Volume 27 1918 > Volume 27, No. 105 > Pungatai and its connection with the ancient Maori ceremonies of the opening of the fishing season, by W. H. Skinner, p 36-37
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THE pungatai, which was generally made from a block of pumice, or a light porous stone, was about the size of an ordinary shallow teacup, basin shaped (see illustration), and was taken to sea by the tohunga in the canoe that put out to open the fishing season. Tradition says that a similar vessel was carried in the original canoes that brought the Maori from central Polynesia to New Zealand, and in it was placed before leaving on this voyage some of the earth, sand or ashes, or portions of all three, from the sacred umu (oven) at Rarotonga or Tahiti, in which the first fish caught each year on the opening of the fishing season was cooked and offered as a sacrifice to Tangaroa, the presiding diety over the sea and all fish.

On coming to New Zealand this sacred earth was used to make tapu the first umus (ovens) used for this purpose, and as time went on fresh earth and sand were taken from these umus to other settlements so that the sacred ceremonies could be continued in proper form and order. Once an umu was used for the cooking of the first or sacrificial fish, it was retained as long as the people remained in that pa or kainga. It was tapu for that purpose only, and it would be sacrilege of the deepest nature to permit its use for any other purpose, resulting with disaster upon the harvest of the sea on which the Maori depended so largely for his food.

On the day appointed for the opening of the fishing season, and when the canoe set aside for the purpose had been duly prepared by the observance of the required ceremonies and prayers or incantations, the tohunga placed the pungatai by his side in the canoe, and then they set forth for the fishing ground. Before casting his line the tohunga recited certain prayers over fish-hooks and pungatai, and whilst these incantations were being recited the pungatai, suspended by flax strings, was waved gently backwards and forwards, much after the manner that the censer is swung in religious services of to-day. The priest then casts his line, no other line being permitted to be used. When the first fish was drawn into the canoe it was sometimes liberated again,

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but before doing this a small thread of split green flax was passed through its nostril (?), a short incantation recited, and it was returned to the sea and liberated, with the idea that it would by the strength of the prayer recited bring plentious shoals to the fishing ground, and thus secure a plentiful harvest of fish to the tribe. This liberation of the first fish was done, I understand, if it was not of good eatable kind and quality. The usual practice was, however, to come ashore when the first fish was caught, and, having been cooked by the tohungas in the sacred umu, it was handed around to the minor tohunga and those of rank in the hapu, or tribe, by whom it was eaten with religious ceremony, and in which the pungatai again played its part. A sacrificial ceremony or feast to Tangaroa, the god of the sea and its creatures, to whom the first fruits were offered by the priest by means of the flesh partaken of, first by the priest and afterwards by those qualified to do so.

Not until this religious festival was completed did the fishing become noa, or common, to the people. If this law was infringed upon, i.e., its tapu broken, disaster would follow upon the fishing season, and death in all probability would come to the breakers of the tapu.

Information given by Rawiri Karaha (David Leach) of Whangara, Gisborne; Watini Taungatara of Matarikoriko, Waitara; Porana of Waihi, Waitara; Heta te Kauri and other elders of Ngati-Awa and Taranaki.