Celebrating the Southern Seasons: Rituals for Aotearoa
Random House, $34.95,
Tohunga: The Revival of Ancient Knowledge for the Modern Era
Samuel Timoti Robinson
The election is finally over and we have a new minority coalition government. There are members of Parliament from the new Maori Party, a few less from United Future, New Zealand First and the Greens, and a country split between the so-called centre left and right. In this supposedly most secular of countries, religion and spirituality played a surprisingly significant role in the 2005 general election. Central to the Maori Party is their view of indigenous spirituality so clearly evident in their manifesto. Peter Dunne’s party is committed to religiously inspired family norms and called for the “Christian vote”. The Greens too have an eco-spirituality, and the National Party courted the support of moral conservatives, including Christian evangelicals and the now-not-quite-so Exclusive Brethren.
The would-be coalition of the right voiced a deep antipathy to the country’s moral direction, as indicated in prostitution reform, civil unions and smacking, as we headed, in their view, dangerously further and further away from traditional “mainstream” New Zealand values. One of the recurrent themes of the election was the challenge to Maori spiritual legitimacy in National’s post-Orewa racial policies, in particular its pledge to replace the Resource Management Act and downgrade the status of the Treaty of Waitangi. Equally, some Maori interpreted the seabed and foreshore legislation to be a parallel attack from the Labour side. While the importance of religion and spirituality can be seen to be increasing, the debate about the role of religion and spirituality in our public life has only just begun
The two books reviewed here address, albeit in very different ways, the role and place of spirituality in our lives in Aotearoa. The authors, an eclectic, feminist, Pakeha psychotherapist and a Maori “metaphysical” lecturer share a New Age approach to spirituality. By New Age, I mean that they have little interest in the formal institutions of religion; their interpretations of traditions are often psychological rather than literal; their focus is on the “inner self” and its growth as a spiritual resource; they consciously advocate the creative reconstruction of lost ancient wisdom and rituals; and they passionately believe that this past spiritual knowledge is of great value for us today. Both call for spiritual revivals and a re-enchantment of our collective lives in Aotearoa.
I reviewed Juliet Batten’s well-researched book in this journal a decade ago. This 10th-anniversary, revised edition is again directed at the middle-class open to ritual celebration, and reiterates her passionate appeal that we relocate ourselves spiritually in the South Pacific. Batten creates a ritual calendar for us based on our dual Celtic and Maori heritages. It is good to have the book back in print although it seems little changed besides noting that our growing diversity now includes a range of peoples from around the world, the inclusion of Polynesian rituals, and a usefully updated bibliography. Batten is aware that our coming to be fully at home here is a dynamic process that takes time (she cites Lauris Edmond’s powerful lines: “the persecuted earth has not yet/resigned its ancient romance with seasons/and creatures”) and she invites us all to participate in the recovery of our connections to the natural world in our own specific Aotearoan ways.
Drawing on Elsdon Best and the same Kai Tahu traditions as Batten, as well as oral teachings and “secret manuscripts in my possession”, Samuel Timoti Robinson has written a very different sort of book. This is primarily a guide for a new generation of Maori alienated from their traditions. Robinson’s aim is to enhance the Maori “renaissance” which he likens to the European renaissance, or the revival of kung fu in the Shaolin temples in China. Robinson intends the traditional esoteric learning of the tohunga – inititiated ritual and spiritual experts of Maori society – as well as the resurgence of te reo, fighting arts, dancing, singing and tattooing.
This deep spiritual wisdom, he claims, already diminished by the time Europeans arrived here and further damaged by Christianity and the Tohunga Suppression Act, must be recovered from oral and written sources and from the variant traditions all over the Polynesian Pacific. Robinson himself is a South Islander from Banks Peninsula who claims to have been the last in a line of hereditary tohunga, initiated and trained from the age of 11 in the ancient Maori arts. At 15 he moved with his family to Australia where he still lives. At 18 he went to live in the remote Aboriginal community on Mornington Island to study their spirituality. Now 22, he reports that this, his first book, was written during the last two years and is planned to be the first of many.
