Volume 13 1904 > Volume 13, No. 3, September 1904 > The Uhi-Maori or native tattooing instruments, by Elsdon Best, p166-172
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THE illustrations of tattooing implements of the Maori, given in this number of the Polynesian Journal, are from photographs of four such uhi, or chisels, made by Te Tuhi Pihopa, a member of the Tuhoe or Ure-wera tribe. The wooden handles of these implements are ornamented with carving, and also with small round pieces of paua (haliotis) shell, which are let into the wood by counter-sinking. The chisels are fashioned from bones of the toroa, or albatross—small, thin, flat pieces of the bone, averaging about one and a half inches in length, the cutting face of the chisels being from a quarter to one-third of an inch across. These are lashed firmly on to the handle.

These implements are known by the generic term of uhi, but each of the three or four chisels used for tattooing is known by a special name. The full name of the uhi, as noted in songs and proverbial sayings is, among most tribes, the Uhi a Mataora, the latter word, it is said, being the name of a remote ancestor, who originated the style of tattooing which has been, until recent years, so much in evidence among the Maori people of New Zealand. Among the Tuhoe tribe, however, these implements are known as the Uhi a Toroa (or toroa), this tribe stating that they do not know Mataora as connected with whakairo tangata (tattooing), but that he was a remote ancestor of the ages of darkness, who originated the art of carving wood (whakairo rakau) in relief, or of piercing holes in the object carved. His knowledge descended to one Rua.

The names and uses of the four uhi illustrated, are given by Te Tuhi, as follows:—

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  • (1) Uhi whaka-tatarāmoa.—This is the first implement used. It is used to “clear the way,” to cut the skin in preparation for the uhi which implants the pigment. This uhi has a plain face.
  • (2) Uhi puru.—This implement, as its name implies, is used in order to insert the colouring pigment, the face of the uhi being dipped into the same before each insertion, or stroke. It depends much on the fluid (wai whakataerangi) used to mix the colouring material (kauri), as to whether the pigment “takes” at once, or not. The term kămu is used to denote the absorption, or retention, of the pigment. The face of this uhi is notched.
  • (3) Uhi kohiti.—This chisel has a plain face, not serrated. It is used for making the titi, kohiti and such patterns. A full list of names of the various lines and patterns of tattooing (moko), together with illustrations, may be found in the work on “Maori Art,” recently published by the New Zealand Institute.
  • (4) Uhi matarau.—The face, or cutting edge of this uhi is serrated. It is used for tattooing the lines termed kaha māro, in such patterns as the pakiwaha, ngutu, rape, and kauae.

Another authority gives me the following list of uhi, used among the Tuhoe tribe:—

  • (1) Uhi tapahi.—Used to cut the skin.
  • (2) Uhi puru or uhi matarau.—Used to insert the pigment.
  • (3) Uhi kohiti.—A small uhi, used for scrolls (piko) and fine work.

A piece of fern stalk (take rarauhe) was used by the operator as a beetle to strike the uhi. The end of the stalk was lashed round in order to prevent its splitting.

It is not the intention to give here a long description of the art of tattooing, nor yet a list of names of the lines and patterns used, such having already appeared in the work quoted above. We insert, however, a few notes collected among the Tuhoe tribe, as serving to illustrate the subject to some extent.

There was a considerable amount of tapu and ritual pertaining to the tattooing of important persons, i.e., the first-born male and female children of families of rank. A special house, or shed, was constructed for the purpose. Here the subject and the tattooing artist resided, apart from others, until the rite was over, the tattooing completed, and the tapu lifted from the persons.

The colouring matter used for tattooing is the soot (awe) obtained from certain woods and resinous matter. Among the peoples of Tuhoe-land the wood termed mapara is used for this purpose. This - 168 name is applied to the hard, resinous heart-wood of the kahikatea tree. When this tree dies and decays, the soft white sap wood soon rots away, leaving the hard mapara, which becomes extremely hard from exposure, and it will often gap a steel axe when chopped across the grain. It splits easily, however, and is often found separated into thin pieces, which are sought after by the natives, and which they form torches of. Many of these kahikatea trees were famous kaihua, i.e., trees on which bird-snares were set in great numbers each season, and which trees were always known by a special name. The mapara of such famed trees was much prized, and the balls of soot obtained from such were known by the name of the tree. Such name would also be applied to the ahi ta moko, that is to the rite or ceremony of tattooing any person, wherein that pigment was used. The mapara of such trees could only be taken by those to whom the trees and land belonged. Any attempt to use such trees, in any way, by a person having no right thereto, would be resented and viewed as a casus belli. The resinous, inner heart of the rimu tree was not used for the above purpose.

