The Sacred Science of the­ Maori Tohunga

Geoffrey Hodson
Thursday, June 4, 1942


The Sacred Science of the­ Maori Tohunga

By Geoffrey Hodson

During a visit to Wellington I enjoyed the great privilege of personal contact with one of the few, possibly the only one, of the remaining direct students and practitioners of the sacred science of the tohunga, the Maori priest and magician. He is known as Hare Hongi, a member of the Ngapuhi Tribe of North Auckland. He is a tall, erect, white-haired figure with an innate dignity and a keen eye beneath bushy eyebrows and broad forehead. Though now getting on in years, he is vigorous in both mind and body and carries about him the indefinable aura of the man who has known and still knows the meaning of power. Hare Hongi is recognised as a natural poet and a musician, and an authority on the Maori language and tradition.

Hare Hongi did me the great honour partly to draw aside the veil behind which esoteric Tohungism is generally hidden from the Pakeha. He told me that he was trained for the office of tohunga by one of the greatest practitioners of the science, Nga Kuku his ariki teacher, his Guru of noble lineage. The word ‘kuku’ means ‘the pincers,’ and might well be regarded as descriptive of the qualities essential to the attainment of the tohunga initiation and power, that of reaching out for, firmly gripping and holding fast to that which is perceived by the mind, or briefly, the man of steadfastness and strong will. Hare Hongi also came under the influence of another tohunga teacher, who was the famous Rangitutaka of Meremere, Taranaki.

The highest tohunga rank was held only by direct descendants in the male line of an ariki family, and, as Hare insisted, only when this was conjoined with the highest merit. Each tohunga was proficient in the particular branch of the Sacred Science in which he specialised. Thus there were the Tohungas of Rongo, which is the Lord of Sound, the Commander of the Creative Principle and Its embodiment in various spiritual entities or Gods. Here, as elsewhere, one discerns a direct descent from the basic philosophic tenet that sound is the creative energy of the Universe and that to create, the Logos chanted or spake the Word, or by and as ‘sound’ became Self-manifest.

The Tohunga Rongo was also the agent for Tu, the God of Battle, Who corresponds to Mars. This official was, therefore, largely responsible for the preparations for the conduct of war, for the magical arming and protecting of warriors and for the magnetization or charging with mana of their weapons. Other tohunga titles were Tohunga Moko, specialists in tattooing, Tohunga Whakairo, specialists in carving.

The Tohungas of Tane were the agents of the Lord of Light, Who is represented physically by the Sun. Those of Rehuawere tohungas of healing and, though specialisation was usual, all tohungas were classified as being eldest sons of Rangi, the Sky Father of all men.

Some Tohungas mastered two or more branches of the Science, those of Sound and Light being commonly combined, since these manifestations were regarded as inseparable from each other.

Certain very highly developed arikis were proficient in every branch, and they were called Tino Tohunga, or ‘The Pre-Eminent’. I shall not readily forget the impressive manner in which Hare Hongi referred to this the greatest tohungaattainment, and the tone of voice in which he repeated the words, ‘The Pre-Eminent’. He then went on to say that both of his teachers were entitled to be called ‘Pre-Eminent’, that both knew all rituals, could effectively perform each one of them and, in fact, as Hare Hongi affirmed, ‘lived with them all day and all night.’

‘These men,’ he said, ‘could leave their bodies at will and accurately bring back as knowledge their observations in the superphysical worlds.’ Before going to sleep each night, Nga Kuku would say this karakia, ‘This is the night of …. (here followed the Maori word for the phase of the moon) and I go to sleep in honour of Mother Moon.’ Hare told me that he himself had applied the necessary knowledge and had succeeded in transferring his spirit out of the left or right side of his body at will. He described how also in his early experiments the very devils of Hell attacked him with black claws to tear him to shreds. Hurriedly he returned to his entranced body and woke up in a state of perspiration.

Tane, the Lord of Light, represented by the Sun, performs His appropriate ritual in each of the ten houses which He enters in His passage through the heavens. He is the grandest of all Ritualists and the tohunga represents Him, communes with Him, asks His advice how to teach and lead the people, receives it and then reappears before the people in absolute confidence. The people hear this confidence in his voice and so trust him absolutely, and therefore ‘all works well.’ Here we see the part played by faith, trust and confidence in the production of magical results.

