Their Nature and Division

Ko te rangi me ona riri, he karakia ano. Ko te moana me ona riri, he karakia ano. Ko te whenua me ona riri, he karakia ano.

'There are special karakia for the sky and its ragings. There are other karakia for the sea and its ragings. There are other karakia for the land and its ragings.'

We find karakia first mentioned in the story of Rangi and Papa. Te Rangikaheke's version of the story tells of Tuu being given his karakia after he had overcame his brothers, all except Tawhiri. He was given his karakia as the means by which he would be able to overcome his elder brothers and use them for food:

Na reira i whakanoatia ai ona tuakana, a, ka wehewehea i reira ana karakia, he karakia ano mo Taane-mahuta, mo Tangaroa ano tona, mo Rongo-ma-Taane ano tona, mo Haumia ano tona, mo Tuu-matauenga ano tona. Ko te wahi i rapu ai ia i nga karakia nei, kia whakahokia iho ona tuakana hei kai mana, a, he karakia ano mo Tawhiri-ma-tea, he tua mo te rangi; he karakia ano mo Papa-tua-nuku, kia noa katoa ai i a ia ratou i rapua ai e ia he tikanga karakia mona. Otira, na te atua ano ia i whakaako, i mohio ai.

'And so his [Tuu-matauenga's] elder brothers were made noa and his karakia were sorted out, the particular karakia for Taane-mahuta, those for Tangaroa, those for Rongo-maa-Taane, those for Haumia, those for Tuu-matauenga. He sorted out these karakia so that his elder brothers might be turned back to him to be his food. And there is also a karakia for Taawhiri-maa-tea, a tuuaa for the heavens. There is another karakia for Papa-tua-nuku, which renders free from restriction all that is sought by him. And there is ritual for human beings. All were taught and made known by the atua.'

It is through the word, the word of the karakia, that Tuu is to be able to eat his elder brothers, that is to have power over them to control them.

In another text, Te Rangikaheke says that our karakia come down to us from the time of the separation of Rangi and Papa and he names different types of karakia. It is the same power of the word given to Tuu, which is given to us.

A wehea rawatia ake te Rangi me Papa, kua nui noa atu nga tangata i roto i te pouri. No reira ano te take o nga karakia mauri, pana tamariki, karakia rangi, karakia mahaki, karakia mo nga kai, karakia o nga taonga, karakia mo nga whawhai.

'Then Rangi and Papa were separated. People had become many, there in the darkness. It was from that time that life-giving chants, chants for child-birth, chants for the weather, for sickness, for food, for posessions, and for war, came down to us'.

In their use of ready-made phrases or formulas, the karakia are similar to the other forms of Maori recited chants and Maori songs. But karakia are different in their musical style - a very rapid monotone chant - and in their almost exclusive use of traditional language, symbols and structures. Karakia speak the words of the ancestors and are the work of a people, rather than an individual.

Karakia are the chants of Maori ritual. They often call on the atua and are a means of participation, of becoming one, with the atua and the ancestors and with events of the past in the 'eternal present' of ritual.

Typical of ritual everywhere, the karakia have their own distinct, very rapid mode of recitation. Professor Mervyn McLean describes them musically as 'exceedingly rapidly intoned ritual chants whose tempos may exceed 300 syllables per minute'.

Karakia were usually recited solo by males, though some of the work karakia have sections for a chorus and there are examples in the Maori manuscripts of Ngaapuhi karakia recited by women.

Also typical of ritual in general, the karakia are strongly traditional. They have their own traditional structure, traditional symbols and ritual actions and traditional images and their concern is everything, the whole of the universe, earth, sea and sky, and beyond, into the night. Such contrasting phrases as te ao, te poo, the world of daylight, the world of the night ; te wai nuku, te wai rangi, the waters of the earth, the waters of the heavens , are used frequently in the karakia.

