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No. 40 (September 1962)
– 5 –

The Tohunga who Went Mutton-birding

Some generations ago there lived near Whakatane, in a village a few miles from the mouth of the river, a notorious tohunga named Te Tahi o te Rangi (‘The First of the Heavens’).

Just outside the village, there was a great grey rock; this was the tuahu, the altar, of the tohunga. The only path into the village was directly below this rock, and Te Tahi O Te Rangi was usually to be seen sitting on top of the rock glaring down at the passers-by beneath him.

His magic was famous throughout the island; and though he often used his powers to do good, it was chiefly for his black magic that he was known. He had the evil eye, the power to kill merely by looking at a man; mothers, when they saw him coming, shouted to their children to come inside the house; even the chief was frozen with terror at the sight of Te Tahi O Te Rangi's fierce face and wild hair.

At last the people became so frightened that they could stand it no longer. It was true that they needed the tohunga to perform ceremonies when there were fishing expeditions, when the kumaras were planted and when the tribe made war on its neighbours. But in spite of this, his presence filled them with such fear that they plotted to kill him.

However they did not dare to attack him, for it was forbidden to shed the blood of a tohunga. Because of this they thought of an alternative.

They planned a mutton-birding expedition out to Whakaari (White Island), and when all was ready they asked Te Tahi O Te Rangi to accompany them. The tohunga agreed, the provisions were loaded into the canoe and off they went.

They reached the desolate volcanic island that afternoon and when evening came they lit their torches and went to work. There were plenty of birds in the burrows, and they did very well; Te Tahi O Te Rangi, struggling up the dark slopes with the others, did his share of work like the rest of them.

After this they lay down to sleep. Since Te Tahi O Te Rangi was a tohunga, his bed was some distance away from the others, and he slept particularly soundly, for he wasn't as young as he was, and it was a long time since he had last gone mutton-birding.

The next morning he slept in, and when he woke there was no-one in sight. He thought that the people must have loaded the canoes, and not daring to disturb him, were waiting at the beach until he was ready.

But when he went down to the beach there was no-one there. Then he looked out to sea and saw in the distance his people in their canoe, all paddling furiously back to land. Since they could not shed his blood they had left him on the island to die; for there is only sulphur and stream on White Island, nothing grows and there is no water.

But there was one thing these people didn't know, one mistake they made. Hidden around his waist Te Tahi O Te Rangi wore a magic girdle, made of three tapu strands of flax. He took this off now, held it up in the air, and began to chant a prayer of help to Tangaroa.

After a time Tangaroa heard the tohunga, and sent the King of the Whales, with an attendant whale accompanying him, to take him to land. Te Tahi O Te Rangi climbed on to the whale's huge back, and the King of the Whales, with his attendant behind him, sped away across the surface of the sea.

Soon they came to the people in the canoe. When the people saw him coming they nearly died of fright; they covered their faces with their hands, and thought that their last hour had come.

Te Tahi O Te Rangi did not harm them, but as the whale rushed past he did a furious haka, stamping his feet, leaping into the air and yelling a war-song. When the people heard this they were still more frightened, and greatly regretted their mistake.

When they beached their canoe and went back to the village they were feeling very ashamed of what they had done. They came to the place where they had to walk beneath the great grey rock on which Te Tahi O Te Rangi was accustomed to sit; they looked up, and there was the tohunga, looking as though he had never moved, glaring down fiercely at them and not saying a word. One by one, not saying a word either, and greatly ashamed, the people walked beneath him along the path.

When he was asked why he did not use his magic to destroy his faithless people, Te Tahi O Te Rangi replied, ‘No, let their shame be their punishment’; and this saying has become proverbial.