W hat I believe to be genuine and authentic the collected publications of William Colenso

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1878 Contributions towards a better Knowledge of the Maori Race. Transactions of the New Zealand Institute 11: 77-106.

[Read before the Hawke Bay Philosophical Institute, 12th August, 1878.]

—“For I, too, agree with Solon, that ‘I would fain grow old learning many things.’” —Plato: Laches.

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”—


On the Ideality of the Ancient New Zealander.

Part I.—Legends, Myths, and Fables.

§ 1. Introductory.

I Have long been desirous of adding what little I may have gleaned on this subject during an extended sojourn in New Zealand; and I feel still the more inclined to do so through (1) it being now evening time with me, and (2) through my having noticed the many crude theories which have been broached concerning the Whence of the Maori, not a few of which, by their several writers, have been laboriously propped and buttressed with all and every item, however insignificant, far-fetched, and vague, they could possibly impress and bring forward, but in which, in my estimation, they have notwithstanding signally failed, because they laboured to build up a pet fancy or hobby of their own rather than the truth; some even starting with assuming the very proposition which they had to prove.300

For my own part, I altogether disclaim all such; I have no pet theory; I only seek the truth; to do what little I may towards establishing it; firmly believing, as I have already written,301 that in the years to come this, too, will be found out and known.

For this purpose, then, I shall bring before you on the present occasion a few, out of the many, curious old legends, myths, and fables of the Maori, preferring those which I have known for many years, which have to do with natural and tangible objects, and which have not been tampered with or added to by Europeans, or by Maoris who had imbibed new and foreign ideas. [78]

Here, however, let me pause awhile to explain clearly, yet briefly, what I mean by the term Ideality: I mean that superior faculty—that conception of the natural and beautiful, the truthful and symmetrical, which has ever been found to pertain to the higher races, or varieties of men, and in particular to the more gifted among them. As Cousin says (On the Beautiful): —“The Ideal appears as an original conception of the mind. ... Nature or experience gives me the occasion for conceiving the ideal, but the ideal is something entirely different from experience or nature, so that if we apply it to natural, or even to artificial figures, they cannot fill up the condition of the ideal conception, and we are obliged to imagine them exact.” Kant lays it down— “By ideal, I understand the idea, not in concreto but in individuo, as an individual thing, determinable or determined by the idea alone.”302 On this subject, also, Emerson impressively writes:—“I hasten to state the principle which prescribes, through different means, its firm law to the useful and beautiful arts. The law is this: The universal soul is the alone creator of the useful and the beautiful; therefore, to make anything useful or beautiful, the individual must be submitted to the universal mind. ... Beneath a necessity thus almighty, what is artificial in man’s life seems insignificant. He seems to take his task so minutely from intimations of Nature, that his works become, as it were, hers, and he is no longer free. ... There is but one Reason. The mind that made the world is not one mind, but the mind. Every man is an inlet to the same, and to all of the same. And every work of art is a more or less sure manifestation of the same. ... We feel, in seeing a noble building, much as we do in hearing a perfect song, that it is spiritually organic; that is, had a necessity in nature for being; was one of the possible forms in the Divine mind, and is now only discovered and executed by the artist, not arbitrarily composed by him. ... The highest praise we can attribute to any writer, painter, sculptor, builder, is, that he actually possessed the thought or feeling with which he has inspired us.”303 That delightful writer on Art, J. Ruskin—whether considered as artist or art critic—always in love with the Beautiful, and possessing the wonderful power of telling it in such charming language, says:—“I call an idea great in proportion as it is received by a higher faculty of the mind, and as it more fully occupies, and in occupying, exercises and exalts, the faculty by which it is received. ... He is the greatest artist who has embodied in the sum of his works the greatest number of the greatest ideas.” Then Ruskin contrasts the old Venetian worker in glass, with his profusion of design, his personality of purpose, and his love of his art, with the British [79] worker with his mechanical accuracy. “Everything the old Venetian worker made was a separate thing — a new individual creation;304 but the British worker does things by the gross, and has no personal interest in any one article.”305

