Volume 87 1978 > Volume 87, No. 1 > Te ao tawhito: a semantic approach to the traditional Maori cosmos, by Anne Salmond, p 5-28
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This article attempts to explore aspects of Te Ao Tawhito ‘The Ancient Maori World’ and quite literally so, because it seeks to identify some of the key categories by which ancient Maori interpreted their world, and to relate these one to another. The approach can be described as semantic since the Maori language itself is the main line of evidence, rather than reports by European observers as to how they viewed Maori custom. Apart from the Maori lexicon (as presented in Williams' Dictionary of the Maori Language, 6th edition), I have considered proverbs, one early myth and a discussion of ritual, each of these from Maori informants, in Maori. The sources are generally taken from as early after contact as possible, because one of the conclusions of this study is that one cannot reliably assume that the semantic structures of Te Ao Hou ‘The Contemporary Maori World’ are the same, even in the most traditional contexts, as those of precontact times. The paper is not a completed exploration of early Maori texts; it is rather a first attempt at approaching the ancient Maori world through lexical and selected textual material.

I was introduced to the difficulties of approaching ancient patterns through contemporary evidence during recent field work. Over 1970-72 I was studying Maori ceremonial gatherings, particularly those held on marae in different parts of the North Island of New Zealand. The marae is a centre which acts as a focus for the communal life of tribal and sub-tribal groups. In rural areas at least, most kin groupings own a marae, its meeting house, forecourt for ritual, dining hall and kitchen providing all the facilities needed for group gatherings. The meeting house is a large building elaborately decorated with carvings, plaited wall panels and rafter paintings; and it is a potent ancestral image with a complex and sometimes enigmatic symbolic structure. The first difficulty of interpretation it presented began as a simple question of orientation—which of the two sides of a meeting house was the left side and which was the right? My informants could not agree. Some attributed left and right as though they were standing inside the house looking out, and this accorded well with a common image of the house as a prostrate ancestral body: the ridgepole its spine, the rafters its ribs, the bargeboards its arms, and - 6 so on. In this metaphor left was then literally the left side of the ancestor, and the right side was literally right. Other informants, though, attributed left and right as though they were standing outside and facing the building, as indeed a European would do. The difficulty could not be dismissed as an irrelevance, since taha maaui ‘left side’ and taha matau/katau ‘right side’ are important metaphors in Maori symbolism and were clearly considered significent in this context by contemporary informants. There were no other disputes. The side with the window was consistently identified as the tapu ‘restricted, sacred’ side, labelled te pakitara whaanui ‘the important side’ and associated with men, visitors and death; 1 and the side with the door was consistently identified as the noa ‘unrestricted, profane’ side, labelled te pakitara whaaiti ‘the unimportant side’ and associated with women, locals and the living. 2

Symbolic Structure of Meeting House.

I recorded this variation in the written account of the research, 3 but decided that the attribution of left and right from inside the house must be traditional, partly because it fitted the ancestral body metaphor, and partly because the informants who described the meeting house in this way were among the most respected ritual experts of their generation. The model based on a vantage point in front of the house was dismissed as a borrowing from European practice, and indeed I had heard it only from younger informants at that stage. It did seem strange, though, that in the “traditional” model the left hand was associated with strength and males, and the right hand with women and weakness. Then, after publication, when an elder from the conservative Tuuhoe tribe unequivocally attributed left - 7 and right to the meeting house sides from a vantage point outside the house, the validity of the model came into serious question. This, and another curious feature in the imagery of the meeting house, provoked a search for some alternative access to traditional symbolic structures.

In the house, the tapu ‘restricted, sacred’ side is the strong, prestigious side, associated with males and sacred lore, yet it is also the side where a coffin would be placed at a funeral. Death in the Maori cosmos is an ultimate defeat, expressed in images of crashing trees and shattered canoes, and it seemed odd to find it tied in this case to masculinity and strength. This enigma is not peculiar to the meeting house, however; it is a fundamental difficulty that European ethnographers have had in understanding the nature of tapu. Tapu can be applied equally to high descent, ritual and sacred lore, and to death, darkness, menstrual blood and filth. While Maori speakers do not appear to find these associations difficult, their logic has eluded scholarly analysis. The mysteries of tapu and the placing of left and right are linked in the meeting house, and if contemporary informants could not reliably construe their precontact meaning, some other line of evidence had to be found. I have looked for this in the Maori language itself, particularly in the semantic structures of the lexicon.

It seems at least plausible that while interpretation of individual aspects of the Maori cosmos may have shifted or even reversed since contact, the logic by which meanings are assigned would have remained relatively stable. The best evidence we have of such a logic lies in patterns marked in the Maori language, and here one can improve one's chances of avoiding introduced meaning by basing the analysis on material collected early after European contact. By using both textual and lexical material a double check of linguistically marked pattern is possible, and categories arrived at in this way could be taken as a sound starting-point for a foray into the ethnographic and eyewitness accounts of traditional Maori life. In this article, however. I shall be content to make a careful examination of the lexicon my main enterprise, followed by brief discussions of an early version of the creation myth, 4 and of a later Tuuhoe text describing the ritual of ‘biting the latrine beam’. 5


Williams' Dictionary of the Maori Language is a document which draws heavily upon early texts for its lexical items and on Maori textual examples to illustrate the meanings of these items. The examples, if taken from a published source, are acknowledged; therefore, it is possible to date this material. Moreover, the dictionary is a very thorough record of ways in which Maori have named their universe, making it possible to systematically scan its labelled features.

