Volume 91 1982 > Volume 91, No. 1 > Tapu, by M. P. Shirres, p 29-52
                                                                                             Previous | Next   

- 29
Ko tona mea nui he tapu
“His greatest possession is his tapu

The notion of tapu was first introduced into the Western world through the Journals of Captain Cook (Steiner 1956:22). It has been the source of much scholarly analysis ever since, but the logic behind a word which can be applied to many disparate and apparently contradictory things continues to puzzle the scholars. This bafflement has been well expressed by Salmond: “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” (1978:7).

Mead sought to overcome the difficulty by restricting the notion of tapu to “a prohibition whose infringement results in an automatic penalty” and she regards the Polynesian usages as “accidents of interpretation” which should be stripped from its meaning (1937:502). Smith claims that tapu is a single, not confused but ambivalent concept embracing both the notions of “pure” and “impure” (1975:93). Salmond, regarding tapu to be opposed to noa, glosses noa as ‘unrestricted, profane’ and glosses tapu as both ‘restricted’ and ‘sacred’ (1978:15).

This article seeks to demonstrate that the notion of tapu as understood and presented by Maoris of the 1840–50 period was neither confused nor ambivalent, and that there is no need either to restrict the notion of tapu to automatic prohibitions or to seek an explanation of the apparent ambivalence using Douglas' notion of “pure” and “impure”.

An analysis of primary sources, of 1840–50 Maori texts, shows clearly that tapu is not a univocal or equivocal term, but an analogical term. Tapu must be distinguished from extensions of tapu. While tapu in its extensions does include the notion of ‘prohibition’, the primary notion of tapu, linked to the notion of mana, is ‘being with potentiality for power’. Noa is directly opposed, not to tapu itself, but to extensions of tapu.

The use of Maori texts as the basis for these conclusions follows the - 30 principle laid down by Victor Turner in his Ndembu study: “The first step in such a task is to pay close attention to the way the Ndembu explain their own symbols” (1974:11).

Salmond does make some use of Maori texts, but her primary evidence is Williams' dictionary, which she herself considers to have an ethnocentric bias (1978:9). Smith makes extensive use of translations of Maori texts, especially Shortland's translations (1974:14–8), but these have their own built-in bias. Perhaps she was unaware of the existence of the original Maori texts in the Hocken Library, Dunedin, New Zealand (Shortland MM 1:48–54). Moreover, though recognising that her study was based on secondary sources (1974:3), Smith does not seem to realise how much her understanding of tapu as presented in these secondary sources has been determined by her use of Douglas' notion of the “pure” and “impure”.

The Maori texts themselves clearly show tapu to be an analogous term and so call for this study's focus on analogy. In seeking to understand this Maori use of analogy, this article follows the logical classification of different types of analogy as taught by Thomists and uses the Thomistic metaphysical teaching on analogy (cf. Lévi-Straus' use of the metaphysics of Henri Bergson in his study on Totemism, 1973:45–6; 171–2). Metaphysics can be described as the bringing to consciousness of certain principles of human thought that are employed by all peoples whether they have a metaphysics or not. It is Saint Thomas Aquinas' 13th century logical and metaphysical teaching on analogy, a teaching rooted in the thought of Aristotle and refined and elaborated over the last six centuries, that I have found most helpful in recognising the permutations and transformations of tapu thought presented in the Maori manuscripts.


The primary sources for this study are three manuscripts from the Sir George Grey collection of Maori manuscripts. This collection comprises some 10,000 pages, mainly written between 1845 and 1854. The 1845–54 material was taken by Sir George Grey to Cape Town on his being posted there in 1854, placed in the public library he established there and catalogued, with all Grey's library, by Dr. W. H. J. Bleek. This very valuable collection was returned to Auckland in 1922–23 and is now kept in the Auckland Public Library, together with additional material collected by Grey after his return to New Zealand in 1858. So far very little of this material has been published. The texts used in this article are referred to by their catalogue numbers, GNZMMSS 28; 31 and 81.

GNZMMSS 28 consists of copies in Governor Grey's handwriting of - 31 portions from at least three different sources. The section used for this study of tapu, pages 126–38, is a Ngati Paoa account of mana and tapu. It is almost certainly the work of Wiremu Hoete and is possibly from Sir William Martin's manuscripts. Pages 142 and 143 give Wiremu Hoete as descended from Te Tititi, who came from Tawhaki, while on page 114 we are told that the writer's mother, toku whaea, ‘my mother’, was Tetiti, the daughter of Tawahi and Hauauru.

Another Grey manuscript, GNZMMSS 53, which, according to Governor Grey, is in the handwriting of Sir William Martin, consists of “Explanations of various expressions in Native Poems as given by the Natives”. In fact, these explanations are explanations of, and follow the order of, various phrases and words found in the account of mana and tapu given in GNZMMSS 28:126–38. The date given at the end of page 35 of GNZMMSS 53 is April 21, 1853. The section of GNZMMSS 28 on tapu and mana must, therefore, have been written in 1853 or earlier.

GNZMMSS 31 is concerned mainly with the tapu of man, but also gives some account of the special tapu of the kumara. Like GNZMMSS 28, this manuscript is a copy made by Sir George Grey. It has two systems of pagination, the pages being numbered from 5 to 47 and also being numbered in brackets from (1) to (43). The two stories included in this account of tapu are set in the Kawhia (west coast, North Island) area, indicating a Waikato-Maniapoto source for the manuscript. John White gives the source of one of the stories, the story of Kiki and Tamure, as Ngati Mahuta of Waikato (1888:Maori 50).

The manuscript must have been written before 1854 as Sir George Grey includes the Kiki and Tamure story in his Nga Mahi a Nga Tupuna, which was first published in 1854 (Grey 1971:145–6). Possibly Grey was given this account of tapu when he visited Kawhia in January 1850. We know from G. S. Cooper's published journal that Grey collected Maori material on that expedition. Cooper writes that the Governor, one day when it was “raining violently . . . amused himself all day in his tent surrounded by natives, learning their songs, proverbs, ceremonies, etc. etc., in collecting which, he takes great interest” (Cooper 1851:36).

