Maori Society & Beliefs

Maori SettlementPossibly about 1000 years ago Polynesians left the land of “Hawaiki”  and migrated to New Zealand, although it’s impossible to find Hawaiki on a map, because it is a part of Maori myths and legends, we can say for sure that they came from an island or group of islands in Polynesia, the South Pacific Ocean. There are ethnic connections, cultural and language similarities between the Maori and other Polynesian people. The early settlers lived in small hunting bands. They were practiced and skilled fishermen, hunters and gardeners. Fishing was significantly important to them as they were coastal residents. They wove and knitted fishing nets from flax, made the hooks from stone or bone; hunted native birds, including Moa, which is the largest bird in the world. Penguins and seals were hunted and stored in the bags of bull kelp, could be maintained for many months and eaten by the native people. The Polynesians brought with them sweet potato (kumara). Vegetables were planted and harvested with different types of tools including clubs, diggers etc.

Social Structure

Maori social structure can be simply described as a tribal one. The tribe (iwi) was a large political and territorially-based social unit. The leader of was called ariki. The members shared common descent and the tribe was named from their ancestor. When the first Europeans visited New Zealand, each tribe contained at least several thousand members. The iwi had its own objectives, infrastructure and responsibilities. The basic role of it was to protect the interests of individuals. There is also a concept of sub-tribe (hapu) which means a localized descent group; it was a unit with strong ties. Hapu had its functions like the control and defense of a definite territory, sometimes even by war against any other group. These needs also included religious and ceremonial gatherings, political issues, land use, economic activities such as fishing, stocking of food storage capacities, cultivations etc.  The lands of sub-tribe was divided into sections; each of them was Maori Campcontrolled by small social units, called whanau, which was a basic element of Maori society into which an individual was born and socialized.  The word itself means “to give a birth.” It could consist of three or four generations; they lived together in grouped houses. The main function of whanau was to procreate and care for children. Parents were mainly gone for gardening, hunting or other activities, so in the absence of them children received care and affection from many others. More often, they were influenced by their kaumatua and kuia, which means grandparents.

There were three social strata: gentry (rangatira), commoners (tauwareware) and slaves (taurekareka). In general, the persons who were described as commoners were in fact the low-ranking relatives of gentry’s stratum. Slaves had no personal rights, but they were treated rationally and realistically well. Intermarriage between free people of low rank and slaves was quite common.

Rank and Leadership

Maori SociatyLeadership in Maori society depended on rank and age. Elders were respected much and their advice was always taken. The top figure of leadership in a tribe was the ariki, who was the first-born descendant. It is noticeable that a person of high rank could give his title through females as well as males. However, not all ariki were of high ability and this fact could give other men an achieved status, especially in war, which was frequent throughout the history. But while such men had a strong status and mana, he never could become ariki, because his success had been derived only from power and practical matters. Such person, whose rank and position was received from his personal skills, was called rangatira paraparau, which literally means a “pseudo-aristocrat.” This is the sketch of traditions showing the relations, ranks, and positions of people, based on which modern Maori society functions.

Gods and Legends

Rangi and PapaMaori Gods, Legends, rituals and the world view come from a Polynesian homeland.  All these aspects of social life were based on mythology and traditions inherited from their ancestors. Their belief system completely accounted for all the matters and problems of existence and defined a structure for keeping social and cultural order.  Tribal mythology tells of two gods, the Sky Father (Rangi) and the Earth Mother (Papa) who created plants, animals and men. They gave birth to several male gods, who soon rebelled because of the limited world in which they lived. One of them, the god Tane abandoned his parents and stained the earth red with Rangi’s blood from which all nature originated. People believed that their ancestors were descended from these gods and all respected individuals had a relationship to the celestial, they could defend high-minded ideals and principles for themselves and for generations.

Tapu and Mana

The Maori believed that everything had a definite soul (wairua) and a liquid concept of spiritual “essence” (mana). Mana revealed itself in land, nature, humans and other objects. Mana seemed to be associated to contemporary concepts of nobility, power, influence, charisma, authority, prestige etc. Things which had all of these (mana) became sacred or tapu in native language. Almost anything could become tapu if it had been touched by the supernatural order. For example, fire, if lit by the priest would become tapu because the god might be brought to live in it. When a stream was used for religious rites, it also could become tapu.

Tapu could apply to people, both living and dead. Mana was stronger in men than in women, but it is noticeable fact that all males, other than slaves, were considered sacred.  Slaves were important workers and could be used as human sacrifices with the aim of making a place Tapu by the shedding of their blood. Priests, or tohungas, were imbued with the mysterious essences of the tapu because of their knowledge of ancient incantations. All high chiefs also had a strong personal tapu which prevented any  person eating out of the same food basket or using anything belonging to the chief. Women possessed tapu only atTohunga Tapu menstruation and during childbirth as the most sacred parts of the body were heads, back and sexual organs.  The important religious events were related to tapu and death.  At death the corpse was brought to Marae and then the funeral was held. If the dead person had had enough mana, people came from other tribes and villages.

The opposing theory to tapu was noa: meaning anything common. They must be separated from each other, because a noa object could damage the power (mana) of a sacred (tapu) object. Associated to tapu was the idea of stealing for revenge (muru). If a sacred person made a serious breach or harmed the tribe as a whole, it would bring a stealing party to the door. This party would beat him by taking property which was a form of social shame. So muru was a manifestation of revenge, a behavior that held in respect throughout the society. Maori Social structure and beliefs, including mana, tapu and muru provide the essential elements of their culture.