The survey began with a search of the dictionary for words relating to the important oppositions tapunoa ‘restricted, sacred ≠ unrestricted, profane’, maauikatau/matau ‘left ≠ right’, taanewahine ‘male ≠ - 8 female’, and mateora ‘illness, death, ≠ health, life’, since these polarities seemed critical to the symbolism of the meeting house sides. It soon became apparent that this symbolism taps some of the most potent images in the Maori vocabulary, and the wider domains of body metaphor, descent, ritual, orientation and colour were drawn into the search. Any word which linked to the key oppositions or any of these domains was noted on an index card (or several if it had multiple links), along with its list of meanings, any significant transitive or reduplicated forms, and sentences in which the word was used. For some particularly important bases I also noted with what other bases they occurred. After a rough sorting of cards into oppositions and domains, a shuffling hunt for finer pattern began. Here the tactics were similar to those used in grammatical analysis. First, the boundaries of distinct categories were established by “contrastive opposition”, as evidenced in the commonplace Maori phrases which play upon polarities: kauae runga (lit. ‘upper jaw’, fig. ‘celestial lore’) ≠ kauae raro (lit. ‘lower jaw’, fig. ‘terrestrial lore, youngest born child’) ≠ kauae mua (lit. ‘fore jaw’, fig. ‘eldest brother or sister)’ ≠ kauae muri (lit. ‘rear jaw’, fig. ‘younger branch of a family’); tama taane (lit. ‘male child’, fig. ‘successful parry, West Sea, upper rope of bird snare’) ≠ tama wahine (lit. ‘female child’, fig. ‘unsuccessful parry, East Sea, lower rope of bird snare’), and in numerous proverbs and sayings: maa pango maa whero ka oti (pangowhero: lit. ‘by black and red it is done’ fig. ‘by slaves and chiefs it is accomplished’), ko Ranginui e tuu nei, ko Papatuanuku e takoto nei (Ranginui, tuuPapatuanuku, takoto: lit. ‘the Sky Father standing here, the Earth Mother lying here’). These small textual bits served as the semantic equivalent of the phonologists' minimal pairs (e.g. pat, bat → p ≠ b), allowing contrasts to be established within a controlled frame. Second, the content of categories was discovered by noting how particular denotations co-occurred in a semantic “chaining”, where the meanings of a series of words clustered tightly and overlapped about some key concept(s), for example:

  • kaha 1. line of ancestry, lineage
  • . rope, hill ridge, navel string
  • . file of an army
  • . line on which niu rods were placed for divination
  • . boundary line of land
  • 2. strength
  • aho 1. string, line
  • . woof of a mat
  • . line of descent
  • . medium for an atua ‘god’ in divination
  • 2. radiant light
  • kanoi . weave the aho taahuhu ‘main thread’ of a garment
  • . trace one's descent
  • . strand of a cord, rope
  • . authority, position
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  • kaka . fibre, stalk
  • . stock, line, lineage
  • . hill ridge
  • hiwi 1. ridge of a hill
  • . line of descent
  • 2. jerk fishing line to hook a fish

In this case the words are some of a group that appear to cluster around a broad concept of mediation and linking, drawing upon recurring liminal images of hill ridges and lines and threads to express aspects of descent, authority, and communication with the gods. Here one can see how it is possible to discover hitherto unsuspected metaphorical connections in the lexicon. In fact, this part of the sorting often showed the dictionary division of words into homonyms to be ethnocentric, and apparently unconnected associations to be systematically related.

As broader semantic patterns emerged, the lexical terms were transferred in groups to the pages of a loose-leaf file, where they could be scanned more readily and the patterns cross-checked, and then detailed analysis began. In this paper, it has been possible to present only a fragment of the evidence used to verify the various patterns. I should make it clear too that it is not argued here that lexical structures can constitute a world, but simply that in the absence of informants they offer the most direct access available to a traditional Maori worldview.


One of the first patterns to emerge from the lexical search was a system of orientation which united the cardinal points, orientation (above—below, right—left, front—behind) and the cosmological poles of te ao maarama ‘world of life/light’ ≠ poo/reinga ‘underworld, night’ and Ranginui ‘Sky Father’ ≠ Papatuanuku ‘Earth Mother’ into a highly coherent structure. This structure is based upon three key oppositions (runga ≠ raro, mua ≠ muri, katau ≠ maaui) each of which has a main reference to orientation (above ≠ below, front ≠ behind, right ≠ left), but whose meanings range over other aspects of the cosmos as well:

  • runga . ‘upper part, top, south’
  • ≠ raro . ‘bottom, down, underworld, north’
  • kauae runga . ‘celestial lore’
  • kauae raro . ‘terrestrial lore’
  • hau runga . ‘south wind’
  • hau raro . ‘north wind’
  • ka tuu te tira ora, ka tuku te tira mate ki te poo
  • ‘the wand of life stands, the wand of death falls to the underworld’
  • ko Ranginui e tuu nei, ko Papa-tuanuku e takoto nei
  • ‘the Sky Father standing here, the Earth Mother lying here’.
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Thus the first opposition rungararo links meanings of ‘up, above, top, south’ to words meaning ‘life, standing, Sky Father’, and opposes these to meanings of ‘down, below, bottom, north’ and words meaning ‘death and the underworld, lying and Earth Mother’.

