Ko te tapu te mana o nga atua.
'Tapu is the mana of the spiritual powers'.
For many people today tapu means 'forbidden' or 'restricted'. For some there is the added connotation that if the tapu is not observed something bad will happen. On the evidence of Maori writings of the 1840s and 50s, 'forbidden' or 'restricted' is not the only meaning of tapu, nor even its primary meaning.
The primary meaning given to tapu in this study is made up of two elements, one from reason and the other from faith. Both elements link tapu with mana. The element from reason sees tapu in its primary meaning as 'being with potentiality for power'. The element from faith sees tapu as the 'mana of the spiritual powers', of Taane, Tangaroa, Tuu, Rongo and so on.
To look on tapu only as 'being with potentiality for power' is to leave out the most important element of tapu, the faith element, the link with the spiritual powers. In the understanding of tapu presented here, every part of creation has its tapu, because every part of creation has its link with one or other of the spiritual powers, and ultimately with Io, Io matua kore, the parentless one, Io taketake, the source of all .
It is important to note that this is one view of tapu, a view based on some of the Maori writings of the 1840s and 50s. Each tribe has its own understanding of tapu and as is evidenced in the Maori manuscripts, what one Maori writer referded to as tapu, another refered to as mana.
Today too, where some tribes speak of tapu, others speak of mana. Different words are used for the same reality and the use of the different words itself gives us a better understanding of that reality. I do not want to impose the understanding of tapu as presented here on people who have a different view of tapu and who use different terms for tapu. But I do hope this will widen our discussion of tapu, deepen our understanding of tapu and encourage us to share our thinking on tapu. Our mutual sharing should renew and enhance the tapu of each people.
Tapu and the Story of Rangi and Papa
The story of Rangi and Papa can be seen as a story of the meeting of tapu with tapu, and the working out of that meeting to the satisfaction, largely, of Tuu.
After a great struggle Tuu became master of Tangaroa, Haumia, Rongo and Taane. This is expressed by his eating the fish, eating the fern root, eating the kuumara, and eating the birds, thus destroying their tapu. But he was not able to master the winds and the storms, the domain of Taawhiri. Therefore Taawhiri retained his tapu.
Na reira i kainga katoatia ai e Tumatauenga ona tuakana, a pau ake te kai e ia. Hei utu mo to ratou tukunga i a ia ki te whawhai ki a Tawhiri raua ko Rangi. A mate katoa. Koia anake te tangata i toa ki te whawhai.
Ka mate ona teina i aia ka tahi ka wehewehea ona ingoa ko Tukariri, ko Tukanguha ko Tukai-taua, ko Tu- whakaheke-tangata, ko Tu-mata waiti, ko Tumatauenga, i whakaritea tonutia ona ingoa kia ratou ko ana tuakana, a toko wa ona hoa i kainga katoatia e ia ko tahi i tapu ko Tawiri ko tona whakapakanga i waiho tonu hei hoa wawai mona, i rite ano ki tana riri ta tona teina riri.
'So Tuumatauenga ate all his older brothers. They were eaten by him in revenge for their allowing him to fight alone against Taawhiri and Rangi, when they were all defeated. He alone was victorious in battle.'
'His younger brothers were killed by him, and then his names were made known, Tuu-who-rages, Tuu-who-fights-fiercely, Tuu-eater-of-war-parties, Tuu-destroyer-of-men, Tuu-of-the-narrow-eyes, and Tuu-of-the-flashing-eyes. His names are equal to the number of his brothers. Four were eaten by him. Only one was tapu, Taawhiri. The last-born, Tuu, remained to fight him, and the rage of his youngest brother was equal to his own.'
In our world the struggle continues and a whole series of restrictions are established to cope with our human situation. These restrictions effect particular things, places, times and actions. They are a means of respecting and protecting the different tapu and are themselves referred to as tapu.
I therefore make a distinction between intrinsec tapu and extensions of tapu. The intrinsic tapu are those things which are tapu in themselves. These are the primary tapu. The extensions of tapu are the restrictions. These are referred to as tapu not because of their own intrinsic tapu but because of their relationship to some primary tapu as a restriction imposed to protect it in some way. They are thus an extension of the primary tapu.
To understand the full nature of tapu we must first recognize, as already mentioned elsewhere, that the Maori view of the universe is not a universe of two systems closed off from each other, one spiritual and one material. It is a universe in which the two worlds are closely linked with each other, all activities in the everyday world being seen as coming under the influence of the atua, the spiritual powers.
So the mana of the spiritual powers is the source of the tapu of the person and extends to the tapu restrictions surrounding the person.
Each of the spiritual powers identifies with and is responsible for a particular section of creation.
The wind had its own tapu: te mana o te hau, te tapu o te hau, 'the mana of the wind, the tapu of the wind'. Its source is the mana of Taawhirimaatea.
The source for the tapu of the sea and the fish is the mana of Tangaroa.
The kuumara has its own tapu:
Ko te kumara, he mea tapu rawa he tuahu to te kumara.
As for the kuumara, it is very tapu and has its own tapu place.'
The tapu of the kuumara has its source in the mana of Rongo-ma-taane.
