Mauri – life force
In Māori tradition, the health and vitality of the birds and trees in the forest is the result of the forest’s mauri (life force). Mauri could be represented by a talisman, also called a mauri. This was usually a stone that was hidden in the forest. It was seen as a place for the atua (gods and spiritual beings) that protected the forest. The tohunga (priest) who placed the mauri often released a lizard at that spot to guard the mauri.
Generally, ceremonies relating to the forest were carried out at the site of the mauri. If the trees or birds became less fruitful, a charm (whakaara) was said to reawaken the mauri. In the ceremony of uruuru whenua, a small branch was placed near the mauri, to placate the spirits or gods. The first bird caught in the fowling season was offered to the forest mauri.
Sometimes a tohunga would carry out a ceremony to make a particular tree attractive to birds, so they could be caught. He would say a karakia (prayer) over a bird caught in the tree, to make the tree tapu (sacred). The tohunga would hide the bird, or part of it, which now represented the life force of the tree.
Tapu – spiritual restriction
Like all activities in Māori society, fowling was affected by tapu (spiritual restrictions). A tapu on a waterway could prevent any use of it – drinking, bathing, fishing or using a canoe. A forest, or part of a forest, might be under a tapu which stopped anyone going into it. However, tapu might simply prevent birds being caught. At the whare mātā (place where fowling and fishing equipment was made), women and cooked food were not permitted. If tapu was breached in any way, the gods would be offended and their help withdrawn.
The fowling season was opened with the ahi taitai ceremony. The first birds caught were offered to the gods. They were cooked in the ceremonial oven, and lifted the tapu from the forest and the whare mātā.
A ritual meal
Tamarau Waiari, a leader and priest of the Tūhoe tribe, explained how the first birds they caught were ceremonially cooked and eaten. ‘Women and food were prohibited from the whare mata [the house where bird snares were made] until the rau huka ceremony was performed, freeing the hut and people from restriction. The readied snares would be taken and set on various trees. When the first birds were caught, they were cooked in the rau huka oven and eaten by the priest, thereby freeing all people from restriction.’ 1
Rāhui – prohibition
Rāhui was a form of tapu. A rāhui could prohibit taking birds, for instance from a tree, a grove or an entire forest. It could also refer to particular birds – for example ducks in moulting season. A rāhui was often indicated by a post (pou rāhui), sometimes painted red. Clothing, a lock of hair, or a fern might be tied to a stake to signal a rāhui. In other cases, a chief would note that an area had been placed under a rāhui, and word of mouth would let people know the place was tapu (forbidden).
Unlucky signs were known as pūhore. Certain words were banned when fowling. The remedy for pūhore was to set a post (tuāpā), sometimes painted red, in the ground. It was not tapu. Fowlers going out would take a small branch, touch their spear or basket of snares with it, then toss it down at the base of the post. They would then say a karakia (charm).