Some Words Archaic

Some of the words are archaic, such as the term pure which occurs often in the karakia, but is rarely used in ordinary speech. The term pure has a particular ritual significance. It is the name given to karakia to express either the loosing or the binding of atua spiritual powers, to the subject of the ritual. Sometimes we are fortunate in having similar versions of the same karakia and this can help us to understand the meaning of a particular word. And occasionally a more recent version will spell out some of these archaic terms. For example the phrase kotia te pu, which occurs in the canoe karakia for the cutting down of a tree, is spelled out in the same karakia adapted for the opening of a new house:

Kua kotia nga putake o te rakau o te whare nei,

'The roots of the tree of this house have been cut off'.

Traditional Images

The same traditional images are found in karakia used in different tribal areas. For example, in the ritual for warfare the traditional image of one's own war-party is that of a bird, while the image for the enemy is that of a fish. This imagery is used very graphically in a karakia said for young warriors going into their first battle. It concludes:

He kawau te manu, rukuhia iho, puea ake, he ika e mau ana i te waha. No hea? No te puna i uta. He maroro te ika. Ka oti te kakati e te kawau waha nui, he aua mata whero te ika. Nana i moe te au, tangohia ake ana. Waiho ana hei tohu taua.

'The bird is a cormorant, diving deep, then bursting up out of the waters, a fish held in its mouth. From where? From the inland pool. The fish was stretched out. Squeezed tight by the big mouthed cormorant, the fish is now a red eyed mullet. The one who was sleeping in the current has been dragged up. Let it be a sign for the war-party.'

Traditional Symbols

The ritual symbols referred to in the karakia are also traditional. The two most important symbols are that of the rod or rods and that of food. They are the key symbols referred to in the karakia for each of the major rituals, as well as in many other karakia. There are also two key actions, that of loosing and that of binding. Then there is a set traditional structure for the karakia, a structure linked with the two key symbols and the actions of loosing and binding.

A Traditional Threefold Structure

The Setting Up of the Rods

In the major rituals generally, there is first the ritual setting up of the rods which symbolize pathways between earth and heaven and abiding places for the atua and the ancestors which are then invoked to come down and abide in the rods. In the ritual for the dead the rods are set up at the end of the ritual, one as a pathway for the spirit of the dead person to go "into the night", and the other as a pathway for the living to return to this world. In the ritual for the canoe, the canoe itself is the pathway, te ara o Taane, 'the pathway of Taane'.

In the niu rites before battle rods were also used. At the beginning of the rite rods were set up representing either particular people or particular tribes. During the rite some of the rods were knocked down, indicating those who were to be defeated, while others were left standing, indicating those who would be victorious. Two or three of the very tall niu poles of the Hauhau religious prophetic movement of the last century still stand beside the Wanganui River and some of these had special significance for soldiers going to the second world war.

The Loosing and Binding

Then there is the loosing and binding, the loosing from what is destructive and the binding to what is life-giving. Sometimes the loosing is expressed by an immersion in or sprinkling with water, for the water to wash away anything destructive. At other times, for example in the ritual for the canoe, the loosing is expressed by a ritual beating of the canoe with rods, to drive off any destructive spirits.

The binding is also expressed in different ways. In the haircutting ritual for a young man the binding is expressed by the binding of the young man's topknot. In the kuumara ritual a special kuumara has its shoots bound round it. In the ritual for a canoe, there is a ritual binding of the adze to its shaft and there is a ritual lashing of the canoe before it is launched. In the ritual for warfare there is the binding on of one's girdle and belt. In the burial ritual there is the wrapping and binding of the corpse.

The Whakanoa Rite

The major rituals conclude with a whakanoa rite which consists of a ritual offering of food to the atua and the ritual eating of the food. The offering is made to the spirital power invoked in the karakia to acknowledge that it is the source of life and strength, the source of tapu, the source of mana, for the subject of the ritual. The food offered was usually kuumara or fernroot. The karakia for the offering is called a whaangai. Then the food was ritually eaten, by the chief and the ruahine, the old woman. Only after the chief and the ruahine had eaten were the people allowed to eat. The karakia for the eating of the food was sometimes called a taumaha, and said as a way of 'lightening' the food.

As a conclusion to the whakanoa section there is often a command or a short statement expressing the favourable outcome of whatever has been asked for or rather ordered by the karakia.

