Within the conceptual framework of the Māori knowledge system, relationships best explain how tapu applied to the operation of social life, and, in the case of this thesis, to conflict between individuals and groups. The conflicts documented here concern two main iwi groups: Ngāi Tahu-Ngāti Māmoe, and the ‘Waikato-Tāranaki alliance’, so an attempt has been made to ensure that conceptual interpretations made originate from their traditions, in preference to ‘pan-Māori’ ones. However, Schirres, who has developed an extensive understanding using early manuscripts, has expressed the hope that: “… mutual sharing [of our thinking]… should renew and enhance the tapu of each people” (1997: 33). With this intention, some aspects of tapu are exemplified by the traditions of other northern tribes when there is an absence of published material from Te Wai Pounamu. The writings of Shirres (1997), Māori Marsden (1992), and Tau (2003) have influenced my interpretation because each of their approaches to the concept has a different focus. They each illuminate differently the aspect of tapu investigated here (which is relationships). They also provide comparisons with what Head has written more recently: “The relationship between humans and the spiritual universe was not one of benign communion but full of threat… Tapu… meant restriction, fixity, fear and retribution, and the Māori attitude to the world was one of wakeful vigilance” (2006: 94). Māori Marsden described what tapu is, how Māori children were dedicated to a deity – most frequently Tū (god of war) or Rongo (god of peace) – and “set aside for that deity” by ritual declaration of

their life purpose. They were then consecrated by ritual and sacrifice and thereby entered into a “contractual relationship” with the deity, which provided them with protection and the ability to manipulate and survive in the environment. People were thereby “put into the sphere of the sacred”, made tapu and restricted/untouchable. They were watched over by kaitiaki or guardians, instantiations of whose spiritual power were sent as aria (birds, animals, or even rainbows, comets or meteors) to warn or punish them against transgressions of their covenant with the deity. The covenant could be broken, if its terms were not fulfilled. Objects and places could also be made tapu by ritual and by contact with tapu persons or things (1992: 119-121).

How one can ‘see’ and ‘know’ tapu and scaffold the knowledge onto the epistemological framework, is described by Tau. He emphasises that this is

performative and embodied, and must be understood through psycho-social imprinting and participation in ritual (2003: 65). This involves listening to and studying chants and myths containing the internal logic of the framework, and how the performance of genealogy and hierarchy play out ritually and socially. In particular, Tau has

interpreted Ngāi Tahu creation myths and karakia for laying and lifting of tapu to demonstrate that the state of tapu originates with the gods, and is also associated with conception, the origin of life. Metaphorically it is, then, a state existing in the womb. When the mātāmua Te Rēhua was born of Papatuanuku he had this tapu, which was subsequently obtained from him by Tāne, and instantiated in the first woman Hine Tītama. Each human has therefore to obtain it from the Gods by dedication and consecration, as Marsden has said. When tapu is removed, it ritually returns to the womb, either of a young girl or a ruawahine (old woman). Metaphorically, and

spiritually it returns to the origin of human life – Hine Tītama (the Dawn Maid) – who is also Hine-nui-te-Pō (Hine of the Darkness) (Tau, 2003: 74).

What tapudoes is elaborated by Shirres, again through study of chants, myths and karakia, which foreshadow what can happen to relationships when the tapu of different individuals comes into contact. He says:

The story of Rangi and Papa can be seen as a story of the meeting of tapu with tapu, and the working out of that meeting largely to the satisfaction of Tū. After a great struggle Tū became master of Tangaroa, Haumia, Rongo and Tāne [his brothers]… by eating the fish… fern root… kūmara… and birds, thus destroying their tapu. But he was not able to master the winds and storms, the domain of Tāwhiri [who] retained his tapu (1997: 33).