‘Man,’ said Hare, ‘is regarded as three-fold, consisting of wairua, which means the soul or ghost. This is not the immortal ego, but the psyche, or astral and mental bodies. Awe means the spirit, which cannot be seen though its presence can be felt and detected by great lights and sweet and individual perfumes. Tinana means the body and, said Hare, has the same significance as mauri (for mortality), the name of the race.

When the tinana dies the wairua is released and survives for a time. Eventually the wairua dies and releases awe, which is the true immortal principle.’

The wairua can and does reveal itself to relatives after death, and Hare recounted two personal experiences of such revelation when he was wide awake. One of these concerned the wairua of his aunt, who, unknown to Hare, had died one hundred and fifty miles away. The apparition appeared within the house and was so solid that Hare first regarded it as a material visit. When he spoke to his aunt, however, though she moved her lips to reply, no sound came. Later she passed through the closed door and he then realised that the apparition was a wairua and that her body had died. Several weeks later the news of the death reached him, confirming his vision.

All wairuas do not go to a happy union with the ancestors. Only the worthy enjoyed these meetings and went on to union with the Io. Apparently this worthiness is closely associated with noble birth, and I could not but be amused at Hare’s dismissal of the hopes of the common people, about whom, he said, ‘nobody cared.’ Only the elect go to Heaven, and the nobles are the elect.

Genealogy was one of the important branches of Tohungism. There being no written language, the long ancestral lineage was memorised and handed down orally. This knowledge and ancient lineage was highly prized, apparently for the reason that each man regarded himself as being literally descended from the Gods, with Tane as Creator and Spiritual Parent of all. Hare Hongi informed me that his own genealogy was known for the last twelve hundred years and that the computation was of four generations to a century.

When the great tree of life of the tribe or of its noble families was described by the ariki or the tohunga, the noble deeds of various ancestors were vividly recalled, so that the whole recitation grew into a glowing historical romance through which the ancient ideals of the race were kept alive in the tribe and firmly implanted in the minds and hearts of its members.

These influences were all accentuated by the firm belief that in the ariki, who was the first born chief of the first born chief in unbroken line, was concentrated not only his own mana and tapu, but that of the whole line of ancestors to the one Supreme Progenitor. This Mighty Being and all His descendants were regarded as being actually present in the ariki, in terms of influence, power, auric force, prestige, and all this is known to the Maoris as his mana.

To this knowledge of ancient lineage, said, Hare, was added knowledge of the grades of men, their classes and rank. The lowest of all was the criminal outcast, next the workmen or labourers; then came in succession the hereditary minor chiefs, the intermediary chiefs, the high chiefs and the highest, the ariki or noble, who is of the main genealogical tree and himself continued it by marrying a girl of the same rank. Of his children, the eldest boy is the ariki, the younger sons are the chiefs of the tribe, the rangatiras. When I asked Hare what happened if the arikis died childless, he quickly replied, ‘No ariki ever does.’ I later learned, however, that the line can if necessary pass through the eldest daughter, some of whom have been very noble women.

The ceremony of marriage had its definite spiritual significance. The betrothal, taumau, was often planned from infancy, or even before birth, by the parents, who were intimate friends. Marriage was regarded as a human or microcosmic enactment of the union of Rangi (spiritual Father) with Papatuanuku (Mother Earth) and this fact was enunciated within the marriage ritual or atahu, which was performed by a tohunga chosen according to the rank of husband and wife. An ariki family wedding was performed by the highest tohungas, and so on down the scale.

Evidence of the original emergence of the Maori people and their religion from an Aryan centre of civilisation is demonstrated by their possession of this doctrine of the macrocosm and the microcosm. At our first meeting, when he accompanied me round the Maori exhibits in the Dominion Museum, Hare Hongi impressively informed me that the human power to procreate was a manifestation in man of the Universal Creative Fire physically centred in the sun.

When I asked him if Io was the name of the Supreme, he shook his head vigorously. ‘To the Supreme Being,’ he said with great dignity ‘we do not presume to give a name, knowing that it is unknowable and unnameable; so it is called only “tua,” which means “the beyond,” “the unknowable.” ’ The created Universe however has its heart or source of life, and to this heart is given the name Io, the Being or Consciousness from Which (in the darkness) were created the Gods in their various orders, functions and degrees.

