Early Australasia religions

The pre-European religious patterns in Australasia were not well described before they began to change, and the traditional pictures are still being reconstructed. A primary difficulty has been the inap-propriateness of Western religious categories when applied to either Australian Aborigines or New Zealand Maoris. The early accounts of Maori religion were by Christian missionaries, preoccupied it now seems with showing that the religion of the Maoris was at least compatible with Christianity, if not parallel to that of the Hebrews in the old Testament. The observations made by Thomas Kendall, from 1815, show this characteristic clearly, although his is 'the only known description taken from conversation with men who had not been converted to Christianity'. It is therefore on these early missionaries that we must rely for an account of the early religious forms, since the Maoris then had only an oral tradition.

A further difficulty is the esoteric or secret nature of many aspects of sacred knowledge. This may be an explanation for the late description (by Te Matorohanga in the late 1850s) of a Maori belief in a high god, lo, since his name may have been too sacred to mention. Alternatively the cult of lo may be a post-European phenomenon, derived from Christian teaching. Religious beliefs are too often ambiguous, and it is difficult to know how they were accepted and whether they were only half believed.

The gods of the Maoris are to be found in other parts of Polynesia, .ind in contrast to their polytheism the religion of the Autralian Aborigines is totemic. Early accounts of Aboriginal religion are confused, particularly since theorists like Tylor, Durkheim and Freud used the inadequate information available as a basis for argument about the role of religion in primitive society. In doing so, it is now agreed, they misinterpreted the nature of Aboriginal religion, because (hey could not gain an 'inside' view. This has been corrected in the work of later scholars who have based their accounts on careful fieldwork.

The two broad cultures have quite different religions beliefs and forms, and yet they agree on a close inter-relationship between the natural and the supernatural orders, and religion has been a stabilizing force for them. There is still dispute about the origins of these people, which need not concern us except to note that the nature of their religions has been used as an argument for the independence of their origins. It must be realized that, despite broad similarities in each place, there are great regional differences in particular forms of religion, both in Polynesia and Australia.

The Maoris of New Zealand

As E. Best says in The Maori (1924), 'There is much to learn from a study of pre-European Maori beliefs, much food for thought in the varied phases of Maori religion, from its grossest shamanism to its cult of the Supreme Being.' Much of the early Maori religion was concerned with securing supernatural help with food supplies and materials, and the potency of post-European Maori religion declined progressively because of the new ways introduced by missionaries.

The Maori world order was genealogically connected, and in one chant (in which histories were retained and transmitted) the beginning is Nothing (Te Kore) and leads through Night, Dawn, and Light of Day, to the Sky (a male, Rangi) and Earth (a female, Papa). The Earth and the Sky were closely bound, and their children were confined between the bodies of their parents. The number of these children varies with the location of the myth, from seventy to about six, but the children finally separated their parents. These children are the gods (or atua) that relate to the important areas of nature, and include Tu the war-god, Kongo the god of peace and agriculture, and Tan-garoa the god of the ocean. The most important is Tane. He defeated and banished the powers of darkness, was the author of all vegetation, and created the first woman. His trees are rooted in the ground and stretch towards Rangi, the sky, and they forced Rangi upwards while the other sons held up the sky with poles. Continuing rain and mist express the sorrow of Earth and Sky, and their great longing for each other. These 'departmental' gods occur throughout Polynesia.

All elements in nature, including human beings, are linked together in kinship, and may therefore be called upon when help is needed, although there is also conflict, since the environment is full of spirits. The main Maori gods were male, and the needed female was fashioned out of earth. Tane breathed life into her. There are several variants in this myth (none being biologically satisfactory) but the basic opposition between earth and sky is preserved in male and female. In another form, Tane asked his father for a female, but was refused because the female element is on earth, and the sky is the realm of life. The earth is therefore for transitory beings while the sky is permanent. There is a similar duality between spirit and substance, or between life and fate, but there is no opposition between good and evil. The first woman was the earth-formed Maiden and her first child was a daughter, called the Dawn Maiden, who eventually became Tane's wife.

