Mana refers to an extraordinary power, essence or presence. This applies to the energies and presences of the natural world. There are degrees of mana and our experiences of it, and life seems to reach its fullness when mana comes into the world.
The most important mana comes from Te Kore – the realm beyond the world we can see, and sometimes thought to be the ‘ultimate reality’.
Certain restrictions, disciplines and commitments have to take place if mana is to be expressed in physical form, such as in a person or object. The concepts of sacredness, restriction and disciplines fall under the term tapu. For example, mountains that were important to particular tribal groups were often tapu, and the activities that took place on these mountains were restricted.
Mauri is an energy which binds and animates all things in the physical world. Without mauri, mana cannot flow into a person or object.
The flow of mana
The idea that mana can flow into the world through tapu and mauri underpinned most of Māori daily life. For example, sacred stones possessing mauri were placed in fishing nets, where they were able to attract fish. The stones were placed in bird snares for the same purpose. When fish arrived in the nets or birds in the snares, Māori saw something more than just the creatures before them – they saw energy within these physical forms. The harvest of fish was the arrival of Tangaroa, god of the sea, which meant the arrival of mana.
Mauri stones were also used to prepare people who would receive mana. In the traditional whare wānanga (school of learning), small pebbles (whatu) were used in a student’s initiation ceremony. It was believed that when the student swallowed the pebbles, the mauri in them was taken into the stomach, establishing the conditions whereby mana in the form of knowledge and learning could come into the person. This is the theory behind Māori meditation practices, known as nohopuku (to dwell inwardly, in the stomach).
Taniwha are ferocious creatures or guardians, representing the life force (mauri) of a place in physical form. They were seen as a constant presence in waterways, ensuring that fish and other resources remain plentiful.
Tohunga (priests and other experts) were able to harness mauri and cause it to enter a boulder, a tree or a fish. This had such a powerful effect that the object seemed to take on a life of its own. There are many stories of trees moving against river currents and having a supernatural aspect, leading to a belief that these objects were taniwha.
Taniwha and chiefs
Taniwha were closely linked to the local chief, who was also known as a taniwha. The fertility of a region was seen as directly linked to the mana of that land and its chief, who would control the taniwha in the river. This is important in the concept of tangata whenua (people of the land). Only tangata whenua could control the mauri, and therefore the fertility, of their region.