To this, from the Moderns, I would also add two short extracts from the Ancients. According to Cicero, there is nothing of any kind so fair that there may not be a fairer conceived by the mind. He says :—“We can conceive of statues more perfect than those of Phidias. Nor did the artist, when he made the statue of Jupiter or Minerva, contemplate any one individual from which to take a likeness; but there was in his mind a form of beauty, gazing on which, he guided his hand and skill in imitation of it.” (Orator, c. 2, 3.) And Seneca takes the distinction between ἰιδοϚ and ἐιδοϚ thus :— “When a painter paints a likeness, the original is his ἰιδοϚ — the likeness is the ἐιδοϚ or image. The ἐιδοϚ is in the work— the ἰιδοϚ is out of the work and before the work.”—(Epist. 58.)

Possibly some one may say, or think: “Do you really believe that any thing of that kind, or power, ever appertained to the mind of a New Zealander ?” And my reply would be: “Yes, undoubtedly, and that in no small degree.” And here we must be careful in discerning and considering, in order to arrive at a right conclusion.

The fragment of brown floating seaweed, when properly examined and considered, shows the hand of the Great Artificer as surely as the superb and symmetrical flower of the garden, the admiration of all beholders. In viewing the colossal architecture of the ancient Egyptians, we must beware how we compare it with that of ancient Greece, especially with the airy and flowery Corinthian Order. So, when we contemplate the modern Greek, untaught and unskilled peasant it may be, sauntering among the marble ruins of the cities and capitals of his forefathers, and thoughtlessly breaking up some exquisite creation of the gifted sculptor of ancient days, and the question of doubt arises in our minds as to the possible oneness of that race, we must not forget how sadly, how greatly, they have degenerated. Just so, then, in my estimation, it has been with the nation of the New Zealanders. They, too, have degenerated—sadly, surely, and quickly—particularly within the last half a century:

“Tis Greece, but living Greece, no more.”

But do not mistake me, as if I meant to assert that they in their Ideality ever approached to that of the great Western nations which have been mentioned. Not so; but speaking comparatively, and in their degree, [80] and according to their own national conceptions, and to the circumstances in which they were placed by nature,—without a written language, or the use of metals, or beasts of burden, or any knowledge of, or communication with, the great world of mankind lying around them,—aye, more;—without teaching or instruction or communication of ideas (even among themselves!);—without the healthy incitement arising from competition with artists of other tribes, and of exhibition, and of praise from afar!—without even a probable certainty of his even completing what he had painfully devised and begun (all such being utterly precluded by their constant wars!); and without the slightest excitement of pay or reward, as things were never made for sale among them; and also with having a share (in common with the other members of his tribe) in the almost daily labours attendant on the cultivating and obtaining his food,—from which exertion no New Zealander in health, whatever might be his rank or intelligence, was ever exempt;—all these things being fairly weighed and considered,— this, this is the way in which they should be judged by us—

“They are—of the works of the Father,
And of the one Mind the Intelligible.
For Intellect is not without the Intelligible,
And the Intelligible does not subsist apart from Intellect.”


The Maori of to-day is not worthy, in this respect, to carry the shoes of his forefathers. And he knows it; he feels it. Ichabod! or Fuit Ilium, may well be called upon them.

I, who have been, I may be allowed to say, long conversant with them, have no hesitation in stating, that the more I have seen and known of the works of the Ancient New Zealander, the more have I been struck with the many indications of their superior mind,—of their fine perception of the beautiful, the regular, and symmetrical; of their desire and labour after the beautiful; of their prompt and genuine, open and fearless criticisms.—in a word, of their great Ideality. And this high faculty of theirs which they possessed in an eminent degree, will probably be better known and understood hereafter than it is at present. It was their possession of that faculty, even in more modern times, which enabled them at a glance, and, as if by inspiration,306 to detect inaccuracy or want of æsthetic conformity and exact precision in the skilled performances of their European visitors, and as quickly to declare it;—as in the martial exercises of the military (regulars), in the want of exact time in the rowing of boats by the most skilful seamen of H.M. navy;—and, in all their own works, to perceive instantaneously all such want of symmetry if present. [81]

That faculty was exhibited in many ways, e.g.:—

In the building of their war-canoes with all their carving and many adornments; and that without plan, pattern, or tools. The exquisite regularity and symmetry of both sides of the vessel, including even that difficult one of carved concentric circles worked in filagree, were astonishing; and, as such, borne ample testimony to by all their first visitors.307

In the building of the highly ornamented houses of their chiefs.

