Maori magic is rooted in the nature of island existence, surrounded by mighty oceans, skies with clear stars and beautiful sunsets. The Maoris are a Polynesian people who settled in New Zealand or Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud, in about ad750. Dutch settlers reached New Zealand in 1642 but European colonisation did not begin until the early nineteenth century.
Because of their long isolation and rich mythology, Maoris developed a strong artistic, social and economic tradition of their own, while keeping links with the cosmology of the East Polynesian world. Because New Zealand is surrounded by huge tracts of ocean and the Maoris depended so much on ‘the fruits of the ocean’ one of principal deities is Tangaroa the God of the Oceans, fish, sea fairies, mermen and maidens. He breathed only twice a day giving rise to the tides and sometimes appears as a huge fish.
New Zealand lies in the South-western Pacific Ocean, 1600 km south east of Australia. It is in an unstable zone, marked by earthquakes whose god is Ruau-Moko who was never born but stirs still inside his mother the Earth.
The land has snow-capped mountains, fertile green plains and volcanic regions famous for their bubbling hot springs and explosive geysers. Forests run the length of the country from north-east to south-west. The climate varies from subtropical in the North Island to wet temperate on the South Island. Because of the varieties in climate and rich terrain, the Maori gods are those of the natural world and reflect the constant fluctuations of climate and rich ecology.
The first Realm was Te Kore, the nothingness, from which came the wai ora, the waters of life. Te Kore was the life force in undeveloped form. In this realm, the primal parents, Rangi the Sky Father and Papa the Earth Mother, were locked in perpetual embrace. With the birth of their first child, Tangaroa, it is said that Papa’s body became so filled with the waters of life that they burst forth to make the oceans.
Te Po, the Night, now came into being. However, Rangi and Papi were so close to each other, that their six children were unable to move or see the light. Tane-Mahuta, God of the Forests, trees, birds and insects, became a tree and forced the sky upwards. He clothed his father with Kohu the god of Mist, Ika-Roa, the Milky Way and the shining stars. Tane-Mahuta then clad his mother with forests, ferns and plants. The sorrow of the parted Rani and Papa can still be seen the in morning mists ascending from the earth and rain descending from the sky. Tawhiri-matea, God of the Winds and Elements, was so angry at the sorrow of his parents, that the war broke out among the gods that still causes storms and tempests. As a result of the separation, the universe had two spheres: Te Rangi was the sphere of sky, heaven and day, Te Po the sphere of night, dark and the underworld.
The third realm in which humankind lives is Te Ao Marama, the world of Light, which lies between Earth and Sky. The waters of life flow into this world and are part of everything, even the rocks of the Earth, the plants and the insects.
One story of the origins of man and his mortality is that Tane asked his mother Papa to give him a mate. She offered him pine trees, exotic plants, flax and pools of water. But Tane wanted a woman. Papa told him to make a female body from the Earth and to lie on the Earth embracing it. So Tane formed a female being, Hine-ahu-one. Their daughter was given the name Hine-a-taura. Tane took her also as his wife but when Hine-a-taura discovered her origins, she fled into the darkness below where she became known as Hine-nui-te-po, Great Woman of the Night. A dying man was said to creep to sleep in the womb of the Sleeping Mother Death.
When man dies, he can enter the realm of the gods, either by the entrance under Cape Reinga in the far north to Rarohenga, the Underworld, or, if he is a high chief, he is taken by spirit canoe to the heavens where his eyes become stars.
When Maui-Tinihanga, Maui of the Many Devices, a demi-god hero, realised his own death was drawing near, he pursued Hine-nui-te-po. He knew if he could crawl through her body and come out the other end without waking her he could overcome not only his own death but undo the curse of mortality for his descendants. However, just as he was inside a fantail bird called out and woke the Goddess of Death and Decay. So men must die.
Maui is the hero credited with bringing fire to the Maoris by obtaining it from its guardian Mahuika, the ogress clan mother. He also created the land of the Maoris, fishing up Te Ika a Maui, the fish of Maui, which became the North Island of New Zealand. His canoe remains on a mountain Hikurangi on which the first Light fell when Sky and Earth were separated. The city of Wellington stands on Whanga-Nui-a-Tara, the great Bay of the Sea Goddess Tara that was formed from one of the eyes of the great fish.
