Chapter 2, Part 1 - Te Wao Nui a Tane
The Realm of TAne the Forest God
Please enjoy 'hineraukatauri' by gillian whitehead & Alistair fraserwhile reading chapter 2, part 1
Not long after being given the book King Pōtatau so that I could study the creation myth, my wife Julia and I were fortunate to host the great traditional weaver Te Aue Davis. Her advice has been invaluable to my study and work, and her practices were a revelation that ignited my passion for understanding the world from a different perspective. I chanced to observe her one morning as she approached the harakeke or flax plant to gather leaves for her weaving. She chatted with the plant, explaining her project and seeking its blessing before selecting the right leaves for her weaving. I already had a love of the natural world, but watching Te Aue I knew that this was the way I wanted in my heart and soul to feel about my world.
Trying to comprehend the philosophy that leads to such a practice, I received tantalising pointers from her, and went back to various versions of the creation story. From the balancing ages of Te Ao and Te Pō , which gave birth to Rangi and Papa, emerged a complex yet logical explanation of the elements vital to the creation of life. After Rangi and Papa became partners they lay in close embrace with their children cramped between them until some of the growing children decided to separate the parents to give themselves room to move about freely. Tānemahuta was the child responsible for separating his parents, with the result that the sky now stands above the earth. He did this by lying on his back and using his legs to hoist the sky father into the upper realm. He then assumed the task of clothing the parents in beauty as befitted their great status. To make a night cloak for Rangi he took the peaceful tribe of Tama Rereti up to the heavens in their waka Uruao. There they were given immortality as reward for their conduct and they still adorn the night sky marvellously as stars.
Having clothed Rangi, Tānemahuta then mated with a number of female deities, who produced all the different varieties of plants and trees to clothe Papa. However he was not pleased when the plants began moving around and ruining his design, so he was forced to secure them in place by putting them upside down so that their hair became rooted in the ground and their limbs waved in the wind. He then mated with other deities to produce the birds, which added colour and sound to his creation. His final creation was Hine Ahu One, who was formed from the sacred soil of Papa, and with whom he created Tiki, the first man. Te Aue’s attitude to the harakeke was clarified for me by this account, for we are merely the youngest line of Táne’s children, albeit a special line created from Papa tū ā nuku, the Earth Mother.
A further explanation of this respect for nature can be found in the traditional legend of Rata, who cut down a totara tree to make a waka, only to find on his return the next morning that it was standing again. When this happened once more he waited in hiding, and watched the birds and insects of the forest replace the wood chips until the tree was whole again. Finally Rata realised that he had not placated Táne and the tree’s spirit before he cut it down. Once he had done that his task proceeded normally. Put simply, one might say that the tree is a ‘tree person’, just as a bird is a ‘bird person’ and we are ‘human persons’.
It took me a very long time to understand the origins and meaning of the manaia form, which is used for the birds and insects in the carving opposite. My first query about them to a carver was enigmatically answered when he pointed to some in his work and said, ‘This one is a train, that one is an island.’ Though this seemed vague, I realised that he was kindly pointing me to an answer which I was expected to understand little by little as I was ready for it. However the answer to this seemingly complex concept turned out to be in the application of the simple and basic concept explained in Chapter 1 when looking at kōwhaiwhai designs. Returning to the principles found in the whakapapa of creation, where creation began with the coming together of the complementary life forces of Ira Atua (spiritual) and Ira Tangata (physical), it follows that all creation is half physical and half spiritual. The unique approach taken in Māori carving is to apply this concept by dividing a carved stylised human image laterally, with each or either half termed ‘manaia’. Because all creation shares the same spirit, this human derived manaia can represent the spirit of a train, an island, a tree, a bird or even a stone. Conversely it is sometimes adapted to also represent the physical aspect of these. Often just the manaia head is used to represent the entire being, as seen in the birds on the tree carving above. Manaia always have a face with an eye, a nostril and a half mouth which looks ‘beak-like’, those features can lead the viewer to other aspects which may be present.
Because of the vastly varied use of the manaia form its representation is mostly not recognisable for what it portrays. However, since they are used as mnemonics, or devices to remind the storyteller of something, when the story is known their function is an unrivaled example of the true possibilities of stylisation.
When I understood that a manaia face alone could be used to depict the spirit or body of beings from creation, inanimate objects or even concepts, I realised that it could also be used in an abstract way. This abstract use gives special meaning to the owl’s wings (below) where the faces on the wings represent the gift of flight given to Ruru’s hands. After being asked several times to carve various kaitiaki, or guardian, figures, I set myself a design task of seeing how many of these I could represent in a circular form with a central hole and adjoining manaia faces at the top. This has become an ongoing project as I get introduced to new kaitiaki to link into this circular family. The first in this series was a Ruru which I adapted from the owl design (opposite), after hearing that although ruru are feared for bringing news of departed friends, they also bring other messages if we take the time to listen. Their large-eyed, wise looks thus endear them to many.
From the information that was given to me to help complete these commissions, I learned that both animate and inanimate beings have a special role in guiding people’s lives. Living creatures, as well as star signs and other symbols can become kaitiaki or talismen to guide and protect us. Wearing a representation of them is regarded as a means of transferring their powers to the wearer. These kaitiaki exist on several levels. There are universally recognised ones such as dolphins or rainbows; as well as the family ones we are born into. There are also personal ones which have adopted us – just to think about them makes us feel good, and to see them reaffirms that we are not alone.