In all their better carvings, with which every article of wood, of bone, of shell, or of stone, was profusely and boldly adorned—from the handle of a working-axe, or spade, to the baler for their canoes. Horace truly says—

“Pictoribus atque poetis
Quidlibet audendi semper fuit æqua potestas,” 308

to which, however, I would also add, sculptoribus; unless such may be considered as included in poetis; for Plautus affirms, “Poeta ad eam rem.”309

In their tattooing.

In their weaving, plain and ornamental, of many kinds and patterns (more than 200) of textile fabrics; and all simply done by hand!

In their chequered dogs’-skin, and kiwi-feathered, and red parrots’-feathered, cloaks.

In their making and twisting of threads, cords, lines, and ropes; many varieties of each.

In their ornaments—of feathers,310 of greenstone, and of sharks’ teeth. [82]

In their ornamented staffs of rank, carved and inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and decorated with quillets of flowing dog’s hair, and red feathers.

In their symmetrical planting of their food, with faultless regularity, and all done “by the eye.”

In their language; hence its great grammatical precision, its double duals and double plurals, its euphony, its rhythm, and its brevity, and its many exquisite particles and reduplications, both singular and plural, all highly pregnant with meaning, which almost defy translation into English.

In many of their songs and recitations; some plaintive and mild and full of love, others bold and martial; all natural and sympathetic.

In their possessing diesic modulations, or quarter-tones, in their airs and music.311

In their proverbs and sayings, and quaint laconic effusions; often abounding with wit and beauty of expression and depth of meaning.

In their legends, myths, tales, and fables.

In the regular sequence of their peculiar mythology, and of the beginning and formation of all things; all natural orders of living things having each a separate creator or progenitor.

In their polite and courteous behaviour, and true, open and free hospitality, often exhibiting the true gentleman.312

In their knowledge of many of the operations of nature, including the periodic return of the moon and stars, and the seasons.

In the faultless precision of bodies of them moving together, as if it were but one man! as in their paddling and dancing and in several games.

Now in all these matters, and more might be adduced, they ever showed their innate national taste, in which they were vastly in advance of our own British forefathers when first visited by Cæsar; although the Britons had many natural advantages, of which the New Zealander had never dreamed.

To return from our earliest intercourse with the Maori, two or three peculiar and strange traits and circumstances highly characteristic of him have been known. I allude to those respecting his belief in, and fear of, animals of the Saurian or Lizard kind. Settlers and colonists of to-day can form no correct idea of how a bold and daring New Zealand warrior, who feared not to meet his fellow foe in a stern hand-to-hand deadly fight, would blanch and run away in horror from a little harmless lizard! [83] yet this I have often seen. Why was this? was it that he really feared that little harmless animal ? or was it that that tiny creature was to him the form and representation of a great, fearful, mischievous, and mysterious power, the deadly foe of man, ever hated and dreaded by all New Zealanders, and called an Atua, or demon? of which it was said—aye, and firmly believed—that it often gnawed the internal part of diseased folks, and so surely caused their death; or was it through their belief in those cherished legends of the olden time, that had been strictly handed down through many generations from father to son, containing the history of some dreadful monsters of the Saurian order, and which the prowess of their ancestors, aided by the charms and spells of their priests (mark this), had enabled them to vanquish and to overcome? Animals of such a huge and monstrous size as would comparatively leave the Megatherium and Mammoth far behind in the place of kittens!

