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Spirits in Everything: Cosmology in Traditional Maori Religion — (Mid-term theological seminary paper)

for HR4175, Cultural and Faith Traditions of Asia and Oceania

Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary

March 28, 2012


Key aspects of Maori cosmology are the mythic origins of the universe, the relationship between human beings and supernatural powers, the cyclical nature of human life, and the importance of ancestral connections. Rapid Christianization altered the indigenous cosmology, and colonial exploitation led to Biblically-inspired prophets and resistance movements.

Background of Aotearoa New Zealand

New Zealand has nearly four million inhabitants on its North and South Islands, and several smaller ones.  Since 1907 it has been a dominion of the United Kingdom, like Australia and Canada.

It was one of the last areas of the globe to be inhabited by human beings.   The indigenous Maori arrived by canoe from other parts of Polynesia in the fourteenth century.  Maori culture is based on land and kinship links, as is shown below.

Explorer Abel Tasman sighted it in 1642 and James Cook circumnavigated it 1769.   English Christian missionary activity began early in the 1800.  Now, 80 percent of Maori are Christian (but with Maori cultural influences) and the remainder hold to the traditional religion or other western sects.  In 1840 England presented the Treaty of Waitangi to 35 Maori chiefs, making them British subjects and ostensibly granting them land rights.  However, by deceitful translation of key words in the Maori version of the treaty, the English cheated the Maori out of their land rights.  This led to expropriation, displacement, and alienation for the Maori.  By 1850, the violence and imported diseases reduced the Maori population to equal that of the settler.

When the English arrived, the Maori population was 100,000. Now the Maori make up 10 percent of the population (approximately 400,000), mainly around Auckland and other North Island urban areas.[1]  Land wars with colonial militias lasted from 1843 to 1872. Largely urban-based Maori protests took place in the 1970s and 80s for land and other tribal rights, resulting in a standing tribunal to investigate present violations of the treaty if not original ones.  Four Parliament seats are reserved for Maori.  The country’s official name is now Aotearoa New Zealand; the Maori word [pronounced Ao-te-a-roa ]means “land of the long white cloud.”  Maps are at this link.


The German encyclopedia Religion Past and Present defines cosmology as “a specific culture’s orientation in space and time as conceived in words, images and rituals.”  It continues:  “Religious worldviews represent the complete order…. bringing the visible into agreement with the invisible.”[2]  Myths and genealogies were handed down by oral tradition (but written down after colonization).  The Maori worldview comprises myths, genealogies, and ritual practices and prohibitions.

Maori Cosmogony:  Origins of the Universe

Moewa Callaghan, citing the authorities Marsden and Henare, explains the myth that the god Tane “ascended to the highest heaven … to obtain the three ‘baskets of knowledge.’  These baskets contained the knowledge of the creation of the cosmos, of the gods and of humanity.”[3]  What Tane revealed was this:  Te Po is the great void, a realm of darkness, and a source or process of growth and causation.

Callaghan summarizes origins this way:  “Te Hau ora (the essence of life) begat shape, shape begat form, form begat space, space begat time, and time begat Rangi and Papa.  Ranginui was the Great Sky, who impregnated Papatuanuki the Earth.  These are the original parents of creation, including nature and the spiritual powers inherent in the world.  Their son Tane pushed them apart to emerge from their mating embrace, and this opening led to the flourishing of creation.  Humanity is the child of this god Tane and the “dawnmaid Hineahuone, who was formed … out of the red clay.”[4]

A mythic hero common to many Polynesian cultures is named Maui.  New Zealand’s legendary origin is that  Maui used a jawbone as a fishhook to draw the North Island out of the sea; its name, Te-Ika-a-Maui, means “fish-of-Maui.”  The South Island is Maui’s ship.[5]   He is too much of the earth to be worshipped as a god, but he is more than human, and is invoked in rituals for fishing and planting sweet potatoes.

Atuas, Mana and Tapu: The Supernatural Dwells in Nature

“Departmental gods” is the term scholars use to refer to divinities or powers whose influence is focused on particular aspects of nature or human life.  For the Maori, atuas are the gods, spirit powers, and supernatural beings that imbue all of life and creation or, as Hanson says, are “frequent visitors to the physical world, where they [are] extremely active.”  He notes the kinds of unexplained events that were attributed to atuas: weather, the growth of plants, physical or mental illnesses, menstruation, “the fear that gripped a normally brave warrior before battle, [and] the skill of an artist.”[6]

.  “Maori do not acknowledge chance,” writes Callaghan.[7]  Rather, they act in ways to manage, call upon, respond to, as well as avoid the atuas.  James Irwin says:  “[The] gods may be deceived but not overcome.”[8]  The crucial factors for surviving and succeeding in such a spirit-filled world are mana and tapu.  Mana is spiritual or supernatural power, available to chiefs, and invoked by or invested in the rituals of elders, often tribal chiefs or tohunga.   For example, birth rituals known as tohi ora can confer mana on a person.  On the other hand, Maori legend says that “an aborted fetus not given safe burial becomes a malicious spirit.”[9]

