The Maori Race


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The real curse (kanga) was generally a wish that the indignity of being cooked should fall to the lot of the insulted person, "May your head be cooked," etc. Another form (apiti) consisted in likening a portion of the other person’s bodily parts to some undignified utensil, etc., also generally connected with cooked food, as, "Your skull is my calabash," "My fork is of your bone," etc. The third curse (tapatapa) was to call anything by a person’s name, such as to name a vessel after him. This is not what we understand as a curse, but it would give the person whose name was used a title in the article. For instance, if a chief tapatapa’d a spear by saying that it was one of his legs, it became his property, that is, if the owner was not a greater man than he, in which case he would probably consider himself cursed, and demand satisfaction. The subject is difficult, and can be best understood by giving a few examples.

An old man of Waikato was at work in a plantation at Kawhia during a shower of rain. The sun came out and made the moisture rise in a cloud from the worker’s body. A lad of the Ngati-toa tribe standing by said, "The steam from the old man’s head is like the steam from the oven." These words were considered a curse, and a war ensued in which many were killed. A famous battle was fought in old days because a woman was asked, "Is the firewood your brother’s pillow that you do not use it for the fire?" This parallel drawn between common "cooking wood" and the pillow on which a chief’s sacred head rested was sufficient to convey a deadly insult. A chief jealous of the fame of the great leader Te Rauparaha said of him, "His head shall be beaten with a fern-root pounder (paoi)." War followed; as it did on another occasion when it was reported to Te Rauparaha that a man had cursed him by saying "I will rip open his stomach with a barracouta tooth." A little boy having gone up to receive a portion of the livers of some skates that had been cooked was pushed aside by his uncles, and the child wept. He went, however, to his half brothers, of another tribe, and told the tale of the slight upon him. Soon a war party was assembled and this taua attacked and carried the fort of the churlish relatives. The boy’s uncles pleaded to him for mercy but received none, and each as he was dispatched heard the taunt, "This is the liver of your skate." The old wife of a chief was pounding fern root when a party of another tribe, passing, called out "Pound away at the fern root; it will line the oven in which you are cooked." This was a fearful and unsurpassable curse, so the old lady was not long in rousing up a war party to pursue the speaker and avenge the insult.

Sometimes the curse took the form of naming some part of an opponent’s body or limbs, and striking the ground at the same time, thus bestowing a blow by proxy on the part named, and this was considered as equivalent to a blow on the part itself. A curse need not always be uttered, an action was sufficient, thus when the bones of Tupurupuru were used as tools with which to dig fern wood, his tribe was "cursed" thereby.

To liken a man to an animal or inferior was a curse. One chief noticing that the hair of a senior was white as a Maori’s dog skin, called to him as one calls a dog, "Moi! Moi! Moi!" This was a very deadly insult. If, when hair had been cut from the head of some person of consequence and had not been removed to the sacred enclosure (wahitapu), anyone should say "How disgusting to leave it about; whose is it?" that would have been a curse on the owner of the hair. . . .

A curious legend exemplifying the extraordinary way in which a curse could be conveyed is related by the Arawa tribe. Tuwharetoa was a renowned warrior whose three sons were killed in battle. With his remaining son, and his fighting men, the old chief started out for revenge. Arriving near a fort of an allied tribe they blew the long war trumpet (pukaea) and this sound so enraged an old priestess resident near the fort that she cursed them with a shout of "cooked heads" (pokokohua ma). When the sons of Tuwharetoa heard this curse they repeated the sound of it on the trumpet, thus "To-roro! to-roro!" "Your brains." The priestess replied "My fern root is the bones of your ancestors." So the hearts of her hearers grew dark with the shadow of so terrible an insult. Tuwharetoa was very sad and consulted the oracles how the curse might be removed. According to direction a lizard was killed and the apiti neutralized; after which the army went home and stayed for ten nights. Then said the chief, "Go and slay the offenders," and the war party moved off to the attack; two forts were encircled and captured.1

The place of public opinion in social control was mentioned at the beginning of this chapter and the regulation of behavior by ridicule and other gestures of disapproval was indicated. In the same connection the operation of "conscience," or the feeling of guilt, plays an important role, and the "clearing of conscience," often demanded by the group, is a step for restoring a disturbed equilibrium equivalent to the operation of the law.

Conscience is, in the first place, an inner mirroring of public opinion—an anticipatory feeling of what would be the experience if secret sins were made public. The visceral aspect of guilt, felt as the gnawing of conscience, is not precisely fear of punishment. The agitation is rather a consciousness of separation from the group and self-censure as group member; and in this connection confession, like apology, is the first step toward reconciliation. It is a release of tension, "clears the conscience," and brings relief.

1Tregear, E.n/an/an/an/an/a, , 192–207, passim (A. D. Willis. By permission).


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Chicago: "The Maori Race," The Maori Race in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2023,

MLA: . "The Maori Race." The Maori Race, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: , 'The Maori Race' in The Maori Race. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2023, from