And here I cannot help calling your particular attention to a very curious feature, which will prominently appear in the relations I shall have to give you—viz., that while the utmost exactitude is preserved in those strange stories—of time, and place, and persons, and of a certain amount of strong natural reality, yet not a single vestige of any osteological remains of any animal of the Saurian kind has ever yet been discovered! While, on the other hand, the fossil remains of many large and extinct Struthious birds of several genera and species, and commonly known in the lump by the name of Moa, are to be met with in great abundance; and yet, of these realities, there are neither credible history, nor curious legendary tale, nor myth nor fable, that I have ever been able to lay hold of.

Captain Cook heard something of those large Saurians on his third voyage while at anchor in the Straits which bear his name; which, being but brief, I will give in his own words:— “We had another piece of intelligence from this chief, that there are lizards there of an enormous size. He described them as being eight feet in length, and as big round as a man’s body. He said they sometimes seize and devour men; that they burrow in the ground; and that they are killed by making fires at the mouth of the holes. We could not be mistaken as to the animal, for, with his own hand, he drew a very good representation of a lizard on a piece of paper, in order to show what he meant.” And this statement was further confirmed by Mr. Anderson, the surgeon to the ship, as appears from a note appended to that voyage, viz.:—“In a separate memorandum book, Mr. Anderson mentions the monstrous animal of the lizard kind, described by the two young New Zealanders they had on board, after they had left the island.”313 [84]

Mr. Nicholas, who accompanied Mr. Marsden on his first visit to New Zealand in 1814, says:—“While in the forests at the Bay of Islands, observing a hole at the foot of one of the trees, which evidently appeared to have been burrowed by some quadruped, we inquired of Kena what animal he supposed it was; and from his description of it, we had reason to believe that it must be the Guana. Wishing to know how far our surmise was correct, we desired our friend to thrust a stick into the hole, and endeavour to worry the animal out of it; but this he tried with no effect, for either it was not in the hole at the time, or, if there, not to be dislodged by such means. Kena, however, was rather well pleased than otherwise at not meeting with this animal; for his dread of it was so great, that he shrunk back with terror at the time he thought it would come out, nor did he examine the hole but with very great reluctance. This we thought very strange, for the Guana (the animal we took it for) is perfectly harmless. ... The chief, Ruatara, however, informed us that a most destructive animal was found in the interior of the country, which made great havoc among the children, carrying them off and devouring them, whenever they came its way. The description he gave of it corresponded exactly with that of the alligator. ... The chief had never seen the animal himself, but received his accounts from others; and hence it appears to me very probable that his credulity might have been imposed upon.”314

Captain Cruise, of the 84th Regiment, who came to New Zealand in H.M.S. ‘Dromedary’ five years after Mr. Nicholas, and who resided in this country ten months, gives in a few words an interesting notice of the abject fear exhibited by the Maori at the mere sight of a small lizard! which, as it is (or was) so truthful—as I have too often myself witnessed— I also quote :—“A man who has arrived at a certain stage of an incurable illness, is under the influence of the Atua, who has taken possession of him, and who, in the shape of a lizard, is devouring his intestines; after which no human assistance or comfort can be given to the sufferer, and he is carried out of the village and left to die. ... This curious hypothesis was accidentally discovered by one of the gentlemen, who, having found a lizard, carried it to a native woman to ask the name of it. She shrunk from him in a state of terror that exceeded description, and conjured him not to approach her, as it was in the shape of the animal he held in his hand that the Atua was wont to take possession of the dying, and to devour their bowels.”315

In various parts of this island, but all to the north of Napier, I have had shown me when travelling (1834–1844), many spots where it was said monsters of the Saurian Order had formerly dwelt. [85]

Thirty-five years ago, when journeying along the East Coast, between Cape Kidnappers and Castle Point, on reaching the top of the high hill or range situated between Waimarama and Te Apiti, named Marokotia, my attention was called to a remarkable rift or chasm at the head of the glen just below me, on the east or sea side of the old Maori track or pathway. This, I was told by the old chiefs of the coast who were with me, was in ancient times the dwelling of a monster Saurian, named Hinehuarau; that it burst away from this place, tearing and rending all before it, and so went on south until it reached Wairarapa, where it was subsequently killed by a chief of note of ancient days, named Tara, whose name he gave to the lake near Te Aute, “Te Roto-a-tara.”

