Papahurihia, also known as Te Atua Wera, was a renowned Ngāpuhi tohunga. He belonged to both Te Hikutū and Ngāti Hau hapū. The date of his birth is unknown; in 1866 he was said to be about 50 years of age, but he was about 78 at his death, according to one obituary.
His descent is traced from matakite, those who possess visionary powers. Taimania, a woman famous for these powers, appears variously in the narrative accounts as ancestor, wife and mother. His father, Te Wharetī, also possessed strange powers, including the ability to cover vast distances in an instant. Tūhoehoe, his mother, according to the whakapapa, was considered to be a woman with magical powers. Papahurihia had at least two wives: he and his first wife had one son; the second wife, Kikihu, with another wife, was living with him in 1847; and with his last wife Eme (who was possibly Kikihu), he had a daughter, Whakarongohau.
Papahurihia first appears in the written historical record in the early 1830s, when two missionaries encountered his new religion. Richard Davis in 1833 met people at Taiamai, in the Bay of Islands, who had begun to worship a new god, called Papahurihia; and Henry Williams gave the first clear description in 1834: he noted that the people used the name Nākahi, which he identified with the serpent in Genesis 3:1, and also Papahurihia, one 'who relates wonders'. He went on: 'They observe a Sabbath, but not with us, as it is on the Saturday – they have services and baptism and profess to know the scriptures.' He added that although he had often been challenged, he had not met any of the leading men, and that 'Papahurihia has invariābly been out of the way.' This name was used both of the god of the new faith and of the man who founded it.
Papahurihia's early teachings in the Bay of Islands and Hokianga identified the Māori as Hūrai, or Jews. His followers worshipped on Saturday, hoisted a flag and assembled at night. He claimed the power to converse with the dead, and he was a ventriloquist, able to throw his voice in many directions and create a strange 'whistling sighing' sound as the spirits spoke. A settler, John Webster, who attended a ceremony which Papahurihia held for Hōne Heke in 1845, said that the sound 'moved about in a mysterious manner, sometimes a fluttering, and I thought that something actually touched me.'
Papahurihia's identification of the Māori with the Jews, and his use of the biblical serpent, Nākahi, as his ariā, or familiar spirit, became important beliefs among Māori people. As Jews his followers were not Christians, but they were the chosen of God. Nākahi was not only the serpent in Genesis; it was also the fiery serpent on the rod carried by Moses, who promised life to the Israelites while they were in the wilderness. In the New Testament the serpent was used as a symbol of Christ.
His biblical knowledge could have been derived from the Anglican mission services at Rangihoua and Te Puna, where he was described in 1834 as a principal figure and a rangatira. He could read Māori, and the New Testament passage about the serpent (John 3:14–15) was in one of the first parts of the Bible printed in Māori. At the same time Nākahi resembled the ariā traditionally called on by tohunga. Lizards were much feared, for they were seen as messengers between the spiritual and human worlds.
Papahurihia began his teaching among Te Hikutū living at Te Puna, and his message soon spread through the Bay of Islands. He moved to Hokianga where the Wesleyans and later the Catholics encountered his doctrines. He and the Wesleyan missionary William White held a debate at Waimā in April 1835, before an audience White thought numbered between 3,000 and 4,000. To White the great 'blasphemy' was believing that Papahurihia and Jesus Christ were equal.
By 1837 Papahurihia had adopted the name Te Atua Wera. In that year Kaitoke, a leader of Te Hikutū, killed two Wesleyan converts, Matiu and Rihimona, who were preaching in his village in the Mangamuka district. A visitor, George Hawke, wrote that Kaitoke had been inspired by a religion which was 'inveterate against christians', the leader of which had taken the name Te Atua Wera, and referred to his god as Papahurihia. This leader used ventriloquism, and had made a great number of converts.
Te Atua Wera, the fiery god, became a formidable leader and prophet. Kaitoke professed that he had been confident of victory because Te Atua Wera had given him a cask of powder and a musket. As long as he possessed them he would not be hit by enemy fire, and would be sure to find his target. This weapon, with red hieroglyphic writing placed on it by Te Atua Wera, was conceivably used in the ritual killing of the Wesleyan preachers.