GNZMMSS 81:53–6, the Rangi and Papa creation story, was written by Wii Maaihi (William Marsh) Te Rangi-kaheke of the Ngati-Rangi-wewehi tribe of Rotorua, who was for some time a secretary to Sir George Grey. According to the date given at the top of the first four pages of the manuscript, it was written in 1849. This version of the Rangi and Papa story was published substantially unchanged by Governor Grey in the appendix to his Nga Moteatea me Nga Hakirara (1853:iii-v) and sections of it have been inserted in the story of Rangi and Papa included by Grey in his Nga Mahi a Nga Tupuna (1971:1–5).

- 32

This article also refers to an undated White manuscript, in White's own handwriting and kept in the Turnbull Library, Wellington (MS papers 75 John White B36 Envelope 35). According to the headings on this manuscript, two pages give a Ngapuhi, Northland, account of tapu and one page presents a South Island, Ngai Tahu, view of tapu. Much work remains to be done to unscramble the very extensive collection of White's manuscripts and establish, as far as possible, who wrote what, when was it written and how much, or little, comes from White himself. Until this work has been done, doubts remain as to the value of White's material and the value, therefore, of the White manuscript used in this study. But the main primary sources for this study are GNZMMSS 28; 31 and 81.


Though GNZMMSS 28:126–38 is, according to its heading, concerned with mana:

He mana maori mo nga whawhai maori (GNZMMSS 28:126)

‘Maori mana for Maori warfare’,

in fact it is a study of both mana and tapu and shows the close relationship of tapu to mana. While the manuscript has seven references to mana, it contains ten explicit and nine implicit references to tapu. Of the implicit references, six are references to noa, and two are references to faults against tapu.

Mana and tapu are so closely related that the explicit references to mana are implicit references to tapu. The story of Kiki and Tamure is explicitly a story of mana, the confrontation of the mana of Kiki with the mana of Tamure. Yet it is given as a demonstration of the importance of a man's tapu. The story is introduced by the sentence:

E mea ana hoki, ko tona mea nui he tapu, kei whea hoki nga whakatauki, Nga uri o Kiki whakamaroke raakau (GNZMMSS 31:9).

‘He thinks his great possession is his tapu, and so we have the proverb, The descendants of Kiki who dries up trees.’

The purpose of this story, to show the importance of a chief's tapu, and the link between tapu and mana, is lost in Grey's publication of the story (1971:145–6), for Grey left out this introductory sentence.

A comparison of the contents of GNZMMSS 28:126–38 and GNZMMSS 31 again reveals this almost interchangeable relationship between tapu and mana. Both manuscripts cover the same areas of life; birth, haircutting, planting and harvesting, and warfare. Where GNZMMSS 31 speaks of the beginning of tapu at the coming of the child and describes the tapu surrounding birth, GNZMMSS 28 tells of the beginning of mana when the child is conceived and then, as in - 33 GNZMMSS 31, describes the tapu surrounding birth. GNZMMSS 31 speaks of tapu being confirmed at the haircutting, while GNZMMSS 28 tells of mana being confirmed. Again, as GNZMMSS 31 states that the tapu of the kumara cannot be overcome, so GNZMMSS 28 speaks of mana that cannot be overcome.

GNZMMSS 28 also links the tapu of the food cultivated by the child and the mana of the garden:

E kore e kaingakautia nga kai ngaki a taua tamaiti, he tapu hoki ... Koia i tatamahutia ai te mara, he mana no nga tangata (GNZMMSS 28:131).

‘The people have no yearning for the food cultivated by the child because of tapu ... Therefore the tamaahu ceremony is carried out for the garden, on account of the mana from the people’.

After the harvesting, when the fields have been made noa, the mana is returned for future years:

A, ka ea te mara, ka huhua kia noa, ara kia whakahokia te mana o te mara mo etehi tau atu (GNZMMSS 28:133–4).

‘And so, the garden is compensated for and is uncovered to make it noa, that is to return the mana of the garden for future years’.

To sum up this consideration of the relationship of tapu and mana: explicit references to mana are implicit references to tapu, especially in the story of Kiki and Tamure; the terms are almost interchangeable, where one manuscript speaks of tapu, the other often speaks of mana; the terms are very closely related, to make noa is to return the mana. It follows, therefore, that references to mana can be used in seeking an understanding of tapu and, more importantly, that tapu in its definition must be related to mana, not negatively as Marett's “negative mana” (Steiner 1956:106–15), but positively as so closely related that it is almost interchangeable with mana.


The Maori texts show that the term tapu is not an equivocal or univocal term, but an analogical term. An equivocal term is a term in which the same sound is used to signify completely different things, for example “match” signifying a game of football and “match” signifying a means to light a fire. A univocal term is a term which has the same meaning no matter what subject it is applied to, for example “animal”, when applied to elephants, birds, dogs, cats, or humans, has the same meaning or significance for each. An analogous term is a term, the meanings of which, though different when applied to different things, are nevertheless related in some way. Thomas Aquinas, and Thomists since, distinguishing two basic ways in which this relationship can occur, - 34 recognise two types of analogy, analogy of proportion and analogy of proportionality. They further subdivide analogy of proportionality into analogy of proper proportionality and analogy of improper proportionality or metaphorical analogy (Maritain 1959:418–20).

In analogy of proportion, sometimes called analogy of reference, all the analogates are related in different ways or proportions to one thing, so that one meaning is central or primary, while the other meanings are extensions of the primary meaning. The central or primary meaning expresses what its subject is in itself. The secondary or extended meanings refer to what each of their subjects is in relation to, or in proportion to, the subject of the primary meaning. Thus Aquinas speaks of analogia per respectum ad unum (Comm. in Metaph. 536), ‘analogy with reference to one’, and calls this analogy of attribution or analogy of proportion. This is analogy by extension.

An example of this type of analogy is the term “healthy”. This term is applied to many different things; to a well-ordered living organism, to people, to food, to complexion, to exercise and so on. The primary, intrinsic, meaning of “healthy” is a well-ordered living organism. All the other subjects are called “healthy” with respect to this primary analogate. People are “healthy” who possess a well-ordered living organism, food is “healthy” and exercise is “healthy” in so far as they are causes of a healthy organism, and a complexion is called “healthy” when it is a sign of a healthy constitution. These secondary meanings all relate to the one primary meaning as extensions of the primary meaning.

In analogy of proportionality all the analogates are related in similar or parallel ways to different things. The analogy is in the relationship of the relationships, in the proportion of the proportions. This is analogy by similarity of relationships.

