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Poenamo
Book the Third - Chapter V.
A Maori Wake


Some three weeks had elapsed since we had taken up our abode at Waiomu, and the end of a beautiful autumn had been followed by the commencement of a mild and lovely winter.

We had been busy every day for a fortnight in the forest, hewing the skies of the huge pine-tree, which now began to assume somewhat of its intended shape and form, when one forenoon, as we were hard at work, we were startled to hear rising from the valley beneath, the loud long wailing death-cry.

Throwing down our axes we went to the edge of the forest, from whence we could look down upon the whole valley and the village, but before we reached it the report from many muskets began to sound from the village, and soon spread up the whole valley.

On gaining the edge of the forest we could see the Maories hastening from all quarters towards one particular spot. We at once knew what had happened, for we recognised the spot as where young Ngatai's wlzard was, and we were aware he was in the last stage of consumption. Death had visited a Ngatitamatera chief, and the wail was taken up at each scattered hut along the valley until it sounded faintly and mournfully on the ear from the far distance. I had always brought a gun with me, borrowed from Pama, in the hope of being able to cater for Mrs. Pama's cuisine by bringing home a brace or two of kukcupas, so, hastening back for it, I returned again to the edge of the forest, and fired off a number of minute-guns to show our Maori friends that their Pakehas sympathised with them in their bereavement. This duty performed we returned to our work, and continued at it until sunset.

All day we heard the death-wail, and we could distinguish that the musketry reports became more and more concentrated towards one point—Ngatai's house.

The sun was sinking behind the Wairoa ranges when we descended into the valley from our work, and we were greeted with the same news on all sides—"Kua mate te Ngatai." We knew of course he was dead, and as we neared his hut the death-wail and musket-firing became louder and louder; and at last, as we arrived at the spot, we saw quite a large assemblage of natives standing in a semicircle in front of the hut going through their accepted and customary rites on such occasions.

The Ngatitamateras having many near neighbours up and down the shores of the Hauraki, we could see that not a few strangers had already arrived to pay the visit of ceremony in honour of the dead, and in to the living, of the tribe, and, if the truth must be told, with the due appreciation of the usual attendant feast.

We stopped to look at the ceremony, already ill swing, and I performed my part of it in proper Maori fashion, by discharging some volleys from my gun.

The particular rites in which we could not, or rather would not, take a part, I must dilate upon shortly. As the performance was of an altogether novel character, I think it worth while to try to describe it so that you may have the strange picture before you. As this picture, however, will contain portions not altogether pleasant to look upon, I give fair warning, so that if you happen to be in squeamish mood the next page or two had better be skipped. As I am not inventing, but simply narrating facts, I absolve myself from all responsibility if you elect to read what we saw.

I have already stated that we found the obsequies in full swing, short as had been the time for preparation since the death-wail had startled us at our work that morning in the forest. Poor Ngatai, the youngest of the three chiefs who had signed the deed of sale of the island to us, had indeed passed away to the land of spirits, but there lay before us in state the frail mortal remains that had so lately owned. that name.

The body, having the face uncovered, was wrapped up in blankets and native mats, and was laid out a short distance in front of a fence which had already been erected—a sort of small guard-fence, covered with raupo, having a back and two ends sloping away at an angle, so that an uninterrupted view might. be afforded to the extended semicircle of mourners in front. On this fence were hung almost the whole of the deceased's personal effects—his blankets, the highly-valued kaitaka mat (which has now almost ceased to be made), his musket and double-barrelled gun, cartouch-box, tomahawk, and many other things—all destined to hang there for ever, tabooed to the memory of the departed. No sacrilegious hand, however coveted the articles, will ever disturb them—there they will hang until the fence rots to the ground, if they have not first rotted away and fallen down.

At one side of the body sat old Kanini as chief mourner, muffled up in his flax mat, and looking unutterably woeful.

And little wonder, poor old man, considering what was before him, for he well knew the martyrdom he had to go through whilst others only wept— Maori fashion—and feasted.

I shall now endeavour to describe how the mourners went through these respective processes, the first being compulsory before indulging in the last, for no one feasted until first having mourned in the orthodox Maori fashion.

About twenty or thirty yards in front of the fence we saw the semicircle of mourners—men and women —in all the different stages of the wail in words, and bodily infliction in deeds, as custom dictated, but to understand how some of them had arrived at the very grotesque condition in which we then saw them the only way is to begin with some newly-arrived mourners and watch the process ab inito. Late though it was in the evening, a fresh canoe-load had just arrived, so we had an opportunity .of witnessing a Maori wake.

Having taken up their position in front of poor dead Ngatai, they stood for a minute or two hanging down their heads, and then the old women of the party broke into a well-sustained hum-m-m, prolonging the -m- through the nose, a perfect imitation of a naughty child trying to get up a cry—just exactly what these old women are aiming at.

The younger of the new mourners had to take much more frequent breath in doing their hums, which they gave out very sotto voice, or rather soto naso!

It was perfectly evident how difficult it was for young human nature to do this wailing hum as it ought to be done, and was now being done by the older stagers.

After getting into the full swing of the hum-wail, the next stage was to end this with a short ejaculatory sentence in eulogy of the deceased, and when they reached the grand full swing, the hum through the nose had disappeared, and the true wail-cry was given out loud and strong. When they had exhausted their sentences of eulogy they then fell back upon a more self-scarifying way of proving their grief; as I shall describe now.

But first look at those old women; why they really must have been crying in earnest, as there was proof, for. they did not use pocket-handkerchiefs—no, nor their fingers instead either; one wished they would do so to discard that dirty nose-pendant.

What! those old women remove that emblem of grief! The shades of Ngatai forbid! the very thought is sacrilege!