Mana is guarded (and ordinary people protected from it) by rituals and by sacred prohibitions and boundaries.  Such restrictions are known as tapu.  Hans Mol notes that tapu sets apart that which is sacred, powerful, significant, or dangerous, or forbidden. [10]

Tapu requirements pertain to food and limit contact with corpses, tribal chiefs, and warriors heading to battle.  They guide the Maori away from offending the gods, lest “the demonic and chaotic would invade one’s world and disrupt personality or the group.”[11]

The concept and practice of tapu is widespread in Oceania, but it is from the Maori usage that scholars of religion coined the English word taboo.[12]

The blending of Christian theology and Maori cosmology began early.  English missionaries translated God into Maori language as Atua, and heaven into the mythical sky-god’s name, Rangi.  Irwin cites two Maori terms for sin:  hara means harm brought by a “ritual failure” (the improper handling of mana), whereas he means an ethical failure, a wrong done to another person.[13]

Over generations, Maori poets and chiefs passed down various legends (not one version) of the origin of the universe and humanity, but after 1858 (when the Old Testament was published in Maori) they “redacted a more uniform version.”  This version introduced a God similar to the Judeo-Christian Almighty, “a preexistent, supreme god, Io, whose essence fertilized the womb of potential being and set in motion the creation of the world.”[14]

Death and Eschatology

James Irwin writes that, absent Christianity, Maori religion has “no well defined eschatology.  The dead either go to the ‘Above’ or the ‘Below’ and life in either place seems to be much as it is here….[with] no suggestion of reward or punishment.” [15]

Moeawa Callaghan explains:  “Ancient Maori, who navigated such long distances did not believe in an end time.  Life returns to Te Po [the realm of darkness] for re-creation and to Te Amo Amrama, the world of light and transformation.”[16]  Hanson confirms that “death marked the return of the spirit to its point of origin.”[17]

More important for Christians to understand, Irwin says, is the Maori’s “solidarity with the ancestors… and the generations to come.” In the Maori Apostle’s Creed, he points out, the word for “communion of the saints” is Kotahitanga, meaning unity or oneness.[18]

Genealogies:  Maori Ancestors in Canoes

The Maori do no think of themselves as part of the branches of a family tree, in the western sense, but “as descendants of the various crews of canoes which landed in New Zealand in the fourteenth century.”[19]  This idea has mythic origins and a cosmic resonance:  “[Where] Westerners see [the constellation] Pleiades in the sky, the Maoris saw the prow of a canoe….  The tail of the Scorpion is the canoe of Tama-rereti in which the star-children and their elders were placed in mythical times.”[20]

A canoe represents one’s family identity and tribal grouping; it symbolizes travel and recalls Maori origins, yet it also suggests instability and the possibility of relocation.[21]  With such prominence in life and history, it is not surprising that the process of a woodworker fashioning a canoe (or builder making a house) is tapu.  The atuas “animated [their] creative work.”[22]

Words of the ancestors provide guidance to the living as people recite proverbs and recount stories.[23]  In particular, tribal recitations of a genealogy (whakapapa) connect people to their ancestors’ experiences and link them to cosmic origins.  Given that identification with particular territory is key to ancestral connections and spiritual identity in general, the colonizers’ expropriation of Maori lands not only brought material hardships but provoked the spiritual disaster of alienation.

Colonialism:  Theft of Land as Loss of Sacred Space

Missionary Samuel Marsden held the first Christian service in New Zealand on Christmas 1814.  Mainly over the North Island, missions from the following traditions spread fast in the early nineteenth century: Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Wesleyan.  (The largest denominations now are Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, and Latter Day Saints.[24])   The indigenous Ratana church and smaller Ringatu church are important sects.

When Samuel Marsden raised the English flag in 1814, he did not know that “Maori tribes claimed unoccupied land by setting up a pole and kindling fires.”[25]  In resistance to accelerated missionary conversions in the 1830s, Maori leaders cut down British flagstaffs.

Mana o te whenua means “power over the land.” According to Jean Rosenfeld, to deceive the 35 chiefs who signed the Treaty of Waitangi, the British substituted another word for mana in order “to subvert the chiefs’ authority over their territories.”  Her article is not clear if the substitution was in the English or Maori version of the treaty, but other sources confirm that the English misrepresented the agreement the Maori.[26]

The Maori waged war over the loss of their lands from 1843 to 1872. “In 1856, chiefs [of] tribes of the North Island and the South Island gathered around a flagstaff” to form common defense by granting “their mana over their combined territories to the first Maori king.”[27]

The Encyclopedia of Religion says:  “Sacred space is a fundamental feature of Maori religion.  A tribe’s land is marked by wahu tap, ‘sacred places’ named for what happened there and commemorated” in the telling of genealogies.

