The primal atua (gods) Papatūānuku (the earth mother) and Ranginui (the sky father) and their children are symbolised in the layout of the marae and its significance during pōwhiri (welcomes).
The marae ātea, the space outside the front of the meeting house, is the domain of Tūmatauenga (or Tū), the god of war. Speeches that take place on the marae ātea are allowed to be forceful, representing the nature of Tū.
The wharenui (meeting house) is considered to be the domain of Rongo, the god of peace. Speeches that take place within the wharenui are expected to be more conciliatory. Metaphorically, the floor of the wharenui represents Papatūānuku, while the roof represents her husband, Ranginui. Tāne, who separated the two, is metaphorically represented by the building in the phrase, Tāne whakapiripiri (Tāne who draws people together).
Purpose of pōwhiri
Traditionally, the pōwhiri process was an important way of ascertaining whether people were friends or enemies. Visitors may have been planning to attack the village, or hosts might have unwelcome plans for the visitors.
In one famous story Apanui, an East Coast rangatira (chief), was to visit a marae at Rotorua belonging to the rangatira Huri Tu Moana. Apanui sent his pet parrot ahead of him. The parrot noticed that hangi pits had been dug, but there was no food in them. When Apanui's party approached the marae, his parrot flew to the ridgepole of the wharenui and sang a chant warning that they would be attacked and killed at the welcome. So instead Apanui's party attacked Huri Tu Moana and his people.
A missionary welcome
Henry Williams gave an account of a pōwhiri he was involved in during the mid-1830s:
We sat in silence for some time, in the presence of a great throng, while an old lady put forth her miserable strains in a ‘tangi,’ (cry or lamentation), our party concealing their faces in their blankets, responding by an occasional sigh. This lasted about twenty minutes, when Warekaua [Wharekawa] arose and gave us welcome. Having sat down, Raumate, one of our party, said a few words, at the conclusion of which he spoke of the necessity of attending to better things, whereby they might obtain peace and happiness. A second chief of the pa … spoke more particularly to Wharerahi. He expressed some apprehension of Ngapuhi.1
Other speakers followed, including Williams himself and another English missionary, James Hamlin. The account suggests that the pōwhiri process has changed little over time.
Welcome at the Kotahitanga parliament
In the 1890s the Kotahitanga Māori parliament met at Pāpāwai in Wairarapa. Representatives of many iwi came from around New Zealand, and a large pōwhiri was held. The guests arriving were met a mile away from Pāpāwai by the Kotahitanga band, and ‘at half a mile distance from the marae they met with the senior women who were clothed with leaves, and had the Union Jack in their hands’.
When the guests finally entered the marae, they ‘spent an hour confirming the laws of the ancestors, and allowing the elders to shed tears as a sign of affection. Following that we greeted each other, then the young men stood and we saw the excellence of their work with mere and taiaha which flew this way and that and we felt the awe.’2