The second opposition is as follows:

  • mua . front, forepart
  • . past time
  • . the sacred place or tuuaahu
  • muanga . first born, elder child
  • muri 1. hind part, rear
  • . future time
  • . noa (common) parts of a settlement, especially cooking sheds
  • muringa . youngest child
  • 2. north (in some districts, east)
  • . place of departed spirits, death
  • kauae mua . eldest brother/sister
  • kauae muri . younger branch of a family
  • tuuranga mua, tuuranga tika; tuuranga muri, tuuranga hee. ‘if you stand in front, you stand rightly; if you stand behind, you stand wrongly’.

This opposition links meanings of ‘front, past time, sacred place, seniority of birth’ to tika meaning ‘true, right, correct’ and contrasts them with meanings of ‘hind part, rear, future time, noa (‘unrestricted, profane’) place and cooked food, junior birth, north and death’, linked to hee meaning ‘wrong, improper’. It is interesting to note the placement of time in this metaphorical universe, for past time is associated with the front while the future lies behind one, a direct reversal of European usage.

The third opposition, kataumaaui, maps as follows:

  • katau/matau . right hand, right side
  • . links with tama taane ‘male child’ since the right side of the body is described as tama taane, the strong, male and lucky side. 6 (tama taane also refers to a successful parry, the upper rope of a bird snare; tai tama taane is the sea of the west coast, 7 and taane ‘male’ is tapu in quality.)
  • maaui . left hand, left side
  • . witchcraft
  • maauiui . wearied with labour
  • . links with tama wahine ‘female child’, since the left side of the body is described as tama wahine, weak, listless and unlucky, representing misfortune and death. 8 (tama wahine also refers to an unsuccessful parry, the lower rope of a bird snare; tai tama wahine refers to the sea of the east coast, 9 and wahine ‘female’ is noa in quality.)
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Here, the meanings of ‘right, male, strength, success, upper and west’ are linked, and opposed to the meanings of ‘left, female, weariness, failure, lower, east, and witchcraft’. The oppositions of this orientational model and their linked meanings can be represented in a simple figure (Fig. 2) based quite literally upon Maori spatial mappings.

Orientation System.

This system of orientation, with north “down” and associated with the underworld, and south “up” is also expressed in the geographical metaphor of Te Ika a Maui ‘Maui's Fish’—the North Island, which places the head of the fish at Wellington and its tail in Northland. After death a spirit travels “down” to the north, where it leaps over a cliff at Te Reinga to join dead kinsfolk in the underworld.

It is somewhat surprising that north should be associated with darkness and gloom in this system and that the south should be the place of light, because in the southern hemisphere the opposite associations could be expected. It has been suggested to me that this might point to the antiquity of the system and a northern hemisphere homeland, an argument I find interesting but hardly compelling. Of more significance, perhaps, in so tightly oriented a cosmos are the metaphors which express death, sickness and misfortune as a loss of orientation, through giddiness, blindness, distraction by overwhelming emotion, being dazzled or losing light:

  • pohe . blind, dead, stupid, dull, withered
  • pohepohe . distracted, blinded, dazzled, staggering, uncertain
  • tinei . extinguish (fire), destroy, kill, confused, disordered
  • riko . dazzled, wane, dirt, foulness
  • ngaro . hidden, lost, disappeared, destroyed, overcome by emotion, distressed, unavenged, unrequited.
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A second symbolic set of colour and light follows a logic which is close to that of the system of orientation. The imagery of light contrasts a radiant ao maarama ‘world of life’ with a dark, defeated underworld of the ill, the dead and the beaten:

  • ao 1. daylight, world, cloud, dawn
  • 2. be right/fitting
  • ao maarama . world of light, life
  • poo . night, place of departed spirits
  • whakapoo . darken, grieve
  • titike ao, papaku poo . high day/world, low night/underworld.

All the associations of darkness are inimical:

  • pirau . extinguished (fire, light), decay, death, rotten, pus
  • mate . extinguished (fire), dead, sick, unconscious, overcome with emotion.

The imagery of colour, on the other hand, contrasts red as the signal of tapu and power—rank, sacred lore, gods, and blood—with white, the colour of cleanliness, powerlessness, freedom from tapu, and shame:

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  • kura . red, glowing, precious, red ochre, treasured, valued possession, chief, lore of the tapu school of learning, ceremonial restriction—tapu
  • whero . red, anus, chief
  • wai whero . ‘red water’—used in esoteric ritual, also menstrual blood
  • maa . white, clean, free from
  • whakamaa . whiten, make ashamed, abase.