Tohunga: The Revival of Ancient Knowledge for the Modern Era is in two parts. The first is a re-narration of the well-known traditional genealogies from Io the high god, down to us. This sacred whakapapa is presented as a cosmogony and a cosmological account of the origins of our world and its dependence on the divine realm, and includes many aetiologies, such as the origins of the taniwha, human mortality, the use of fire, and the rain in Rangi’s tears at his separation from his beloved wife Papa. The language of these myths oscillates between the contemporary vernacular and what might be called a King James scriptural style, in the sense of drawing heavily on the biblical idiom. It’s all very resonant of Genesis with each section representing a day beginning with a divine creative utterance. So we have the “waters above and below” and the repeated refrain of “begat”, but often this version lacks the nuance of the King James Version: so, for example, “the earth lay naked and muddy without form”, or, when Io is referred to as “the vast invisible countenance”. The myths conclude with the three baskets of knowledge that provide the curriculum for the tohunga.
We live in an era when the secret sacred traditions of the past are much more available. The Book of Secrets, for example, an esoteric Cabbalistic text that used to require a master, a qualified adept and years of study can be acquired for less than $20, as can a range of previously esoteric material in the paperback spirituality section of the local bookshop. The second part of Robinson’s book on the education and initiation of a tohunga is part of this popular presentation of traditional knowledge. Robinson claims that the degeneration of Maori spiritual knowledge and traditions is now so great that the old rules for training and the dissemination of sacred lore no longer pertain. He advocates a “radical” sort of democratised version of Maori spirituality. He claims that the time of tapu or sacred restrictions on tohunga training as the mediator between the divine and human worlds is over and knowledge once hidden is now to be widely available to all Maori to foster their spiritual rebirth and growth.
Whereas in the past those few selected for education as tohunga had noble lineages and were required to pass severe tests, now he claims each of you can “rise to your own tohunga status” at “this crucial juncture” when “the time for someone to conduct your spirituality for you is over”. Robinson’s New Age Maoritanga calls on “individuals to connect to the spiritual powers themselves” rather than have the tohunga mediate on behalf of the people, “be your own tohunga, say your own prayers, see your own visions and know your own gods on a very direct basis.”
There are chapters on the traditional schools of learning and the seven degrees or grades of tohunga training. Robinson claims that his inherited interpretation of the three baskets of traditional knowledge is here made public for the first time (the baskets of inner ability, inner heaven, and the inner parent). His do-it-yourself handbook includes guidance on the management of power (manu, tapu and noa), karakia, breathing and relaxation exercises, the use of the tokotauwaka or the special 18-notched stick, the use of the godstick, the recitation of the 72 atua, the signs of the gods, healing and sacred metaphysics. The aim of this training is to “empower yourself and others” and “open your inner facility to know”. The book comes complete with a warning that neither Robinson nor Reed, the publisher, is liable for any “harm” that occurs as a result of “the application of any formulae” or “teachings”!
This is a heavy read with a long series of lists that are to be repeated and memorised. Source material is rarely acknowledged, and there is a dearth of detail concerning Robinson’s secret manuscripts. It is interesting to note that many of his sources are available on the web, such as Nepia Pohuhu’s 1913 “Te Whare Wananga: The Teachings of a Tohunga” at https://maaori.com/wananga/index.htm.
What Robinson has done is to rewrite traditional Maori spiritual and mythological lore as the Maori version of the universal New Age wisdom, alongside its Cabbalistic, Aboriginal, North American and many other versions. He does, of course, draw on genuine Maori traditions, but equally it appears that he has drawn on Aboriginal teachings, Freemasonry, Theosophy, Cabbala, Crowley’s Golden Dawn and a range of contemporary New Age guides to the spiritual life. Does this really matter? If you are interested in a historical study of pre-European Maori traditions, then it will, and this study will be a profound disappointment. If this is not your concern, it probably will not matter much as Maori New Age religion does seem to have a place in Aotearoa (and probably in Queensland too where Robinson currently lives). What is genuine is his enthusiasm at having discovered a spirituality that he understands to be consistent with the latest spiritual teachings and, more importantly, that he can call his own. Further, he wants to share this insight with other Maori and as a “lecturer in metaphysical subjects” with, I suspect, all other New Agers too.
Both books are sincere, if preliminary, attempts to find a place in contemporary New Zealand for our spiritual ancestry – in particular our South Pacific Maori traditions – as we forge spiritual pathways beyond our dogmatic inheritances in the struggle to create something new and wholly our own.
Paul Morris is Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.