Story: Traditional Māori religion – ngā karakia a te Māori

Page 2. Tohunga

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What is a tohunga?

Priests were known as tohunga. Māori scholar Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck) suggested that the term derives from tohu, meaning to guide or direct. Ngāpuhi elder Māori Marsden suggested tohunga comes from an alternative meaning of tohu (sign or manifestation), so tohunga means chosen or appointed one.

The term tohunga is also used for an expert in a particular field. An expert in tattooing (tā moko) was a tohunga tā moko. An expert in carving (whakairo) was a tohunga whakairo. A priest was a tohunga ahurewa (sacred place tohunga).

Too tapu

Some tohunga were so tapu that they were unable to feed themselves. They were fed with food placed on a stick and put in their mouths, and water was tipped into their mouths from a container. In some cases, a specially made funnel, a kōrere, was used to pour water into their mouths. Tapu tohunga could not get their hair cut.


Atua and spirits would communicate through a tohunga, who acted as their medium. The tohunga would speak in a different voice, regarded as the voice of the god. One example is a famous tohunga of Ngāi Tūhoe named Uhia, who became a medium of a spirit, Hope-motu, whom he renamed Te Rehu-o-Tainui.

A person through whom a god was being channelled was termed a waka atua (vessel of a god), or kauwaka (medium).


A matakite was someone who could divine information about the future, or about present events in other places. A tohunga was often a matakite.

In one example a group was marching to battle when the god Maru appeared to their tohunga. He instructed where the battle ground should be, and, despite being outnumbered, they overwhelmed their enemy.

In the mid-1840s a tohunga was accompanying a large party who had been spear-fishing at the island of Rua-papaka in Northland. When they landed the tohunga told the group that a young girl named Nga-ripene had died, as her spirit had passed the bow of the boat and informed him. She had been young and healthy when they last saw her, and they doubted his word. However, on their return it was confirmed that Nga-ripene had indeed died.

What did tohunga do?

It was the role of tohunga to ensure tikanga (customs) were observed. Tohunga guided the people and protected them from spiritual forces. They were healers of both physical and spiritual ailments, and they guided the appropriate rituals for horticulture, fishing, fowling and warfare. They lifted the tapu on newly built houses and waka (canoes), and lifted or placed tapu in death ceremonies.

Ruahine (elderly women) and puhi (young virgins) also played a role in the removal of tapu from canoes and buildings.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Traditional Māori religion – ngā karakia a te Māori - Tohunga', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 5 May 2011