In this structure, both red and white have mixed values; red signals threatening objects as well as those that are prestigious, and white means shame as well as freedom. These mixed values recall the ambiguities of tapu, discussed earlier in the context of the meeting house, and likewise call for explanation.

The third and fundamental symbolic pattern can offer a straightforward solution to such ambiguities and ties the metaphorical systems neatly together. It is based upon two key polarities in traditional thought,

  • tapunoa ‘ceremonially restricted, sacred ≠ unrestricted, profane’
  • mateora ‘death ≠ life’,

arranged in a simple intersection. These concepts recur repeatedly as paired opposites in Maori statements about critical events, such as birth, death, illness, warfare. Indeed, one can interpret the entire elaborate apparatus of traditional ritual as devoted to engineering successful transitions between one or another of these sets of poles. They are intersected in the particular form shown in Figure 5 because, quite simply, - 14 there appears to be a precise correlation between the associations of these basic categories and the orientation system (see Fig. 2).

  • ora ‘life’ is associated with runga ‘south, up’, with the sky and te ao maarama ‘world of light’.
  • mate ‘death’ is associated with raro ‘north, below, underworld’.
  • tapu ‘sacred’ links with the right hand and the west through the concept of tama taane ‘male child’.
  • noa ‘common’ links with the left hand and the east through the concept of tama wahine ‘female child’. Note also that the left peg in a weaving frame is said to be noa.
Cosmological System.

Left and the east would, of course, fall together in a system of orientation which looks to south as up and forward, as would right and west.

This model offers an uncomplicated explanation of the apparent ambiguities of tapu, since it places tapu between the poles of ora and mate where it has affinities both with the upward zone of life and the prestigious elements of high descent, sacred lore and victory, and downwards with the dangerous zone of illness, defeat, junior descent and death. There is also a simple correlation with the systems of light-darkness and colour.

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Light/Darkness and Colour.

Of the main poles in this model, tapu is glossed in the dictionary ‘under religious restriction, beyond one's power, inaccessible, ceremonial restriction’, while noa is glossed ‘free from tapu, of no moment, ordinary, indefinite, within one's power’. Noa appears to denote a condition of the absence of tapu rather than a condition of precise qualities of its own; it is an “unmarked” position where power is not in question: i tapu ai te tane, i waiho nga wahine hei mea noa, hei waha kai 10 ‘man was made tapu, women were left as something noa, as a mouth for food’ (waha means both ‘mouth’ and ‘vagina’). In this phrase the “left over” quality of noa is made explicit; it is also comment on the sexual connotations of tapu and noa. One can speak of tapu in the definite form (ngaa tapu ‘the tapus’) but this is not true for noa (*ngaa noa).

Mate, on the other hand, is glossed ‘dead, extinguished, sick, unconscious, damaged, lack of, overcome by emotion, deeply in love, calm or slack (of tides), death, wound, danger, desire, company of mourners’ while ora has the meanings ‘alive, well, safe, satiated, survive, escape, recover, slave’. Again in some sense ora is a condition where mate is eluded; it applies to survivors, who may be fortunate or may not, e.g., the denotation ‘slave’—someone who survives a battle but loses all claim to power). I think one is justified in concluding that the most potent of the poles in the traditional Maori universe, at least as they are lexically reflected, were those of tapu and mate, and that a preoccupation with warfare and magic, despite the perils of these activities, can be more readily explained than by simply labelling the precontact Maori “blood-thirsty” or “superstitious”.

The emerging picture is one of an orderly cosmos, where meaning assigned in one metaphorical system is clearly correlated with meaning assigned in others.


The chief interest of this model, however, probably lies in an area which has not so far been discussed—the threshold, liminal zone that mediates - 16 the main oppositions. The activity here is complex, indeed, for it encompasses all the major ritual genres of traditional Maori society—warfare, intergroup hospitality and magic—but it is orderly and the use of metaphor is systematic. It is this area that lends most conviction to a model based on intersecting opposites, because in the threshold zone the preoccupation is with balance, expressed in the terms utu ‘return, price, response, reply’, ea ‘be requited, be paid, be performed (rite), come up (crop)’, and rite ‘like, balanced by equivalent, performed, completed’. Attack, whether by violence, magic or gift—

  • whara . be struck, eaten, receive a portion of food in a distribution
  • hau . vitality, breath; strike, food used in ritual, return gift (kai hau kai)

must be either forestalled by propitiation or met by a counter attack, so that one can say ka ea te utu, roughly, ‘the price has been paid’ and kua rite ‘it is balanced’. Even in love making, a primeval transaction between opposites, the metaphor holds true, so whakautu ‘fondle, caress’.

