It was only around the middle of the 14th century that the Maoris of New Zealand emerged as a distinct race. Their traditional religion was polytheistic (worshipping many gods), and the deities worshipped by the Maori are also found among other Polynesian cultures. The social organization of the Maoris was based on the belief that they had descended from “those who came in a great fleet.” Membership in the Maori tribe is, by tradition, based on a common ancestry. The significance of being able to identify one’s ancestors is reflected in the Maori worldview, which connects everything to the deeds and lives of their ancestors.

Origins and History
The Maori, which means the “original” or “local people,” believe that their ancestors reached New Zealand from islands in the central Pacific Ocean in huge, oceangoing sailing canoes, approximately 1,000 years ago. Led by great explorers and seafarers, they named the country Aotearoa (“Land of the Long White Cloud”). (Both the method of their arrival and the dates are now topics being debated by researchers.) Archaeological evidence suggests that the first band of Maoris initially settled in the South Island and gradually inhabited the North Island. Here the Maori developed a culture of fishing, hunting, and gathering supplemented by settled agriculture, the main crop being kumara (“sweet potato”), which they had brought from their former home. (The sweet potato, however, originated in Central America, not Polynesia.) Elements of their culture, including oral traditions, religious faith, and customs, waiata (songs), crafts, and social systems are found nowhere else in the world.
Unlike other civilizations, the Maori had no basic concept or set of beliefs as far as the creation of the universe is concerned. The great mysterious cause of all things existing in the cosmos was, as they conceived it, the generative power. Starting with emptiness, followed by a primitive state of darkness, they conceived Po (“night”) as a person capable of begetting a race of beings resembling itself. After a succession of several generations of the race of Po, Te Ata (“morning”) was born. Afterward came Ranginui (“sky”), Papatuanuku (“Earth”), the winds, and other sky powers.
There is an interesting Maori legend about the origins of heaven and Earth: Heaven and Earth were once joined as Ranginui, the Sky Father, and Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother. They remained locked tightly together in a passionate embrace.
They had many children who all lived in the dark because the togetherness of their parents effectively blocked out the Sun. When these children grew up, they discussed among themselves what it would be like to live in the light. Tu-matauenga, the fiercest of them all, said: “Let us kill our parents and then we can live always in light.” But his brother Tane Mahuta disagreed: “No, there is no need to kill them, we can just push them apart, then our Father the Sky can be above us to watch over us and our Mother can remain below to nurture us.” The other children agreed to this except for Tawhiri-matea, (the deity of storm and wind); he was sad at the prospect of his parents being parted.
The plan was put into action: Rongo-ma-tane, the god of cultivated crops and food, tried to wrench the duo apart, then Tangaroa, the god of the sea, and Haumia-tikitiki, the god of food (which grows without being cultivated), joined him. In spite of their joint efforts, Ranginui and Papatuanuku remained close together. Finally, it was the turn of Tane Mahuta, the god of forests and insects.
Instead of using his hands to separate them, he lay on his back and pushed with his strong legs. Tane pushed and pushed until, with cries of grief and surprise, Ranginui and Papatuanuku were torn apart.Tawhiri-matea was overwhelmed by the anguished cries of his parents and the tears of the Sky Father at the forceful separation; therefore he created violent storms and winds and warned his siblings that, henceforth, they would have to face his wrath. He joined his father in the sky from where he still periodically punishes earthlings by creating violent storms. Legends say that Ranginui and Papatuanku continue to grieve for each other to this day. When dew drops fall, these are the tears of Ranginui; when the mist rises from forests and the sea, Papatuanku is sighing (for her consort), while the warmth of her body continues to nurture humanity.
The traditional religion of the Maoris includes gods and goddesses for different spheres of life.
These include Tane (trees, birds, and insects), Rongo (peace and agriculture), Tu (war), and Tangaroa (sea and fish). Maori gods were sometimes represented by carved godsticks bound with cord. A godstick was frequently used in the ritual acts sanctifying the planting, tending, and harvesting of sweet potatoes.
The Maori practices of worshipping images or gods are similar to those found in other civilizations and cultures of the ancient world. The major deities resembled real-life mortal human beings with extraordinary qualities and powers. The concept of tapu (“holy” or “forbidden” or “sacred”) is the most powerful force in Maori life, and permeates the religious lives of the Maoris, although it is not as absolute as it seems to have been earlier. The two primary kinds of tapu were public, having to do with the entire community, or private, touching only the individual. Objects and people could become tapu once they came in contact with supernatural beings or aspects of the supernatural. Anything tapu was to be totally segregated from any vessel or place where food was kept. This law was absolutely inviolable.
(Hara means “violation of tapu.”) Those who broke this law invited the displeasure of the atua (deities) of their family.
Everything not categorized as tapu was noa, meaning “free” or “common.” Things and persons tapu could be made noa by certain ceremonies, the object of which was to extract the tapu essence and restore it to its original source. Every tribe and each family had (or still has) its own especial atua (a medium of the local gods). Maori priests were known to have very strong tapu, which also gave them mana, power over fate. (Mana roughly translates as an individual’s or group’s influence, prestige, pride, and dignity.) Mana is a concept that merges power and sacredness. The tohunga (“priest”) was a specialist in art, knowledge, magic, and healing who could identify the sources of adverse events (which were due to either witchcraft or violation of a tapu).
In his capacity as a healer, he often became an atua and relayed messages from these deities to the common people.
After Christianity intruded into Maori religious life, several syncretic (an attempted blending of irreconcilable principles, as in religion or philosophy) cults have arisen. Nevertheless, kinship and the concept of tapu remain central as forces in Maori religious life.
For the early Maori the scarcity of food sources, brought about by various environmental factors, led to a need to define greater land areas for growing crops. This led to feuds and wars, which necessitated the fortification of principal villages into pa (“hill forts with ditches and ramparts”).
Within a pa was the wharenui (“meeting house”) and marae (“the courtyard” of the meeting house, which provides the forum for community life). Wharenui, symbols of tribal ancestors, reflect the tradition, spirit, and history of iwi (“tribes”) and hapu (“subtribes”); they are usually intricately carved with the images and figures of legendary tupuna (“ancestors”), spirits, and gods.
Taniwha were the Maori version of dragons (their real-life inspiration were probably the salt water crocodiles of the Pacific). Taniwha were known to range from a few feet to several hundred feet in size and vary in temperament from friendly playmates to terrible monsters.The body parts of the large taniwha, when dismembered, would take on their own lives as eels, fish, river plants, and lizards. No tohunga was ever really successful in taming a taniwha, and sections of rivers believed to be a taniwha’s hideout were either avoided or sacrificial offerings of food were sent ahead of the waka (“canoes”) that would pass that way.
Before the arrival of the Europeans in the early 1800s, there were two distinct schools of understanding in the country. The majority of people deified, idolized, worshipped, or prayed to their dead ancestors. The other group was more aware of a supreme being or creator.
Christianity became the predominant religion of many Maoris during the 19th century; some became members of the Maori-founded Ratana or Ringatu Churches. Karakia (“prayers”) are an important part of Maori ceremonies, including the welcoming of guests and visitors to the local marae.
The traditional welcome involves dance, song, speeches, and a formal challenge; after it is over the manuhiri (“visitors”) and tangata whenua (“host tribe”) hongi (“greet” with traditional pressing of noses) and move in to the wharenui.

