Volume 57 1948 > Volume 57, No. 2 > The “Ka Mate” chant, by E. H. S., Kawhia, p 172-177
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FOR many generations—probably for many centuries—the “Ka mate” haka or chant has featured as the orthodox prelude to ceremonial receptions at Maori gatherings when welcoming distinguished visitors. The procedure usually adopted is for a double line of the most prepossessing maidens of the tribe to form a guard of honour, each being clad in her most becoming costume and bearing a branch of either mamaku or nikau palm (appropriate to the occasion) with which to accompany the music as the recital of the haka begins. The volume and intensity of the voices increases as the visitors approach and advance between the ranks of the performers until the party reaches the marae and awaits the formal speeches of welcome.

Of recent years the haka has received wider publicity as it forms the basis of a popular song, and through its adoption by our rugby football representatives as their slogan, it has become familiar to all parts of the British Empire. The question of its origin has long been shrouded in mystery, the theory most commonly accepted being that it was composed by the Kawhia chief Te Rauparaha when on a visit to his relatives, the Ngati Tuwharetoa tribe of Taupo.

The story alleges that owing to some misconduct the chief was in fear of his life and only escaped death by hiding in a potato pit, which had been indicated to him by a woman. When the danger had passed away Te Rauparaha emerged from his place of refuge and recited the haka which, it is said, he had composed on the spot to celebrate his deliverance. The Taupo Maori people still indicate the pits at Te Ngongo, in one of which Te Rauparaha is alleged to have hidden.

There are several reasons why this explanation must fail to withstand investigation. In the first place, the haka was universally known among the tribes of the North Island - 173 long before Te Rauparaha was born; secondly, the sense and sentiment of the chant are quite irrelevant as regards the potato pit story; thirdly, the subject relates to matters and incidents of more than local importance; fourthly, it is most improbable that the Maori would use a battle song to welcome highly honoured guests. It may be perfectly true that Te Rauparaha did relieve his feelings by reciting the haka in question, but it would be quite unsafe to credit him with its authorship, any more than it would be to attribute its composition to the All Blacks, on the grounds that they had chanted this haka on every football field during their oversea tours.

Confident that the foregoing explanation was quite unsatisfactory, the writer consulted an old Maori whose father had flourished during the early years of the last century, and who had recorded in writing many of the principal events and traditions of the tribe. Reference to these documents indicated what is probably the most reasonable history of the origin of the haka as related by Te Huki, a Ngati Hikairo chief, who was one of the greatest tohunga-ariki of his time. Fully to appreciate the circumstances surrounding its origin, it is necessary to supply a brief outline of Maori mythology, which may be summarised as follows:—

Io 1 (or Ahua-o-te-rangi, Image of Heaven) was the supreme deity of Maori mythology. He was the creator of Rangi (the sky) and Papa (the earth) who, in turn, were the parents of all living organisms, including a number of deities each functioning in the various physical features of the world. As their descendants increased their movements became much hampered by the fact that Rangi and Papa were closely bound together and Tane-mahuta (God of the forests) was much disturbed by the fact that most of his trees, such as ponga, mamaku, nikau, etc. 2 were flat-topped. He therefore secured the sacred axe Te Awhio-rangi (Divider of heaven), subsequently brought to New Zealand in the Aotea canoe and, severing these bonds, he was able with the help of the now innumerable deities and demi-gods to raise Rangi far above Papa and thus create an open firmament 3.

There was much jubilation among the gods at their freedom of action, but none rejoiced more than Ra (the - 174 Sun) who now was able to race from his eastern pit (Marangai) through the open firmament at a hectic speed without restriction. In consequence, Ra's beneficient beams, essential to warmth and life, were lost to flora and fauna alike, and at this juncture Maui, the Polynesian hero, akin to Hercules of Mediterranean mythology, appeared on the scene. Like Hercules he was endowed with supernatural powers, but always employed physical forces to accomplish marvellous feats, being able to assume, at will, the attributes of a man or of a god. He accepted the challenge thrown out by the unruly sun and proceeded to bring it to subjection. Plaiting a huge rope of muka (dressed fibre) he placed a noose over the mouth of the pit whence Ra emerged each morning, but the inflammable material was at once destroyed, like the waxen wings of Daedalus. Undismayed, Maui then wove a rope of green flax and soaking it in the ocean again prepared a snare for the intractable Ra. On the second occasion, the manoeuvre was quite successful, Ra being secured by his head and despite frantic efforts on his part he was held firmly by the gods, while Maui administered a severe thrashing by means of the jaw bone of his grandfather, Muri-rangawhenua. Ra surrendered unconditionally and henceforward traversed the heavens at such a leisurely speed that all creation “rejoiced with exceeding great joy.” To celebrate Maui's great achievement the “Ka mate” haka was composed as under:—

Ka mate! Ka mate! 'Twas death! 'Twas death! (Dolorosa)
Ka ora! Ka ora! (Now) 'Tis life! 'Tis life! (Vivace)
Ka mate! Ka mate! 'Twas death! 'Twas death! (Dolorosa)
Ka ora! Ka ora! (Now) 'Tis life! 'Tis life! (with emphasis)
Tenei te tangata puhuruhuru Behold the man of hoary antiquity
Nana i tiki mai 'Twas he who captured 1 the sun
Whakawhiti te ra And caused it to shine (recitative).
Upane! Upane! Look! Its head is a fixture!
Upane! Kaupane! It is immovable! (with jubilation)
Whiti te ra! The sun shines! (the climax).
1   Literally, “brought back.”