One might present a Maori model of ritual transactions in the following terms. If one group of people (A) attacks another, they hold the advantage (expressed in images of raising and elevation). The situation moves from being common (noa) and without danger (ora) and enters (uru) the zone of tapu, imbalance and possible disaster (mate):

  • huaki . take up, elevate
  • . charge, assault, attack
  • . open, uncover
  • tuu . stand, be erect
  • . fight with, engage
  • whakaara . rouse, wake, rise
  • . hostile party, marauding band
  • uru . enter, possess (as a familiar spirit)
  • . head, chief, hair of head
  • . west
  • whakauru . ally oneself to, insert, avenger
  • uruahu . a tapu place where ceremonies are performed.

The other side (B) counterattacks to seek utu—a successful reprisal. If they succeed, it is said of that first aggression kua ea ‘it has been requited, paid, raised’. The reprisal itself is expressed in images of raising, and the group re-emerges (puta) to life and the ao maarama:

  • ranga . raise up
  • . avenge a death
  • . set in motion a body of men
  • puta . come forth
  • . survivor
  • . opening, vagina, be born
  • whakaputa . perform ceremonial cleansing from tapu contracted from a corpse
  • . parry a blow
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The account is now held to be balanced—kua rite ‘it has been made like, balanced, completed’; the situation becomes one of ora ‘life, well-being’ but still tapu ‘restsricted’, and a whakanoa rite to life restrictions can follow to restore the participants to ordinary life.

If, however, B fails or defaults, the expected cost is a descent into unimportance (noa), illness or death (mate):

  • hinga . fall from an erect position
  • . be killed
  • . be outdone in a contest
  • tauware . unrequited
  • ware . mean, low in social position,

and A can hold themselves superior thereafter.

The successful management of these transactions requires “strength” in the sense of effective force, and this is a quality overwhelmingly expressed in liminal metaphors:

  • kaha . strength
  • . rope, boundary, hill ridge, navel string
  • . line on which niu rods placed for divination
  • . line of an army
  • iho . that which contains the strength of something
  • . umbilical cord
  • . lock of hair
  • hau . vitality of man, land
  • . return present for one received
  • . strike, smite
  • . food offered to atua in propitiatory rites,

The knack of coming out on the right side of such transactions (tika ‘right, correct, straight’, whakatika ‘rise up’ ≠ hee ‘wrong, baleful, dead, trouble, at a loss’) is expressed as mana ‘authority, control, effectual’, which includes among its denotations ‘be avenged’. Of an unrequited death, on the other hand, it can be said e kore e mana ‘it is not avenged, its prestige is not held’.

This model of ritual transactions can be presented in a diagram which again systematically relates the notions of ora, noa, tapu and mate with orientation (Fig. 7).

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Ritual Transactions.

The main ritual strategies of war, magic and feasting overlap metaphorically to a remarkable extent. Ope can refer either to a war party or to a group of visitors on a village marae, and in either case their intention is kia ea te utu ‘to pay the price’—whether in revenging an insult, or in repaying a feast, or in recognising an important man's death. Oha/ohaoha may refer to generosity, or it may mean ‘utter incantations over’ or ‘organise an avenging party’. Marae may refer to an enclosure before a house or the village common, or it may be part of the tuuaahu ‘sacred shrine where magic was performed’. In each case metaphors of binding recur, as adversaries are seen to be tied together while the oppositions temporarily engage:

  • aapiti . put together, place side by side
  • . attack
  • . lay a spell on, curse
  • . friend
  • ruku . bind together, enfold
  • . bind by incantations
  • hei . be bound, entangled
  • . be requited
  • whakahei. . go to meet, welcome someone
  • . satisfy an obligation
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  • hoa . friend, companion
  • . charms of many sorts
  • . spouse
  • hoariri . lit. angry friend, fig. enemy.

This linkage carries over into sexual metaphor as well:

  • tau . lover, spouse, darling
  • . ridge of a hill
  • . attack
  • tatau . tie with a cord
  • hiirau . place hand on a woman
  • . be caught, entangled.

Sex obviously belongs in the threshold zone, mediating the male—female opposition, and is metaphorically parallel to other threshold rituals:

  • hika . copulate, fire
  • . kindle fire by friction
  • . perform certain rites with incantations
  • . plant
  • awhi . embrace, besiege
  • awhiawhi . ceremony to remove tapu from a new house

It is clear that such moments of union are considered perilous (even in the contemporary context on the marae, the proliferation of ritual around the meetings of tribal groups marks this), so separation and successful disengagement are important:

  • heu . separate, pull asunder
  • heuheu . scatter, clear away
  • . dispel effects of maakatu ‘black magic’
  • heunga . releasing ceremonial restrictions
  • tauwehe . divide
  • . hei tauwehe i te tapu kia noa ai—‘to remove the tapu in order to make things noa11
  • ihi . split, divide
  • . separate
  • . power, authority, rank, essential force
  • . a form of tuuaahu ‘sacred shrine’
  • . spell, charm, incantation
  • wae . divide, part, separate

The importance of these transitions are indeed expressed quite literally in Maori statements as movements via effectual ritual from one state to its polar opposite:


ka mate te tuupaapaaku, ka taona te horonga, ka kainga e tona ariki ko reira ora ai 12 ‘the corpse was dead, the ritual food was cooked, his high chief ate it and therefore he returned to life’

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ehara i te tino mate rawa atu te mate o Taawhaki, a noona ake anoo te mana i ora ake ai anoo ia 13 ‘Taawhaki's illness was not very potent, he himself had the mana to return himself to health’


he whare tapu te whare, e kore e haerea e te tangata, e kore e kaa. Kia whakaeangia, kaatahi ka noa 14 ‘the house was tapu, no one could enter it or light a fire in it. It was requited (whakaeangia), then it was noa

ka whaaia te kawa hei tauwehe i te tapu kia noa ai 15 ‘the kawa ritual was performed to separate the tapu to make things noa’.

