Story: Rongoā – medicinal use of plants

Page 2. Supernatural and human illnesses

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Mate atua – supernatural illnesses

Mate atua were supernatural afflictions, sometimes caused by malevolent spirits when a person had broken a tapu (religious restriction). Dealing with mate atua required a tohunga (priest). His first job was to determine the hara (transgression) committed, and to identify the spirit. The tohunga took a thorough case history of all the patient’s actions before they got ill, sometimes including the patient’s and family’s dreams.

A tohunga’s job

Tohunga were experts in various fields, including the arts, agriculture, fishing, warfare and healing. They were also seen as the earthly medium of the gods, and were intensively trained in whare wānanga (houses of higher learning). Tohunga held a position of authority and respect, but also had the huge responsibility of keeping their people healthy.

Finding the cause was the first stage of treatment, followed by exorcism of the spirit that had possessed the patient. The next stage was a whakahoro (purificatory rite) to remove the effects of the tapu. This usually involved dipping the patient in a stream while the tohunga performed a karakia (prayer) or incantation.


The Ngāti Porou leader Tuta Nihoniho described the mariunga – a wand of wood such as karamū, māpou or maire, which was touched to the body of an invalid and received their essence. It was then taken to a tohunga, who could tell whether the patient would recover.

Takutaku rite

Another rite, the takutaku, involved touching the patient with a karamū leaf, which was then floated downstream. The malevolent spirit would be carried to sea and then to Te Waha o te Parata (a huge whirlpool, caused by a great monster), and finally to the underworld. Freed of the spirit, the patient was then sprinkled with, or immersed in, water.

Mate tangata – human illnesses

Mate tangata, or human afflictions, were approached more pragmatically, often using herbal remedies. Warts were pared down and medicinal leaves were applied. Boils were incised and the core squeezed out. Heat was used to relieve the pains of childbirth and difficult menstruation.

From rongoā to rugby

Rongoā was used to heal a leg injury sustained by George Nēpia, the great All Black rugby player. A doctor advised an operation, but Nēpia went for help to a friend’s mother, Mrs Paewai. She prepared medicine from kōwhai bark for Nēpia to bathe in, and nicked his leg in affected areas. Two weeks later, he played rugby again. Later, the doctor admitted he had believed Nēpia’s career was over.

Blood-letting – cutting the affected area with a toetoe leaf to release blood – was practised for painful conditions such as headaches. For near-drownings, the patient was held upside down over the smoke of a fire. Herbal remedies were used for both constipation and diarrhoea. The sap of some plants, particularly the rātā vine, was applied to wounds to promote healing. Fractures were splinted with bark and flax leaves, along with an incantation to promote bone union. Wounds were cauterised with the burning end of a fire stick.

How to cite this page:

Rhys Jones, 'Rongoā – medicinal use of plants - Supernatural and human illnesses', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

Story by Rhys Jones, published 24 Sep 2007