Because all living beings originate from the gods they all have tapu that

originates from the gods. Shirres calls this “intrinsic tapu”, the kind that Tāne obtained from Rēhua. It has to be distinguished from that described by Marsden and obtained by association or contact with other tapu things, persons, or situations, the clothing of chiefs, a person’s head/hair; also connections with illness, death, birth, construction, weaving, and activities exclusive to women or to men, and so on. Marsden and Shirres have emphasised how the tapu of humans is different from that of other things and beings. The tapu of humans remains after death, and if diminished (as for prisoners), or if having been made noa, it can be ritually re-established with the correct

procedures. Thus the situation of “extensions of tapu” illustrates how, though noa is, in a sense its opposite, tapu can be greater or less, depending upon the individual and situation involved. Women have intrinsic tapu but it is lesser than that of men. The situation of noa, means ‘free from tapu’, and this can be achieved, for example, by particular rites and karakia performed when a war party returns from battle, or when an area was made temporarily tapu by a drowning and is being returned to normal use after a time. A standard way of removing tapu is by being exposed to cooked food. These “tapu extensions” are forms that also affect social life in the same manner as “intrinsic tapu”. If violated – even unknowingly – punishment from the gods would be likely if it hadn’t already been dispensed by the ‘owner’ of the tapu place or thing. Therefore the likelihood of violence or of conflict arising from “tapumeeting tapu” remained.

Of the writings on tapu, all identify the inseparability of tapu and mana, and some tribes use the words interchangeably, because tapu originates from “the mana of the spiritual powers”. The source for the tapu of the forest trees and birds and of humans is the mana of the god Tāne, for example (Schirres, 1997: 34). On this view tapu is a state of being, whilst mana is the source of that state. Shirres said, “Where tapu is the potentiality for power, mana is the actual power”; both of them originate from the spiritual dimension (ibid: 53), and are “manifest in the world of human experience” (Metge, 2002: 320).

In this section the mythology of the seeking of tapu from Rēhua by Tāne has been described, with the genealogical connection through descent lines of all beings (including Pāpātuanuku, the ‘earth mother’, and the source of the winds,

Tāwhirimātea), so in Pākeha logic also, they are born with mana, and the closer in the descent lines they are to the gods, the more mana they would be perceived to have.

Marsden has stated that from the theological point of view, mana “may be translated as charisma” (1975: 118). It is about power and spiritual authority inherited at birth, and is an active and palpable personal emanation. Metge has emphasised that persons and groups have a ‘store’ of inherited mana, but that this can be “increased or

diminished by the holder’s and other’s actions, and by the vicissitudes of life” (2002: 321). Mana can thus be accrued (and displayed) by relationships with people and things of mana, such as by marriage to a higher ranking person, accompanied by wealth in material goods and land; also by generosity including manaakitanga (hospitality), by giving assistance in time of difficulty, saving a life, by displaying courage and leadership on the battlefield or in the peaceful arts and oratory, and so on. Thus mana came from the gods (mana atua), from people (mana tāngata) and land (mana whenua). Those best able to access mana atua were tōhunga (priests). Mana tāngata was acquired at birth and could be increased as described, and mana whenua was the same – it could be acquired by inheritance, conquest or marriage. Thus mana could be increased, by increasing the number and value of relationships. It was an active force in those relationships, and a source of prestige and spiritual power. Kaiapoi elder, the late Te Ari Pitama described how mana was transferred from the tōhunga Hamiona Tūroa when he nominated four people to receive his powers by succession (quoted in Binney, 2004: 257-258). Hence, Tūroa not only demonstrated the extent of his mana, but also conferred on each of his successors the potential to enhance and multiply it for the benefit of his people. This would be in accordance with Metge’s statement just quoted, that mana “could be increased or diminished by the holder’s or other’s actions”(ibid.). Conversely, mana could be diminished by immoral acts including failing to respect tapu, and failing to uphold the covenant with the atua[s] to whom one had been ritually consecrated. Furthermore if one’s relations by kinship or association exhibited these failings, this also, could diminish the mana and the tapu of the whole group.

