How the custom of Rahui has changed over time.
In Maori society a rahui is a prohibition or restriction on a thing or place. It is part of the broader concept of tapu. This essay will cover how the custom of rahui changed over time. The essay will include a description and brief discussion of the concepts tapu, rahui, kaitiaki and tohunga. It will describe the method used to instate and lift traditional rahui and how early European contact and colonisation affected Maori and the custom of rahui. The Tohunga Suppression Act, 1907 and its role in the decline of traditional rahui is discussed and the significance of rahui in modern society is also explored.
Rahui is a conferment of the broader concept of tapu. Maori Marsden describes tapu as:
“The sacred state or condition in which a person, place or thing is
set aside by dedication to the gods and thereby removed from
profane use. This tapu is secured by the sanction of the
gods”(1975, p 197). Tapu is important in Te Ao Maori as it involves practical rules that protect people and maintain community and spiritual standards (Durie, 1994).
Rahui can be viewed as the specific application of tapu applied to a particular place or resource. When an area of land, water or forest needed protection, a rahui was placed. This meant that community access to that area was restricted or prohibited (Durie, 1994).
“A Rahui was used to conserve a dwindling resource, to warn off
intruders, to protect valued items of food, or to discourage entry
into a dangerous situation” (Durie, 1994, p 9).
In traditional Maori communities only Tohunga (Maori priests) could place rahui and invoke the power of the gods into its application. The most basic definition of the Tohunga is “expert” (Stephens, 2001). A Tohunga was an individual chosen by the gods to represent them and was appointed as being the agent by which the gods demonstrated their operations in the natural world by signs of power- tohu mana (Marsden, 1975, p 207). The function of a Tohunga was to allow communication between the gods and members of a tribe to help ensure the wellbeing of those people.
Multiple situations arose in Te Ao Maori that required a rahui to be applied. After death or significant injury in or around the water, a rahui would be placed which helped to ensure that further incidents did not occur within that same vicinity. This meant that people could not swim, fish or collect shellfish from that region from the time the rahui was instated, until it was lifted (Durie, 1994). Rahui were also used to protect food resources. A rahui would be placed upon areas of the ngahere (bush) during the nesting season of birds (for example, Kereru). It was placed upon areas of the ocean (moana) when fish were spawning, and upon areas of the foreshore if shellfish started to deplete. When a rahui was placed upon these food resources, it acted as a conservation measure and allowed these food supplies to increase (Durie, 1994). Therefore, it could be considered that traditional rahui were used in such a way to prevent the unsustainable use of essential resources.
The traditional instatement of rahui invoked the power of the gods. Traditionally, a Tohunga would recite a karakia (prayer), calling upon the power of the Atua (ancestor gods) so that the gods became a part of the rahui. This meant that the rahui had supernatural enforcement. Pou rahui (boundary posts) would be put up as a warning to people not to trespass upon the region.
“Pou rahui were then either covered with red ochre; adorned
with a clothing item of the deceased or the Tohunga; adorned
with a kete (flax basket) or bunch of kiwikiwi (species of fern).
This was known as a ‘maro’ (fronds of fern or sticks)” (Maxwell & Penetito, 2007, p 1). The Tohunga would call a second karakia, which meant that the rahui was potent enough to destroy anyone who ignored it- a rahui ‘with teeth’ (Best, 1904, cited in Mead, 2003, p 196). The maro was then replaced...
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