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No. 41 (December 1962)
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Kumaras
and
Kumara
Magic

This stone carving is one of the religious statues usually known as ‘kumara gods’; it represented Rongo, the god who personified and protected kumaras, and the days of the old Maori religions it was placed with great ceremony beside the field of growing plants so that it would care for them. This particular statue is now in the Wanganui Museum, you will find other ones in other museums, though there are not very many of them; probably a lot were buried in the ground for safe-keeping in time of danger, and were lost when their owners didn't come back to collect them. We have photographed this figure standing in a little kit of kiwi feathers. This kit is not an old one, so it should not be regarded as being strictly authentic. But is is known that on important occasions Maoris decorated their sacred carvings with feathers, so probably it once did look something like this. It would almost certainly be painted with red ochre as well.

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In most parts of New Zealand kumaras were Maoris' most important food; certainly they were their most important cultivated crop. Because of this, kumara growing, even more perhaps than fishing, was a very sacred undertaking, involving many solemn rituals.

When the first long whistling notes of the pipiwharauroa, the shining cuckoo, were heard in the spring, and when the stars showed that the right time had come, the ground was made ready for the kumara. Light, warm sandy soil suits kumaras best, and when the soil was heavy, women and slaves used to carry hundreds of baskets of gravel and sand to lighten it.

If much land was to be planted, the men all around would form a working party to dig the ground—perhaps twenty or thirty or forty men, all keeping time as they dug, swinging their ko rhythmically from side to side and singing an ancient chant. Often they ornamented their heads and the tops of their ko with feathers, and sometimes they hung aurei, the white crescent-shaped mat-pins of bone, from the tops of the ko; these clattered together as they dug, making a pleasant sound. Behind them came other men who heaped the soil into mounds.

Fields Were Tapu

The field where the kumaras were to grow had to be made tapu; as part of this ceremony, and usually before the kumaras were planted, long poles were brought and placed upright around the field. These poles represented the gods connected with the cultivation of the kumara—gods such as Rongo, Maui, Kahukura and Marihaka. Sometimes the people put the dried heads of famous ancestors upon the tops of these poles, and sometimes they brought other bones of their ancestors also, painted with red ochre and ornamented with feathers. These were put to watch over the fields so that their mana might ensure food for their descendants.

Sometimes stone statues, such as the one which we illustrate, were also brought to guard the fields. These seem usually to have represented Rongo, the chief of the gods associated with agriculture, but some statues had other names. Mokoia Island in Lake Rotorua, for instance, was a very tapu island, largely because of the presence of the ancient statue called Matuatonga, which is still there today. Kumaras grew very well on Mokoia, and this was attributed to the great powers of Matuatonga. Because of this, each year before the planting began the tohungas from the surrounding districts would bring their seed-kumara to the island so that they could touch the figure of Matuatonga, thereby gaining its mana.

Ritual of Planting

The day on which the field was planted was very sacred. The planters arrived at the field before sunrise, and the tohunga chanted a prayer to Rongo, while they all faced towards the rising sun. Then the priest took a sacred basket of kumara and planted them, with ritual gestures, in a specially tapu part of the field. After this the men planted the rest of the field. When the work was over they ate a ceremonial meal of kumara from two sacred ovens; this was part of the ritual of removing the tapu which rested upon them during the planting.

While the plants were growing it was forbidden for strangers to approach them; if, in travelling across the country, you accidentally stumbled across the other tribe's kumara plantations, you were very likely to be attacked. During the summer the only people allowed near the kumara were the workman who did the weeding.

When the stars showed that the time had come to harvest the kumara, there were once again elaborate ceremonies performed by the tohunga, and once again the men working the fields (no women were allowed) were in a tapu condition. After all crop was lifted, and after ceremonial offerings of kumara had been made to the gods and all the necessary rituals were performed, it was the time of year for going visiting: a time when neighbouring friendly tribes entertained each other with elaborate feasts, when kumara and fish were displayed in great piles on tall platforms, and there were speeches, games, dancing, singing and festivity.

Readers interested in the nature and significance of the ceremonies by which the tohunga ensured fertility for the fields will find an authoritative and very interesting discussion of this in J. P. Johansen's ‘Studies in Maori Rites and Myths’ (1958).

Over the page we publish one of the many different stories which tell how the kumara first reached New Zealand.