In some cases the meaning of the analogical term applies properly and formally to each of its subjects, while in other cases the meaning applies properly and formally to one subject and only virtually to other subjects. This is the basis for the subdivision into analogy of proper proportionality and analogy of improper proportionality or metaphorical analogy.

An example of analogy of proper proportionality, in which the meaning applies properly and formally to each of its subjects, is the term “powerful”. Man is “powerful”, an ant is “powerful” and the scent of a rose is “powerful”. “Powerful” as applied to these different subjects is not a univocal term. The powerfulness of each is very different, and powerfulness is not limited to any specific genus or species. But it is not an equivocal term for the different meanings of “powerful” are all related. The relationship is found in the similarity of the relationship - 35 which each term has to its subject. The relationship that the powerfulness of a man has to being a man is similar to the relationship that the powerfulness of an ant has to being an ant and the relationship that the powerfulness of the scent of a rose has to being a rose. Each is “powerful” in its own way, according to its own mode of being. And because each is truly powerful, the term “powerful” applies to each properly and formally. Each is “powerful” according to an analogy of proper proportionality.

Many, if not all, of the terms used analogically according to an analogy of proper proportionality, such as the terms “being”, “one”, “true”, “good”, “beautiful” and “powerful”, are terms which embrace all things. These terms, embracing all things and so transcending all categories, are called “transcendentals”. Also, in their meaning they refer to things, not just as abstract essences, but as they are in themselves in their concrete reality, as they exist. An ant which does not exist is not powerful.

Examples of analogy of proportionality in which the meaning applies properly and formally to one subject and only virtually to other subjects are metaphors or similes such as “the lion is king of the beasts”, that is, the lion is to beasts as a king is to his subjects. Both are kings in their own way, according to their own mode of being. As in analogy of proper proportionality, the analogy is in the similarity of the relationship of each term to its subject, in the relationship of the relationships. But in the example given the notion of “kingship” applies properly and formally to kings and only virtually to lions.

An analysis of the use of the term tapu in the Maori manuscripts reveals that the term is applied to many different things and has different meanings, but these meanings are all related, not in some subjective utility, but in an objective analogy. In other words tapu is not an equivocal or a univocal term, but an analogical term, applied to many different things both according to analogy of attribution and analogy of proper proportionality.

There are many different tapu. Each of the children of Rangi and Papa are tapu. Individuals and groups of people are tapu; children, parents, war parties, sick and so on. Some of the tapu mark off places; houses, gardens and special ritual areas. Others mark off special times, so we have tapu days. There are tapu which need to be protected, strengthened and confirmed, for instance the tapu of the child. There are tapu which give protection, for instance the tapu of the iraamutu, the chief's sister's daughter. And all tapu can be seen as needing to be treated with respect, and sometimes fear, but this depends on which side you are on, on the relationship of your tapu to the other tapu.

- 36

In GNZMMS 28 the tapu of the mother's cooking fire is clearly related to the child:

Ko nga tangata e kore e kai i te ahi kohua wai ma te whaereere, he ahi wai kerakera, he ahi tapu. I kore ai e kai nga tangata kei mate te tamaiti, e kore e kaha ki te haere taua, e kore e toa, e maroro (GNZMMSS 28:130).

‘The people don't eat food from the mother's cooking fire. This is fire for unclean water, a tapu fire. The reason why people did not eat food cooked in this fire is that the child might become sick or die, or would not be strong enough to join the war expeditions, or would not be bold and powerful’.

In GNZMMSS 28:131 the child is linked explicitly with the tapu of the food he cultivates. This food is tapu because it is the food cultivated by the child and it cannot be eaten until the proper ceremonies are carried out:

E kore e kaingakautia nga kai ngaki a taua tamaiti, he tapu hoki. Engari kia tae ra ano etehi o ana kai i mahi ai ma te Ariki hei reira ka pa katoa ai ki te kai. E kore e kai nga taurekareka (GNZMMSS 28:131).

‘The people have no yearning for the food cultivated by that child, because of tapu. But once some of his food (crop), tended by him, reaches the Chief, then all the people eat. Slaves cannot eat’.

The several references to the need to render hands noa again indicate extensions of tapu. That the hands are tapu, not in themselves, but as an extension of man's tapu, is apparent from the fact that the length of time the hands are tapu depends on the social standing of the person touched by the hands:

He pena tonu ano hoki te horohoro i nga ringa, . . . he tangata ano e rua wiki ka kainga nga ringa, he tangata nui te tapu, e waru wiki ka noa, he rangatira nui ake, ka neke ake i nga marama e wha. He tutua, tona tapu kihai i neke ake i nga ra e toru (GNZMMSS 31:8).

‘Also there is in fact the same ritual horohoro of the hands. For an ordinary person, (the haircutter) eats with his hands after two weeks; for a man of great tapu, after eight weeks (his hands) are noa; for a chief of very great (tapu), (his tapu) extends beyond four months; for a plebian, his tapu would not extend beyond three days’.

In the story of Kiki and Tamure, Kiki is such a man of mana that even his shadow will make things tapu:

Ka whiti te ra, e kore hoki e haere i te wahi noa kei haere te ata ki muri, kei tapu i te ata o Kiki (GNZMMSS 31:9).

‘When the sun shines, he (Kiki) does not roam at large, in case his shadow follow (him) and (whatever it covers) becomes tapu because of - 37 Kiki's shadow’.

The explicit evidence that, for the kumara too, tapu must be distinguished from extensions of tapu, is the statement that the hands of those who have planted the kumara must be made noa after the planting because of the tapu of the kumara.

A, kia mutu te whakato, ka tahuna te hangi hei pokinga mo nga ringaringa kia noa ai nga ringa, he tapu nui hoki te kumara (GNZMMSS 31:25).

‘When the planting is finished a haangii is prepared to ritually poki the hands to make the hands noa, for the kumara is very tapu’.

The need to distinguish between tapu in itself and extensions of tapu is also seen when each manuscript, GNZMMSS 28:126–138 and GNZMMSS 31, is considered as a whole.

