Impressions Gained after a Visit to a Maori Pah

(December 1956 by Dr. Felkin  – Private Collect D – #78)

A large Whare (House of Learning) House of Instruction is a better interpretation, – is situated on a spur of the hilltop away from the general domestic portion of the village.

At the end furthest from the door is a Great Pillar, stretching from the floor to the ridge of the building. This Pillar is plain and smooth from the floor to a height just above the head of a man when seated with his back to the pillar. From here to the ridge it is elaborately carved. It seems to have two spirals carved on it. One descending, one ascending. These spirals cross one another at intervals. Between these points there are other symbolic carvings. There seem to be three faces, representing Three Great Personages in Maori Tradition; and other carvings, which might symbolise certain nature Forces represented by symbolic forms in the nature of animals or birds of a legendary nature.

The Chief Tohunga sits at the base of the pillar with his back towards it and facing the entrance to the building.

The inside of the building is somewhat dark being illuminated by a fire about 3/4 of the way towards the entrance. Some form of Ceremonial Smoke (rather like incense) fills the building and accounts for the partial obscurity.

On either side of the building from the entrance towards the end where the Chief Tohunga sits, but not as far as that by a few feet, sit the figures of men. These are the students.

The whole atmosphere is extremely solemn. Some magical ceremony has been performed to close and guard the entrance.

In addition Guards patrol to and fro outside, and far enough away to be out of earshot.

The Pah is silent – the people being absolutely forbidden to make any noise loud enough to be heard inside the building.

Within, the Chief Tohunga is chanting in a low tone: and those present chant responses. They swing to and fro as they chant.

The concentration of the Chief Tohunga is intense in the extreme. Silence outside is joined lest a noise should break this concentration. If it should be broken the penalty is immediate death for the person who made the noise. The meeting would be broken up and certain purificatory rites would have to be gone through by all present before it could begin again. A period of time would have to elapse also. Probably 12 hours would have to elapse, because the beginning of the meeting has to coincide with some position of the Sun and Moon. Probably the “Sun” for the time of year and the “Moon” for the time of day or night.

The chant stops. Another chant begins. The Tohunga has now risen to his feet and moves from person to person in a clockwise direction. Standing in front of each person present he chants some question to which the seated person replies with a chanted reply.

The tension is now terrific, everyone present being tremendously keyed up.

The circle and the questions and answers completed, the Tohunga moves down the centre of the building from the Great Pillar to the Fire. Raising his voice he calls to someone on the other side of the Fire, who in turn calls to someone outside the door. The person outside calls to the Guards situated at a distance, along a line which separates the spur on which the Meeting House stands and the rest of the hill top on which the domestic section of the Pah is situated.

Those in the Pah crouch down and quietly say a prayer as they hear the Guards replying that “No stranger is between them and the House – all is well!”

Those in the Pah crouch down in much the same way as a Christian might make the Sign of the Cross on himself. For when they hear the Guards call thus, they know that a Great and Most Powerful Magic is about to take place. (…) is about to enter the House (The Spirit Power), to see which is to die.

Those within the House and seated round the walls, have leaned back against the walls. They appear to be in a trance or near trance like condition.

With a ceremonial Tahia (or some such implement) raised in the right hand and the left hand raised but empty and with the uttermost concentration, the Tohunga begins a long and powerful chant, invoking the Presence of (…) (the Spirit of Light). At intervals, (Four, I think) he throws some ground aromatic herbs, or some such thing on the Fire, and makes passes in the air. (The scent from the herbs seems to have some effect on the minds of those present, assisting them to remember what they are taught or some such effect). The “herbs” used on the fire have certain magical properties and are only known to and prepared by the Chief Tohunga.

The smoke is now so thick that one cannot see from wall to wall for a time. The Tohunga turns and walks back to the Great Pillar where he sits once more and waits until the smoke has cleared somewhat. The illumination of the firelight now seems bright in comparison.

Those round the walls seem to come out of their semi-trance state one after the other. One does not, at the far end. The Tohunga rises and walking down stands in front of this person; and calls on him “to return” which he does.

The Tohunga resumes his seat at the foot of the Pillar and calls out something in a rather high pitched but clear voice. All reply in unison like children repeating a lesson. Thus the meeting proceeds. Question and answer as it were or a sentence or so announced and then repeated by those present.

This goes on for an hour or two. Then there is a break.

The Tohunga makes an announcement and a section of those nearest the door rise and retire. (These are students of the 1st degree, so to speak).

The Tohunga rises and walks in a ceremonial pattern between his seat and the fire, but never beyond the fire. This walk has a two fold purpose, it relieves cramped muscles, rests the voice: and raises the vibration in the House to a more Powerful one. Another Invocation follows and “water” seems to be sprinkled lightly on the Fire, causing a certain amount of steam to rise.

The chanted instructions and replies proceed as before – for a considerable period. Then, as before a section of the company rises and retires.

This time the Tohunga remains seated. SILENCE follows their departure. The instruction is now being given TELEPATHICALLY.

At last the Tohunga stands and turns to face the Great Pillar and raises his hands in invocation. This seems to be a supreme invocation, of such a high nature that the Name used is mentioned only in a whisper

The invocation over he gathers his feather cloak about him: and whilst the others stand in their places he moves slowly from the building.

Outside the Sun is just about to rise – waiting for its first appearance the Tohunga again rises both hands and facing the rising sun he invokes a blessing on the whole Pah. After which he returns to the House again and stands with arms folded, back to the Great Pillar: and waits whilst the others retire.

A curtain falls over the doorway and the Tohunga, now alone, lies down to sleep.

All who take part in the Course of Instruction are highly Tapu while it goes on and may not pass over a line which separates the House of Instruction from the main Pah, during the period of instruction.

Whilst the Tohunga sleeps he leaves his body and moving in the Spirit (consciously) on a higher plane communicates with his Ancestors and the Spiritual Guardians of the Race.

At sunset the instruction proceeds once more.

In the latter part of the term the first section of trainees drop out, at a later date the next section drop out. The third section only, completes the course.

The Tohunga’s cloak seems to be made of black feathers, with a scattering of white ones and a border of Blue-Black; or Blue-Black-Green feathers round the neck.

The Staff that he carries seems to have a round knob on the end rather than a spear head.

He wears a rather large pendant, of a somewhat irregular “pear shape”; flat, and about 2” – 3”; wide at its widest part. This is not a personal jewel but goes with the Office and is a treasure of great age and value. Very powerful.

The strain of taking the school is great and continuous, but exhilarating. It can only be sustained by living on a very sparse diet consisting of water and very, very little food of a special nature.

Silence must be maintained by all taking part and no one may ask the Tohunga any questions, even by signs.

Around his head the Tohunga seems to wear a band composed of small flat stones or shells, about the size of a shilling piece.

The work and life of the Pah seem to proceed on normal lines, outside the area of the House of Instruction.

After the Course is over the participants retire to their respective homes in the district and the House is closed with certain very powerful rites of Tapu, until the next session.