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Friday, 08 June 2007

On the Marae: A Maori Ritual of Encounter

Written by Stephanie Henck
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In the beginning there was darkness, te po--the domain of the gods. Here, Rangi the Sky Father and Papa the Earth Mother were joined in an intimate embrace that left the world void of light. They begot many sons who dominated aspects of the natural world: they controlled animals, the forests, the weather, and the seas. The sons of earth and sky suffered from the eternal darkness of the tight hold between Heaven and Earth and resolved to separate their parents.

In the beginning there was darkness, te po--the domain of the gods. Here, Rangi the Sky Father and Papa the Earth Mother were joined in an intimate embrace that left the world void of light. They begot many sons who dominated aspects of the natural world: they controlled animals, the forests, the weather, and the seas. The sons of earth and sky suffered from the eternal darkness of the tight hold between Heaven and Earth and resolved to separate their parents. Tane, the father of forests and birds said that their parents must be broken apart. So he pressed his shoulders to the Earth, placed his feet against the sky and pushed. With shrieks and groans, Heaven and Earth were rendered separate and light poured into the world.

This is known as The Separation, or Te wehenga in Maori cosmology. It is said that Heaven and Earth still long to hold each other in their tight embrace. Rain is Rangi’s tears of sorrow for the loss of his beloved. Mountain and valley mists are soft sighs of love and longing that Papa sends skyward, to her husband.

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Centuries later, Papa’s tears hung wet and heavy over the hillside as I, along with sixty of my peers, poured out of two ramshackle busses onto her skin of sand, gravel and grasses. The air was like soup; its earthy aroma wafted around our bodies and enveloped us in humidity. We made our way down a loose gravel road towards two bushes that marked the entrance to the marae (pronounced ma-rye). A marae, a sacred gathering place to the indigenous population of New Zealand: the Maori. A marae consists of a number of carved buildings built around a central courtyard.. Only the members of each tribe or those who have been formally invited are allowed onto a marae. As foreigners, we were privileged to receive an invitation.

Land is sacred to the Maori, and in order to enter into their tribal community we had to undergo a process known as the powhiri, or “Rituals of Encounter,” in order to remove our tapu. Tapu literally means “dirty feet” and is the Maori word for expressing a sense of the restricted nature of someone who is foreign to a particular tribe. We began the process of “cleaning our feet” when our group moved slowly into the courtyard to the high-pitched, wailing sounds of the karanga, or welcoming song. We were in a traditional formation: the boys surrounding the group of females that symbolized the male role of protection. Maori history is rooted in inter-tribal warfare and distrust. The powhiri itself originated as a means of establishing a connection between the visitor and the host tribe in order for relations to take place, hostile or friendly.. In the past, men of visiting tribes would hide in the middle of the crowd and ambush the host tribe, once inside the courtyard. Because of the treacherous history, this formation became the protocol.

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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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