Io is spoken of as ‘of the Hidden Face,’ ‘the Parent,’ as well as ‘the Parentless.’ The belief is held that the act of creation was not a material begetting, but a production by means of the creative will. Johannes Anderson, F.R.S.N.Z., M.B.E., quotes from volume 16 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society a Maori cosmogenic chant which has been translated by Hare Hongi as follows:

Io dwelt within breathing-space of immensity.

The Universe was in darkness, with water everywhere.

There was no glimmer of dawn, no clearness, no light.

Then he began by saying these words, --

That he might cease remaining inactive;

            ‘Darkness, become a light-possessing darkness.’

At once light appeared.

(He) then repeated these self-same words in this manner –

That he might cease remaining inactive;

            ‘Light, become a darkness-possessing light.’

And again an intense darkness supervened.

Then a third time He spake saying:

            ‘Let there be one darkness above,

            Let there be one darkness below (alternate),

            Let there be a darkness unto Tupua,

            Let there be a darkness unto Tawhito;

            It is a darkness overcome and dispelled.

            Let there be one light below (alternate).

            Let there be a light unto Tupua,

            Let there be a light unto Tawhito.

            A dominion of light,

            A bright light.’

And now a great light prevailed.

The tohungas and arikis serve as intermediaries between Io and man, and the former know how to invoke power, life and the aid of the Gods by means of chanting. Karakias is the name given to these chants.

The stages of the creation of the Universe and of the spiritual entities are described as gradual changes from the extreme of darkness to full light. Consonant with Aryan occultism it is stated that from primordial light came chaos in varying degrees, and out of chaos was created the spiritual Cosmos, the Solar System peopled by the spiritual souls of all beings. From the purely spiritual condition, the whole was gradually densified to the physical level. First Ioconceived the whole and then produced it in material form.

The spiritual entities of the Universe are arranged in a hierarchical order of ten houses or divisions of the heavens, one for each of the ten months into which originally the year was divided. Each of these hierarchical orders occupied a part of, or house in, the heavens, and these are known as the ten houses of Tane, the Lord of Life and Light Whose symbol is the Sun. This would seem to compare with the Christian concept of the nine orders of the angels with man to complete the number. Tane progresses through all the houses, and this apparently refers to the progression of the Sun through the signs of the Zodiac, which, however, would appear to be ten and not twelve in number.

All this spiritual and material creation also exists inversely, or by reflection, to constitute a tenfold underworld. Hare Hongi expressed this in a Maori text almost mantric in its power, as follows: ‘He kaha to te Ao. He kaha to te Po.’ He translated this as ‘Light is a force. Darkness is also a force,’ and said that the tohunga when impressing this and other truths upon his students would say ‘Kei wareware,’ which means ‘do not forget.’ ‘And so,’ said Hare forcefully, ‘he drives the knowledge home.’

‘Entities,’ Hare went on, ‘who dwell in the worlds of darkness, or underworld, are discards from the human family. Condemned for their errors to live in the world of darkness, they are smarting and they feel the indignity of this banishment and so constantly work evil. They get their fulfilment by giving expression to evil and the forces of darkness, just as the denizens of the worlds of light gain theirs by giving expression through good deeds to the forces of light.’

Cape Reinga, in the Northern part of the North Island, is regarded by the Maoris as the earthly platform whence the spirits of the deceased depart at death, either to the inferior or the superior tenfold worlds, according to their deserts.

Among the denizens of the world of light are unseen agents of the Sun forces and the Gods of the four elements. These include Tawhiri-Ma-tea, personification of winds and storms, Tangaroa, personification of the sea, and Tane, Lord of Life, Sun, God and source of all vegetation and its life. The incantations or karakias of the tohungas appeal to these various Gods for aid in producing desired results. The tohungas are able to sense or commune with these Beings, but when I endeavoured to obtain from Hare Hongi the Maori idea of the appearance of the Gods, he made it very clear that no particular form was attributed to them, they also being regarded as beyond all form and therefore invisible. The name for them supports this concept, for they are known as ‘atua,’ which Hare translated as ‘the unknowable.’ Tohungas also possessed certain astronomical and astrological knowledge, for they were able to discover and tell their people the best times at which to plant and to conceive, and this knowledge was said to be gained by a study of the stars and the moon.

