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Story: Te Mātorohanga, Moihi

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Te Mātorohanga, Moihi

fl. 1836–1865

Ngāti Kahungunu tohunga, historian

This biography, written by D. R. Simmons, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993. It was translated into te reo Māori by the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography team.

Moihi Te Mātorohanga, also known as Moihi (or Mohi) Torohanga, was of the major Wairarapa hapū Ngāti Moe. His family hapū was Ngāti Whakawhena. He was also kin to Ngāi Tahu of Wairarapa, Ngāi Tūkoko, Ngāti Kahukura-awhitia and Ngāti Kaumoana. His various hapū were the intermarried descendants of Kahungunu, Tara, Rangitāne and Tahu. His father was Tiina; his mother, Whenuarewa. It is likely that he was born in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, as he was an old man when he died, some time before August 1876. The place of his birth was probably a settlement in Wairarapa called Te Ewe-o-Tiina. He does not appear to have married, and left no children.

As a child Te Mātorohanga was trained at two whare wānanga: Te Poho-o-Hinepae in Wairarapa and Ngā Māhanga at Te Toka-a-Hinemoko in the Ngā Herehere area of Te Reinga, north of Wairoa. His teacher at Ngā Māhanga was Nuku. He may also have studied at a whare wānanga near present-day Napier.

About 1836 he spent a period of four months at Ūawa (Tolaga Bay) in Te Rāwheoro, the whare wānanga of Te Aitanga a Hauiti. During this time Nōpera Te Rangiuia, the main tohunga, accused Te Mātorohanga of witchcraft and of causing the death of Te Rangiuia's son. Te Mātorohanga denied the accusation and never returned to Te Rāwheoro.

After this, Te Mātorohanga became the authority on genealogies at Te Poho-o-Hinepae whare wānanga, and lived for some time at Te Whiti pā, near Gladstone in Wairarapa. With his close relatives, Eraiti Te Here and Te Mapu, he owned land near Greytown, comprising part of Te Ahikōuka block, from Te Umu-o-Puata to Te Rata. He built a house there.

In 1865 at Te Hautawa, Papawai, a group of people who were clearing bush asked Te Mātorohanga to tell them the stories of the elders to pass on to their children. Te Mātorohanga agreed, but said that a house should be found and set apart for the purpose. The house of Terei Te Kohirangi and Pene Te Mātohi on the bank of the Mangarara Stream (Papawai Stream) was offered and accepted. The listeners included Hoani Te Whatahoro Jury, who, in 1863 at Ngāumutawa in Wairarapa had begun to write down Ngāti Kahungunu traditions and genealogies at the dictation of the tohunga Nēpia Pōhūhū. He now performed the same service for Te Mātorohanga.

Te Mātorohanga warned his listeners, 'it will take years to write down all that I am about to tell you'. Indeed, the recorded information is exceedingly wide-ranging and detailed. It includes stories of creation, accounts of the discovery and settlement of Aotearoa, genealogies of ancestors, and incidents from tribal histories. Te Mātorohanga's version of the story of Kupe has been retold many times.

During the sessions at Te Hautawa, Te Mātorohanga sometimes seemed to regret his decision, because of the tapu nature of the traditions. In May 1865 he became angry with Te Whatahoro, telling him that he did not fully realise the depth of the matters they were examining, which went to the roots of Māori cosmogony. He again emphasised that the teaching must take place in a special house, not in quarters associated with daily living.

On one occasion Te Mātorohanga demonstrated to his listeners his powers as a prophet. On 10 May he told the people that his night had been disturbed by dreams of a red sky. It was a sign that some disaster would befall Ngāti Moe. He sent his pupil, Rīwai, to Hurunui-o-rangi, where Pirika Pō confirmed Te Mātorohanga's prophecy by warning that Ngāti Te Waiehu were coming to make trouble. Rīwai returned to Te Hautawa on 11 May bringing with him a group of Ngāti Moe kinsmen for protection. Te Mātorohanga said he had fallen asleep waiting for Rīwai and had seen the harbinger of death, Tu-nui-o-te-ika, coming to ambush him. Rīwai then told Te Mātorohanga of the warning he had received from Pirika Pō; Te Mātorohanga assured him that the danger had been averted.

When the sessions ended on 26 May, Te Mātorohanga told his listeners that whether copied into books or not, the teaching was still tapu. Disregarding their protests he carried out a tapu-removing ceremony. Before dawn he heated stones in the small fire that had been burning in the house, raked the embers, and cooked 12 very small potatoes. When they were ready he put the books to lie among them, and recited a karakia.

Te Mātorohanga shared his knowledge with other interested people. He trained many students, referring them to Nēpia Pōhūhū and Rīhari Tohii if he was uncertain about any issue. Pōhūhū in his turn told his students that if he made a mistake, Te Mātorohanga would correct it.

It is not known when or where Te Mātorohanga died. Elsdon Best later gave an account of the death of a tohunga who may have been Te Mātorohanga. The tohunga was eating with relatives when he had a sign which he interpreted as his approaching death. He went aside to pray, then asked his people to put up a tent for him where he could go to die. His main pupil came and was asked to perform the ritual whakaha, inhaling the tohunga's breath of life in order to pass on his mana. The old man then waited; as the sun sank below the hills, it laid a pathway on the sea for his spirit to follow to join his ancestors.

Te Whatahoro retained his transcripts of Te Mātorohanga's teachings until, in February 1899, at Papawai, Tamahau Mahupuku called attention to the words of James Carroll, that the tales of the ancestors should be collected while there were elders still alive who could explain them. He suggested setting up groups to encourage this. At a meeting held at Tāmaki-nui-a-Rua, Hawke's Bay, on 15 March 1907, much previously transcribed material was read aloud to the Komiti o Tūpai of the Tāne-nui-a-rangi committee. The accounts given by Moihi Te Mātorohanga and Nēpia Pōhūhū and transcribed by Te Whatahoro were among those unanimously considered to be accurate. The approved teachings were written down and endorsed with the stamp of the committee.

In 1910 the Tāne-nui-a-rangi books of the teachings of Moihi Te Mātorohanga and Nēpia Pōhūhū were sent to the Dominion Museum in Wellington. They were not published, but were eventually copied by Elsdon Best. Te Whatahoro's original complete manuscript of the teachings of Te Mātorohanga is no longer extant, although fragments may remain, and there is a copy of one section made by Te Whatahoro in 1876 when the original manuscript was falling apart.

The surviving transcripts have been of considerable interest to twentieth-century scholars. S. Percy Smith published in 1913 and 1915 a two-volume work called The lore of the whare-wānanga. He claimed to have used 'original documents which [Te Whatahoro] lent me' as the basis for the work. These documents may have included transcripts of some of the original talks given by Te Mātorohanga and Nēpia Pōhūhū. However, Smith also used other less reliable sources, so that not all aspects of his work reflect authentic Ngāti Kahungunu tradition. Best drew on his copies of the Tāne-nui-a-rangi books in the preparation of The Māori, Māori religion and mythology and other works. It is clear now that Smith, Best and subsequent writers on Māori religion and tribal tradition are indebted to Te Mātorohanga and his peers, and to their scribe, Te Whatahoro.

How to cite this page:

D. R. Simmons. 'Te Mātorohanga, Moihi', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2t23/te-matorohanga-moihi (accessed 24 July 2024)