Idea of the Holy

The Maori view of the world was strongly influenced by a respect for things tapu, or holy. Almost any object could become tapu if it had been in contact with the supernatural order, while offences against tapu could result in death. Thus fire might become tapu if lit by priests for their ceremonies, since the god might be brought to live in the fire. When the sweet potatoes (kumara) were planted, the god of the kumara, Kongo, might be brought to a fire to ensure a good harvest. Water could become sacred, particularly when a stream was used for religious rites. The sun, moon and stars were also invested with power. The moon was appealed to by women in childbirth, because, as Best suggests, the cyclic nature of the moon was similar to that of the women. Sources of food were carefully covered by religious rites aimed at preserving their supply, and priests performed rites for opening and closing the fishing and bird-snaring seasons.
Important tapu related to people, both during their lives and in death, although it was stronger for men than for women, who had it particularly if they were of high status, were menstruating, or giving birth. Men who were not slaves had tapu in their blood and in their heads, and any man who was captured thereby lost his tapu and became noa. Priests had tapu so strongly that even their shadows had to be avoided, and anything they touched immediately became tapu, so that special arrangements were needed for their feeding. Chiefs had tapu. They and priests were frequently fed by another person and even their mouths did not touch the eating utensils. It was customary to pour water into the mouths of important males, and as Best observes, this must have been very inconvenient. To violate a tapu not only endangered the violator but also took something from the tapu person.
A dead body was more tapu than a living person. The dwellings of supernatural beings were also tapu, although there were procedures for removing tapu in appropriate circumstances. A meeting house was tapu during its construction, as were the workers, and its opening on completion involved removing the tapu. There was an established duality between tapu and noa.

Power over Fate

A person with tapu had some mana, or power, by which he or she could prevail over fate. This was needed whenever he faced the unpredictable. Those who were successful had mana, and this resided particularly in chiefs and priests. When mana failed, it was because tiipu had been broken, although certain things were impossible. The Sky cannot conquer the Earth, nor the spirit conquer the body. On those occasions when it was essential for the male spirit to remain unbroken, as in warfare or when building a meeting house or canoe, the men kept away from the women until the tapu had been removed by a priest.
A training in the knowledge of things tapu was achieved by stories about such cultural heroes as Maui. Carved figures on buildings, particularly the meeting house, represented important ancestors and events in mythology. Each tribal group had its own supernatural forces, or atua, which spanned both the common people, the priests and the chiefs. The atua were present il kept alive by the priests, and their activities explained many events. Local gods had both good and bad characteristics, and were given a place in the genealogy of the tribe. They had their own hierarchy, and their effects were channelled through personal possessions and hair, water and fire.

The Priests

A Maori village consisted of those of chiefly rank (rangatira), the main chief (ariki), the main body of the village and a small group of slaves. One rangatira was also the priest or tohunga, who guarded the mana of the group and himself had a special mana. There were several classes of tohunga, as specialists in art, magic, knowledge, or healing, and their power might outweigh that of a chief. The slaves, who had usually been captured, were important workers and could be used as human sacrifices, by being buried beneath the centre pole of a meeting house for example. Certain tasks automatically put the people involved under tapu.

One role of the priest was to diagnose the causes of adverse happenings, which were usually from witchcraft or by breaking a tapu. Priests also acted as healers. They were the mediums of their atua, or local gods, and were in constant contact with them. As shamans they relayed messages from the gods who typically communicated by •whistling. The priest was therefore a central and indispensable person, since he guided and prepared for most of the important activities, including agriculture, hunting, building, war and sickness. A village might have several priests of different status, depending upon both their power and their skill in the spiritual world. The possession of power had to be established, and success increased a priest's mana, although he became tapu in proportion to his mana, and that could be easily infringed.

Rites and Worship

There was no worship in a European sense, and the crucial religious events were associated with tapu and with death. The practice at death was to place the corpse before burial on the marae, which was the area in front of the meeting house, and visiting parties from other villages joined the tangi, an occasion for a large and usually long meeting. The ritual function of the tangi was to speed the soul to the spirit land (Te Reinga) and to ensure that it properly left the body. Death was thought to be incomplete and so burial was temporary, until the flesh had decomposed, when the bones were moved to a permanent burial place.

Although the gods were not worshipped, there was contact with them for communication and control. Sacrifices to secure supernatural help with food supplies and materials were meals to which the appropriate god was invited. Alternatively, ritual formulae with power to influence spiritual beings were recited. The only images used for specifically religious purposes were 'god-slicks', a carved head on a stem bound with flax. These were not worshipped, but were used by ,1 priest to command the attention of the relevant god, frequently by pulling at a string attached to the stick. Reverence was mainly for human ancestors, for the laws of tapu, and for some sacred places.

Maori Religious Life Now

The response of the Maoris to the Christianity of the colonists in the eighteen-twenties was one of confusion, while the fragmentation of their land destroyed their social structure and mana. Several syncre-tistic religious solutions resulted. Maoris have been recognized by many observers to have a 'religious' attitude to the natural world, and although they now belong to most of the common Christian denominations they are not considered to be much involved with formal church-going. The potent religious groups are still related to kinship. Schwimmer notes that what Christian 'denominations have done is not so much to set up specifically religious groups (though this was often their ambition) as to introduce new symbols which have transformed Maori religious thought'.

There are now two specifically Maori sects. Ratana, which was established during the nineteen-twenties, had 25,853 Maoris adhering in 1966, and Ringatu, established in the eighteen-sixties by Te Kooti, had 5,507 adherents. The Latter Day Saints (Mormons) also had a following, with 16,350 Maori (and 9,214 European) adherents. These groups may have an appeal because of their millenarian emphasis and their ability to adjust to new environments.

