Winged words, Jane McRae

Nga Pepeha a nga Tipuna: The Sayings of the Ancestors
ed Hirini Moko Mead and Neil Grove
Victoria University Press, $59.95,
ISBN 0864733992

Maori sayings are “ready bits of loftiness and sonority”, to use George Steiner’s apt characterisation of formulaic expression. Their concision eases recall; they exploit high language to impress; and they are remarkable for carrying a resonance of idea or event over generations. Hirini Moko Mead’s and Neil Grove’s collection attests to this. It is rich reading for the variety and poetry of sayings, the cultural philosophy and tribal history they encapsulate, and the relevance of past words to the present. There is much more to this book than the proverbial wisdom suggested in “sayings”. By direct message and allusion these traditional texts represent Maori society.

Formulaic language – that is, stock expressions repeated in a more or less fixed form – lay at the heart of Maori oral tradition. It was used in daily communication, aesthetic compositions, and the transmission of knowledge. Proverbs, slogans, mottoes and epithets, quotation from texts, patterned phrasing and imagery, are some examples. Even after they began to use writing and print, the Maori ancestors employed this repetition, with its subtle elaboration, when composing waiata, karakia, whakapapa, korero (songs, prayers, genealogy, narratives). Today it underpins speeches on the marae and enters into modern waiata, informal speech – and laconic Maori-English. It is not surprising, therefore, to find 2669 sayings in Nga Pepeha a nga Tipuna, a number which is far from exhaustive.

Writers are not used to giving such grand place to repetition. Although speech is larded with this essential fat, we tend to thin it out when wielding a pen. Our preference for new combinations of words asks that recurring ones be justified, by quality, if quotation, or extraordinary effect, if cliché or proverb. This collection recalls the beauties of sayings – the proverb can fit by readiness and abiding truth where refined language fails; incisive economy of words cultivates the mind. Maori have a great respect for their vast repertoire. It arises from a depth of feeling for their ancestors, a sense of the past’s active connection to the present, and the enduring oral tradition. The respect is also pragmatic, and a reason for this book. If you want to know the history of your tribe, you must understand your own sayings. If you want to speak well on the marae or compose a fine waiata, you must have a good command of them. If you want to know about Maori culture, you must study the sayings.


This genre is encyclopedic; it logs and adverts to all kinds of information. Amongst sayings about the culture, many speak plainly of morals and everyday practice but more are oblique, suggestive by alluding to the storied past: Ko Maui tinihanga koe (“You are Maui of many devices”) approves or disapproves through knowledge of that hero’s exploits. Of special interest, and highly referential, are the intimate records of tribal life. Quotations from narrative or song, challenge, prediction, exchange between chiefs in battle, characterisation of tribe or individual, bring with them the whole historical incident: Pokopoko-whiti-te-ra (“Pokopoko causes the sun to shine”) lauds the skill and each occasion of the peace-making by this Ngati Whatua chief.

Descendants are strongly attached to their canon of sayings, which is required for composing historical narratives. But one that has wider applicability may come to be used generally: Nga mahi a Rauru (“The workmanship of Rauru”) compliments by association with the originator of carving, and his tribe, Ngati Kahungunu. Licence to adapt the tradition creates many variants of sayings (some noted in this collection) and a responsiveness to the new. Language loss explains the fewer texts in this book about recent history but these illustrate the discernment of metaphor and adaptation: E kore e piri te uku te rino (“Clay will not stick to iron”) is a picturesque caption to the meeting between Maori and Pakeha.

For insight into culture and language, Nga Pepeha a nga Tipuna invites general readers and is of immense value to students of Maori studies (who have already appreciated the preliminary booklets). There have been lists before. Like others of his generation, the noted Te Arawa writer Wiremu Maihi Te Rangikaheke wrote out his memory of sayings for Sir George Grey, who published the first book, Ko nga Whakapepeha me nga Whakaahuareka a nga Tipuna o Aotearoa (1857). Twentieth-century collections, such as Reweti Kohere’s He Konae Aronui (1951), addressed to young Maori, and A E Brougham & A W Reed’s many editions of Maori Proverbs (1961), were small and aimed to ease selection, arranging examples by subject (love, war, envy etc). This book surpasses others in its scope, arrangement and depth of explanation. It has two useful indexes: one to subjects for those who want embellishment for essay or speech or who remember only half a saying; the other to proper names.

To judge from the Preface, Neil Grove – to whose memory the book is dedicated – was the assiduous collector, selecting from previous lists, an abundant literature and unpublished manuscripts. Each saying in Maori (numbered, and listed alphabetically) has an English translation, reference to source/s in literature, and a commentary, varying in length, on meaning, origin, application. There is some helpful (not consistent or complete) cross-referencing of texts. The commentaries contribute greatly to the value of the book. They have disappointing aspects: an unevenness of style, tone and convention; some presupposed knowledge of Maori words or history; an awkward mix of ancient and modern voice. Also, except where quotation is marked, it is not always apparent whether the writing is from the literature or by the authors. But they are readable and very informative – especially about tribal history.

Nga Pepeha a nga Tipuna is a Maori book in its title, design motifs and celebration of the intelligence, complexity and contemporary significance of the cultural knowledge bound up in sayings. But the English text welcomes a wide readership. In the Preface, Hirini Moko Mead suggests that the ancestors would be pleased to share their words so widely, and reminds us, as sayings do, of our commonality: “Wisdom is universal and is not confined by generation, by oceans or by cultures. It is part of the legacy of humankind.”


Jane McRae lectures in Maori Studies at the University of Auckland.


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Posted in History, Language, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
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