Moreover, the most powerful liminal metaphors relate to the demarcation and crossing of boundaries:

  • whiti . cross over
  • . awake
  • . relate, recite, incantation
  • whakawhiti . return present
  • pae . threshold, hill ridge
  • . ropes for hauling nets
  • . any transverse beam
  • whakapae . lay across
  • . besiege, requite
  • kai paepae . return present of food from one tribe to another
  • pae o te riri . resting place of a war party on the march
  • paepae hamuti . latrine beam
  • paepae tapu . threshold.

It now seems to me that in the traditional Maori universe, such boundaries were the areas of power; they were guarded by strict ritual, and ordinary mortals could only hope to transact them with the help of some person in whom supernatural power resided, e.g., the ariki ‘high chief’ or the tohunga ‘priestly expert’. The concentration of power at such ritual places (on the tuuaahu when god and man engaged, on the battlefield between one hostile group and another, on the marae in peaceful meeting) was awesome and fearful, expressed in such phrases as te mana, te ihi me te wehi (the prestigious power, the sacred power, the terrible power).

The symbols which helped to mark and transact the boundaries were mediators as well. The ahi tapu ‘sacred fires’ of the tuuaahu marked and made the transition from darkness to light and from nothingness to life, so—

  • ahi . fire
  • . a class of incantation
  • . beget
  • ahiahi . the time between day and night—dusk
  • toro . burn, blaze
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  • . visit
  • . inquire into by divination
  • . scout.

The rubbing sticks for making fire are a metaphor for copulation:

  • hika . kindling fire by friction
  • . copulate.

The ashes of an extinguished fire are a metaphor for death and forefeited rights to land:

  • pirau . extinguished fire, rotten, decay, death
  • ahi maataotao . lit. cold fire, fig. forfeited land rights.

The sacred ovens associated with many rituals turn tapu raw food into noa cooked food, and again there is a metaphorical connection with sexual activity, the marae and the battlefield:

  • tahu 1. light, burn, cook
  • . perform rites using fire
  • 2. food, plenty, heap of food at a feast
  • tahua roa . food presented to visitors
  • tahua . courtyard, marae
  • tahua riringa . space between hostile parties, battlefield
  • 3. spouse, lover.
- 22

The food offerings in ritual pass between god and man, host and visitor, victor and slain (in cannibalism). Feeding is a form of propitiation:

  • whaangai . feed
  • . propitiate an atua by an offering of ceremonial food or incantation
  • whaangaingai . food sent to meet visitors on their way.

Conversely, eating is a form of attack:

  • kai . consume
  • kai ora or kai upoko . lit. eat life or eat head, fig. curse
  • kai atua . lit. god's food, fig. witchcraft
  • he ngau atua . lit. a god's bite, fig. sickness, misfortune
  • hemo . be gone, disappeared, die
  • . be consumed (of food).

Sex is expressed metaphorically as a form of eating:

  • tookai . lit. your food, fig. copulate
  • tame . food, eat
  • tameme . desire
  • kai roro . lit. eat brains, fig. lover, beloved

This is perhaps why waha refers to both ‘mouth’ and ‘female sexual organs’. And from both the literal eating of food and from sex comes ora ‘life’, while hunger is expressed as a mate (matekai):

- 23
Eating and Feeding.

The water used in rituals of cleansing takes tapu contamination and washes it away, leaving things maa white, clean, freed from tapu, whakamaa ‘whiten, abase, ashamed’.


Having now established a perspective for viewing and interpreting some aspects of the traditional Maori cosmos, does it perhaps have any value outside the limits of the lexicon?

Firstly, the evidence gathered in the lexical search provides a good test for the conflicting attributions of left and right for the contemporary meetinghouse:

  • maaui . left hand
  • . witchcraft
  • maauiui . wearied, weakened
  • tama taane . lit. male child, fig. successful parry, west coast, right side of body
  • tama wahine . lit. female child, fig. unsuccessful parry, east coast, left side of body
- 24

(See also Best, in Tuhoe, “The right side of the body is the male side, the tama tane, the strong and lucky side. It stands for vigour, health, vitality, life. The left side is the female side, the tama wahine, the weak, listless, unlucky side, and represents misfortune, death and such undesirable things”.) 16

  • taha maaui . a twitch on the left side, a bad omen
  • taha katau . a twitch on the right side, a good omen
  • rua . left or noa peg in weaving frame
  • . grave, abyss

These words systematically associate left with women, weakness, east, witchcraft, and death; while right is associated with men, strength, west, virility and life. In the meetinghouse, however, at least in the interpretations of my informants, the side associated with women, weakness and locals is said also to be the side of life, and that associated with males, strength and visitors is said to be the side of death (see Fig. 1). This pattern accords well with traditional associations of noa and tapu, and it appears that tapu and noa with their ambiguities are the key concepts in this context, not left and right. I have heard it said that the symbolic interpretation of the meeting house as an ancestral body is a recent introduction. It may be that attributions of right and left sides to the house are recently introduced as well. If this is so, it helps to explain why they are made in so contradictory a fashion.

