Maori - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Maori held an essentially spiritual view of the universe. Anything associated with the supernatural was invested with tapu, a mysterious quality which made those things or persons imbued with it either sacred or unclean according to context. Objects and persons could also possess mana, psychic power. Both qualities, which were Inherited or acquired through contact, could be augmented or diminished during one's lifetime. All free men were tapu to a degree directly proportional to their rank. Furthermore, an object or resource could be made tapu and therefore off-limits. The punishment for violating a tapu restriction was automatic, usually coming as sickness or death. The Maori had a pantheon of supernatural beings ( atua ). The supreme god was known as Io. The two primeval parents, Papa and Rangi, had eight divine offspring: Haumia, the god of uncultivated food; Rongo, the god of peace and agriculture; Ruaumoko, the god of earthquakes; Tawhirimatea, the god of weather; Tane, the father of humans and god of forests; Tangaroa, the god of the sea; Tu-matauenga, the war god; and Whiro, the god of darkness and evil. There were also exclusive tribal gods, mainly associated with war. In addition, there were various family gods and familiar spirits.

Religious Practitioners. The senior deities had a Priesthood ( tohunga ahurewa), members of which received special professional training. They were responsible for all esoteric ritual, were knowledgeable about genealogies and tribal History, and were believed to be able to control the weather. Shamans rather than priests served the family gods whom they communicated with through spirit possession and sorcery.

Ceremonies. Most public rites were performed in the open, at the marae. The gods were offered the first fruits of all undertakings, and slaves were occasionally sacrificed to propitiate them. Incantations ( karakia ) were chanted in flawless repetition to influence the gods.

Arts. Most of the material objects of the Maori were highly decorated. Their statues and carvings, especially with filigree motifs, are admired worldwide and are the frequent subject of art museum exhibitions.

Medicine. Sickness was believed to be caused by sorcery or the violation of a tapu. The proximate cause of illness was the presence of foreign spirits in the sick body. The medical tohunga accordingly exorcised the spirits and purified the patient. The therapeutic value of some plants was also recognized.

Death and Afterlife. The dying and dead were taken to a shelter on the marae. The body was laid out on mats to receive mourners, who came in hapu or tribal groups. After a week or two of mourning the body was wrapped in mats and buried in a cave, in a tree, or in the ground. Often after a year or two the ariki would have the body exhumed, and the bones scraped clean and painted with red ochre, to be taken from settlement to settlement for a second mourning. Afterward, the bones were given a second burial in a sacred place. The spirits of the dead were believed to make a voyage to their final abode, a vague and mysterious underworld.

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