The University of Otagos second semester ends in October. I knew there were Summer School classes in January and February, because Ive taken notes in them. I never knew there were also classes in November and December. But here I am. Turns out theres a five-week course on titled Introduction to the Māori World, and one of the students taking it wants notes. My first class was last Tuesday. The lecture was about fundamental concepts in Māori culture, such as tapu and mana, and the polytheistic cosmology which underpins them.
A quick summary of that class. Tapu is of course the origin of the English word taboo, but its pronounced differently both syllables are short and the stress is on the first one. Tapu is the presence or influence of an atua, a god. The gods are present everywhere, and one must treat them with deference and caution. But sometimes it is necessary to lift the tapu so that we humans can go about our ordinary lives without having to worry about it. Then, it becomes noa, which is simply the converse of tapu.
Which gods? On Tuesday we were introduced to four: Papa-tū-ā-nuku, Mother Earth; Tāne-mahuta, god of light and life and the forest; Tangaroa, god of all water, including the water in peoples bodies; and Ranginui, the Sky, Papa-tū-ā-nukus lover, who was separated from her by Tāne-mahuta to create the world of light. The gods are the ancestors of all life, including human beings. Most iwi (chiefdom-nations, though the word is usually translated tribe) trace their genealogy back to Tāne-mahuta. The chiefs belong to the elder line in each case.
Tangaroas dominion over water seems to be responsible for the tapu of blood, which in turn explains why women have a special power over tapu. A man can lift tapu by saying an incantation (a karakia) or using water, but a woman can lift it simply by virtue of being a woman, because women handle blood every month. When you enter or leave a marae the space built at the hub of every Māori community to house formal gatherings you pass through a gateway that symbolizes a womans legs, so that you dont bring in any tapu you may have picked up on the outside.
Having just come back from Japan, I cant help noticing the parallels with Shintō. There again, the kami are immanent in water, earth, and forests. Again, the kami are ancestors rather than creators of the human race, and the Imperial Family is the elder line of descent. And again you have that detail of the symbolic gateway, the torī in front of the shrine, through which you enter or leave the presence of divine power.
But theres also a big difference. Japan is much more centralized than traditional Māori society, and you might expect to see that reflected in their religions that Māoritanga would have lots of local spirits and Shintō would have a few big, important gods, like the pre-Christian Greek or Norse pantheons. In fact its the other way around. Each mountain, lake, river, and ancient tree in Japan has its own personal kami, but in tikanga Māori it is Tāne-mahuta in every patch of bush and Tangaroa in every body of water.
Mana is the other Māori word, besides tapu / taboo, that has been borrowed into English outside of New Zealand. Both syllables are short, so that to a New Zealand English speaker it sounds like munna monna to an American. Its been appropriated in crap fantasy books and games to denote a limiting resource for magic-users, like pixie-dust but slightly more badass. In fact mana is prestige, charisma, honour, dignity, authority; social power, not magical power. Its about ones standing with the gods. Duties and privileges in Māori culture are doled out entirely according to who has what kind of mana.