Secondly, a brief examination of the Maori version of the creation myth in Grey's Nga Mahi a Nga Tupuna 17 also yields interesting results. The myth begins with Rangi the Sky Father and Papa-tuanuku the Earth Mother locked in primeval union: Kotahi ano te tupuna o te tangata maori, ko Rangi-nui e tu nei, ko Papa-tuanuku e takoto nei, 18 ‘there was one ancestor of the Maori people, Rangi-nui standing here and Papa-tuanuku lying here’. In the primal world the oppositions of male-female, light-darkness had not yet been polarised, and life had not begun. The human world began when Taane, god of forests, symbol of masculinity and later the creator of the female principle, stood on his head and thrust his parents apart: Na Tane i toko, ka mawehe Rangi raua ko Papa; nana i tauwehea ai, ka heuea te Po, ka heuea te Ao 19 ‘Tane propped them apart, Rangi and Papa were separated; it was he who made the separation, so that Night and Day were set apart’.

The terms mawehe, tauwehe and heuea recur in discussions of ritual, and the toko or pole is part of the ritual apparatus of the tuuaahu. In this symbolic act a number of oppositions are established—RangiPapa, wahinetaane (‘female ≠ male’), aopoo (‘day, life ≠ night, under-world’); rungararo (‘up ≠ down’), and life can begin—kia ora ai te tangata. 20 This is also an illustration of the theme discussed earlier, the - 25 dangers to life when opposites engage and the need for successful disengagement.

Taane's initiative is interpreted by his younger brother, the wind god Taawhiri-matea, (and by his parents) as an attack, so Taawhiri begins to seek utu from his older brothers. He dispatches his offspring to the four cardinal points, hauauru ‘west’, tonga ‘south’, marangai ‘east’ and tuaraki ‘north’, then attacks each of his brothers in turn. When he attacks Tangaroa, god of the sea, Tangaroa's offspring separate; the fish stay in the sea (wai) and the reptiles go ashore (uta): tatou ki uta, tatou ki te wai. 21

Taane in turn sees the advent of the reptiles as a trespass on his domain, which sparks off a conflict between uta and wai, and Taane and Tangaroa, expressed in metaphors of eating: ka horomia hoki nga whenua . . . e te waipuke; ka kai tonu nei hoki te wai i te whenua 22 ‘the lands are swallowed . . . by the floods: the waters are always eating the land’. Of all the brothers only Tuu-matauenga stands up to the Wind god, and he in his turn seeks utu for the cowardice of his seniors. He attacks them each in turn, making them into food:Na reira ka kainga katoatia ai e Tu-mata-uenga ona tuakana . . . hei utu . . . . 23 ‘Therefore Tu-mata-uenga ate all his older brothers . . . as revenge . . . he killed his younger brothers’. The conquest of each brother is accomplished by taking each from his proper domain to its opposite (fish to uta ‘shore’, root crops to runga ‘above’, birds to papa ‘earth’).

Mate and ora enter the myth with the mention of Maui and his defeat by Hine-nui-te-poo the goddess of death: no reira i mate ai te tangata ‘so men died’, 24 the opposite of the earlier mention of the introduction of life to this world.

In reading this text, the proliferation of juxtaposed opposites is so marked that the creation and structuring of the world seem a creation of oppositions and the institution of an intermediary zone of utu.

Finally, as a last check of the explanatory value of the model, we can look at the hitherto unexplained and apparently eccentric ritual of ‘biting the latrine beam’. 25 In traditional Maori society, according to Elsdon Best's informants, if a person became ill or was about to visit a strange area, the tohunga might instruct him to proceed to the village latrine, there to bite the beam and find supernatural protection. Best describes the latrine as a horizontal beam (paepae or parepare) supported by two upright posts, often on the brow of a cliff. An informant called Tutaka says of the paepae: koinei te kai patu i te tangata, koinei te kai whakaora i te tangata 26 ‘it is the killer of man, it is the curer of man’. He goes on to say that the front of the paepae (aroaro) is te taha ora, ko te ao marama tenei 27 ‘the side of life, this is the world of life’, but behind the paepae (tua) is a place of death, variously called kouka ‘abyss, death’, Po (ko Hine nui te - 26 Po tena, mate tonu atu) 28 and rua iti, a pit in which the spirits of human beings are destroyed. The beam mediates between life and death. Lexically, it is associated with other key threshold symbols, e.g., tautara ‘peak, hilltop, beam of hamuti (latrine)’ and pehi ‘beam of privy, ambush, return for a present, sill of door frame’.