Individual karakia tend to follow the same pattern. In the first section there is either an invocation or designation of the atua, or a statement of the situation and the forces involved. The second section expresses a loosing or a binding. Finally in the third section there is the action, the ordering of what is required, or a short statement expressing the completion of the action.

The karakia E Tiki e is a good example showing the set structure followed by most, if not all, the karakia. It is a karakia used to heal a broken limb:

E Tiki e, homai te ruruku. Rukutia, taroia, tamaua. Toro te kiko. Arawa i o uaua. Tenei hoki te tutaki ka mau.

'O Tiki, give here the binding. Draw together, tie up, hold fast. Stretch out the flesh. Fasten your sinews. Now the junction is made fast.'

Tiki is regarded as the first male and is often called upon in karakia used during the birth rituals and where reference is made to the coming together of all the parts which make up a human body. So we link ourselves with Tiki and one with Tiki call on the bones to come together. The karakia concludes with the statement that the binding has been successful.

E rere, e rere, e te kootare is a karakia in which the rain is commanded to stop falling. The first section is a statement of the situation. Then there is in this case a loosing command, a command for the rain to be cleared off the land and the sea. Finally there is the statement that the rain has stopped:

E rere, e rere, e te kootare, ki runga ki te puuwharawhara. Ruru ai o parirau. Ka mate koe i te ua. Tiihore mai i uta. Tiihore mai i tai.

He rangi, ka mao mao mao mao mao te ua. 'Fly, fly, O Kingfisher, up into the astelia bush. Shake your wings. The rain is killing you. Clear off the land. Clear off the sea. The heavens are clear, the rain has gone, far, far, far away.'

One karakia can be understood in different ways, at different levels of understanding. Sir Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa) gives the above karakia as an example of children's karakia and says it was a karakia to stop rain and the first karakia he was taught as a child. The Reverend Herepo Harawira gives the same karakia as the concluding part of a karakia "for the lifting of a tapu off the waters". In the right circumstances it could also be used against a nuclear fallout.

Some of the longer karakia are much more complex, but their structure remains the same. Tuuaatuuaa i te orooro , the karakia discussed separately, is a combination of several karakia. But it too can be broken up according to the three-fold structure outlined above. The structure, therefore, and the key images used, are not left to the free choice of the person reciting the karakia, but are part of a long tradition, part of what Maurice Bloch refers to as the process of formalisation characteristic of ritual chants.

Bloch also speaks of the traditions which form the source from which the images come as being themselves a further limiting of options, a futher formalisation. The source of the images and illustrations used in the karakia are the Maori myths and tribal histories. These form a basic charter for Maori ritual, and determine much of the content of the karakia. So we frequently find references to Hine, to Rupe, to Tawhaki, to Rata and to Maui.

A Work of the People

It is the people who speak through the karakia, not just an individual person.

There is only a small place, therefore, in the karakia, for the creativity of the individual. But this does not mean that the karakia lack all creativity. The creativity involved is the creativity of a people, a people united over time and place.

Because the karakia are the work of a people, not just of an individual, it is not surprising to find that normally there is no known author for the different karakia. While the authors of the waiata, songs, are almost always known and given, the authors of the karakia are not. On the few times when the author of a particular karakia is named, the author named is usually one of the mythological figures, such as Maui, or one of the ancient tohunga, such as Nukutawhiti or Ngatoroirangi.


Most authors who have written on karakia have been content to speak of the great number of these ritual chants and to provide a short list of the different types of karakia. So Eric Schwimmer writes:

There were a vast number of such karakia - love charms, chants to split stones, to give speed to the feet, to unite fractions, to gain success in fowling, to remove tapu, to give power to weapons, to cure injuries, burns, or choking, to put people or the sea to sleep, to ward off ill luck, and so forth.

Two writers, Elsdon Best and Sir Peter Buck, suggested that the chants should be classified according to the status of the person who recited them. On this basis, Best distinguished three types of karakia, those used by children and ordinary people, those used by experts in the various fields of ordinary life and those used by the higher class of tohunga, or religious expert.

Sir Peter Buck, slightly modifying the Best classification, distinguished between children's karakia, karakia used by laymen and those used by priests.