Sir George Grey, in his Mythology and Traditions of the New Zealanders (1853), adds two lines to the above text:—

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Upoko! Upoko! See its head! Its head!
Upoko! Whiti te ra! Its head! The sun shines!

While this addition conforms to the sense and metre of the verse, it is never, nowadays, included in the performance of the chant.

The foregoing is an exact translation of the original, with the exception of puhuruhuru which literally means hairy, but is here used in a figurative sense to denote that Maui was in the transition period 4, in the devolution from god to man. It should also be noted that its whole sentiment is the direct antithesis of the frenzied fury of the war dance haka, breathing death and destruction. 5 To Polynesian sun-worshippers the supreme success of Maui's achievement was embodied in the concluding three words “Whiti te ra!” (the sun shines!), the promise of peace and prosperity under the benign influence of the life-giving orb of day, so graphically eulogised by our Milton; in fact, a transformation from death to life.


The “Ka mate” chant affords a fine example of Maori verse, wherein the swaying action of the performers accords with the metre and music of the song. This is common to all Maori movements, whether in work or play, whether in the poi dance, or in the war dance; whether in digging with a ko (spade) or when paddling a canoe—in all such cases unison of action is regulated by a variation of verse appropriate to the occasion. Perhaps the most spectacular illustration is furnished when fifty to one hundred and forty rowers, forming the crew of a waka taua (war canoe) dipped their paddles in perfect precision to a fitting karakia or haka, chanted by the Kai-hautu who, standing amidships, directs the navigation of the craft. The “Ka mate” chant indicated a swinging, swaying motion by the three-four time of the metre, in a sequence of dactyls, in the same way as Virgil reproduces the rhythmic hoof-beats of galloping horses “on the dusty plain” in his famous line!

Quadrupe-dante pu / trem soni / tu quatit / ungula / campum. Compare this with a similar swing of:

Tenei te/tangata/puhuru/huru.

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While the comparison becomes still more marked from the fact that just as the Roman poet concludes his verse with a spondee, so the Maori detaches the syllable ra each time it appears in the song, e.g., Whiti te ra.


Summing up the “Ka mate” chant, it represents the glorification of Maui and exultation at his success in ensuring the warmth and light of glorious sunshine to a perishing world—for he had dissipated the “darkness which was upon the face of the deep.” Meanwhile the gods, having raised Rangi to Highest Heaven interposed a star-studded curtain to screen his nakedness from the motley multitude, now romping and revelling at will over Mother Earth (Papa) under Ra's brightest beam, joyfully joining with one voice in that rhythmic refrain: “Whiti te ra!” (the sun shines!)


Since the foregoing paper was sent to press Mr. Johannes Andersen has kindly supplied the following extract from a letter written to Captain Gilbert Mair from one, Ben Keys, dated January, 1923:

“I was pleased to have the note you sent me re ‘Ka mate,’ and the contradiction published by ‘Marutuahu.’ Every one knows of course that all Maori haka, waiata, etc., contain passages from prior compositions, and I have no doubt that part of ‘Ka mate!’ was known long before Rauparaha's time—still, the Taupo people are firm in the story as I published it. Anyway I will not retract. Major Mair told me something once that I cannot very clearly remember—it was to the effect that after Kereopa had maltreated Volkner's body as he did that he (Kereopa) recited ‘Ka mate!’ to the assembled Natives. The haka till then was, Major Mair said, almost unknown to the Whakatohea, but afterwards became very popular. Either Volkner or Kereopa was a tangata puhuruhuru. Do you remember which? And did you ever hear of the incident from your brother . . .?”

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It may be mentioned that the chant as traditionally sung by Te Rauparaha was somewhat longer than the version published in the text, which forms the concluding stanza. In view of the very common Maori practice of adapting existing songs and haka to suit particular circumstances it is quite feasible that Te Rauparaha did so in this case. His claim to authorship is very widely upheld by the Tainui tribes.

1   Io (cf., Heb. “Yahveh”; Phen. “Aio”; Gr. “Zeus”); corresponding to Jehovah.
2   Corresponding to the carboniferous age, when the tree ferns constituted a considerable proportion of its flora.
3   cf., Gen. Chap. 1, v. 7-8; and the Chaldaic legend reciting the same incident.
4   Just as we would use cave-dwellers to denote prehistoric man.
5   The term haka is, of course, not confined to war dances, but to posture dances generally.—Eds.