GNZMMSS 28:126–138 is exclusively concerned with the tapu and mana given to man. It has one centre, the child, and follows this child from birth to maturity. The first part, pages 126–31, presents the tapu surrounding birth, describing how the child receives his/her mana and the tapu arising from this; before birth, on the day of birth and about eight days later, when the umbilical cord drops off. The second part, pages 131–5, shows how the child's tapu affects the food to be cultivated by the child and the harvesting. The third part, pages 135–6, gives the tapu surrounding warfare. The final part, pages 136–8, tells of the confirming of the child's tapu, at haircutting, and the tapu arising from this.

GNZMMSS 31 is not as tightly compact in its presentation of tapu, but it also is centred on man, and on his most important possession: Ko tona mea nui, he tapu (GNZMMSS 31:9)

‘His great possession is tapu’.

Manuscript 31 wanders from birth and haircutting to the story of Kiki and Tamure, to warfare and death and then brings in fishing nets and the kumara, finishing with mention of various misfortunes. But this wandering from idea to idea is always about man and his tapu, except for the section on the kumara (GNZMMSS 31:24–25).

Ko te kumara, he mea tapu rawa he tuaahu to te kumara (GNZMMSS 31:24).

‘As for the kumara, it is very tapu and has its own tapu place’.

Confirmation of the need to distinguish between tapu and extensions of tapu is found in Buck's distinction between the personal tapu of chiefs and the extensions of this tapu to their property. “Personal tapu was sometimes intensified to such a degree that the ground which the ariki walked upon was rendered tapu and thus prohibited from use by its owners . . . The personal tapu of chiefs also extended to their personal - 38 property, particularly to articles, such as clothing and ornaments, which came in contact with the body” (1958:348).

It is clear from the overall picture of tapu presented in GNZMMSS 28 and 31, and from the explicit examples of extensions of tapu, that these extensions of tapu can be properly understood only when they are related to the tapu of which they are extensions. In other words, this distinction in the Maori texts between tapu and extensions of tapu shows that the term tapu is an analogical term used analogically according to an analogy of attribution.

GNZMMSS 28 and 31 indicate that there are at least two primary tapu, the tapu of man and the tapu of the kumara. The Rangi and Papa story in GNZMMSS 81:53–56, strengthened by the evidence from one of White's manuscripts, reinforces the view that the tapu of man and the tapu of the kumara are primary tapu, are tapu in themselves, but also shows how all things are tapu in themselves, each tapu in its own way, according to its own mode of being. The Maori texts indicate, therefore, that the term tapu is also used according to an analogy of proper proportionality.


Te Rangi-kaheke's Rangi and Papa story (GNZMMSS 81:53–56) presents a Maori view of the universe in which all things begin from Rangi and Papa, the heavens and the earth, and their six children. These atua, ‘spiritual powers’, are identified with each of the basic Maori categories of beings and all things begin from them.

Ko te maoritanga o nga ingoa o enei, ko Tangaroa he ika, ko Rongomataane ko te Kumara, ko Haumiatiketike ko te Aruhe, ko Tanemahuta ko te Rakau, ko te Manu, ko Tawiri-matea ko te Hau, ko Tumatauenga he tangata (GNZMMSS 81:55, cf. Grey 1853:v; 1971:5). ‘The significance of the names are: Tangaroa the fish, Rongo-maa-Taane the kumara, Haumia-tiketike the edible fernroot, Taane-Mahuta trees and birds, Taawhiri-maa-tea the wind, Tuu-matauenga man’.

An undated White manuscript, claimed by White to be from a Ngapuhi source, gives the same identification of four of the atua, ‘spiritual powers’, with the Maori categories of beings:

Ko Tu-mata-uenga anake i toa ki te whawhai ki a Rangi raua ko ana uri, a oma ana a Rongo te kumara, a Tane te manu, a Hau-mia-tiketike te roi, a kainga ratou e Tu. A ko Tu te atua nana i hanga te tangata a ko Tu te atua o te tangata (Ms papers 75 John White B36 Envelope 35).

‘Only Tuu-mata-uenga was successful in the battle against Rangi and his progeny. Rongo the kumara, Taane birds, and Haumia-tiketike fernroot - 39 fled and were eaten by Tuu. Tuu is the spiritual power who made man. Tuu is the spiritual power of man’.

In GNZMMSS 28 Tuu is also linked with man. The karakia chanted for the child at the conclusion of the haircutting ceremonies finishes with the phrase:

Ka hopara te tama nei ... Hopara ki te hopara nui a Tu (GNZMMSS 28:138).

‘This child steps out ... stepping out with the great strides of Tuu’.

That these six children of Rangi and Papa, embracing all things, were all tapu is apparent from the statement in Te Rangi-kaheke's version of the Rangi and Papa story contained in GNZMMSS 43:

Na reira i whakanoatia ai ona tuakana (GNZMMSS 43:895 cf. Grey 1853:xxxiv; 1971:5).

‘And so his elder brothers were made noa’.

The six tapu, the tapu of each of the children of Rangi and Papa, are all intrinsically linked with existence.

In GNZMMSS 28 the mana, and therefore tapu, of man is seen as beginning with the beginning of the child and this beginning is immediately qualified by the additional statement that, in fact, the mana, and therefore tapu, comes from right back, from the ancestors: I te oroko putanga mai o te tamariki i roto i tona whaea, no reira ano i timata mai ai te mana, otiia no mua iho no nga tupuna (GNZMMSS 28:126).

‘In the very coming of the child into his mother, from there indeed, his mana began, but it comes from right back, from his ancestors’.

This is a linking up of a child's mana with his ancestors, with the line of people from which he has received his existence. Man's mana, and therefore his tapu, is acquired by inheritance.

Further evidence for this genetic source of man's tapu is that, as already mentioned, food from the child's garden is offered first to the high chief, the child's link with his ancestors. Also the protection and growth of the child's tapu is the concern of the whole family, while strangers are kept apart until the mana and tapu of the child is confirmed.

The strongest evidence for seeing this intrinsic tapu of man as linked to the fact of his existence, to his ancestors, the source from which he receives his life, is the final section of the Kiki and Tamure story. Here are given the names of some of Kiki's and Tamure's descendants and the writer states that their special mana and tapu, their maakutu power, will remain as long as that line of life continues, as long as there are descendants of Kiki and Tamure. Individuals can be destroyed and lose their mana and tapu as Kiki was destroyed and lost his mana and tapu, - 40 but this mana and tapu will continue to be passed down, from generation to generation, as long as the family continues to exist.