The trees and the birds have their source of tapu in the mana of Taane.
In some cases more than one atua is the source for the tapu. The tapu of the canoe is linked with both Taane and Tangaroa. And so the kaha, 'strength', of the canoe is the 'strength' of both Taane and Tangaroa:
He kaha Tane, he kaha Tangaroa.
'The strength of Taane, the strength of Tangaroa'.
We human beings are linked with, and so receive our tapu from, the mana of the spiritual powers in different ways. According to the Arawa traditions as recorded by Te Rangikaheke, we are identified with Tuumatauenga.
But according to other traditions we owe our existence and therefore our intrinsic tapu to the mana of Taane. In the traditions of Ngaapuhi, Kahungunu and Kai Tahu it is said that it was Taane who made the first woman from whom we are all descended, Taane who brought light into our world by separating Ranginui and Papatuanuku, Taane who climbed up into the highest heavens and brought back for us the three baskets of knowledge.
We can also be bonded to particular powers through a ritual dedication and consecration. Some are dedicated and consecrated at birth and before battle to Tuumatauenga. Some are dedicated and consecrated to Rongo, for peace. We call on the mana of Tuu and Taawhiri combined for the axe to cut down a tree. We call on Taane and Tangaroa to give strength to our canoes.
Tapu and Mana
The intrinsic tapu are therefore closely linked with mana, 'power', and at times the words tapu and mana are interchangeable. Where one writer speaks of tapu another writer speaks of mana.
Several examples of the terms tapu and mana being interchangeable are found in the manuscripts. For instance two of the manuscripts, GNZMMSS 28 and GNZMMSS 31, describe the tapu surrounding conception and birth. But whereas in GNZMMSS 28 the birth of the child is described as the beginning of mana, in GNZMMSS 31 the beginning of the child is described as the beginning of tapu.
Amongst early Maori writings , there is the Waikato story of Kiki and Tamure, two tohunga. It is explicitly a story of mana, the mana of Kiki versus the mana of Tamure. But in the original manuscript of the story, the story is presented as a demonstration of the importance of a person's tapu. The story begins with the sentence:
E mea ana hoki, ko tona mea nui he tapu, kei whea hoki nga whakatauki, Nga uri o Kiki whakamaroke raakau.
'He thinks his great possession is tapu and so we have the proverb, The descendants of Kiki who dries up trees.'
Tapu, Mana and 'Being'
Both intrinisic tapu and mana are linked with 'being', with 'existing'.
Mana begins with existence, though that existence has its source in the mana of the ancestors and of the spiritual powers.
I te orokoputanga mai o te tamariki i roto i tona whaea ka timata tenei mea te mana, engari no mua mai, no nga tupuna.
'In the very coming forth of the child from its mother, from there indeed, its mana began, but it comes from right back, from its ancestors.'
As mana begins with existence, so tapu, in its intrinsic and primary meaning, begins with existence. Everything that is, has its own intrinsic tapu, a tapu which begins with its existence and which has its source in the mana of the spiritual powers. Once a fish exists, it has its tapu, a tapu which has its source in the mana of Tangaroa. Once a human being exists, it has its own tapu, a tapu which has its source in the mana of the particular spiritual power to which it is dedicated. Each is truly tapu, but tapu in its own way, according to its own mode of existence.
Once any being ceases to exist, it loses its tapu and it loses its mana, it has no longer any power. The fish that is eaten has no longer any tapu, any mana. So, in the story of Rangi and Papa, the fish, the birds, the kuumara and the fernroot, Tangaroa, Taane, Rongo and Haumia, are eaten by Tuumatauenga and lose their tapu.
The tapu and mana of a human being can be greatly diminished, for example when a person is made a prisoner, his or her existence completely dependent on others. But this tapu, and mana, can be restored. In the karakia Waea te noa (see below) the tapu of the prisoner is restored by a return to Tiki, to the source of human life. Also death is not the end for the human being, so a person still has tapu and mana after death, hence the tapu restrictions surrounding the cemeteries.
The difference between tapu and mana is also related to 'being'
A thing has its full mana, is fully powerful, when it has its full 'being', when it is fully alive, fully active. Mana is the power of being, a power that is realized over time.
On the other hand a thing has its full tapu as soon as it begins to exist. What its tapu is is related, not to what it is, but to what it can become. The child who is of chiefly line has not yet the mana, the power, of a chief, but has already the tapu of a chief. Tapu is being with potentiality for power.
So, tapu - being with potentiality for power, for mana, is our greatest asset.
Ko tona mea nui he tapu.
'One's greatest possession is tapu'.
The Tapu and Mana of Women
Women have their own mana and tapu. They also can be bonded to specific spiritual powers, including Tuumatauenga. Even before they are born, in the rituals following conception, they are bonded to Hine, the first woman.
[I] te ata o Hine, i te ata o Hine Angiangi, i te ata o Hine-korikori, i te ata o wahine.
'[I]n the dawn of Hine, in the dawn of Hine-moving freely, in the dawn of Hine-beginning-to-stir, in the dawn of woman.'
