Tapu - sacred Māori code

Tapu, an ancient Māori spiritual and social code that was central to traditional society, is about sanctity and respect for people, natural resources and the environment.

Tapu, an ancient Māori spiritual and social code that was central to traditional society, is about sanctity and respect for people, natural resources and the environment.

New Zealand's indigenous people have upheld tapu since the beginning of time and, while some traditions associated with it are no longer widely practised, the principle survives today as a sacred component of Māori life, lore and custom. 

Origins of tapu

The origins of tapu date back to the time of creation and the gods: Ranginui - the sky father, and Papatuanuku - the earth mother, and their offspring Tane Mahuta - god of the forest, Tangaroa - god of the ocean, and their divine siblings.

Tapu is closely linked to the Māori concept of mana (respect / authority) and many view tapu as the mana derived from the gods.

In early Māori society, almost every activity, ceremonial or otherwise, was connected to the maintenance and enhancement of mana and tapu. To maintain the sanctity of tapu, certain behaviours or actions were prohibited. To disregard the rules of tapu was an offence to the gods. Those concerned forfeited divine protection and were therefore exposed to supernatural evils.

The most common manifestations of this evil were disaster, demonic possession or death. These consequences could also apply to family members, lands and tribes.  

Intrinsic tapu

Māori believe everything in existence has an intrinsic tapu sourced from the connection it has to the gods.

Mountains are of the earth, so their intrinsic tapu is sourced from the mana of Papatuanuku - the earth mother. Fish are the children of Tangaroa - god of the ocean, so their tapu is drawn from him.

The more significant an object, whether it is for cultural, historical or any other reasons, the higher the level of tapu.

All human beings are born with a level of tapu. Those born of high rank or from a chiefly line possess a higher degree of tapu than those of common rank. 

Power of tapu

In the past, tohunga (sacred men possessing spiritual powers) and others of high tapu would often be avoided as their tapu was so powerful that contact with them was dangerous for anyone of lower level.

The head is the most sacred part of the body. In ancient times, there were a number of procedures, including ritualistic incantations that had to be performed before or after the head came into contact with something else.

A rangatira (chief) avoided scratching his head with his hand because this would make the hand tapu. Until correct procedures had been followed to reverse the tapu to the state of noa (the opposite of tapu), it would be dangerous to use his hand for common activities.

The story is told of Tuhoto Ariki - a powerful tohunga of the Te Arawa people who survived the Mt Tarawera eruption in 1886. Tuhoto was buried alive in his small whare (house) for four days, before being rescued and taken to hospital where, against his will, European doctors cut his hair. As his locks fell to the floor, the old man grew weaker and soon died.  

Tapu objects  

An individual's level of tapu increases to maximum levels as death approaches. When someone has died, a tohunga or a priest is called in to remove the tapu from the place and possessions. If this act is not performed, those in contact with the tapu objects are put in danger.

Burial grounds, ceremonial sites, carved houses, and waka (canoe) carry tapu requiring certain restrictions in behaviour.

Women are not permitted to enter a carved house while it is under construction. This undermines the mana of the house, and also the mana of the tribe building the house. Once building is completed, a ceremony reduces tapu so that it's safe to enter.

Fresh water has a special connection to tapu. It has the power to neutralise tapu to levels that are no longer dangerous to people. After a visit to a burial ground or funeral service, water sprinkled on the body lowers tapu.  

Sacred places

For Māori, many locations have strong spiritual significance and tapu. Many of these are popular tourist destinations where visitors will be asked to be respectful of local beliefs and practice. 

Māori believe that Cape Reinga - at the northern tip of the North Island - is the point from where spirits of the departed leave for the journey back to the ancestral homeland of Hawaiki. The magnificent peaks of the central North Island volcanic region are also places of deep spiritual significance.

Though the cape and the volcanoes are popular tourist locations, respect for tapu should be shown at all times and many Māori feel that taking photographs or filming at these locations is a breach of tapu.