Ka mate te matua, waiho iho ki tona uri ana makutu (GNZMMSS 31:14).

‘When the parent dies, his maakutu power is handed down to his descendants’.

The evidence for the linking of the tapu of each of the children of Rangi and Papa with existence is again that the loss of tapu is expressed in terms of being killed, of ceasing to exist. Just as Kiki loses his tapu and mana when he is destroyed by Tamure, so four of the brothers of Tuu lose their tapu when they are destroyed by Tuu:

A, mate katoa. Ko is anake te toa ki te whawhai. Na reira i whakanoatia ai ona tuakana (GNZMMSS 43:895).

‘Then all were killed. He (Tuu) alone was victorious in battle. And so his elder brothers were made noa’.

The GNZMMSS 81:53–6 version says that, of Tuu's brothers, only Taawhiri remained tapu following Tuu's killing of his younger brothers: Ka mate ona teina i a ia ... Kotahi i tapu, ko Taawhiri (GNZMMSS 81:55).

‘His younger brothers were killed by him ... Only one was confirmed in tapu, Taawhiri’.

According to GNZMMSS 31, the kumara is very tapu with a tapu that ‘cannot be overcome’, e kore e pikitia (GNZMMSS 31:25). There seems to be a contradiction between this statement and the statement of the Rangi and Papa story that Rongo-maa-Taane, identified with the kumara, lost his tapu when eaten by Tuu. This is only an apparent contradiction, a contradiction which is resolved when the destruction of Rongo's tapu is compared with the destruction of the tapu and mana of Kiki. As Kiki's tapu and mana is still handed down to his descendants, so the tapu of Rongo, the kumara, and of his brothers Tangaroa, Taane and Haumia, continues to be handed down to their descendants.

So Tuu man, Taawhiri the winds, Tangaroa the fish, Rongo the kumara, Haumia the fernroot, and Taane trees and birds, each have in their tapu an intrinsic proportion to, an intrinsic relationship with, existence.

Each of the children of Rangi and Papa is tapu in its own way. The tapu of Tuu is not the tapu of Taawhiri, nor is the tapu of the kumara the tapu of man. And among men and women, each has his/her own tapu, different in degree.

E kore hoki e rite te tapu o te tutua ki to te rangatira (GNZMMSS 31:8).

‘The tapu of the low-born does not equal that of the chief’.

There is a difference between the tapu of a chief, he rangatira, the tapu - 41 of a great man, he tangata nui, and the tapu of an ordinary person, he tangata ano (GNZMMSS 31:8). Again, the chief's sister's daughter's mana is much greater than the mana of her brother:

Ko te mea mana hoki he kotiro, he iramutu. E kore hoki e mana te iramutu tane (GNZMMSS 31:28).

‘The niece is the one who has mana, not the nephew’.

Yet there is a shared proportionality. As Tuu is tapu according to his mode of being, so Rongo is tapu according to his mode of being.

To sum up, there is in each of these realities, Tuu, Taawhiri, Tangaroa, Taane, Rongo and Haumia, with their identification with man, the winds, fish, trees and birds, the kumara and fernroot, an intrinsic tapu. This intrinsic tapu, formally in each, is different for each one, but there is in all these analogates the same proper proportionality in the relationship of their intrinsic tapu to their being. Intrinsic tapu is, therefore, not a univocal nor an equivocal term, but an analogous term according to an analogy of proper proportionality. And as these intrinsic tapu are analogates that are related to the being, the act of existence, of the realities which have these tapu, rather than to the essence of these realities, intrinsic tapu is a transcendental term, such as the terms “being”, “truth” and “beauty”.

While most published ethnographic accounts of tapu record descriptions of isolated tapu practices, the three manuscripts, GNZMMSS 28, 31 and 81, give an overall, albeit simplified, view of tapu. It is this overall and ordered presentation of tapu that makes evident that the term tapu is an analogical term meaning different things, but different things that are all related.

The following schema (Fig. 1) is a structural presentation of this evidence, of the different permutations of tapu thought. This is not a “table of possible permutations” (Lévi-Strauss 1973:84) worked out by the anthropologist, but an ordered presentation of the many different tapu as they are related one to the other, both according to an analogy of attribution and an analogy of proper proportionality, in the three manuscripts.

The evidence from GNZMMSS 28, 31 and 81, and also from White MS 75, B36 Envelope 35, indicates that there are at least six tapu which are tapu in themselves. These are the six spiritual powers, each of which is identified with one of the basic Maori categories of being. The term tapu is applied to these according to an analogy of proper proportionality.

The evidence from GNZMMSS 28 and 31 gives several other tapu which include both things and events, as noted in the schema (Fig. 1). These things and events are not distinct tapu in themselves, but are all

- 42
In Itself (Intrinsic Tapu)
Winds Human Race Kumara Sea/fish Forest/birds Fernroot
  hands hands      
  clothes baskets      
Things houses places      
  fields fields      
  food pit      
  haangii haangii      
  fires spades      
  planting planting      
Events harvesting harvesting      


A structural presentation of different permutations of tapu thought.

related, either to the tapu of man or to the tapu of the kumara, as extensions of these two primary tapu. The term tapu is applied to these things and events according to an analogy of attribution or proportion. Examples of things and events that are tapu as extensions of the other four intrinsic tapu could be given, for instance the tapu of the canoe, which is an extension of the tapu of Taane, and the tapu of fishing, which is an extension of the tapu of Tangaroa. But the schema as presented includes only examples taken from the three manuscripts used as primary evidence.

The schema also indicates the dynamics of the tapu situation and its complexity, the clashes that can occur between one intrinsic tapu with its extensions of tapu and the other intrinsic tapu with their extensions of tapu. The tapu of the canoe, an extension of the tapu of Taane, must be reconciled with the tapu of the sea, the tapu of Tangaroa. At the planting and harvesting of the kumara, the tapu of the kumara, of Rongomaataane, must be reconciled with the tapu of man, the tapu of Tuu. A man's hands can become tapu either from the tapu of the kumara, at the planting and harvesting of the kumara, or from another person's tapu, - 43 for example at the haircutting ceremony. The resolving of this clash of tapu is the central concern of much, if not all, of Maori public ritual.