Know that by the length of these nasal pendants was measured the depth of feeling for the departed. No, not until poor human nature is exhausted and can wail no more, and can increase no more that nasal emblem of great, grief and sorrow, shall it be shorn of its woe-cried length.

But what did they do next these old withered hags, with stooping figures, their hands resting on their knees as they stood, a mat from waist to knee all their attire?

Look! That old hag as she ended her chanting, wailing moan, gave herself a cut down the cheek from the eye to the corner of the mouth, it drew blood! Another wailing moan is followed by another scarification on the opposite check, using a sharp- edged shell as the instrument of self-torture.

Look at the old woman next her! She has left nothing more of the face to scarify, and she has now begun the same pros on her breast and bosom And yet another—now past these two stages—has taken to her anus, and lo! still another—past all these three stages, face, bosom, arms—still not content, has begun at her knees, and only rests content on getting to her ankles!

Well tried, young chieftaineces! but your novice hand is yet unskilled in these flesh-wounds; wait awhile, and when the freshness and bloom of youth shall have passed away, your hand will be bolder and steadier. To you it is only given as yet to reach a respectably duly mourning face, but be not ashamed, for see, your younger sister has succumbed to a sitting posture, and, unable to keep up even the hum-rn-m any longer, is fain to bury her head in her mat and so hide pretended nasal pendants in silence!

The men made but a very sorry figure in these exhibitions. They buried their heads and affected the hum-rn-m wail, but they could not keep it up; and as no dignity was to be got out of it, they very soon took refuge in firing salutes from their muskets.

The great chiefs of the different tribes who came to do the visits of mourning seldom took their places in the circle, but went and sat down beside old Kanini and took a fearful spell of the genuine lugubrious nose-rubbing out of the poor old martyr. Squatted on the ground, they would positively keep their noses in strict contact for half-an-hour at a stretch, and keep a gradually-increasing moistening hum-m-m until really they were far from pleasant to look upon. Nasal pendants of the peculiar description engendered by this process did not constitute "a thing of beauty."

Some of the very great chiefs, however, were compelled to wipe away, not a "tear," but a pendant, and then came forward to deliver a funeral oration. Very graceful was the manner in this was commenced; most exciting generally was the manner in which it was concluded.

Rising from the old Kanini's side a chief with glistening kaitaka mat folded around him like a Roman toga, paces quietly and sedately forward until he reaches the circle of mourners, when he suddenly stops, faces about, and with slightly-quickened step paces back towards Kanini and the body lying in state and delivers a sentence of his oration, arresting his further advance close to the chief. He now again turns round and walks deliberately back in silence to the starting point of the mourners, when again he suddenly faces Kanini, and, advancing this time more quickly than the last, he delivers another short sentence—never more than eight or ten words. Gradually, as he warms in his theme, he makes his advance and delivers his sentence at all rapidity. And soon the dignified toga-draped orator begins to look a little wild; the flax mat now flies loosely about him, for he almost runs forward, and ends with a jump in the air almost at Kanini's feet, and looking rather as if he had intended to go clear over him. But the turning round and pacing back is always most sedately performed to give due breathing and composing time to arrange his next sentence.

Wonderfully strange is the effect that this at last produces when the speaker has worked himself up to the highest stage of intense action, when he rushes forward, his mat flying wildly around him, brandishing with a peculiar quivering motion a taioha wooden broad sword—or a tomahawk, rushing forward with high-toned voice and hastily-spoken words ending his advance with a sudden jump in the air, and in a moment assuming the most statuesque repose, and in time most quiet and dignified manner again pacing back.

A hurricane and a calm—most profound calm; But see now he can no longer hear the restraint of his long toga about his body; he has flung it aside; he is no calm, dignified toga-robed orator now, but a savage, nude, save a short mat hanging from waist to knee, which is sometimes conspicuous by its absence, he is all fiery gesticulation, and as he rushes forward he gives his bare leg a great slap with one hand, with the other brandishing his taioha high in the air.

At last the hurricane has expended itself, all the warlike deeds and acts of prowess of the dead chief have been held up for emulation, and suddenly changing to the statuesque repose he ends with a dirge chanted in a low monotonous tone. To give sonic idea of what were the virtues most held in estimation amongst Maories, the following is a free translation of a dirge chanted over Ngatai :-

* Mere, a highly-prized small hand-weapon made from the green stone, used in close combat.

After each new arrival had performed the proper amount of tangi-ing wailing at the semicircle they retired to feast, and to gossip—the latter I believe a greater treat than the former.

The Maori wake in the days of which I write was in eVery way most decorous; intoxicating liquids never passed the Maories' lips; there were no toasts "to the memory of the deceased," and the "health of the living relatives;" no draining of inebriating cups at Hraionu.

Cold spring-water left no imbibers prostrate, but if the wake lacked the drinking element, certainly it did not the eating power, for the quantity of the Ngatitarnatera provisions which were consumed was a caution, and compelled the tribe to fall back upon fern-root before their new crop of potatoes came to their relief in the spring.

You may remember that when I began the description of this funeral we had just returned from our forest work. We stood watching the strange scene until sunset, when the deepening gloom sent us home to our evening meal of Erangi's preparing.

The good housewife—for such indeed she was to us in her own quiet way—told us how the minute- guns I had fired at the opening of the forest had pleased old Kanini and his people.

During the evening, and now and again throughout the night, a sudden burst of the death-wail would break upon the stillness as some old devotee, awakening from the feeling strong upon her that she was still in the funereal harness, would start off quite unrestrainable at the full wailing pace.

Spare yourself, yes, old women—spare youselves: much is still in store for you, you have a long, long journey before you reach the last stage of the Ngatitaniateras' obsequies, wailing enough you will have—scarifying  to your hearts' content. Spare yourselves!


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