This is the same Hine who later became Hine-nui-te-poo, the great woman of the night. She who is the source of life for all human beings, and who was betrayed by man, still receives into her arms all those who have died.
Extensions of Tapu
In this universe nothing exists in absolute isolation. The wind blows on the land and on the sea. Person meets person and people cut down the trees and plant the kuumara, and challenge the seas. In this universe, therefore, in which everything has its own tapu, there is a constant meeting of tapu with tapu.
The meeting of tapu with tapu is dynamic. It is constructive or destructive, never neutral. Rangi meets Papa and we have the coming into being of all the creatures of the universe. Creature meets creature. Person meets person. People meets people. Sometimes these meetings are constructive, and sometimes destructive as in the holocaust which is modern warfare.
To control and order the meeting of tapu with tapu the Maori has devised a system of restrictions. The Maori system particularly emphasises the person and the person's relationships with other people and with the surrounding universe. At times and with some tribes the system of restrictions has been very detailed and sometimes very oppressive. French missionary Catherin Servant writing from the Hokianga about 1839, gives a long list of tapu restrictions.
GNZMMSS 31:24-26 gives an account of the tapu surrounding the harvesting of the kuumara. Referring to the special tapu of the kuumara, the writer states that the hands of those planting the kuumara must be made noa after the planting, because of its very great tapu. Here we see that the tapu restrictions placed on the hands of those doing the planting are extensions of the primary tapu of the kuumara.
A, ka mutu te whakato, ka tahuna te hangi hei pokinga mo nga ringaringa kia noa ai nga ringa, he tapu nui hoki te kumara.
'When the planting is finished a haangii, 'oven', is prepared to ritually poki, 'cover', the hands to make the hands noa, for the kuumara is very tapu.'
There are restrictions surrounding the canoe with its tapu especially at the cutting down of the tree, the carving of the canoe, its being taken down to the sea and its launching. These tapu restrictions are extensions of the tapu of the canoe, with its links with both Tangaroa and Taane.
According to John White, every effort was made to ensure that no chips from the canoe were even accidently taken into the village to perhaps be used in the village cooking fires as Tangaroa and Taane would become antagonistic. The workers themselves, whilst they are making the canoe, are the subjects for the time being of Tangaroa and during this time their food must be cooked separately from that of the tribe.
There are many restrictions surrounding the human person. To respect the tapu of the person there are tapu days, tapu places, tapu hands, tapu food, tapu fields, and there are tapu events, especially birth, hair-cutting, warfare and death.
The day the child's umbilical cord is cut is tapu:
Ka tapu taua ra. E kore e kai te pa no te mea ka whakauria te mana.
'That day becomes tapu. The village will not eat because mana is established.'
Hair-cutting is surrounded by tapu:
Ka kotikotia te tamariki,tapu rawa. E kore e whara ki muri, he tapu tonu.
'When the hair of a child is being cut, it is very tapu. He will not venture to go near the cook house as he is still tapu.'
And the tapu of the person having his hair cut, or just combed, extends to the hands of those doing the cutting or combing:
A, ka heru i te mahunga, ka peraatia ano, ka horohoroa nga ringa o te tangata heru. He rangatira te tangata i herua, kia po rua, kia po toru ranei, katahi ka kai tirou.
Ka kotikoti i te mahunga, he tapu nui tera te kotikoti i te mahunga. He pena tonu ano hoki te horohoro i nga ringa, he tapu nui te kotikoti. He tangata ano e rua wiki ka kainga nga ringa [kai ringaringa], he tangata nui te tapu, e waru wiki ka noa he rangatira nui ake, ka neke ake i nga marama e whaa; he tutua, tona tapu kihai i neke ake i nga ra e toru.
'When one combs [a person's] hair it is again the same, the hands of the person combing are ritually cleared. If the person whose hair has been combed is a chief, only after two or three days will he [the person who has done the combing] be able to eat with a stick used as a fork.
As for the cutting of the hair, that is something very tapu. The ritual clearing of the hands is again the same, even more so, for the cutting [of the hair] is very tapu. For some people, [the hair cutter] 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'
The tapu of a war party extends to its food: He haerenga taua ki te patu tangata. Ka motu te taua ki te ara, ka tapu nga o, ara, nga kai a te taua.
'The setting out of a war party on a killing expedition. Once the war party sets out, its provisions, the food it takes with it, are tapu'.
The tapu of the person, even after death, can extend to the marae. For example, in the account of the funeral rites given in the Te Ao story, the first thing Kahu does, on being asked to carry out the pure funeral rites for Ihenga, is to declare the marae to be tapu:
Katahi ka karanga a Kahu ki te iwi katoa, 'Kia tapu te marae o te kainga'.
'Then Kahu called out to all the people, 'Let the marae of the village be tapu'.'
The many restrictive customs and practices have been instituted because of the sense of the tapu belonging to every part of creation. They are ways of expressing respect for the various primary tapu. The restrictions themselves are called tapu as are the things, places and times to which the restrictions are applied. These are not tapu in themselves, but tapu because of their relationship to the primary tapu, to those things which are tapu in themselves. Move to section on noa Return to Maori theology home page