The prophet and his Te Hikutū followers, Kaitoke and Waikato of Te Puna, hated the Protestant missionaries; they were said to be murderers, causing many deaths through witchcraft. From the beginning Papahurihia had taught that the missionaries would be burned in the fire of Satan, and his followers would enter an afterlife in a land of happiness. The Catholic missionary Louis Catherin Servant said that this would be a land in which there was neither cold, nor hunger or thirst: 'you enjoy unending light. Everything is found in plenty, flour, sugar, guns, ships; there too murder and sensual pleasure reign.' The afterlife became a world of earthly delights, much better than the Protestant heaven, which Papahurihia had described as little better than hell, because its inhabitants had 'nothing but books to eat'.
In the course of a tribal war in 1843 at Ōruru, a large comet appeared in the sky for a month, its tail sweeping across the horizon. Te Atua Wera explained its presence as an omen of war, sickness and death, and claimed that it was under his control. Comets and meteors had been interpreted previously as manifestations of gods; thereafter the long-tailed comet was associated with Papahurihia in the oral traditions of Hokianga.
In 1845 he became Hōne Heke's war tohunga. When Heke was entrenched at Puketutu in May, after his fourth assault on the flagstaff at Kororāreka (Russell), he consulted Te Atua Wera because he was considered to be the leading tohunga of Ngāpuhi. According to the account left by Frederick Maning, Nākahi spoke in the night to Heke and his people through the mouth of the prophet: 'Be brave and strong, and patient. Fear not the soldiers; they will not be able to take this fort – neither be you afraid of all those different kinds of big guns you have heard so much talk of. I will turn aside the shot, and they shall do you no harm; but this pā and its defenders must be made sacred (tapu). You must particularly observe all the sacred rites and customs of your ancestors; if you neglect this in the smallest particular, evil will befall you, and I also shall desert you. You who pray to the god of the missionaries, continue to do so, and in your praying see you make no mistakes. Fight and pray. Touch not the spoils of the slain, abstain from human flesh, lest the European god should be angry, and be careful not to offend the Māori gods. It is good to have more than one god to trust to.'
In Maning's half-mocking account Heke and his warriors remained protected as long as they observed Te Atua Wera's instructions. Nākahi blew aside the fire of the besiegers' Congreve rocket at Puketutu. But Heke's defeat came at Te Ahuahu in June, when he forgot the warning. Besieged by Makoare Te Taonui, in the midst of the fighting Heke took a cartridge box from a dead man. As he ran he saw Te Atua Wera standing on the path trying to rally the fleeing defenders with his mere. When the tohunga saw the blood on the box, he knew that the spirits of the ancestors were now against them and that Heke was no longer invulnerable. Heke was wounded, and all that Te Atua Wera could do was to make his bearers invisible to the enemy so that they could carry their leader away safely. This was a traditional tohunga's skill.
In July of the same year Te Atua Wera was present at the siege of Ōhaeawai. Lieutenant George Phillpotts was killed and his scalp brought to the tohunga to read the omens. He also composed a song of exultation which foretold victory. It was sung with fearful effect when the troops were repulsed from Ōhaeawai.
Fight in the valley,
They are all exposed there
You will not return to your village,
Because of the driving force of the fighters.
On Jesus Christ,
And the Book,
I will turn my back,
And I will empty my bowels upon them!
In another song, based on a dream, he saw the spirit collect worms to catch the wriggling eel at Ruapekapeka. This became the war song of Kawiti's people.
Te Atua Wera was acting as a traditional war tohunga. The word of the god came forth in his sleep as a vision to be fulfilled. Nākahi appeared and disappeared as a flash of light, and intervened on behalf of the warriors as long as they obeyed the rules the tohunga had laid down. The new element in these teachings was the hatred of the Scriptures and of Christ.
After the war Papahurihia lived a little upriver from the main Ōmanaia settlement. There John Webster visited him regularly. He described him in 1847 as 'a fine looking intelligent young man about 33 or 4…fully tatooed', a prophet and a man of high repute. Webster called him Te Atua Wera (or Wero in his spelling) but he also said that he was known as Papahurihia or Papa. Webster found him living near Ōmanaia in a large raupō house which could hold 100 people, with muskets of every size and date of manufacture ranged around the inner walls, some of them very old. In the corner was a raised sleeping place with curtains, where Papahurihia spoke with the spirits of the other world. There are two sketches of him in Webster's journal. In one Papahurihia appears as a leader of an energetic dance; in the other he is in conversation on the veranda of a new dwelling.
