitiri,
E hiko te uira;
Te tara ki Te Iringa,
Ka rere kei raro;
Ka taka te tara o te marama.

Haere ra, e Hine!
I te pouriuri,
Te mate o te tangata:
Ka ru te whenua, ka rere Tautoru*
Te rua o Matariki;
Ko te tohu o te mate.

E hoa ma—e!
He aha tenei hanga,
Te mahi aue tonu?
Te mutu noa te mamae!
Te riri a te Atua, kai-kino i ahau:
Te tuku-pototia ki te makau i te mate
Noku te wareware, te whaia atu
Te ara o Tawhaki,
I piki ai ki te rangi.
Mohio rawa ake, ka nui nga he.

Ka riro taku makau!
Te puru o Waikato, te puhi o Tainui!
Tu mai i kona,
Kia tomokia atu te whare o Tawhiao;
Kia tiponahia te tau o Waitohi,
Te tau o Kahotea:
He taonga whakanui na o tupuna;
E moe nei i te whenua.

Te uri o te tangata,
No Hine-nui-te-po!
Na Rupe† nga rauhanga,
Ka hinga kei te Pou-o-whaitiri.
Ka tuhi Kai-tangata—
Ka mau ki te taha o te rangi.

Tu mai i kona,
Kia horahia atu te kahu a te Tipua.
A, moe taua i runga te takapau.
E ara ki runga ra,
Kia utaina koe te riu waka-taua,
No Te Apa-rangi:
He taonga whakanui na o tupuna,
Ki runga te au-ripo;
Te au ki Waikato.

Ka pa mai te karanga,
E tuku ki raro ra,
Te puke kei Tamaki;
Te Rua-o-Potaka
E ngaro ai te tangata;
Te iwi—e—e—i!


Loud peals the thunder,
Lightnings flash and glare,
Crumbling is Iringa’s tall peak.
The crescent moon’s bright shining tip
Is shorn away.

Farewell, O loved one,
Vanished in Death’s black Night.
The earthquake shakes the land;
Tautoru’s shining Three have flown
To Matariki’s sky-abyss—
Omen of death and woe.

Ah me! My friends,
What means this sharp unceasing pain?
The wrath of a malicious god
That reft forever from my side
My well-beloved one.
Forgetful I—I followed not
My dear one to the sky,
In the path of Tawhaki,
Who climbed the sacred vine.
Now well I know how grievous was my sin.

O cherished heart of Waikato,
The lovely plume of Tainui,
Tarry you there awhile,
Then enter Tawhiao’s great hall,
And knot about your wrist
The precious greenstone treasures
Waitohi and Kahotea,
The treasures of your ancestors,
Who slumber in the earth.

There sleep the sons of men,
There in the home of Hine-nui-te-Po.
Rupe himself was a deceiver;
He caused the fall of the Pillar of Whaitiri.
And the death of Kai-tangata
Painted with blood the heavens.

Now rest awhile, my loved one,
Death’s sleeping mat is spread for you;
On that soft couch we two shall seek repose.
Then you’ll arise and soon be borne away
In your ancestral war-canoe,
Manned by the Heavenly Company.
Borne away on the rippling tide
Of strongly flowing Waikato.

Hark to that wailing call!
When it awakes your sleeping ear
You’ll reach the sacred hill at Tamaki,
The Cave of Potaka;
There in the dark home below
Lies all that death has left of man,
The tribe lie sleeping there.

page 320

* Tautoru (The Three Friends) is the constellation of Orion. Matariki is the constellation of the Pleiades. The death of great ones of the earth is fancifully associated in Maori belief with the rolling of thunder and the flash of lightning on the sacred tribal mountains and with celestial phenomena. When a chieftainess of Waikato was buried at Taupiri in 1929 a rainbow spanned the land, with one foot on her home at Waahi and the other on Taupiri peak, and this bright arch was hailed as Uenuku, the guardian deity of Waikato, whose visible form (aria) is the rainbow.