Maori Proverbs and Sayings
To quote Dr Raymond Firth, a world-famous New Zealand anthropologist, ‘the proverb is the rough diamond of folklore … it is a homely, rugged and outspoken piece of wisdom. Brief almost to curtness, cryptic at times in its allusion to forgotten things, it is still a jewel of truth.’
There are many hundreds of proverbs in Maori; most are concise in form but pregnant in meaning. Some contain wit and humour, others embody some piece of wisdom and express universal truths and eternal values. They served as pointers to the accepted standards of a highly regulated society.
There are many proverbs that praise foresight, thrift, alertness, bravery, leadership, industry, neatness, beauty, generosity—proverbs that scorn idleness, clumsiness, wastefulness—that frown upon lack of planning, in-hospitality, gluttony—that rebuke grumbling, greed, boasting, cowardice — that caution [ unclear: ] against hidden thoughts and false exteriors.
Some of the age-old Maori proverbs have fallen out of current use, for some of their allusions are now obscure and the underlying meaning is lost. But a very great number have survived and are still employed by accomplished public speakers to add humour, colour and drama to the thrust and parry of verbal encounters on the marae.
Here are a few proverbs relating to the economic aspect of life. They emphasise the advantages of work and of communal effort. In mirroring the attitudes and values of the people, they should also give us some insight into the life of the Maori of former times.
Ma mahi, ka ora.
Alteratively, Ko mahi, ko ora.
By work we prosper, that is, it is by working that we sustain ourselves. The classical rendering of the above is:
Mauri mahi, mauri ora; mauri noho, mauri mate.
Industry begets prosperity (security); idleness begets poverty (insecurity).
Ma te werawera o tou mata e kai ai koe i te haunga ahi o te kai.
By the perspiration on your face you will taste the piquant flavour of cooked food.
Honest work brings its own reward.
Ehara i te Aitanga-a-Tiki!
Indeed, a descendant of Tiki (who personified physical effort).
Ehara koe i te ringa huti punga!
It is indeed that (powerful) arm that hauls up the anchor of the canoe.
Maramara nui a Mahi ka riro i a Noho.
The large chips made by Mr Hardwork fall to the share of Mr Sit-still.
That is, the food and the fruit of those who labour often fall to those who are lazy—a caution against the idle hanger-on.
Waiapu ngau ringa.
Waiapu that blisters the hands.
One has to work hard in Waiapu in order to subsist. Blistered hands were the trade-mark of an industrious person. (Girls were advised to marry men with blistered hands!)
Ko te tokomaha a Rangi-whaka-angi.
It is the multitude of Rangi-whaka-angi (who personified lightness and ease).
A reminder to group workers that to attain smoothness and ease at some gruelling task they should take the strain at precisely the same instant. To people working in concert, it was essential for each to pull his weight.
Ma tini ma mano ka rapa te whai.
By many, by thousands, the work (project) will be accomplished.
Many hands make light work. Unity is strength.
Ma pango ma whero ka oti.
By black and red together it is done.
Red (whero) refers to the kokowai—a mixture of shark oil and red ochre — which was smeared on the body of the chief. The rank and file workers (plebians) looked black by comparison. This saying means that only by
the united labour of chiefs and commoners can the task be accomplished. It was a powerful appeal in calling for volunteers. The saying has fallen out of use because chiefs are no longer smeared with red ochre and because, as a wit succinctly put it, ‘We're all chiefs nowadays!’
All these sayings were used to eulogise and stimulate the energetic qualities of man and to extol the virtues of co-operative effort.
Here are a few proverbs which are rebukes to idleness. These make it clear that the old-time Maori frowned upon the idle person who shirked his responsibilities and who side-tracked the strenuous occupations of the community. The irritated leader was bound to fling an acrid remark to demolish the loafer.
He kai iana ta te tou e hoake?
Will squatting (at home) on your haunches bring you food?
Kei uta nga hau o Riripa te tu ai.
It is on shore that Riripa exerts himself.
Riripa was an allegorical person whose only labours in fishing consisted in the devouring of the catch when it was brought home. A rebuke to those who wait for the plums to fall without climbing the tree.
He hiore tahutahu mo te tangata hiore tahutahu.
A lazy dog sticks close to the fire and singes its tail. This fellow does likewise.
A caustic rebuke to the shirker to ‘get stuck in’.
He huru pioi, he hiore tahutahu, e kore e ngahoro te haunui.
This is a variation of the aforementioned proverb.
He nui to ngaromanga, he iti to putanga.
You depart with mighty boasts, but you come back having done little.
I whea koe i te tangihanga o te riroriro?
Where were you when the riroriro appeared?
This means, where were you, what were you doing in the Spring—at planting time. An alternative rendering is:
I whea koe i te putanga o te rau o te kotukutuku?
Where were you when the leaves of the kotukutuku (fuchsia) began to appear?
Nga waewae haere o Tokoahu.
The legs of Tokoahu (which were here, there and everywhere).
Tokoahu travelled widely and always expected favours and gifts from his hosts. He never ever reciprocated.
With this issue of ‘Te Ao Hou’ Margaret Orbell, its editor for the past four years, leaves the magazine.
She wishes to say how much she has enjoyed editing ‘Te Ao Hou’, and sends her greetings to readers.
The Waipapa Maori hostel at the foot of Constitution Hill in Parnell, Auckland, has been closed and will be sold to pay for a block of flats for Maoris near Parnell Rise.
The land was endowed by the Crown in 1850 as a hostel for Maoris bringing their produce for sale at the city markets. At that time the land was close to the beach. Maoris came from as far away as Thames, drew up their canoes on the foreshore, and danced hakas far into the night.
In recent years the hostel has been poorly patronised.
Three Maori Salvation Army members, Mrs Nanny Brown (Ani Tauriti Akuhata) and Major R. Prowae (Rapata Parauhi) of Te Araroa and Mrs Ruahine Matchett of Opotiki, some months ago visited London to attend the Salvation Army Centenary Celebrations there. They attended special gatherings at which many thousands of people were present, and at one televised service Mrs Nanny Brown, wearing her Maori costume, read a Bible lesson in the presence of 3,000 people. The largest meeting took place on the Crystal Palace Sports Grounds where, in the presence of a huge gathering, they and the other New Zealanders took part in a procession of 3,000 Salvationists, marching to the music of 20 bands.