Story: Traditional Māori religion – ngā karakia a te Māori

Page 5. Rituals and ceremonies

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Because spiritual forces such as mana, tapu and mauri were seen as all-pervasive, people navigated the spiritual world through karakia and ritual. Most ceremonies and rituals required the services of tohunga.

Scholar Te Rangi Hīroa (Peter Buck) defined ritual as ‘the form of conducting the whole rite relating to one subject and it may include various ceremonial acts in addition to the chanting of appropriate karakia.1


Babies were named after the tāngaengae (navel cord) was severed. The tūā rite was performed in the place where the child was born. It removed the tapu from both the mother and child, and ensured health for the child.


The tohi ceremony followed the tūā rite. It was performed at a sacred stream. Children were dedicated to particular gods at the tohi ceremony. Boys were often dedicated to Tūmatauenga, the god of war, and girls to the goddess Hineteiwaiwa.


The pure rite followed the tohi rite. This made the child’s spiritual powers or mana permanent. Adults who had taken part in the tohi and pure rites then underwent a process of whakanoa (the removal of tapu) at a ceremony conducted near the latrine (turuma), or at a stream.


Tapu could be placed on particular places or things to limit people’s access to them. This was called a rāhui. Rāhui might be placed where a person had died. For example if someone drowned, a stretch of water might have a rāhui placed on it by a rangatira or tohunga to prevent it being used for a period.

Tā i te kawa

Tā i te kawa literally means to strike with a branch of kawakawa. This was a ceremony carried out in connection with the opening of a new carved house, or the launching of a new canoe. It could also occur at birth, or during a battle.

First fruits

Most activities involving the cultivation or collection of food were under the domain of an atua. The first fruits were reserved for the relevant atua.

  • People fishing would throw their first catch back for Tangaroa, god of the sea. In one traditional story, Manuruhi, the son of Ruatepupuke took a fish without saying a karakia to Tangaroa, and did not offer up the first of the catch. Tangaroa was enraged. He came and took Manuruhi under the sea, and turned him into a tekoteko on top of his wharenui.
  • Rongo, the god of cultivated foods, would be offered the first kūmara harvested. The kūmara for offer were planted in a separate garden plot, called a māra tautāne.
  • Bird fowlers offered their first catch to Tāne, god of the forest.
  • Tūmatauenga, the god of war, would receive te mata-ika (the face of the fish), the first man killed in battle.

Tapu removal

There were a number of rituals to remove tapu and make a person or thing noa (free from the restrictions of tapu). Whakanoa means to make noa.

Bite the bar

Anthropologists Allan and Louise Hanson studied early manuscripts in their bid to understand the rite of ngau paepae. Their conclusion was that the gods did not shun the latrine in the way humans did – when Rupe ascended to the home of the god Rehua, there was excrement lying about – so biting the beam of the latrine was a way of conducting tapu from their realm, or back to it.

Whakahoro was a ritual to remove tapu from people using water. Another ceremony was hurihanga takapau (turning the mat). This was used by Māui to lift the tapu from his great fish (the North Island).

Whāngai hau

Whāngai hau involved a ceremonial offering of food to an atua. It was to feed (whāngai) the essence (hau) of the offering to the atua.

Ngau paepae

A ceremony conducted to increase the tapu of warriors going into battle, and also to neutralise certain types of tapu, was ngau paepae (biting the beam between the two posts of a latrine).

  1. Peter Buck, The coming of the Maori. Wellington: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1950, p. 500. Back
How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Traditional Māori religion – ngā karakia a te Māori - Rituals and ceremonies', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 April 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 5 May 2011