Through my work I have been privileged to meet many weavers who are completely dedicated to their craft and materials. Harakeke has always been, and still is, the most useful plant for Māori. Its long, strong leaves are used for myriad items from food vessels and baskets to footwear, and can also be dyed. The muka, or fibres extracted from the leaves can become fishing lines, ropes, finely woven baskets, everyday apparel and intricately decorated ceremonial cloaks, which are often adorned with coloured feathers and have stories woven into their designs. It was no surprise to me therefore that I was asked to carve the harakeke as a kaitiaki. I depicted the harakeke (below) as a flax person, with the leaves around the sides topped with manaia faces, which acknowledge the gifts given to them. The kōrari, or flower stalk, up the centre also has manaia faces to represent the flowers and the new life that their seeds contain.
Toroa, or albatross, are among the world’s greatest travellers. They spend most of their lives at sea where they wheel and glide between white-capped wave crests with effortless ease. They cover vast areas of ocean on their solitary journeys, but when they come ashore to breed their greeting routines are so special that they have become woven into Máori lore, song and art. Their weeping eyes gave rise to the saying ‘Roimata Toroa’, the tears of the albatross, which is synonymous for a sign of true affection. As kaitiaki, toroa are guardian figures of sea travellers, people in control of adversity and those with undying love.
Another regal bird is the kōtuku, or white heron. Our home is beside a tidal estuary and occasionally we are visited by one, which is always a special event for us. These birds have a unique aura and their whiteness seems luminous, so it was no surprise to learn how special they are in Māori lore. Their full name, Kōtuku Rerenga Tahi (bird of a single flight), refers to their solitary habits and the fact that for some they are seen only once in a lifetime. They have the proud status of a chief and a sacred bird, for the kōtuku is one of two birds who accompanied Tāne as he sought the three kete of knowledge. This knowledge was needed to create order in the new world after the primal parents were separated by their children.
Sometimes I just imagine what things might feel like, rather than how they actually are, and in the carving below I imagined a pair of kōtuku doing a dance together to greet each other on their return to the breeding grounds at Okarito. The fact that all kātuku go to that remote area every year to breed means that young birds were never seen in ancient times, which added agelessness to their mystique.
For many years I enjoyed a close friendship with the late Dr Hirini Melbourne of Ngāi Túhoe and Ngāti Kahungunu, and I recall a humorous encounter with a kākā in the bush below Maungapōhatu when I was with him and Richard Nunns. They played some flutes to an inquisitive kākā which Hirini had called down as it flew by and it hopped about in a tree just above us. As they played music on wooden and bone koauau, stone karanga manu and a pūtōrino, the kākā replied to each instrument with its own different song. We were absolutely intrigued at the variety of delightful songs that the kākā sang. Then I played my nguru, at which the kākā gave a very disparaging squawk and flew off, much to my chagrin and my friends’ mirth. It was an enormous privilege for us to be able to support Hirini’s passion for reviving traditional musical instruments. He had a great love of his language and traditions and was devoted to keeping them alive and vital. Through his love of the natural world he was also a source for much of the knowledge that found a place in my carvings. As he pointed out, just as he kept stories, knowledge and Te Reo, the language, alive through his songs, I too could do the same through my carvings. He was always patient with me, but at times he must have despaired when I was slow to understand the gems of knowledge that he presented me with, for it could be weeks before I realised the real meanings of what he had said, and no doubt some things eluded me completely.
I was working on the challenge of creating kaitiaki within a circle, with another circle cut from inside it, when Hirini called to tell me about a kahu, or hawk, that had circled silently over him four times at significant sites in the Urewera bush. I therefore used this technique for a carving of kahu (below). I depicted them as kaitiaki with some recognisable elements like the eyes and beaks, as well as traditional manaia faces on the wings.
Kahu the hawk is linked to Hōkioi, the extinct Haast’s eagle, or giant eagle, in a myth that tells of the eagle’s extinction in a beautifully picturesque way. The legendary account tells that Kahu challenged Hōkioi to see who could fly the highest. As they flew up Kahu saw a bush fire and decided there would be easy prey down there so he dived down for a meal. Hōkioi did not notice this, and when he looked around and couldn’t see Kahu he surmised that Kahu must be above him, obscured by the sun. Thus, being one who never gave up, he flew ever higher until eventually he disappeared from sight. His call, however, is still heard in the south, where he is known as Hākuwai, and that sound signals the end of the tītī (muttonbird) harvest. Today the word hākuwai, hōkai or hōkioi, as his name has been recorded in various dialects, is used for people who act on a principle of total perseverance.
I first heard of Hākuwai as a boy, when friends returning from their annual harvest of tītī chicks rushed excitedly to school and told us that they had ‘heard the scary call of Hākuwai’. Although I did not understand this, the excitement in their eyes stayed with me. So when, some 30 years later, I heard the name again my interest was rekindled and I still search for stories about the largest eagles ever to have lived. In a traditional tauparapara, or incantation, that I first heard when Cliff Whiting was acknowledging the work of the great art educator Dr Clarence Beeby, Hākuwai tells how he was chosen to accompany Tāne on his climb through the heavens to obtain the three baskets of knowledge from Io. This knowledge would be ‘shared and taught to overcome ignorance and to create enlightenment’ in the world created by the separation of Rangi and Papa. The status gained from that journey, along with his legendary endurance, means that, in the same way that his call is still heard in the Titi Islands, Hākuwai has become an eternal being.