The usefulness of classifying the chants according to the status of the person who used them is minimal. This classification provides only three classes for a great number of karakia, many of which can be classified under at least two of the categories provided. The karakia E rere, e rere, e te kootare (discussed above) is an example of a karakia that is used both by children and by priests.

Moreover, this type of classification, not flowing from the nature of karakia as such, tends to open the way to judgements which tell more about the intellectual standpoint of the classifier than about karakia. So Sir Peter Buck says the children's karakia, were: 'composed to interest and amuse children and had no religious significance'. Best states that the children's karakia were: 'Childish meaningless jingles recited by children at play', while the karakia of the high priest were works of 'the highest form of ritual'.

I have looked, therefore, for a system of classifying which will respect the nature of karakia, and preferably a system which is according to what Maori themselves have said about the chants.

The karakia are part of a cultural whole, so they must be understood and classified in their cultural context. As Louis Bouyer has stated, ritual words and rites:

... should be grasped with the help of a phenomenology which endeavours to embrace their intentionality as it were from within. Only in this way can the integrity of the object under consideration be maintained instead of being distorted in attempts to make it conform to a priori suppositions.

Bouyer's statement gives full recognition to the principle enunciated by Victor Turner that the first step in understanding another people's religious ritual and symbolism is to find out how they themselves understand it, how it is understood 'from within'. The statement also recognizes that classifications imported from other cultures and other belief systems often include implicit judgements about the nature of the belief system being classified and about its truth or otherwise.

For these reasons I have sought to present a classificatory system that, in its general outlines and in its details, is based on a Maori understanding of the karakia. In its general outlines the system is an adaptation of the divisions of karakia presented by Te Rangikaheke. In its details the system is based on the study of about 500 karakia found in the major Maori manuscript collections of Grey, White, Shortland and Taylor.

There are karakia from all the tribal areas, though over half come from two areas, Te Arawa and Wanganui. About 80 karakia are from the writings of Te Rangikaheke and from the Shortland manuscripts and almost all of this material is from Te Arawa. Taylor's notebooks contain over 160 karakia, and much of Taylor's material was collected in the Wanganui area. There is also evidence from other tribal areas.

As I have shown above, the karakia are ritual chants, so the most natural way to sort them out is according to the different Maori rituals.

Classified according to the Different Rituals

There is clear evidence for five major ritual complexes, for the child, for warfare, for the kuumara, for the canoe and for death.

For the Child

For the child there is evidence for a ritual after conception, after the birth of the child and at the haircutting.

For Warfare

For warfare there was a ritual before the war-party left, a ritual for battle and a ritual on returning home.

For the Kuumara

The ritual complexes for the kuumara and for the canoe also divide into three. For the kuumara there is ritual for the planting, for the weeding and for the harvesting of the kuumara.

For the Canoe

For the canoe there is ritual for the cutting down of the tree, for separating the tree from its roots and taking it to the river or sea and for the launching of the canoe.

For Death

The ritual complex for death has two parts, one at the time of death and the other at the time of the bone scrapping.

There are as well many other karakia, some forming more simple ritual complexes and others standing on their own. I have sorted these out also into five distinct categories.

For the Weather

Those 'for the sky and its raging ... for the sea and its raging ... for the land and its raging' I have classified together as karakia for the weather. They include the awa moana, for calming the sea, as well as karakia for bringing on a storm, for a fine day, and for lengthening or shortening the day.

For Sickness

Following Te Rangikaheke, I have placed the karakia for sickness in a separate category, and also the karakia maakutu. The karakia for sickness include those for sickness in general, and for stomach upsets, toothache, broken bones, diseases of the skin, for burns, for blindness and for the wounds of battle.

For Maakutu

Most of the maakutu are single karakia, but there are some which are joined together to make up minor ritual complexes. It should be noted that almost all the maakutu in the Maori manuscript collections are counters to curses.

For Daily Work

There are karakia for hunting, for fishing, and for gardening other than the kuumara. These I have grouped together as karakia for daily work.

For Daily Life

The remaining karakia, which include those for tattooing, for sports, for travel and for love, I have classified as karakia for daily life.