The fire at which the pigment (ngarehu) was prepared, was known as an ahi kauri, the term kauri being applied to the prepared soot (awe). A tunnel was dug on sloping ground, and a shaft was made from the surface to connect with the head of the tunnel. In the shaft were stuck kakaho, the flower heads of the toetoe (arundo conspicua). The fire was kindled in the short tunnel beneath and fed with the resinous wood, from which all soft or decayed wood had been carefully removed. The draught caused the smoke to ascend the shaft, where much of the soot was deposited on the kakaho, which retained it. A person would be told off to keep the fire fed for perhaps twenty-four hours. When the fire had died out, the kakaho plumes were removed and the adhering soot shaken off on to a piece of bark cloth (aute), or a close woven mat. Among the Tuhoe people, in whose district the toetoe does not flourish, some prepared fibre of the ti palm (cordyline) was used in place of the kakaho. An old flax mat would be placed over the shaft, and the fibre was fastened to the under side of the mat and allowed to hang down in the shaft, to catch the soot.

The soot thus obtained was mixed with the sap of the hinau, or of the mahoe trees, or that of the ti palm, or of the karetu grass, or of the kaoho (poroporo) shrub. This process is termed whakataerangi, the sap used being known as wai whakataerangi. The soot is so mixed, kneaded, and formed into balls, which were covered by skins of the tui (bird), or of the kiore (native rat), and then buried in the ground where it would be kept for years. When required for use this kauri, as it is called, would be take up and a portion scraped off and mixed - 169 with the wai whakataerangi into a sort of liquid paste, into which the operator (kai ta, tatooer) dips his uhi. It is said that it depends much upon the liquid used for mixing the kauri, as to whether or not the pigment “takes” well and quickly. (He pai no nga wai whakataerangi i tere ai te kamu; ara, te mau atu ki te kiri).

Should the kauri be left exposed to the air, it becomes puaheri, i.e., very dry and light, hence it is kept buried. The term puaheri seems to mean much the same as puanga, dried up, dessicated. These balls of kauri were often kept in a family for generations. A common saying in this district, applied to a mean, stingy person, is the following:—“Puritia to kauri, hai o matenga mou,i.e., “Keep your kauri as food for your death journey.”

The awheto, or so-called vegetable caterpillar, was sometimes burned and used for tattooing on the limbs or body, but the pigment was not black enough to be used for face tattooing.

The ahi ta moko, as the tattooing rite was termed of yore, was an exceedingly tapu affair when the subject was a person of importance; for it meant interfering with the body of a tapu person, and the shedding of his, or her, blood. The operator would also be stained with the blood of such sacred person.

When the subject lay down to be operated upon, the priest took up his first uhi, and, placing its point upon the left shoulder, struck it a blow, to pierce the skin, repeating the following:—

Kikiwa, kikiwa,
Matao te uhi,
Ki tua o whare wera
Tohu te parapara
Rewa te ngarahu
Kia mangu
Kia u.

As the operation proceeds, it is deemed an evil omen should the blood of the subject spurt (părătī) in the direction of the operator. After the introduction of firearms, it became customary, in this district, to fire a volley on the completion of the tattooing of a person.

In the case of a family of girls, the younger sisters were often tattooed before their elder sister, hai wharikiriki, i.e., to prepare the way for her, the eldest sister of a family of note being tapu and an important personage, her younger sisters being mere nobodies in comparison.

While a person was being tattooed, persons would gather round and chant one of the songs known as whakatangitangi, or whakawai taanga moko, a “beguiling” song, to cheer up and invigorate the - 170 hapless patient. The song sung to a woman, while undergoing the operation, is termed a whakawai taanga ngutu.1

The following is a specimen of these songs, or a portion thereof:—

Tangata e taia mai ra
Kia manawanui ra
Tangata i te ruahine ra
Kia manawanui ra
Tangata i te whakautu
Kia ata whakanakonako
Tangata i te pai
Kia ata mahi
Tangata rangatira nui
Kia ata whakairoiro—e
Tangata manawanui—e
Kia ata mahia ai
Tangata i te rangi pai—e
Kia ata whakanakonako—e.