Maui’s greatest achievement was when he caught the sun. He decided that the days were too short for work and the nights too long. With his brothers he went to catch the sun, Tama Nui-Te-Ra to make it travel more slowly across the sky. Maui used the strong hair of his sister, Hina-Ika, lady of the fish, to make a net to pull the sun into the world. Then he released it, letting it flew across the sky. In the West, the land of Avaiki, Maui used the net to lower the sun gently into the seas. This progress can be seen every day.
The Maoris claim their ancestry from Rangi and Papa through the lineage of the deities and hero ancestors. Those who claimed descent in a line of first-born males from an original ancestor were accorded the highest rank in Maori society. For example, a chiefly family in the Cook islands, traces 65 generations back to Atea, another name for Rangi and Papa.
The high-born Maoris inherited mana (power or prestige) from these original god ancestors. Mana links the world of man with the world of spirit and was the gods’ favour, a spiritual energy that assured the warrior safety in battle and the farmer rich crops. A woman has mana when she bears a chief many healthy sons to carry on the line and the tohunga or priest has mana when his incantations and karakia (charms) bring success to the tribe, whether ensuring safety in childbirth, rain or causing the animals and birds to be plentiful for hunting.
Mana was regulated with a system of tapu or taku. Tapu, which means sacred and therefore implied separateness from ordinary ways of living, took the place of law as well as of religion. So seriously was this taken that a tohunga or priest who had carried out a magical ceremony was so tapu he might eat only food served on the end of a stalk to avoid any physical contact with others.
Communication between the ancestors and their descendants was central to Maori existence. The ancestors guarded their descendants by intervening or even appearing personally. When any two groups met, the ancestors of both parties would be present as well as the newly-departed dead and had to be welcomed. Ancestors may offer warnings, often by causing the strange movements of ancestral treasures, such as images of the gods and symbols of the chieftainship that had been handed down through the generations and which contained the mana or power of the ancestors. The eldest born of a tribal chief, as a direct descendant of the gods, was seen as having a special relationship with the ancestors and gods and could interpret such omens and signs.
The Maori year had 13 months, fixed by one or more risings of stars. Hakari or feasts were said to have originated in offerings made to the gods at times of tribal as well as seasonal significance, such as a birth-naming ceremony, a marriage or the ritual interring of bones. They were also often dedicated to the Sun using large poles with pennants representing the rays and a fire at the centre. The New Year Festival in June was held at the rising of constellation of the Pleiades on the east coast and at the rising of Rigel in the north. The rising and disappearance of the constellation of the Pleiades marked significant phases of the seasonal cycle. The New Year coming of the Pleiades was celebrated by festivals that marked the time of sowing. Cleaning ceremonies were also carried out, as in many other cultures, at the time of the New Year. The Hahunga or harvest festival, in the 10th month (March), acknowledged the gathering and storing of the crops.
The gods of nature and local deities, whether tribal or family gods, allowed the harvest to ripen and made land and sea fruitful, in return for correct observation of the natural rites of worship and by man’s own diligent efforts in bringing the natural processes to fruition. For example Rongo ma-Tane, god of agriculture, fruits and cultivated plants, is worshipped and his abundance considered sacred, for all foods that are grown are regarded as his children. The kumara (sweet potato), a staple Maori food, was considered so magical that if one was buried in the path of an approaching enemy, he would be driven away.
These Gods communicated pleasure or displeasure through celestial or natural phenomena. Lightning, thunder, winds and rain are all personified as children of the Sky Father and Earth Mother. Gods could also send their aria or semblance as lizards, dogs, birds, insects (particularly the green mantis), trees, rocks, rainbows, comets and stars. For this reason, the natural world formed the basis for divination and the study of omens.
Kites, in the shape of men or animals, were flown and the directions they moved in were used to foretell the likely success of a venture, especially in war.
Interpretation relied on the intuitions and inspirations of the tohunga. Therefore Maori divination is especially suitable as a focus for modern personal decision-making, because there are no fixed meanings but rather triggers for our own inner voice to tell us the best way forward.
Rituals were carried out by the tohunga for matters of tribal importance, although ordinary Maoris and even children would use the simpler divinatory rites to discover whether they were favoured by the gods. Although many of the tribal rites involved the success of war parties, they might also divine whether a time was auspicious for fishing or hunting.
There were several variations of the niu ritual. In war divination, the deity Tu-Matauenga would be invoked for his blessing, as well as the appropriate tribal gods and ancestors. War was considered a positive way of expressing loyalty to ancestors and avenging any recent ghosts of those lost in war or killed by the forces of an opposing chief’s malevolent magic men (tohunga makatu).