The Catholic priest Maxime Petit was also a regular visitor around this time. Catholic missionaries felt that Te Atua Wera (the name they always used) preferred them to the Protestants. It is possible that the tohunga borrowed some elements of his teaching from them. They had likened their church to the tree trunk and the Protestants to its thin curving branches. As early as 1834 the tohunga had taught that only his followers could ascend the straight tree to the sky. The unbelievers travelled on a curved tree and fell into an abyss filled with a fire Nākahi had lit. In many Māori communities the Catholic faith was accepted by those opposed to British authority and to Protestant hapū; a number of Te Hikutū were Catholic converts. Te Atua Wera's apparent sympathy was in keeping with his rejection of the Protestants.
Te Atua Wera was considered a wealthy man in the 1840s, a time of general poverty in Hokianga. John Warren, the Wesleyan missionary at Waimā, knew him well and visited him often at Rāwene. He commented in 1853 on the amount of property in horses and cattle he had amassed, by what Warren considered 'jugglery'. But he added: 'His business is now greatly in decline; and to do him justice I do not think he is sorry for it.' Many of his people were being baptised into the Wesleyan Church. Te Atua Wera told Warren that it was 'with his full consent and approval, and that he is only waiting to see whether christianity makes them less quarrelsome among themselves, and more respectful to him as their chief, and if so, he shall quickly follow in their train. I found him living quite alone, with the exception of a little boy to cook for him.'
In 1856 Papahurihia was converted to Christianity by Āperahama Taonui, a Wesleyan convert; he was baptised by the Wesleyan missionary Thomas Buddle, and took the name Penetana. After his baptism he formally married Kikihu. He was still living at Rāwene in 1859, on the south-west side of Herd's Point at Te Raupō. Here he had a school of learning, which was later associated with Āperahama Taonui. He was appointed a warden of police and an assessor by the government in 1861. He disapproved of the Pai Mārire religious movement. A government report in 1866 said that although he was not a major chief he was 'the most influential man in this District', Hokianga. He was also believed to be loyal to the government.
As a visionary Papahurihia was frequently consulted by Māori throughout his life. In 1863, as the wars were spreading, he was asked about the outcome in Taranaki and Waikato, for rumours were circulating that the 'Europeans intended to exterminate the Māori people, and occupy their Lands'. He held a meeting in a large dwelling where he conversed with the spirits of the dead. He predicted sagely that the war would end 'in a kind of drawn game, between the Europeans and the Māori people'.
In 1870 he was among the Hokianga leaders welcoming the governor, G. F. Bowen, on his visit to the north. He greeted him with a dream: 'I dreamt before the coming of Governor Brown[e] that a black man had taken a feather out of my hair, and I told the Governor.' What Bowen made of this is not recorded; it was perhaps a statement of loss of authority.
He died on 3 November 1875 and was buried at Ōmanaia by a Wesleyan minister, William Rowse. He was survived by Kikihu and Heene Whakarongohau. The photograph taken at his tangi shows him as a man with fine features and delicate bones, and with a moko on his cheeks and chin. His gravestone was erected in 1879 by the government. There is a tradition that the stone would not accept the direction in which it was placed, and turned itself around to the north and Te Rerenga Wairua.
After Papahurihia's death, Āperahama Taonui was acclaimed as his successor, at Ōmanaia in March 1880. Both men were listed by John White as tohunga from the Māmari canoe tradition, who were among his informants for The ancient history of the Māori, published between 1887 and 1890. Te Atua Wera also lived on as an ancestral spirit summoned up in seances. His advice was asked in the Dog Tax War at Waimā in 1898 by the new medium, Hōne Tōia, whose cult was known as Whiowhio, the whistling cult, because, as before, Nākahi spoke in a strange, whistling voice. Followers of Papahurihia and the Whiowhio movement remain today in the Ōmanaia and Whirinaki districts. Nākahi is feared as an omen of death, his manifestation often being described as a hairy hand on the shoulder. Papahurihia has also entered the Pākehā literary imagination through the writings of Frederick Maning and Kendrick Smithyman's Atua Wera, published in 1997.
Papahurihia was a traditional Māori seer and tohunga. There is no evidence that his movement took a millennial form at any stage, although it has mostly been interpreted in this way. Nor is there any evidence that he claimed to raise the dead. He claimed only to be able to speak with them, as his tohunga predecessors had done.