Land gave the Maori “a collective rather than individual knowledge of place, belonging.  It was the place where the bones of one’s ancestors were buried.”  Hence, the loss of land “meant the destruction of … hapu (subtribal cohesion)….[28]

A sacred space common to all tribes is the marae, an open place near the chief’s house on which the genealogy was recited, and where public gatherings still take place.[29]  In the post-colonial context, the marae appears in tribal areas and urban gathering place.  It has developed into an entire meeting and ritual complex, still under the charge of ritual leaders.

Prophetic Resistance, Maori Syncretism, and Accommodation

Much of the rapid conversion of the Maori took place before the majority of depredations and displacements brought by the colonizers.  In reaction, some of the Maori rejected the missionaries.[30]  Some Christian Maori left the faith for the Maori religion.  Some chiefs and charismatic persons remade their new religion into a source of resistance.

For example, during the land wars against English militias, Maori fighters included “disciples of unconventional tohunga [chiefs] imbued with mana from the Holy Ghost, Gabriel and Michael, as well as the gods of their respective tribes.”  Known as prophets (poropiti), many saw themselves in accounts of the Hebrews’ captivity, liberation and exodus toward the Promised Land.[31]  Though they were Christian, they emphasized Old Testament stories and models for this reason; their leaders took on the role of Hebrew prophet.

In the 1860s, Maori warrior and preacher Te Kooti founded the Ringatu movement; the name means “upraised hand.” (During an exile he studied the Bible, especially Psalms, Judges and Joshua).[32]  In the 1920s, the reformed alcoholic and visionary Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana founded his Ratana sect.  (Smaller or less prominent groups arose also.) Among other leaders, the charismatic Ratana encouraged and practiced faith healing, recalling Biblical models but also responding to the real health crises of infection and mental anguish.


The striking natural places of New Zealand’s islands can make it understandable to even a casual tourist why the Maori saw the world imbued with powerful spirits of life and why the land and sea are the factors of humanity’s place in the cosmos.   This makes the unjust colonial expropriations and dislocations even more tragic.

In contrast to the long colonization history of the Americas, New Zealand has become overwhelmingly western and Christian in a short time.  Yet Maori culture and identity persist in–and shape–the dominant culture.  This is the Maori religious heritage:  honoring nature, human ancestry, a sense of place, and the sacredness of the ordinary.  There is value for all of us in not only respecting this heritage but in heeding it.






Auffarth, Christolph. Cosmology. Vol. 3, in Religion Past and Present, 505-509. Leiden:   Brill, 2007.

Callaghan, Moeawa. Theology in the Context of Aotearoa New Zealand. MA thesis.           Berkeley, CA: Graduate Theological Union, 1999.

de Bres, Pieter H. “The Maori Contribution.” In Religion in New Zealand Society, by         Brian and Peter Donovan, editors Colless. Edinburgh: T. &T. Clark, 1980.

Irwin, James. “The Maui Myth Cycle.” Colloquium: The Australian and New Zealand      Theological Review 14, no. 1 (October 1981): 40-45.

Hanson, F. Allan. Maori Religion [First Edition]. Vol. 8, in Encyclopedia of Religion,         5697-5682. 2005.

Mol, Hans. The Fixed and the Fickle: Religion and Identity in New Zealand. Waterloo,       Ontario: Wilfid Laurier University Press, 1982.

Orbell, Margaret. “Maori.” In Religion Past and Present, 37. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

Rosenfeld, Jean E. Maori Religion [Further Considerations]. Vol. 8, in Encyclopedia of     Religion, 5682-5685. 2005.


[1] (Rosenfeld), 5683.

[2] (Auffarth 2007).

[3] (Callaghan 1999), 81.

[4] (Callaghan 1999), 82.

[5] (Irwin 1981),41.

[6] (Hanson 2005), 5679.

[7] (Callaghan 1999),89.

[8] (Irwin 1981), 42.

[9] (Irwin 1981), 41.

[10] (Mol 1982), 8.

[11] (Mol 1982), 13.

[12] (Orbell 2007).

[13] (Irwin 1981), 43.

[14] (Rosenfeld 2005), 5683.

[15] (Irwin 1981), 45.

[16] (Callaghan 1999), 90.

[17] (Hanson 2005), 5679.

[18] (Irwin 1981), 45.

[19] (Mol 1982), 7.

[20] (Mol 1982), 7.

[21] (Mol 1982), 7.

[22] (Hanson 2005), 5682.

[23] (Callaghan 1999), 89.

[24] (Hanson 2005), 5682.

[25] (Rosenfeld 2005), 5682.

[26] Ibid.

[27] (Rosenfeld 2005), 5683.

[28] (Mol 1982), 8.

[29] (Rosenfeld 2005), 5682.

[30] (de Bres 1980), 32.

[31] (Rosenfeld 2005), 5683.

[32] (de Bres 1980), 35.


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