In one version of the ritual, a tohunga placed a mat on the ground and after fasting and prayer, took fern stalks in his hand, one for each of the chiefs who were going to war. Each ‘home tribe’ stick was given the name of a particular chief and tied with a piece of flax. The same number of fern stalks without flax ties were chosen to denote chiefs of the opposing tribe. The set of ‘enemy warrior’ sticks was fastened upright through the mat.
The tohunga took up the ‘home warrior’ sticks and threw each one in turn at a stick without a tie. If the named stick dropped to the left of the chosen upright stick, the named chief would fall. If it dropped to the right, the named chief would survive enemy attack. This was done for all the chiefs on the war party, using different ‘enemy warrior chiefs’. The results would determine whether the time was auspicious to proceed with the raid.
The place that a stone lands is influenced by our hidden inner wisdom that determines the unconscious thrust of the hand in a particular direction, suggesting a course very different from that consciously considered. A stone thrown straight ahead may veer apparently without reason. But the direction always confirms the ‘best’ course.
Think of a question about a possible course of action with two options: ie go or stay, declare love or remain uncommitted, change jobs or continue in your present position, explore the world or stay close to home. The Change Option you could designate Option A. If it is a choice between two people, then designate the more outgoing person, Person A.
Take three stones of the same size and colour to a lake, pond or river. Throw the first straight ahead into the water with a gentle upward circular movement. The second is thrown behind you, over the left or spiritual shoulder, again gently, and the third directly upwards.
Stone One: The stone thrown into the water represents the likely success or rightness of any action or change i.e. Option A or the choice of Person A.
If it falls straight into the water without sound or splashing, then Option A or Person A will not be fruitful.
If it skims the water, then there will be partial success if you opt for A.
If the stone splashes and makes ripples as it hits the water, then the signs are good. The more rings or ripples, the greater the impact of acting on the Plan A or choosing Person A. If this is a positive overall picture, you would choose person or Option A.
Stone Two: The stone thrown backwards offers information as to whether the change or choice of person should be immediate or if it is better to wait for the right moment.
A stone that falls behind you to the right indicates that immediate action should be taken.
If it falls behind you to the left, it counsels delay. You can judge how long by how close the stone is to you. If the distance is great the delay should be for weeks or even months.
A central position suggests that proceeding cautiously will ensure the greatest success.
Stone Three: This stone, thrown upwards, offers insight as to whether the proposed plan or choice is one where the approval of others is important e.g. if your family members hate your new lover, should you ignore their advice?
If the stone falls in front of you, the auguries are good for ignoring the advice of those close to you if it differs from your own desires. If the stone falls behind, then other people’s opinions should be considered, although not followed blindly.
If the stone goes to the left, listen to your inner voice.
If to the right, seek independent counsel.
For example Ngirungiru, the white-breasted blue tit, is the Maori lovebird, symbol of love remembered. According to myth, Ruarangi’s wife was stolen by the King of the Fairies but the singing of the lovebird reminded her of her home. Therefore, to see the lovebird was a sign of the importance of home and family,perhaps at a time of domestic strife.
In Maori mythology, the frog was a god of the waters, the rains and the rivers and it was believed that killing a frog would cause downpours and floods. A frog in dreams or on one’s path was a warning of floods or unduly heavy rain.
A short sharp shower in an otherwise blue sky was seen as waewae tapu (sacred footsteps) and suggested that the ancestors had drawn near and so it was important to listen to the wisdom of the ever-present past.
The Maori God of rain had many names, Ua-Roa (Long Rain), Uanui (Hail) and Ua Nganga (Rainstorm). His son is Hau Matingi the God of Mists or Fog. So a long rain might suggest long-term favour.
Tipua Kura involves the unusual movement of sacred tribal artefacts and natural objects which behave in ways contrary to natural laws. For example, a log floating upriver might indicate an uphill struggle or unexpected obstacle.
Each tribe had sacred heights, whether the peak of a mountain or sacred mound, where the movement of storms was interpreted. If lightning flashed vertically towards the home village, this was seen as inauspicious for the home tribe and so ceremonies had to be held to propitiate the gods. Lightning flashing away from the village indicated that the tribe was protected. Sheet lightning indicated war or problems stemming from human rather than divine error, perhaps the breaking of tapu.