The story of Rangi and Papa is the story of the clash of tapu with tapu: the tapu of Taawhiri with all his brothers; the tapu of Tuu with Tangaroa, Rongo and Haumia; the tapu of Tuu with the tapu of Taawhiri. Intrinsic tapu is never neutral, just as human actions in the concrete situation are never neutral, and each new tapu brings up the key question, the question of Tuu and his brothers:

Kia patua ranei, kia wehea ranei? (GNZMMSS 81:53)

‘Should they (Rangi and Papa) be killed or should they be separated?’ GNZMMSS 28 and 31 could be described as a response to this question, as a working out of this dynamic of tapu, in relation to the intrinsic tapu of man and to the intrinsic tapu of the kumara.

The whole story of Kiki and Tamure is a story of the clash of the mana of Kiki and the mana of Tamure. The story is given, as already noted, in order to show the importance of tapu, the chief's greatest possession. This story is also, therefore, a story of tapu versus tapu.

The descriptions of the tapu practices surrounding birth, haircutting, harvesting and so on, are concerned with one tapu, that of the person being born, growing up, working, getting sick and dying, and being part of a fighting force. Because of this ego-centred view, the clash of tapu with tapu, the dynamics of the situation, is not so apparent, but it is clearly there.

In the birth of the child a new tapu is brought into being and this tapu must be protected from contact with the tapu of other members of the village and especially the tapu of strangers, until this tapu has been strengthened and confirmed.

Haircutting and haircombing must be done and this inevitably brings about a situation in which it is impossible to avoid the clash of the two tapu, the tapu of the person having his hair attended to and the person who does this work. So, as already mentioned, the person who does the haircutting must not eat with his hands for some time, the time depending on the status of the person whose hair is cut (GNZMMSS 31:8).

Planting and harvesting also involve the inevitable clash of tapu. In GNZMMSS 28:131–4 the clash is between the intrinsic tapu of the child, extended to the food he has grown himself, and that of the people who wish to share in this food. In GNZMMSS 31:24–6 the clash is between the tapu of the kumara and that of those doing the planting and harvesting.

The setting out of a war party is the deliberate going forth to encounter - 44 another group and so again involves the clash of two intrinsic tapu, that of the home group and that of the enemy. Therefore there are ceremonies to protect and strengthen the intrinsic tapu and mana of the war party before it sets out. On the journey it may eat only the food covered by the extension of its own tapu. Any eating of other food, perhaps affected by the extension of another group's tapu, may adversely affect the war party:

Ka motu te taua ki te ara, ka tapu nga o, ara nga kai a te taua . . . Ka haere te taua, e kore e poka noa ki te kai haere, ki te inu haere, kei uaina e te ua (GNZMMSS 28:134–5).

‘Once the war party sets out, its provisions are tapu . . . The war party, while it is on the move, does not just take food or drink from anywhere, else rain will pour down upon it.’

Following the battle, the clash with the tapu of the opposing forces, there are rituals to remove any absorbed tapu of the enemy and a ritual offering to Tuu of some hair plucked from the heads of the prisoners. On returning home there is more ritual to free the war party from a clash with the tapu of the people who remained behind, and allow them to go back to their home and families:

E kore e poka noa te tangata ki te haere ki te kaainga, kia kainga ra ano te roi e te ariki, e te ruahine. Ka tahi ano ka noa, ka haere noa atu nga tangata ki nga kaainga (GNZMMSS 28:136).

‘The men (of the war party when they come back) are not free to proceed to their homes until the fernroot has been eaten by the chief and by the old woman. Only then is it noa and the men go off freely to their homes’.

As can be seen from the above examples, the tension between tapu and tapu is expressed ritually by eating or not eating; not eating expressing the keeping apart of one tapu from another, eating expressing the clash of tapu with tapu. The eating can be seen as expressing the joining of one tapu to the other, so the child is ‘eaten completely’, kainga katoatia, by the chief before the child is taken into the village (GNZMMSS 28:129–30), or as expressing the destruction of one tapu by the other, so Kiki's power is overcome and he is eventually destroyed by Tamure's daughter's eating of the food presented by Kiki (GNZMMSS 31:12). This double meaning of eating has a parallel in human intercourse which can be either a life-giving act of union or a destructive act of rape.

GNZMMSS 28 and 31 show that the primary tension, the primary clash, is between tapu and tapu, not between tapu and noa. Noa is clearly in opposition to the extensions of tapu, but there is no case in GNZMMSS 28 and 31 of noa being in direct opposition to any intrinsic tapu. On the contrary, noa and intrinsic tapu go together. The child, on completion of his haircutting ceremonies, is noa and can go where he - 45 likes, not because his own intrinsic tapu is overcome, but because this tapu, the tapu of Tuu, is now fully strengthened and confirmed:

Ka hopara te tama nei . . . hopara ki te hopara nui a Tu (GNZMMSS 28:138).

‘This child steps out . . . stepping out with the giant strides of Tuu’.

Of particular interest concerning noa is the role of women. That women have their own tapu is clear from Te Rangi-kaheke's statement: No reira i nui ake ai te tapu o nga tane i nga wahine (GNZMMSS 81:87; Grey 1853:1xxviii).

‘Therefore the tapu of men exceeds that of women’.

There is also the statement, already given, that the chief's sister's daughter, his iraamutu, has her own special mana, a mana that her brother does not have (GNZMMSS 31:28). This mana is powerful in overcoming aituaa, ‘misfortunes’, and gives strength to the men going into battle:

Ka tomo na raro i nga huha o te kotiro o te kaumatua ranei, ara, o te iramutu. Katahi ka haere ki te riri. I peneitia ai kei hauhauaitu, kei haungaro (GNZMMSS 31:28).

‘They go under the thighs of the elder's daughter, that is, the iraamutu. Then they proceed to battle. They do this lest they meet with a hauhauaituu, lest there is a haungaro, a loss of spirit’.

Moreover, there is the power of Tamure's daughter, in the story of Kiki and Tamure. It is she, not Tamure, who eats the food prepared by Kiki and so helps Tamure to overcome Kiki (GNZMMSS 31:12–3).

Women, therefore, have their own intrinsic tapu and are especially powerful in making noa things and events that are tapu by extension.


Maori manuscript evidence clearly indicates that tapu must be distinguished from extensions of tapu. The term tapu is, therefore, used analogically according to an analogy of attribution. It follows that the meaning of tapu must be sought in its primary analogate, tapu in itself, and the meanings given to extensions of tapu must be seen in relationship to this primary meaning.

