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Friday, 08 June 2007

On the Marae: A Maori Ritual of Encounter - Page 2

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.

I listened to the tribal elders sing waita (songs) with their soft voices carrying over the river and the lush forests and carpeted hills absorbing their sounds. According to the rituals, we sang our own National Anthem and America the Beautiful in response. Our off-key voices were vulgar and nasal against the force of the compelling Maori songs which we could not interpret. Two male students from our “tribe” spoke alternately with two male elders of their “tribe”. They spoke of their belief that underneath the grass we stood on was the blood and souls of their ancestors who, after our rituals of encounter were over, would be forever joined with our own kin. The powhiri is a time when the living and the dead are brought together.

The rituals of encounter break down the boundaries between the living and the dead, the mortal and the immortal. The Maori believe that mortality came from the demi-god, Maui. Legend has it this hero came from the mythical island of Hawaiki, where all Maori originated. Maui’s feats are unparalleled in Maori mythology. A fish he caught became the North Island, his waka became the South Island. Maui beat the sun into submission thus giving humans the division of day and night. He also tried to trick the death goddess Hine-nui-te-po by killing her in her sleep in order to attain immortality for humans. He was to crawl up through her birth canal and remove the woman’s heart, thereby reversing the death process. A fantail’s laughter at the sight of Maui struggling to climb in between the goddess’s legs awoke the goddess and she crushed him between her thighs. Here the legends of Maui end where human mortality begins.

Our rituals of encounter concluded when we filed along the porch where the elders stood, leaning on their handmade, wooden canes, to hongi each member of the tribal council. A hongi is the Maori form of greeting, where two people join hands and press noses, or share the “life breath” with each other. I filed through with my peers. My eyes watched the pale skin of our noses press into the deep brown, broader noses of the Maori elders. I wondered how many people they gave hongis to in their lifetime. We were strangers, sharing a moment of intimacy that they shared in various degrees with all other Maori and pakeha, or non-Maori. Good friends may share a hongi that lasts minutes or family members may not only press noses but also close their eyes, bringing their bodies close if they are in mourning together. My hongis were nowhere near as emotional but I could not help but feel awkward, as my open eyes and mouth were centimeters from the elders’.

Humanity began with a hongi. Tane, our father of forests, sought a mate. He fashioned a woman out of clay and dirt, the essence of the Earth Mother. He bent over her form and breathed life into the creature through her nostrils. From that moment, all women not only shared a special bond with their Earth Mother but also carried a special intrinsic power of their own whenever they pressed noses. This, the first woman, was Hine-ahu-one, wife of Tane and mother to the Dawn Maid, Hine-Titama.

(Page 2 of 4)
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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