The Maori people are the indigenous people of Aotearoa (New Zealand)

‘The god Tane offered mankind three baskets of knowledge…’

It isn’t just the European influence that makes New Zealand people so unique. More than 400 years before Christopher Columbus and the rest of Europe worried about falling off the edge of the world, New Zealand’s first migrants, the Maori, voyaged thousands of miles across the vast unknown Pacific Ocean in small ocean-going canoes. In order to reach New Zealand, these brave adventurers developed their own navigation system using the stars and the currents.

Religion and spirituality are very important to the Maori and they involve not only their tribe (iwi), but the land, sea and sky within their culture. Maori did not have a written language until missionaries created one in the mid 19th century, so their history was passed down orally through myths and legends.

In the beginning the belief was that the god Tane offered mankind three baskets of knowledge – ‘Nga Kete-o-te-Wananga’. Within these baskets were the stories of creation, instructions concerning magic, etc. The Maori believe all living things are descended from the Gods, embodied within certain mountains, rivers and lakes. All things have a type of soul – the wairua. This is why the Maori have strong spiritual ties to the land.

Certain geographical features of New Zealand are important anchors for Maori identity. For example, the Whanganui River has a particular cultural and spiritual significance for the Maori. Mount Ngaruahoe and Mount Ruapehu, both situated in the North Island, are sacred to the Maori.

Most things contain ‘mana’ – spiritual essence. Mana is within man himself, land, nature, and also man-made objects. Contact with mana contained objects or beings by non-authorised persons or objects could cause the mana to be drained away.

Extremely strict rules of ‘tapu’ (meaning sacred or forbidden) protected ceremonial objects, much filled with mana. The lizard had a particular significance in ancient Maori mythology. This reptile was considered to be the emissary of the god Whiro. Whiro represented all that is evil on earth, and brought misfortune on unfortunate tribes. If the gods were angry and wished to kill a man, they would invoke the lizard to enter into a man’s body, in order to eat away his life giving organs. The lizard is also present in art motifs. In this case, the evil powers of the lizard were transformed to a form of protection.

Oral tradition says that a house used for higher learning – a Whare-Wananga – would sometimes have a lizard buried beneath the posts supporting the construction. The spirit would then protect the Whare-Wananga.

In former times, the ‘tiki wananga’, or the godstick, was used for rites. It was usually fashioned in wood with a tiki at its head, and leading to a pointed base. For ritualistic occasions, cords and red feathers adorned the godstick making it become alive, so to speak. The spirit of the particular god represented then entered into the godstick, and at this point the godstick became the intermediary between the priest and the spirit with whom the priest wished to make contact.

Only priests or qualified persons could use the godstick. Before calling upon a deity, the priest would either thrust the godstick into the ground, or hold it. He would then call upon the deity concerned to bless or help the tribe.

Each area of environment has its traditions, deities and more importantly its uses. New Zealand has a wide range of native plants which have long traditions in terms of medicinal healing properties and these cures and preventatives are still much used today.