Many of the karakia classified according to these last five categories are not part of any ritual complex. Others are linked together to form minor rituals. For fishing there are karakia for the net, Pakiri i uta and for the first fish caught, Teenaa te ika ka iri . And GNZMMSS 31 mentions a ritual for new fishing nets:

He tapu te kupenga hou, te kahamata. Ka tukua ki te wai. Ka ao te ra, i te ata, ka rauwehitia, ka ninininia, ka noa. Ka rua tukunga o te kupenga ki te wai, katahi ka noa rawa. He karakia tonu nga mea katoa.

'The new net, the kahamata, is tapu. It is dipped in the water. When day comes, in the morning, it is made pure by the cleansing light and is then noa. When it has been twice dipped in the water, then it is fully noa. Everything has its own karakia'.

There are karakia for the snares to catch birds, Teenaa te kaha ka mau , and for the first bird caught, Te manu paakau nguha.

Classified according to their Ritual Function

Karakia can also be classified according to the place and function they have in the rituals. As mentioned above, the rituals can be divided into three stages and there are distinct karakia for each of these stages. These karakia have specific names which, as Professor Bruce Biggs noted, "tend to refer to some part of the rite, rather than to its purpose". They refer either to a particular ritual function, for example whakanoa, to make noa, or to a particular ritual action, for example, turaki, to overthrow, referring to the trampling of the rods.

Bruce Biggs refers to three stages in the rites surrounding birth and groups certain named karakia with each stage:

Firstly the naming of the child and its dedication to the female or male role (tohi, tuuaapana, etc.); secondly, the intensification of personal mana by the pure rites; thirdly, the removal of tapu (horohoro, whakanoa, etc.) from all connected with the birth and subsequent proceedings.

An examination of the karakia and the Maori descriptions of the ritual complexes shows that the three stages occur, not only in the rites surrounding birth, but in all the rites for the child, and in the rites for the other major ritual complexes. The three stages are also found in the minor rites, and many of the individual karakia can themselves be divided into sections corresponding to the same three stages.

In the First Stage

In the first stage of each of the major ritual complexes, except that for the dead, rods are set up, normally beside a river or stream, and the different atua are invoked. The karakia used at this stage are variously called, tuuaa, waituhi, tohi, pana, tuuaapana, turaki and taangaengae.

In the Second Stage

The common factor in the second stage of the major rituals is the loosing and binding. In this stage atua regarded as dangerous are loosed from the subject of the ritual, while those regarded as beneficial are bound to it. The term expressing the loosing and binding is pure and several of the karakia used for this section of the rituals are named pure. There are pure for the child's hair-cutting rite, as part of the ritual for a deceased person, and in the ritual for a war-party, after battle, for healing wounds, and for food set apart for a war-party. There are also pure for the canoe ritual, for the kuumara ritual, and a pure to overcome a curse.

In the Third Stage

In the third stage of the major rituals the atua are acknowledged by the ritual offering of food which is then eaten by the chief and the ruahine, the senior woman. This ritual offering and eating of food removes the restrictions imposed during the performance of the ritual. The karakia used at this final stage are variously called huhu, huhunga, horohoro, horohoronga, whakaeanga, noa and whakanoa and also karakia taumaha and whaangai. There are karakia so named for each of the major rituals and for minor rituals as well, and the terms are closely related.

The terms themselves refer to a particular ritual function of the karakia; some examples: whakanoa, to make free from restriction, or to a particular ritual action; and turaki, to overthrow, referring to the trampling of the rods, or to a word used frequently in the reciting of the ritual, such as taangaengae. (The term taangaengae is used repeatedly in the karakia recited when the child's umbilical cord is cut and is, I suspect, a call to the child to breath strongly.)

Something of the scope of the karakia can be seen from this classification of the chants. The earth, the sea, the sky, war and peace, life and death are all included, and the emphasis is on the human person. As Te Rangikaheke said, nothing is left to chance. Every aspect of life is covered and as one grew up one learnt the appropriate karakia, the words of the ancestors, so that the whole of life was covered by ritual. Move to karakia2 Return to intro. What is Maori Theology Return to Maori theology home page