The founder of the Ratana Church effected miraculous cures and claimed to be God's direct mouth-piece for the Maoris. This Church became a significant social and political movement, gaining the four Maori seats in Parliament in 1943.

The most numerous groups are the Church of England, with 60,107 of the 201,159 Maoris in the 1966 census, and Roman Catholic with 36,358 Maoris. There were 15,877 Maori Methodists in 1966. All these groups have Maori clergy and a separate organization for Maori • work, although there have been arguments about this. Religious observances tend to include Maoris from several denominations and Conventional barriers are only loosely observed. Funerals conducted by Christian ministers still exhibit vestiges of Maori beliefs, and a Christian minister may be called to remove a tapu or to open a meeting house.

The Australian Aborigines

The Aborigines have no sharp differentiation between what we might fall the sacred and the secular, as their ordinary world was filled with signs of the operation of spirit beings, with whom these nomadic people had a mythological relationship in their own regions. The natural species and objects in the environment had similar relationships to the spirit beings. The social groups into which people were born included their totemic ancestors and the design of life was fixed by a founding drama, which gave life mysterious properties, and defined a formal relationship between people and environment.

In one common form of the creation myth the earth was at first uncreated, a bare plain without physical features. Then in the mythical past or Eternal Dreamtime, the many supernatural beings or 'totemic ancestors' emerged from their sleep under the surface of the plain and instituted things in an enduring form. The sites where they emerged turned into such sacred features of the landscape as water holes and caves. The supernatural beings were linked with particular animals and plants, and so a rainbow snake ancestor usually moved about in human form, but could turn himself at will into a rainbow snake. From him the rainbow snakes of his original district were believed to have descended, as well as the human beings conceived in that district who were regarded as reincarnations of this ancestor and of his supernatural children. Totems were therefore ancestors in the form of local animals from whom the people in a tribe or region were descended, and a man shared the same life with his animal or plant totem.

After the processes of creation, the supernatural beings either returned to the earth or changed into sacred rocks or trees and went back to their eternal sleep. They retained the power to send rain or produce plants or animals of their own totems when summoned by the magic rites in which their human forms recited the secret verses that they themselves had first sung during the creation process.

Totemism is the key to understanding the Aboriginal philosophy, which regards man and nature as a corporate whole for social and religious purposes.

The Initiated

Those people fully initiated are the participants in religious rituals. There is not a special occupational class involved, since those who might be initiated are carefully specified by tribal rules. There are, however, specialized medicine men who produced cures by a variety of means. Rituals associated with death are directed to ensure that the spirit of the one who has died has a safe passage on its return to the spirit world, and does not return to trouble the living. A few groups erect graveposts of a stylized image of the dead person or as a representation of a spirit associated with that person's origins. There is thus a pervasive belief in a persistence of life in a different form, and of death as merely a transition, while wellbeing in the afterlife is not influenced by the quality of the person's previous life.

Religious rituals are designed to honour the supernatural beings, to present them and their cult objects visually before those who are entitled to see them, to initiate tribal members, or to ensure an increase in food. The myths, songs and rituals are inherited, and so owned by direct blood descent.

Initiation marks full acceptance into the realm of the sacred. Men linked with other sacred rites can be invited to witness parts of a cycle, and to take part in the preparation of the cult objects used in them and with the decoration of the actors. Others might be invited as assistants. Religious life is revealed progressively by the elders, but appropriate initiation is a prerequisite lor participation, and the proceedings are most secret. Women have their own sacred traditions, although some older women assist the men in parts of their secret

rites. The form of decoration of the participants, the objects, totem poles and ground paintings, as well as the ritual and the chanted verses, are all believed to have been composed by the supernatural beings to whom they relate. There are therefore many restraints imposed on the participants during the long preparation for the ceremonies, which used to be performed only occasionally and are now very infrequent indeed. For this reason they are being lost.

Aboriginal Religious Life Now

The history of European contact with the Aborigines is an unhappy one, characterized by exploitation and the destruction of both their way of life and their sacred sites and cult-objects. Most Aborigines are now largely detribalized, and only a few very isolated groups remain in which there has not been a substantial European influence of one form or another. This influence has led to a forgetting of both the old ways and the rituals, which were of course orally transmitted. On the other hand it is only recently that full citizenship rights have been extended to the Aborigines, of whom 80,207 were enumerated in the 1966 Census. Of these, 26,459 are listed as giving 'no reply', 2,290 have 'no religion', 778 are 'indefinite' and 560 are 'non-Christian'. The Church of England (17,959) and the Roman Catholic Church (13,232) account for most of the 50,120 Christians. Christian missions have been extremely active in providing welfare, the price of this support often being the discard of the indigenous beliefs and practices of the Aborigines.