So, in biting the beam, the symbol of threshold power, one conquers that power whether for good (whakaora ‘heal’) or evil (patu ‘kill’, in witchcraft) by figuratively eating it. This is made quite clear in the karakia Best quotes from an informant called Tamarau for the ritual:

Ngaua i te pae, ngaua i te wehi Bite the beam, bite the awesome power
Ngaua i te upoko o te atua Bite the head of the god
Ngaua i a Rangi e tu nei Bite Rangi (sky father) standing here
Ngaua i a Papa e takoto nei Bite Papa lying there
Whakapa koe ki te ruahine You touch the old woman
Kia whakaorangia koe e tahito nuku, e tahito rangi So you may be healed by the genitals of the earth and the sky
E tahito pamamao ki Tawhiti i Hawaiki. By the far-off genitals at Tawhiti at Hawaiki. 29

The conjuring of orientational opposites and markers also figures in the two other karakia Best quotes for the ngau paepae (and this seems to be a feature in almost all karakia, in fact):

E tu haupa a nuku Stand biting earth
E tu haupa a rangi Stand biting sky
Ka haupa ki runga Bite above
Ka haupa ki raro Bite below
Ka haupa ki waho Bite without
Ka haupa ki te paepae roa i Hawaiki Bite the great paepae at Hawaiki. 30

And from Hamiora Pio:

Koia nga tapu . . . koia nga urunga These are the tapus, these are the enterings
Koia nga tapu nei These are the tapus
Haere i tua, haere i waho Go behind, go without
Haere i te rangi nui e tu nei Go to the great sky standing here
Mahihi ora ki te whai ao Emerge in ora to the daylight
Ki te ao marama To the world of life
Korou ora Seeking well-being 31
- 27
The Latrine.

The Maori statements about this rite precisely mirror the model of ritual transactions earlier and independently inferred from lexical evidence (see Fig. 7). The statements about the metaphorical structure of the latrine beam are also precisely in accord with the system of orientation inferred earlier from lexical material (see Fig. 2).

At the beginning of the rite the subject stands in front (aroaro) of the latrine beam, this position being identified as the side of life, the ao marama. He is there because he is faced with a present or potential danger which he is hoping to forestall; he has entered (uru) a state of tapu and mate. The priest instructs him to bite the latrine beam, the head of the god, the seat of awesome power, to bite heaven and earth, above and below—in other words, to conquer orientational opposites and the threshold (paepae) that mediates them by the act of eating. If this enterprise fails, the spirit of the man metaphorically falls over the beam into a pit of death and darkness. If, however, his reprisal succeeds (reprisal because illness is expressed as ‘a god's bite’ and witchcraft as ‘god's food’, so in biting the - 28 god's head the victim is making fair return), 32 he may return in ora to the world of light and life, healed and protected.

A proceeding which on the face of it seems bizarre can now be understood as a rational manipulation of a world with a logical structure.

  • BEST, Elsdon, 1973 [1925]. Tuhoe. Wellington, A. H. and A. W. Reed.
  • DOWNES, T. W., 1929. “Maori Etiquette.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 38:148-80.
  • GREY, Sir George, 1953, 1854.. Nga Main A Nga Tupuna. Maori Purposes Fund Board.
  • Salmond, A., 1975. Hui: A Study of Maori Ceremonial Gatherings. Wellington, A. H. and A. W. Reed.
  • WILLIAMS, Herbert W., 1957. A Dictionary of the Maori Language. 6th edition, Wellington, Government Printer.
1   Visitors (called waewaetapu ‘sacred feet’ on their first visit) sleep on this side of the meeting house; and if a coffin is brought inside the house at a funeral it is placed on this side except in Northland, where it is placed against the back wall.
2   It is said that in early services of the Ringatu church women sat on this side of the meeting house; and in an old house at Tieke in Whanganui, the carved figures on this wall were all women while on the opposite wall they were all men (Downes 1929:153).
3   Salmond 1975:46-8.
4   Grey 1953:1-5.
5   Best 1973:1137-42.
6   Best 1973:1014.
7   Williams 1957:375.
8   Best 1973:1014.
9   Williams 1957:375.
10   Grey, Sir George. Nga Moteatea: lxxviii, from Williams 1957:385.
11   Williams 1957:405.
12   Williams 1957:61.
13   White, i p. 48, from Williams 1957:172.
14   Williams 1957:232.
15   Williams 1957:405.
16   Best 1973:1014.
17   Grey 1953:1-5.
18   Grey 1953:1.
19   Grey 1953:2.
20   Grey 1953:1.
21   Grey 1953:2.
22   Grey 1953:3.
23   Grey 1953:4.
24   Grey 1953:4.
25   Best 1973:1137-42.
26   Best 1973:1140.
27   Best 1973:1140.
28   Best 1973:1140.
29   Best 1973:1139.
30   Best 1973:1141.
31   Best 1973:1138.
32   My thanks to Tomas Ludvigson for pointing this out.