Maori Childbirth Rituals
In the old days, Maori women enjoyed full control over the birth process. With the help of the Tohunga and midwives, they controlled conception, abortion, birth, and parenting. Female attendants, appointed to care for the mother during her lyingin period after the birth, also assisted the other female relatives present during the birth; her parents and her husband were also usually present.
Maori women went through labor in a squatting or standing position, often held in front by an assistant who would help with bearing down by exerting pressure on the mother’s abdomen with her knees.
Karakia to Hineteiwaiwa, goddess of childbirth, were recited to ease the birth. There was generally no interference on the part of the people around, but, in case any problems arose, the most competent tohunga who specialized in that particular situation was called upon to resolve the problem. The placenta was buried, and when the pito (umbilical cord) had fallen off the infant, it, too, was appropriately buried or planted in a rock crevice or tree. It was a tapu process; hence childbirth could not take place within the ordinary dwelling house. Instead, women gave birth either in the open or in a temporary shelter that was erected for the purpose and later burnt.
This was called the whare kohanga, the “nest house.”

Maori Marriage Rituals
By and large marriage and betrothal arrangements were carried out by elders in the family rather than the parents of the couple to be married. In some tribes young men and women were allowed to express their choices regarding spouses, and in many tribes courtship was allowed. If a woman spurned the advances of a male, he often resorted to use of white magic, known as atahu, to make her change her mind. Another way of convincing a potential bride that accepting the marriage proposal was a good thing was to attack her clan and capture her. Adultery in the Maori culture was always severely punished. Polygamy, however, was (and still is) common and considered a prestigious act, especially in the upper classes of Maori tribes.
Divorce is also acceptable in the Maori culture.

Tangihanga: Death and Burial Rituals
In the Maori culture the mourning period lasts for three days, when the body, or tupapaku, is laid in the marae, the meeting place of the Maori people.
There it will remain until burial, and it is believed that the body should never be left alone. Because the marae is used for both marriage and death rituals, it often happens that a wedding party will be going on while a body lies in the marae. The Maori have no problem with this situation, because they believe that life and death are inextricably linked.
The burial place, or urupa, is generally located quite close to the marae; this makes it convenient for the deceased individual’s family members to care for the place of the burial. Plots for other members of the family are reserved within range of the dead person so that the family can be buried together, just as they were together in life. When families visit the urupa, it is mandatory for them to wash their hands while leaving, and there are water containers at the gates for the purpose; however, in the absence of water, people can use breadcrumbs (rewena) to remove the tapu from their hands.