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Belief System


As is the case with most indigenous peoples, Maori spiritual beliefs permeate social life to such an extent that at times it is nearly impossible to draw clear distinctions between the belief system and other aspects of culture. Traditional Maori religion contains elements of animism and ancestor worship.


Mana, tapu, and noa


The Maori concepts of sacred and secular are termed tapu and noa, respectively. These two concepts are defined in relationship with one another: tapu is that which is not noa, and noa is that which is not tapu. It might even be better to translate tapu and noa as "restricted" and "not restricted," since noa does not necessarily mean that it is profane or unholy. In Maori belief, various dichotomies -- including spiritual versus temporal -- are not seen as opposing forces like the Judeo-Christian concept of good and evil, but rather as necessary parts of a single harmonious creation.

Tapu is a cognate of the Tahitian tabu from which the English “taboo” has its roots. Offences against tapu in some instances could be met with death. An object, animal, or person is considered tapu when it has a large amount of mana. Mana can roughly be translated as spiritual power, prestige, and authority, or as Max Weber in The Sociology of Religion put it, a form of charisma, a divinely conferred power or talent. People, nonhuman animals, plants, rocks, and even places can possess mana, and mana can just as easily be gained as lost.

Men were considered to have a higher degree of tapu than women, which in part explains the way in which sexual division of labor was manifest in classic Maori society. Slaves, on the other hand, were considered to have lost all of their tapu; thus even male slaves could be subjected to what would normally be considered “women’s work.” (Cooking and cooked food are considered extremely noa.) However, the noa status of women also gave them some special privileges. High-born women were involved in rituals such as lifting tapu from completed wharenui, welcome guests to the marae, and help mitigate tapu associated with certain foods, sickness, and death.


Spirits and gods


In Maori belief, all natural phenomena are personified, often as female forces, e.g. Hine-te-uira, Maid of lightning. Everything, including the sun, sky, wind, rain, trees, stones, animals, and humans and believed to possess spirits called mauri. These are not to be confused with the true soul, wairua, which could leave the body during sleep and after death would go to the underworld. Mauri is perhaps better translated as "active life principle" (similar to qi in Chinese philosophy) as it ceases to exist at the death of the body. The mauri does not always necessarily dwell within a particular object. The material mauri of a river, for example, would be a talisman such as a stone concealed somewhere near the river's source. The stone used as the mauri of a fortified settlement (pa) might be buried at the base of a stockade post; it would serve as a shrine, taumata atua, for the gods who guarded the pa.

Gods were symbolized by material symbols called toko, peg-shaped wooden figures stuck in the ground during highly sacred activities such as kumara planting and divination. Toko and taumata atua were never confused with the gods themselves; they were merely the resting places of the gods. Prayers were offered to ancestors as readily as they were to the gods, which is why ancestors are another common theme in Maori art, especially on houses, canoes, and memorials.


Cosmology and mythology


Classic Maori cosmology can almost be described as a genealogy; this is not surprising considering the immense importance of whakapapa. In the beginning, the Maori teach, was Te Kore, the Nothingness or the Realm of Potential Being, which over the eons led to Night, Dawn, the Light of Day, and eventually to the Sky God Rangi and Earth Goddess Papa, who were the mother and father of all other gods and living things. It is said that at first Rangi and Papa were perpetually entwined, so near to each other that their children could not see the light of day. Tane, god of the forests and trees, succeeded in separating them, and later created the first human woman out of red earth, the Earth-Formed Maid. In most versions of this myth, Tane and the Earth-formed Maid had a daughter, the Dawn Maid, whom Tane also took as a wife so that the human race might be perpetuated. In other versions, Tu, the god of war, is the perpetuator of humanity. When the Dawn Maid found out that her husband was also her father, she decided to go down to the underworld, to prepare a place for her descendants. She assumed the name Great Lady of the Darkness, and thus death came into the world. But even as a goddess of death, she remained a kindly deity who cared for humankind when it came time for them to join her in the underworld. Death is simply seen as a part of life.

A demi-god trickster named Maui is another prominent figure in Maori mythology. Maui is said to have undertaken many wild adventures, including bringing fire to man and slowing the passage of the sun in order to make the days longer. Ironically, he died in a quest to conquer the Lady of Darkness and secure immortality for humankind. The Maori offered sacrifices to the appropriate gods before taking food from the sea, hunting, gathering plant foods, planting or harvesting crops, felling trees, or going to war. In addition to the gods, the Maori also believed in assorted mystical creatures including taniwha (sea beings alternately seen as benevolent guardians or ferocious monsters) and animal spirits.





Tohunga and karakia


The literal meaning of the word tohunga is "expert." It is sometimes used with a qualifier, e.g. tohunga ta moko (tattoo expert). But tohunga by itself always denotes a priest. Tohunga served an interpretive and mediating function in classic Maori society, and were considered essential for the very existence of the gods. They are sometimes also referred to as a waka atua, literally "god's canoe," or a human receptacle of a god. Lower classes of priests were confined to astrology, divination, and casting spells, while higher classes went through extensive periods of esoteric training. Priests also were imbued with the task of dealing with spirits of the dead. Karakia were sacred chants, usually intoned in order to influence the gods. Some karakia and rituals were the sole prerogative of the tohunga, while others were only to be sung by women.


Tangihanga - Funeral ceremonies


Traditionally, the tangihanga or funeral ceremony is held on the marae. Tangihanga would last as long as three days, during which close relatives never leave the body’s side, since the wairua or soul is said to remain near the body until burial. During the burial ceremony, women sing waiata tangi or songs of lamentation to express their deep grief. Open expression of grief is also encouraged for males. Following the burial, a tohunga and the deceased’s family will go to the house where the deceased passed away and perform a sort of “exorcism” called takahi whare. Special prayers are said in each room of the house, and some members might perform a haka to trample out any evil spirits. Some Maori in the old days went a step further and burned down the house where a person died. (If someone fell seriously ill while inside the wharenui, they were immediately taken to a temporary shelter in order to avoid staining the tapu of the wharenui with death.)


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