These songs are to make the subject stout-hearted in enduring the pain caused by the uhi.

When the operation of tattooing a young man of standing in the tribe was completed, then the priest came forward and recited over him the following invocation or charm, termed atahu (or iri), the object being to cause women to admire him:—

“Taku tamaiti i wehea e au ki te rangi
Ka piri, ka tata
Ka huakina mai Tangaroa—e
Whakina mai ko ou Hine-tua-kirikiri
Ko ou Hine-tua-rourou
Mai te ruwha, mai te ruwha
Mai te aroha, mai te aroha
Mai te aroha ra koe—e.”

Places whereat persons of importance were tattooed, often remained tapu for generations. There is such a tapu place at O-tama-hanga, on the Tuara-rangaia Block, near Wai-o-hau.

The ceremony of tattooing the lips and chin of women is known as ta nguta, or ahi ta ngutu, or taanga ngutu. This ahi ta ngutu is a sacred fire and the tattooing of the eldest daughter of a chief was an extremely tapu function, but not so that of the younger daughters, the law of primogeniture being strictly upheld by the old time Maori, the eldest of either sex being the most important and tapu members of a family. A human sacrifice was sometimes made in order to give force, renown, prestige to the tattooing of such a girl, as also for the piercing of her ears (pokanga taringa). In such cases either a slave - 171 would be sacrificed, or, better still, a party sent out to slay a member of some neighbouring tribe. Better, because, don't you see, what a fine taunt it would be for us to hurl against the members of that tribe, in the days that lie before. One could say—“You are a person of no account whatever. Your ancestor was slain and eaten for the tattooing of my grandmother. Hai aha Koe!” The body of the person sacrificed would be cut up, cooked and eaten by the assembled people at the feast invariably held at any of the functions or rites of the Maori, and which terminated the proceedings. The majority of women, however, had no human sacrifice to enhance the prestige of their taanga ngutu. The bulk of the people were not allowed to be present at the tattooing of a woman, but when the operation was over, and the swelling reduced, then the people met to view the work of the artist, and the feast took place. The last instance I have heard of a human sacrifice for a taanga ngutu, was in the case of Pare-Karamu, daughter of Koroki of the Tuhoe tribe.

As already observed the ceremony of tattooing a person of rank (who was necessarily tapu) was a very tapu function and, when completed, the persons who took part in it were cleansed from tapu by means of the whakanoa rite performed over them by the priest. A portion of this ritual was the reciting of the karakia. (invocations, charms) known as the tute and rokia, which involved the kindling by friction (by the priest) of sacred fires termed the ahi tute and ahi rokia. Both these come under the generic term of ahi parapara and seem to imply a warding off of the dread powers of tapu and mana, in fact a lifting of the tapu. The term parapara appears to be applied to tapu things which possess the power to do grevious harm to man, such as the spittle of a person, the clothing of the dead, &c. The word tute implies a “thrusting away,” while rokia means to calm, to cause to sleep, not only as applied to man, but also of the evil powers held by inanimate objects, as those given above. Compare roroku and rotu. Here follows a portion of the tute karakia, my informant not being able to remember the whole of it. Its purpose is to lift the tapu:—

Ika ra taku ahi, tute
Tute hoki tua, tute
Tute hoki waho, tute
Tute ka mania, tute
Tute ka paheke, tute
Tute ka whati, tute
Tute ka oma, tute
Tute nga tapu nei, tute
Tute nga mana nei, tute
Tute nga parapara nei, tute.

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After which the priest recited the rokia, as follows:—

Hika ra taku ahi, e roki
Rokia i nga parapara nei
Rokia i nga tapu nei
Rokia i nga mana nei
Kia tae koe
Koi ihi, koi nana
Koi naunau e roki

This will render the tapa (which includes any parapara) harmless to afflict man, and the participants in the rite are now noa, or “common,” i.e., free from tapu.

The generic term for tattoo marks is moko, the verb “to tattoo” being ta, which, however, must be followed by the word moko.

Among women we note that the tattooing on their faces is repeated in many cases when it begins to fade. This second tattooing is termed purua and tarua.

The term papatea is applied to an untattooed person, while the word tukipu denotes a fully tattooed man. Parākiri implies dark, clearly defined tattooing.

1  See “Nga Moteatea,” pp. 57, 58, for specimens of these songs.