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  The Tangi      Religion and Spirituality    Tapu and Noa
The Māori
The Tangi - Religion and spirituality - Tapu and Noa

If a tangi (funeral service) is held on the Marae, the local Marae people hold small twigs of green leaves in their hands. The twigs are a symbol of mourning. There is a funeral service before the burial of the "tupapaku" (body). The Māori will not leave the body alone after death, so it will be taken to the Marae where it will remain with family and friends until burial.

Speeches may be made directly to the "tupapaku" as the Māori believe that the spirit of the body does not actually leave until the body is buried.

The carved figures along the inside walls of the whare represent ancestors of the local marae people, as well as those of other tribes. The "urupa" (graveyard) is generally within the Marae complex, and this area is particularly tapu (sacred). When leaving the urupa, the tapu may be removed by washing the hands in water. For this purpose, a water container may often be found just outside the gate of the urupa.

On death, the Māori believe that the spirit travels to the Pohutukawa tree which sits on the very tip of Cape Reinga, at the top of the North Island - as far as man may go in New Zealand. The spirit then slides down a root of the Pohutukawa, to the sea below. The spirit emerges onto Ohaua, which is the highest tip of the Three Kings Islands, for a final farewell before rejoining the ancestors.

In earlier times, the head of a loved chief or warrior leader would be decapitated and preserved, in order to always be with the bereaving family and tribe.

Religion and Spirituality
The Godstick - Ringatu and Ratana

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 Māori 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 Māori have strong spiritual ties to the land.

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

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" protected ceremonial objects, much filled with mana. The lizard had a particular significance in ancient Māori 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 high learning - a Whare-Wananga - would sometimes have a lizard buried beneath the posts supporting the construction. The spirit would then protect the Whare-Wananga.

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The Godstick

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.

Ringatu and Ratana

Te Kooti Rikirangi founded the Ringatu movement during his imprisonment on the Chatham Islands, in 1867. Ringatu means "The Upraised Hand". The Ringatu movement still exists today, and although it is not great in number it is an officially recognised church.

In November 1918 another movement was founded by Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, giving birth to the Ratana church. Ratana became nationally known as a faith healer, and established many churches. He preached belief in God and the rejection of Māori tohungaism. He advocated the rejection of certain Māori traditions such as carving, tribalism, tohungaism, tapu, and called for the ratification of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Ratana was referred to as "Mangai", the mouthpiece of God. Tahupotiki Ratana died in 1939, but the Ratana church is still very well represented in Māori communities. About a third of Māori churchgoers today belong to the Church of England, the Catholic and the Ratana faiths.

Tapu and Noa

Tapu is the strongest force in Māori life. It has numerous meanings and references. Tapu can be interpreted as "sacred", or defined as "spiritual restriction" or "implied prohibition", containing a strong imposition of rules and prohibitions. A person, an object or a place, which is tapu, may not be touched by human contact. In some cases, not even approached. A person, object or a place could be made sacred by tapu for a certain time, and the two main types of tapu were private and public. Private tapu concerned individuals, and public tapu concerned communities.

In earlier times, tribal members of a higher rank would not touch objects which belonged to members of a lower rank. This was considered "pollution". Similarly, persons of a lower rank could not touch the belongings of a highborn person. Death was the penalty.

A breach of "tapu" was to commit a hara (violation) could incur the wrath of the Gods. Certain objects were particularly tapu, so much so that it was a dangerous act to even touch them, apart from suitably qualified priests. In 1772 the French explorer Marion du Fresne was killed for breaching a particular "tapu".

In earlier times food cooked for a chief was tapu, and could not be eaten by an inferior. A chief's house was tapu, and even the chief could not eat food in the interior of his house. A woman could not enter a chief's house unless a special religious ceremony was performed. (the karakia)

An ariki (chief) and a tohunga (healer or priest) were lifelong tapu persons. Not only were their houses tapu but also their possessions, including their clothing. Burying grounds (urupa) and places of death (wahi tapu) were always tapu, and these areas were often surrounded by a protective fence.

Two other types of tapu were "rahui and "aukati", but "tapu" itself was the most powerful, the most important, and the most far reaching into Māori life.

"Noa", on the other hand, lifts the "tapu" from the person or the object. "Noa" is similar to a blessing. Tapu and noa remain part of Māori culture today, although persons today are not subject to the same tapu as that of previous times. A new house today, for example, may have a "noa" ceremony to remove the "tapu", in order to make the home safe before the family moves in.

Today, tapu observances are still in evidence concerning sickness, death, and burial. Tapu is also evident in the Marae and in the Whare. The original reasons for some "tapu" are unclear today, but other reasons for "tapu" included the conservation of natural environment. This was seen to benefit the community as a whole.

Pohutukawa tree. Image courtesy of the Northland website The Pohutukawa tree

The Pohutukawa, (Metrosideros excelsa), is known as the New Zealand Christmas tree, as it flares into crimson display from late October until end November and into the Christmas holiday period. The most famous Pohutukawa grows from a promontory on the tip of Cape Reinga. It is reputed to be 800 years old, at least twice the generally accepted mature age of the tree, and it is sacred to the Māori, who believed it to be the last stepping-off place of spirits from this world.

Source : New Zealand Encyclopedia, 4th Edition - Bateman

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Related Links
The Pohutukawa and Rata - significance to the Māori
The process of Māori mourning and grief


 Please be aware that this website is a personal homepage. It would therefore be wise to cross check information which I have presented here. A list of many official New Zealand history sites may be found within my Links section.