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No. 24 (October 1958)
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GAMES OF THE
OLD TIME MAORI

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Photo: Peter Blanc

Some further traditional toys of the Maori are described in this article following the story of the kite and the reti in our April issue.

TOPS, or potaka, of various types were used not only by the young and very young, but also by the not so young and very old. There were whip tops of several kinds, humming tops, double-ended tops, gourd tops, jumping tops and climbing tops. The whip, itself, called a ta or kare, was made by tying strips of green flax to a wooden handle. The strips were wound round the top and quickly pulled thus setting the top spinning. Top spinning was usually a contest of which there were three types. In one the tops were jumped over mounds or hurdles called karangi. In the second, players commenced whipping the tops down narrower lanes, and though the players interfered with each other's tops, they endeavoured to reach the goal, represented by a line drawn across the ground, which might be a hundred yards away. Tops had to be kept spinning, otherwise the player was forced to retire from the contest. The third was perhaps the most interesting and unusual. The top itself, as a rule most elaborately carved and inlaid with paua shell, measured about six inches by three and a quarter inches in diameter. In addition, there was a spindle protruding from the exact centre of the top. This was about three and a quarter inches long, and had a hole bored through the side at the extreme tip. In operation a cord was threaded through the hole and tied to the branch of a tree so that the top was suspended at about chest level. A shorter cord was then wound round the base of the spindle and pulled against a kip—a small piece of wood which acted as a fulcrum with such force that it would cause the top to spin very swiftly. It would spin so swiftly in fact, that the cord by which the top was suspended would wind itself round the spindle, and in winding itself, would cause the top to climb upwards, on the cord itself. Of course the winner of the contest was the one whose top climbed highest. Although the writer has been unable to find any reference to this top either in museums or in any publication, he has seen the top in action, spoken to numerous others who have witnessed it in operation, and, furthermore, has a beautiful specimen of this type in his possession. Occasionally stone tops were made but were never common.

The potaka takiri or humming top had a projection similar to that of the climbing top but without the hole, and was spun similarly, by winding the cord round the stem. The wood used was usually matai or mapara. Ditties and chants were sung to the spinning of tops.

The potaka hue, as the name implies, was made from the calabash or gourd. As a rule small ones were used though occasionally large calabashes were made use of as tops. Down the centre of the gourd a rod was passed, one end being pointed, upon which the top would spin. Holes were cut in the side of the hue and the action of the wind upon these holes would cause the top to emit a humming sound. To the old people this humming represented the wailing of the dead. For top spinning entered into Maori mourning ceremonial. At times, often after the defeat of a party in battle, friendly visitors would call at their pa to pay their last respects to the memory of those killed in the fight. Specially composed songs would be sung when the humming tops would be whipped up and made to sound off between each verse of the laments. The last time this custom was revived, appears to have been after the battle of Orakau. It might be compared with the Prayer Wheel of Tibet.

In an endeavour to prevent children from being selfish and to teach them to be generous, a curious game was played. Should a small child be enjoying some delicacy, an adult would approach the child, and, clasping hands, but leaving the little fingers poking out, would say, “Will my fort fall to you?” The little one would place a piece of the delicacy upon the projecting fingers and this would be eaten by the adult.

Sometimes complete miniature forts were made by boys, a game they found fascinating. Equally

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fascinating was the racing of little canoes made from flax leaves and stems.

A carved wooden figure, about eighteen inches in height, with legs merging into a handgrip, but with loose rams held in place by a cord which passed through the arms and the shoulders, was called a karetao. With the exception of the arms, the whole body was carved out of one piece. The cord was knotted immediately in front of the upper part of the arm and passed through the shoulder. The figure was held upright in the left hand while the other was used to pull the cord in various ways—upwards, downwards or to either side. By manipulating the cord the hands and arms were forced to move in different directions in emulation of a person performing a haka. Sometimes a whole row of performers in a haka or action song would be equipped with these karetao, and as the rows in front knelt, the figures would be brought forth and their movements displayed to the delight of the onlookers.

Some years ago a number of stone bowls were discovered but nobody could remember their use. They were round, about five inches in diameter, and about three inches thick across their flattened sides. It has been suggested that they might have been used in a game something akin to the present-day bowls. The suggestion is not too farfetched, as the Hawaiian people used stone bowls in a game which they called maika, while in the Cook Islands a game called pua, was played with wooden bowls. Incidentally, we are told that these were engraved with the Grecian symbol of health, but no one can tell us how the symbol came to be found way down in the South Pacific Islands.

A curious pastime upoko titi played by little ones, was one in which the fingers of a number of players were crooked over each other until they were all bunched together. As far as the writer can gather it seems to have had no significance. It is of interest however, in that a similar game was played by the native children of Queensland.

Whare tapere, a figurative expression, was applied to that place in which young folk assembled to indulge in social pleasures. While no special house was built for that purpose, the name, which might be described as the House of Games, or the House of Pleasure, would be applied to any building in which the youth of the time met to play their games. Some of these were regarded as being useful in the teaching of the wielding of weapons, in the teaching of swimming and aquatic sports, in gaining confidence when in and on water, and in the teaching of agility and dexterity, and some were useful for testing the memory and mental alertness. Today, like many other Maori institutions, the whare tapere is no more.

At a meeting in Auckland last July, Mr T. P. Paikea M.P., was elected chairman of an Auckland Marae Society, which plans to build a carved meeting house and other marae facilities on a 4 ½ acre property in New Lynn, some eight miles out of the centre of Auckland. Secretary of the society is Dr M. Winiata; and joint treasurers, Mrs W. Cooper and Mr E. Porter.

First project of the society is to build a workshop and complete carvings for the new house. Some of these have already been made, and described in issue 19 of Te Ao Hou.