The tohunga Nga Kuku, said Hare, was able to conjure a cloud in the blue sky, and from it to produce rain. Tohungaswere also said to be able to transmit messages over vast distances by means of occultly produced lunar and solar haloes and even rainbows. Signals of the success of a voyage were by these means sent to the tribal home, as for example to Tahiti in old days by the ariki and tohunga of a canoe, on arrival at Aotearoa. For this process the tohunga retired to his private altar and conversed with the Gods. He was quite naked and wore a mouthpiece made of stone, the reason for these being that it was unlawful to expose his mouth and eyes to the invisible beings. The altar itself was tuahu, which means ‘Shrine to the Beyond,’ referring to the invisible entities for whose service the shrine was dedicated. At the tuahu, the tohunga conversed mentally with the Gods, produced with Their aid physical phenomena and obtained from Them knowledge for the benefit of the people.

Amongst other remarkable tohunga powers was that of making plants or single leaves wither at will. Hare himself has seen it done and described vividly how the tohunga would take the plant or leaf in his hands, chant a certain karakia, throw the plant or leaf in the air, when it would come down bleached and dry. ‘This result was produced,’ said Hare in answer to my question, ‘by means of the will and of absolute faith in the Gods to Whom the tohungas were ever near.’

On occasion the various Tohungas engaged in battles of the mind, and Hare described a scene witnessed by himself in which the will of one tohunga was set against the will of another. The situation arose because for no physical reason, whatever, a man of the tribe, hitherto in perfect health, began to die. The tribal tohunga was sent for, in this case Nga Kuku. He examined the man, who although in the full vigour of life lay dying on the ground, his breathing growing weaker and weaker. After a time Nga Kuku asked the man where he had been recently and was told that he had crossed a certain small valley nearby. ‘Ah!’ said Nga Kuku ‘you have desecrated a sacred burial place and have broken the law of Tapu. Another tohunga saw you and is administering the law.’ Nga Kuku then commenced to recite karakias in order to generate and emanate counter influences to suppress the force of the other tohunga’s makutu (death magic). After a time the man began to move, to breathe more freely and deeply. A little later he rose and asked for water and food, whereupon Nga Kuku said ‘kua ora,’ he has survived.

I asked Hare whether the original tohunga would feel the effect of the counter influences and, if so, why he was not able to maintain his own will against them. Hare said in reply that certainly he would feel the effect of the counter-influences and know their source, but that as the offender had had his lesson, and a very severe one, the first tohungawould agree to Nga Kuku’s decision that he be allowed to live.

Many recorded instances exist of the effectiveness both of the influence of tapu and of the makatu karakias. Johannes Anderson, the famous authority on the Maoris, quotes from a case recorded by Sir John Logan Campbell, a physician in the early days of the settlement of New Zealand. In an accident with gunpowder, two chiefs, Te Rite and Te Pirete, were burnt and for treatment were placed in the same tent. This was against all proper tapu observances, for Te Pirete was an inferior chief of Te Rite. A description follows of the action of the influence of tapu on Te Pirete, who received a visit from a deceased ariki named Ngatai, who drew attention to the breach of the law of tapu and its penalty of death. Thereupon Te Pirete, from a condition of perfect health, began to decline, and the record concludes as follows:

‘And the next morning, as we came home from our work, and visited Te Pirete, and saw the marvellously sudden change that had come over him, we agreed with Pama in thinking that the summons of Ngatai was one which was going to be obeyed, and that Te Pirete had fully made up his mind to ‘die himself from off the face of the earth,’ as Pama had put it.

‘But we certainly were not prepared for the suddenness with which this was accomplished.

‘Only one more day had passed when Te Pirete’s face became still more marvellously changed though it was but three days since he had received the midnight summons.

‘And when midnight came again the death-wail broke upon the stillness of the night, rending the air. And the wail was caught up, and we heard it in faint and fainter sounds as it was repeated away up the length and breadth of the Waiomu Valley.’

Although Hare Hongi did not speak very much to me upon the subject of tapu, this account would be incomplete without some reference to this inviolable law. The word tapu evidently means much the same as ‘taboo,’ that is, ‘forbidden’ or ‘set apart.’ The strange attribute of this law is that it operates automatically whether the offender was detected or not, and even whether the offender knew or did not know that he had offended. In almost all cases, however, the mortal effects of the law of tapu did not begin to be experienced until the offender became aware of his offence. When he did know or later learned the fact, his own conscience became accuser, judge and executioner in one, and the conscience-stricken Maori frightened himself to death.