Rainbows, which are frequent in New Zealand, were used as a vital source of divine counsel. A low rainbow directly ahead would indicate that a projected journey might be difficult. A high-arched rainbow promised favour on any enterprise and one forming a circle assured total success and happiness.
In modern industrialised societies, we often fail to recognise the power of the elements. Although omens are no longer taken so literally, there is good reason for using the natural world as a focus for our own intuitions. If you want to practise using omens, see what pictures appear in the lightning or the words suggested by the thunder. They may well cast light on a current question.
You may find that already from your own personal as well as regional mythology and dreams, certain natural symbols have consistent significance. You may like to keep an omen journal listing phenomena such as rainbows, shooting stars, a ring around the moon and what they mean to you. Such collections are a wonderful legacy to future generations and one that accords with the sacred inheritance left by the ancestors in Maori tradition.
If this is not possible buy twelve mother of pearl shells in a soft colour or failing that, twelve large, oval pearl buttons will do.
Number each shell in black or red permanent paint or with an indelible marker.
Shell 1: Rangi, Sky God.
Shell 2: Papa, Earth Mother.
Shell 3: Tane-Mahuta, god of forests and light, trees, birds and insects.
Shell 4: Maui, the inventor.
Shell 5: Tawhiri-Matea, god of the winds and elements.
Shell 6: Tangaroa, god of the oceans and fish.
Shell 7: Haumia Tiketike, god of foods growing wild.
Shell 8: Rongo-ma-Tane, god of cultivated foods.
Shell 9: Kuku Lau, goddess of mirages.
Shell 10: Ruau-Moko, god of earthquakes.
Shell 11: Tama Nui-Te-Ra, the sun god
Shell 12: Hine-Nui-Te-Po, goddess of the underworld.
Place your stones either into a shallow pool you have dug in the sand and filled with sea water or any deep bowl that reflects colours of the ocean, filled with water. Pick just one shell with your eyes closed and let the deity be your guardian.
Each time you do a reading, which can be every day if you use a bowl at home, see which deity speaks to you and whether one appears regularly as your guardian. If you have a question, it may be answered by your choice.
Rangi, the Sky Father, offers creative energy for new ventures. He talks of power and confidence and promises that you can succeed in achieving your worldly goals if your aim is direct and unflinching.
Papa, the Earth Mother, is the nurturer, offering love, acceptance and patience. She talks of relationships and love as the key to happiness. Fertility of ideas and giving of one’s abundance are the keys to personal fulfilment.
Tane, god of the forests and light, offers gradual growth into the light. He provides the sure foundations of a tree and shows how small enterprises can grow to great heights. He says that it is important not to be shaken by the doubts of others.
Maui, the inventor, offers ingenuity, adaptability, a certainty that there is a way round any obstacle, if necessary by creating a solution. Be resourceful, there is always a way, he insists.
Tawhiri-matea, God of Winds and the Elements, speaks of change, of the need to free ourselves from petty restrictions that stop us expressing our essential nature. Let the winds of change clear the clutter from your life, he advises.
Tangaroa, god of the oceans and fish, talks of limitlessness, of fluidity, of moving with the tides and the moons and not lingering in the shallows, but striking out for the open sea.
Haumia-tiketike, god of foods growing wild, indicates the need for simplicity, for going back to the sources and accepting that sometimes we can lose our path by reliance on the material world. He says we should live according to what is available and not wait for harvest time.
Rongo-ma-tane, god of cultivated foods, talks of the need to plan for the future and to be aware of the different cycles of our life and their special demands. His maxim that as we sow, so shall we reap, offers control over our lives for we can use today to create the fruits of tomorrow.
Kuku-Lau, goddess of mirages, warns us to beware of illusions and taking what seems the easiest path of least resistance. It is important to be sure any plans we make have firm foundations.
Ruau-Moko, the god of earthquakes, points to repressed negative emotions that can become destructive unless acknowledged and released in a positive way to bring about change and overcome injustice whether to ourselves or others.
Tama Nui-Te-Ra, the sun god, tells us to enjoy every moment of sunshine in our lives and not demand guarantees or worry about what might happen tomorrow. It is important too to spread joy and fulfil our own special dreams.
Hine-Nui-Te-Po reminds us that we sometimes need to close doors on the past and to accept that a relationship or stage in our lives has run its natural course.
These are just suggested meanings. You can visualise the natural deities whenever you are in the open air or in your dreams and if you allow them, they will demonstrate the personal meanings they hold for you in their mythological forms.
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