The manuscripts show that this primary analogate, tapu in itself, is applied formally, not just virtually, to all things, all things being identified with the children of Rangi and Papa. Each is truly tapu, according to its own mode of being, and can cease to be tapu only by being destroyed. Therefore the definition of tapu in itself, of intrinsic tapu, must be an open definition, transcending all categories of being, defining a subject which is formally, not just virtually, present in each, and allowing each to possess this subject in its own way, according to its - 46 own mode of being.

The manuscripts also show that tapu in itself is a dynamic concept and that though tapu in itself is not the same as mana, ‘power’, it is very closely related to mana and at times is interchangeable with mana. Therefore a definition of tapu in itself should express this relationship to mana.

I therefore suggest that tapu in itself, intrinsic tapu, as understood by the writers of the three manuscripts, is “being with potentiality for power”. The word tapu, in its primary meaning, thus expresses an understanding that once a thing is, then it has within itself a real potentiality for power or mana. So, in this understanding of tapu, tapu is related to mana as source of power is related to power, as potency is related to act.

The notion of real potentiality does not add a new entity to the being of anything, but expresses the recognition by the human mind of this quality of potentiality for power that is inherent in each being from the first moment of its existing, of its being. Yet each is different, each exists in its own way. As each exists in its own way, so each has this quality, this potentiality for power, in its own way, each is tapu in its own way.

With the notion of being with potentiality for power goes the notion of awe and sacredness, an awe, a sacredness, which commands both respect and fear and which calls for a separation, a keeping apart, from this being with all its dynamic potential for power. The notions of awe, respect, fear, and of sacredness and separation, are all contained in this primary notion of tapu, of being with potentiality for power.

The secondary meanings of tapu, the meanings of the extensions of tapu, all can be seen as extensions of this primary meaning.

There is no contradiction between the notions of defensive and offensive tapu, of life-giving and life-destroying tapu, when they are recognised as being the extension of the different intrinsic tapu, dynamic realities that are never neutral and must, at times, clash with each other. What is life-giving for one is life-destroying for another. It depends on what side one is on, what intrinsic tapu one is identified with.

The notion of restriction and prohibition, often attached to extensions of tapu, also follows from the notion of separation, which flows from the notion of being with potentiality for power. Things are not ‘sacred’, ‘forbidden’ or ‘restricted’ and therefore tapu, but tapu and therefore ‘sacred’ and sometimes ‘forbidden’ or ‘restricted’.

Thus, this analysis of Maori writings on tapu moves “from subjective utility to objective analogy” (Levi-Strauss 1973:150). Instead of seeking the unity of the many different Maori tapu in “exteriorizations of experience, affectivity, fear, hope and desire” (op.cit.:42), it finds this - 47 unity in the relationships and transformations of tapu in Maori thought, recognising that tapu is an analogical term using both analogy of attribution and analogy of proper proportionality. In a similar way Dening recognises that tapu was the “central cultural metaphor” of Marquesan society (1980:87).

The definition of tapu as “being with potentiality for power”, a quality possessed by each reality in its own way and in its own degree, does not give the full meaning of tapu as understood from the evidence of the manuscripts used in this study, only the rational content of its meaning. The manuscripts also reveal a belief that, though not irrational, goes beyond the rational. This might be called the belief content of this particular Maori view of tapu.

As evidenced by the manuscripts, there is a hierarchy of spiritual powers, each spiritual power, each atua, being linked with a particular section of the visible world, Taawhiri with the winds, Tangaroa with the sea and fish, Taane with the forest and birds, Rongo-maa-Taane with the kumara, Haumia with fernroot and Tuu with man.

The notion of hierarchy is stressed strongly in John White's Ngapuhi manuscript where Tuu is seen as the elder brother of the spiritual powers of this world:

Ko Tu te tuakana o nga atua o te ao nei, a ko te kai nga teina (MS papers 75 John White B36 Envelope 35).

‘Tuu is the elder brother of the spiritual powers of this world, the younger brothers being his food’.

Perhaps this explains the change in the Te Rangi-kaheke manuscript where Tuu's brothers are first referred to as his tuaakana, ‘elder brothers’, but after he destroys them they are called his teeina, his ‘younger brothers’ (GNZMMSS 81:54–5).

White's Ngai Tahu, South Island, source is even stronger, and again links tapu with power and Tuu with man:

Na Tu te tino o te tapu, no te mea nana i maia ki ana teina, a he mea kai eia ana teina, i te ika, i te manu, i te roi, i te kumara, a i nga mea katoa o te whenua, a koia ra te tapu o Tu-mata-uenga, ara o te tangata (MS papers 75 John White B36 Envelope 35).

Tapu above all belongs to Tuu for his younger brothers were conquered by him, his younger brothers, the fish, birds, fernroot, kumara and all the things of the land, were eaten by him. So there it is, the tapu of Tuumata-uenga, that is, of man’.

As Christians have in the archangel Michael a spiritual power that is God's minister for warfare, in Gabriel a minister for communications and in Raphael a minister for health, and also believe that each city and each person has its own guardian power or angel, so in this particular - 48 Maori belief there is a spiritual power who has power over, who is minister for, each section of the visible world. In this Maori belief the spiritual powers and the beings of the visible world form one interlocking hierarchy of beings. For Te Rangi-kaheke Tangaroa is the fish, Rongomaa-Taane is the kumara, Haumia is the fernroot, Taane-Mahuta is trees and birds, Taawhiri is the wind and Tuu-mata-uenga is man (GNZMMSS 81:55). No creature stands alone. Each section of creation has its own spiritual power which is its ancestor, tupuna, and its source of tapu and mana. So an attack on the tapu and mana of any particular creature is also an attack on the tapu and mana of its particular spiritual power. Disrespect for the fish is disrespect for Tangaroa, disrespect for the forest and birds is disrespect for Taane, disrespect for the kumara is disrespect for Rongo-maa-Taane and disrespect for man is disrespect for Tuu-mata-uenga.