Some time after I was again in the Wairarapa Valley, and hearing so much of the “bones,” or, as some said, “the head,” of this monster being yet to be seen in the place where it was slain, away among the hills, I purposely walked thither from a village called Hurunuiorangi to see them. It was rather a long and rough walk to the place among the hills on the other side of the Ruamahanga river. Arriving there, I found the said “bones” to be a heap or knob of yellowish, friable, glittering, quartz-like stone (calcite), which cropped out from the hill-side and lay in large lumps. I remember well how angry one old Maori became, who was of the party with me, on my asserting that the pile before us was not bone at all but stone. Very likely those natives had never seen any other stone like it (up to that time I had not). It bore, at first sight, a resemblance to the yellow decaying bones of a whale. I think the spot was called Tupurupuru, and that it is not very far from the head waters of the river Taueru.

Such places, however—caves, rifts, chasms, and strange-looking stones —are by no means unfrequently met with in travelling in New Zealand, especially when journeying (as I was obliged to do) along the old foot-paths, which mostly led over ridges of hills; and there are plenty of such stories concerning them, each spot having its own peculiar myth or legend, which was once most certainly believed.

I have also more than once seen another curious spot in this neighbourhood (Hawke Bay), which deserves recording, the more so, perhaps, from the fact of its being no longer to be seen as I saw it. It was on the low undulating grassy banks of the river Waitio. There, at that time, was a huge earthwork representation of a ngarara, or ika, i.e., a lizard, or crocodile, which, several generations back, had been cut and dug and formed in the ground by a chief of that time named Rangitauira, who, in doing so, had also dexterously availed himself of the natural formation of the low alluvial undulations in the earth. It had the rude appearance of a huge Saurian extended, with its four legs and claws and tail, but crooked, [86] not straight, as if to represent it wriggling or living, and not dead. It was many yards in length, and of corresponding width and thickness, and by no means badly executed. On two occasions, in particular, in travelling that way, as we generally rested there on the banks of the stream, the old Maori chiefs with me would diligently use their tomahawks and wooden spades in clearing away the coarse grass and low bushes growing on it in its more salient parts, so as to keep its outline tolerably clear, reminding me of what has been said of the periodical scouring in the Vale of the White Horse. The natural vegetation of the place was well suited for the purpose of preserving it, being mostly composed of our (Hawke Bay) common carpet or mat grass (Microlana stipoides) and a low-growing Muhlenbeckia (M. axillaris),316 but in those days no foot of man trod on it, and of beasts there were none!

This curious earth-work was called Te Ika-a-Rangitauira, that is, that that Saurian outline was made or formed by a chief whose name was Rangitatuira. He was an ancestor of the chief Karaitiana (M.H.R.), and of several other chiefs and sub-tribes now living here in Hawke Bay; he lived nineteen generations back; one of his residences was a large pa called Te Mingi, on the Tutaekuri river. He formed this design, or earth-work (which originally consisted of three Saurian outlines) in remembrance of his having returned from that spot with his fighting party. They had left their own pa to attack another on the east side of the Tukituki river, but being here overtaken by daylight abandoned their design. First, however, forming and leaving there those three monsters, to indicate to the people of the pa they had set out to attack, how they had intended to serve (i.e. devour) them. This chief subsequently met with his death in returning from the Patea country in the interior, through being overtaken by a violent snow-storm, and taking refuge in a cave called Te Reporoa (on the lower passes of the Ruahine mountain range) where he and those with him miserably perished in the snow! His younger brother, who persevered and kept on his journey, escaped. Consequently for many years this chief’s huge earthwork was attended to and kept clear of coarse weeds by his descendants in commemoration of him.

I now proceed to give you some of those old legendary tales, for which I have been preparing the way, premising that these are all fair translations from the original Maori as I received them, and without any addition. Like most translations, however, they lose much of their striking original character and beauty in attempting to clothe them in a foreign dress. [87]

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