In all the conflict situations described in the succeeding chapters of this thesis the fundamental Māori concept of “the meeting of tapu with tapu” was therefore involved. Because such an issue has dynamic possibilities, both positive and negative, the role of particular Māori individuals and their own interpretations of the rules governing tapu and its removal would have been crucial for whether situations

developed into conflicts. Conversely European ignorance would have been even more problematical.


Since situations arose in the socio-religious realms, where tapu met tapu, and mana, with its spiritual dimension, delivered socio-political power and prestige, then individuals and groups strove for balance in transactions. Bound socially by each other, and each in their covenant with the gods, they sought utu or payment for anything that might cause mana and tapu to diminish. If two chiefs, each with mana and tapu met socially or to discuss political affairs, arrange alliances, or exchange commodities, and one was being offered manākitanga or hospitality, many utu or balance/imbalance issues had to be considered:

1. Was the host’s hospitality sufficiently generous to honour the mana and tapu of the guest?

2. Was it at least equivalent to that offered to him when he had been a guest of the other?

3. Was the host’s behaviour and that of his family and tribe honourable in every way, and not offering anything that might be considered an insult? Was he reducing the mana of his guest?

4. Did the guest accidentally or deliberately walk in a tapu place, or touch tapu objects belonging to the host, thus diminishing his mana?

If a host failed to meet obligations, then imbalance requiring utu or balanced payment arose. It was very serious, because if the imbalance in utu was not paid it could be corrected by the gods who had originally bestowed their mana. Each had been consecrated to the gods, and if they failed to ensure the utu was paid, the gifts from the gods might cease to flow. Complex situations arose when Europeans entered Māori spaces and began to interact socially and politically. Missionary Creed at Otago c.1840 wrote how Europeans inadvertently cut down some tapu trees and shrubs and burnt them in a common fire. They were threatened with death:

… Perhaps a blanket is demanded as utu payment or a little tobacco, or some article of household furniture. After a great discussion the matter is adjusted a small present is given the offended Native [who] walks moodily away… dreading the anger and vengeance of the gods for the desecration of the wahi tapu. (in White MSS, c.1880, my emphasis)19

Unpaid utu not enforced by humans, made everyone answerable to the gods who would wreak vengeance for desecration of the tapu and mana, which they had

originally conferred. Thus utu in this form has been termed by Europeans ‘revenge’, and has negative connotations. However utu could equally well involve the

presentation of tāonga (precious items) to honour and increase the mana of a chief because he is admired, and the community values his contributions and those of his group (cf. Tapsell, 1997: 365; cf. Buck, 1949: 371). There is a long tradition of presenting or returning gifts at funerals, weddings, and peace-making ceremonies, after generations of ‘utu debt’ or ‘imbalance’. Such gifts20 are ‘wrapped’ in sacred protocols that increase their mana and that of the recipient group. Metge would call this “positive” utu, in contrast to the “negative” variety that ‘Westerners’ call revenge. She has emphasised that utu is a socio-religious reciprocity mechanism for

maintaining relationships amongst groups, and with the atuas, its aim being to attain a constant state of imbalance that maintains the relationships (2002: 333).

(Metge, (2002), in Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol.111, No. 4: 333)

Metge’s investigations of the 200-year-long feuds between Te Aupouri and Te Rārawa in Northland demonstrate how they have “ alternated between periods of peace and periods of hostility and war”. One of them finally “… won mana by their persistence, their honourable behaviour and their gifts of two highly valued women” (2002: 331).

The succeeding chapters of this thesis will demonstrate in case studies how the religio-social mechanism of utu played out in intra-cultural situations between Māori and other Māori, and also inter-culturally between Māori and Europeans, who

misunderstood the logic underpinning it. It sometimes became conceptually entangled, with what Europeans call ‘theft’ and ‘revenge’, because they ‘saw’ and ‘knew’ a different ‘world’. Both these issues and the situations to which they apply can then be framed as equivocations according to the method of Vivieros de Castro (ibid.).

In document Between people and things: understanding violence and theft in early New Zealand transactions (Page 76-82)


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