The hierarchical structure of the spiritual powers, their naming and their being linked with particular sections of the visible world, differs from region to region. In some regions it is Taane, rather than Tuu, who is linked with man (Buck 1958:454–60). But the particular hierarchical structure of spiritual powers and the visible world presented in this article expresses a very widespread view, the view of Te Arawa and Ngati Paoa and, depending on the accuracy of White's statement with regard to his sources, also of Ngapuhi in the North and of Ngai Tahu in the South Island.


As stated at the beginning of this study, the logic of tapu thought has continued to elude scholarly analysis. The first reason for this bafflement has been the nature of the ethnographic material. This material, mainly from secondary sources, accounts written by people outside the culture, has consisted primarily of descriptions of tapu practices and these practices have generally been described in isolation. Being descriptions of tapu practices, they have been concerned more with extensions of tapu than with tapu in itself. Being described in isolation, they have not shown the relationship of tapu with tapu.

The first account of tapu given by a European, that of Captain Cook, is an account of extensions of tapu, of tapu affecting “any particular thing, which they desired to see, or we were unwilling to shew” (Cook III 1784:ii, p.249). Servant's 1841 account of “Maori Tapous” (Simmons 1973:34–8) is a detailed account of extensions of tapu. As these extensions of tapu often involved prohibitions it is not surprising that anthropologists linked the notion of tapu to the notion of prohibition and, not distinguishing between tapu and extensions of tapu, failed to - 49 realise that tapu was an analogical term and tried to find some univocal meaning for tapu.

An added factor affecting the ethnographic material was the cultural bias of the ethnographer. While Cook saw these practices as having “some mysterious significance” (Steiner 1956:23), others saw them as “senseless and funny” (Steiner 1956:25). Servant regarded them, in their minute concern for detail, as “ridiculous” (Simmons 1973:35).

Steiner (1956) shows that the meaning given to tapu by the anthropologists was not necessarily the meaning given to tapu by the Polynesians. He does this, not only by demonstrating that the anthropologists' views are at times in conflict with the ethnographic material, but also by showing how the anthropologists' conclusions have been determined by the limitations and fallacies of their own differing philosophical, psychological and sociological positions. Steiner's own suggestion, that “taboo is an element in all situations in which attitudes to values are expressed in terms of danger behaviour” (Steiner 1956:147), reveals both the limitations of the ethnographic material available to him and the limitations of his own functionalist psychological approach.

Prytz Johansen comes closest to the view presented in this study. He rejects ‘prohibited’ as a rendering of tapu (1954:186), speaks of the customs of tapu as expressing a “profound respect for life” (1954:198) and expects to find the greatest contrasts, not between tapu and noa, but between tapu and tapu (1954:203–4).

In Smith's 1974–5 study, the meaning given to tapu is largely determined by Douglas' theory on purity. It is worth noting that in the manuscripts used for this study the only references to the notion of impurity are the phrases ahi kerakera and ahi wai kerakera, referring to the cooking fire used by the mother at the time the child is born (GNZMMSS 28:130; 31:6). But even here the positive aspect is given; the water and fire are for cleansing purposes and are not themselves unclean or impure.

Salmond's 1978 study, taking a semantic approach, presents a logical model of basic Maori concepts, but is this Maori logic? Salmond, not distinguishing between intrinsic tapu and extensions of tapu and not seeing the polarity of tapu versus tapu, presents tapu as opposed to noa. The evidence from the manuscripts used in this article shows that tapu must be distinguished from extensions of tapu and that it is possible to be intrinsically tapu and noa simultaneously.

As pointed out at the beginning of this article, both Smith's study and Salmond's study show the difficulty of coming to an understanding of tapu from secondary and biased ethnographic sources. The conclusions of this article are based on primary sources which do present an overall, - 50 albeit simplified, view of tapu as understood by some Maoris of the 1840–50 period. It is this overall and ordered presentation of tapu that makes evident that the term tapu is not used equivocally, meaning simply different things, nor used univocally, meaning just one thing, but is used analogically, meaning many different things which are all related both according to an analogy of attribution and according to an analogy of proper proportionality.

The conclusions of this study on the nature of tapu, both as to its rational content, being with potentiality for power, and its belief content, the linking of each thing in its intrinsic tapu with the tapu of a particular spiritual power, are perhaps best summed up in a phrase taken from White's undated manuscript and, according to White, from a Ngai Tahu, South Island, source:

Ko te tapu te mana o nga atua (MS Papers 75 John White B36 Envelope 35).

‘Tapu is the mana of the spiritual powers’.

  • AQUINAS, Saint Thomas, 1935. In Metaphysicam Aristotelis Commentaria. Turin, Marietti.
  • BUCK, Sir Peter (Te Rangihiroa), 1958. The Coming of the Maori. Wellington, Whitcombe and Tombs.
  • COOK, Capt. James, 1784. A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean... in His Majesty's Ships the Resolution and Discovery, in the Years 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779 and 1780. Dublin.
  • COOPER, George Sisson, 1851. Journal of an Expedition Overland from Auckland to Taranaki. Auckland, Williamson and Wilson.
  • DENING, Greg, 1980. Islands and Beaches. Melbourne University Press.
  • GREY, Sir George, 1853. Nga Moteatea me nga Hakirara o te Iwi Maori. Wellington.
  • —— 1971. Nga Mahi a Nga Tupuna. Wellington, Reed.
  • —— Grey's New Zealand Maori Manuscripts:28;31;43;53;81. Auckland Public Library, Auckland.
  • JOHANSEN, J. Prytz, 1954. The Maori and his Religion in its Non-Ritualistic Aspects. Copenhagen.
  • LÉVI-STRAUSS, Claude, 1973. Totemism. Middlesex, Penguin University Books.
  • MARITAIN, Jacques, 1959. The Degrees of Knowledge. London, Geoffrey Bles.
  • MEAD, Margaret, 1937. “Tabu”, in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, Vol. VII, pp.502–5. Macmillan.
  • MS papers 75 John White B36 Envelope 35. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.
  • SALMOND, Anne, 1978. “Te Ao Tawhito: A Semantic Approach to the Traditional Maori Cosmos”. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 87:5–28.
- 51
  • SERVANT, Fr. C., 1973. Customs and Habits of the New Zealanders 1834–42. D. R. Simmons (ed.). Reed, Wellington.
  • SHIRRES, M. P., 1979. Tapu Being with Potentiality for Power. Unpublished M.A. thesis, University of Auckland.

- 52 Page is blank