Story: Traditional Māori religion – ngā karakia a te Māori

Page 3. Spiritual concepts

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Mana describes an extraordinary power, essence or presence. It relates to authority, power and prestige. Mana comes from the atua (gods) and is highest amongst rangatira (those of chiefly rank), particularly ariki (first born), and tohunga (experts).

The concept of mana is closely tied to tapu.

Tapu and noa

A person’s tapu is inherited from their parents, their ancestors and ultimately from the gods. Higher born people have a higher level of tapu.

Flora, fauna and objects in the material world could all be affected by tapu. When a person, living thing or object was tapu it would often mean people’s behaviour was restricted.

Noa means ordinary, common or free from restriction or the rules of tapu. Often ceremonies were carried out to remove the influence of tapu from objects or people so people were able to act without restrictions.


Mauri is the life principle or vital spark. All people and things have mauri. People placed physical objects in forests as talismans. These embodied the mauri, and were protected.

If people’s mauri becomes too weak, they die.

Travelling hau

When the demigod Māui had fished up the North Island he said to his brothers, ‘[K]aua hoki e kotikotia tatou ika; e ngari waiho kia tae au ki te kawe atu i te hau o tenei tanga-ika; a, kia tae atu au ki te tohunga, kia whangaia ki te atua, ka hurihia te hurihanga takapau, ruahine rawa, kakahi rawa, ka noa’ (do not cut up our fish, but wait until I can carry the essence of this offering, and, when I get to a tohunga, its essence will be offered to the atua, and the hurihanga takapau (lifting of tapu), the ruahine rites and the kakahi rites will be carried out, and then it will be free from tapu).1


The hau of a person or other living thing is its vital essence, or power. A talisman known as a mauri protects the hau of a person, or of a locality. A forest with a mauri talisman was considered to have greater numbers of birds or fish because of the talisman.


Wairua is the spirit of a person. Wairua can leave the body and go wandering. When a person dies it is their wairua which lives on. Traditionally Māori believed that when they died they would go to rarohenga (the underworld). In northern traditions, this involved travelling te ara wairua (the pathway of spirits) to te rerenga wairua (the leaping place of spirits). Wairua would then descend to the sea.

  1. George Grey, Ko nga mahinga a nga tupuna Maori. London: George Willis, 1854, p. 22. Back
How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Traditional Māori religion – ngā karakia a te Māori - Spiritual concepts', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 April 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 5 May 2011