From ‘Narrative of a Voyage of New Zealand,’ by J. L. Nicholas, Johannes Anderson also quotes a very interesting description of the actual feelings of the Maori while the tapu was at work. Nicholas, who was with Marsden on his visit to New Zealand in 1814, writes:

‘Ruatara, in telling me that it was impossible for a thief to escape punishment in New Zealand – for if not detected by man, the all-seeing vigilance of the deity was sure to discover him – made use of the following remarkable words, which are not only forcible, but highly poetical: “The atua (God),” says he, “rises upon him like a full moon, rushes upon him with the velocity of a falling star, and passes by him like a shot from the cannon’s mouth.” Such was the exact tenor of the expression he made use of, as nearly as I could collect it from the notion I had of his language; and I was forcibly struck with so extraordinary a description.’

At heart, the Maori is a born ritualist, and Hare informed me that no important action was ever taken without the appropriate ritual and karakia. ‘If a tree were cut down,’ he said, ‘an apology was offered to the Spirit of the Forest, Tane, for the disturbance caused. At the birth of a child, the trained midwife used karakias to celebrate and assist the arrival and also to uplift and stimulate the mother’s consciousness so that she became unaware of the pain. A flute might also be played to lighten the pains of labour. These birth chants were addressed to Hina te iwaiwa, which means Goddess of the Nines (months) and is apparently equivalent to the lunar influence. Karakias were also chanted at the naming of the child, his dedication to the Gods, his entry into the ranks of the warriors, before going on the war-path, during war and on the return, at death and at the subsequent scraping of his bones. No house was built, no canoe fashioned, no tree felled, no fishing undertaken, without ceremonies and karakias.’

In conclusion, it would appear that the Maoris possessed both popular or fireside religion followed by the mass of the people, and also an inner teaching or esotericism known only to the arikis, who were obliged to pass through severe tests qualifying them to receive the higher teaching in the whare wananga, or school of learning.

This esotericism itself is exceedingly tapu, and Hare Hongi’s revelation of the small parts of it related here awakened in me a deep sense of gratitude and privilege. I felt that I had been led back over sea and land, down many centuries, through an ancient gateway into the great City of the Bridge, Capital of the Aryan Central Asian homeland. I had been shown, and I recognised, the one Wisdom which was and still is the light and beauty of that sacred City, as of all the world.

In the tohunga science, I saw the light and truth which has illumined all true Aryan religion and philosophy. In Hare Hongi himself, as in the whole Maori peoples, I recognized not only Aryan brothers, who through many wanderings had reached their appointed home, Aotearoa, but also fellow students and followers of the Ancient Wisdom delivered to the world age by age by the great Keepers of the Sacred Light.

Mentally I saluted the Maori race, and its noble proficients or ‘Pre-Eminents’ who faithfully and through long ages have preserved and taught to the worthy alone the Sacred Science. Their allotted task performed, they now rest and we, racially their juniors, take up their task of discovering, preserving and sowing in the minds of men the selfsame seeds which they implanted in the field of the emotions and instincts of their own people.

After many wanderings over the whole earth, two branches of the Aryan race, the oldest and the youngest, have met in Aotearoa, once the home of the first physical men.

The meeting can be no product of sportful chance. Surely it was designed by the Mighty King when from His great throne in the rock-hewn Hall of Audience, in the City of the Bridge, tens of thousands of years ago, He sent His people forth to the fulfilment of His Plan and of their destiny. The King’s great Minister, the Father of the Race, must have guided both branches of His family through storm and stress, through light and darkness, to this meeting and to the blending which now occurs.

New Zealand shall be – already begins to be – in its turn a racial birthplace in which shall arise the Anglo-Maori variant of the sixth sub-race. Distinctive shall be the racial type, for nowhere else can the same blending occur. Distinguished shall be the New Zealand peoples inheriting and further developing the best traits of both ancestral stocks.

A new race and a new line of arikis shall arise, composed of the noblest members of the Aryans of Aotearoa. In a newer form, Tohungism has been sent here by the Aryan Rishis. It is Theosophy, and we Theosophists must prove worthy to be the ariki tohungas of the new race. In our turn, we must win the noble title, ‘Tino Tohunga,’ the Pre-Eminent.


Published in Theosophy in New Zealand, June-July, 1942.  @ Copyright The Theosophical Society in New Zealand Inc.

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