H.T. Whatahoro, ‘Philosophy of the whare-wānanga’ (1913)*

‘Now I, Te Mātorohanga, have another word to say so you may be clear on this subject. Be very careful in reciting these valuable teachings that your ancestors collected over past generations.

The teachings of the whare-wānanga are now mere shreds since they are no longer combined. Some remain while others are lost. Some parts diverge from the originals and additions have been made to others.

This happened due to the decaying power, authority, and prestige of rituals, abrogation of tapu,¹ and unbelief in gods. So that, at present, we have none of the ancient mana or power left. All things have changed. The tapu has ended. The true teaching was lost. As are the karakias, incantations whose meaning few people now know.

The tapu was all important, the first of things. Without it, the gods are powerless. And without the help of the gods, things are without authority and ineffectual.²  Man’s mind is cast in a state of confusion, like a whirlwind, as are all his deeds.

It is the same with the land. The whare-wānangas, the karakias, the tuāhus or altars, the pures or ways of sanctifying man, the baptising of men with water are all abandoned. So are the powers to attract fish and birds,³ to influence the growth of edible plants. Nowadays, people use different karakias, methods, and tapus. It’s as if they spoke a different language. That’s how much modern teachings diverge from those of the old priests.  

I stress the way things were so that you may be clear-headed about why the divine powers, the mana atua, have declined. Even Io was affected by this, as were his whatukura⁴ and mareikura guardians,⁵ the Apas who relay the gods’ messages, down to the forest-dwelling patupaiarehe⁶ and the Tūrehu fairies.⁷ Nowadays, those kinds of gods no longer exist. The present gods have been reduced to being reptiles, stones, and trees. Meanwhile, the original reptile, stone, and tree gods no longer exist.

Men now live in a wilderness. They are careless of these things, as of all things. That’s why you’ll no longer find any mana, the power to make use of this knowledge. Bear in mind, then, that what you are writing from my dictation are mere crumbs of truth, fragments of the sacred things. The anciently established and true teaching is now erased. So is the science of the tapu, as are the true god-like powers that came from Io-the-great, Io-the-parentless. But enough of these words.

Now, you must clearly grasp the roles played by Tama-nui-te-rā our sun, Te Marama-i-whanake the waxing moon, and their younger brethren the stars. All worlds have their own earths and waters, rocks and trees, plains and mountains. The hau,⁸ the air, complements all things, be it the earth, heavens, sun, moon, or stars.

These things, four in all, give and sustain all life. With the earth, ocean, fire, or air alone, nothing would exist nor have shape or growth. Nothing would have life. Be clear about this: things only gain form and life by combining earth, water, fire, and air.⁹ The origin of all things is Io, who lives in the upmost of all the heavens. It is he who gained universal knowledge of the heavens.¹⁰

There is a reason for each of Io’s names.  

Io is his name for short, but we also say Io-nui¹¹ for he is god of all gods. He is Io-matua¹² the parent of all things, Io-te-wānanga¹³  who knows all things, Io-tikitiki¹⁴ whose name is exalted on earth, hell, and the heavens. He is Io-mata-aho¹⁵ when he visits other worlds as a flash of light. He is Io-matua-kore the parentless.¹⁶ Man never sees him for he is Io-mata-ngaro¹⁷ of the unseen face. He is Io-mata-putahi¹⁸ whose command all obey, the loving god Io-mata-wai,¹⁹ Io-te-hau-erangi²⁰ the ruler of all heavens,²¹ and Io-tamaua-take²² whose decree is unchanging. This ends the subject.²³  

All matters of life and death come from Io of the hidden face. Nothing is outside or beyond him. All godships are his to decide. He appoints gods for the dead and the living. All things were created by this god. In every world and realm, each thing has its function. The smallest atoll, grain of dust, and pebble have their place, such as to hold the boundaries of the ocean.

You must also be clear on this fact: the god Io made nothing that will not end. Everything must end, whether from being injured by drought, fire, water, wind, land,²⁴ sun, or moon—leaving aside those deaths the god decreed should end in this and other worlds.’²⁵

At this point of the audience, Rihari Tohī²⁶ exclaimed, ‘O Sir! How did the things you are teaching become known? Perhaps they are only things that you priests think?’

Te Mātorohanga replied:

‘I already told you that our knowledge of wānanga was brought down by Tāne-nui-a-rangi, the Great Tane of the Heavens. He begged that Io might give him the wānanga of Rangi-nui and Papatua-nuku, the Sky-father and Earth-mother. Io-the-father agreed, so this knowledge was brought down from heaven to earth. Enough already!

One thing do I ask of you: do not disclose these matters to strangers. Keep these words as a strengthening knowledge for you, your brethren, children, and grandchildren to hold your own in the marae²⁷ of strangers.

I would not disclose to you all the precious things of the whare-wānanga had you been a total stranger. But I see that you are bright and quick-witted, that you’ll retain what is taught. I am very pleased that you are preserving these things in writing.

One more thing do I ask of you. Learn these precious things but do not gossip about your ancestors or the messengers of the gods. Do not defile these things, lest evil befall you. I warn you of this as I see that, in our day and age, houses are only used for food. Our ancestors’ tapu houses have disappeared.’

Elsdon Best, ‘The cult of Io’ (1913)†

Io’s name was deemed so sacred that it was never uttered, even by high priests. It was repeated only in secluded spots like a forest, river, pond, or other sheet of water, where nothing man-made like a roof separated speaker from the vault of heaven. At all other times, Io was alluded to as “the Beyond”, “the High One”, or some such term.

Before Io was invoked, the priest uttering the prayer entered the water nude and stood in it breast deep. He would then stoop to immerse his upper body in the water. In Percy Smith’s translation, the priest’s opening prayer to Io would say:

Enter deeply, enter to the very origins,
Into the very foundations of all knowledge,
O, Io of the hidden face.
Gather in, in the inner recesses of the ears,
As also in the desire, and perseverance, of these thy offspring, thy sons.
Descend on them thy memory, thy knowledge.
Rest within the heart, within the roots of origin.
O, Io the Learned,
O, Io the Determined.
O, Io the Self-Created.²⁸

No prayers were made to Io on minor or trivial affairs, nor in connection with evil things like war.  

No threat or form of punishment ever came from Io. He condemned none. The contest between good and evil was to be fought out in this world. No one was tortured in the afterlife, no soul rewarded for doing good.

‘I think’, an old Māori quaintly said to me, ‘that if your missionaries had sympathised with our people and patiently studied the cult of Io, instead of despising and condemning our belief, that it would have been incorporated with your Bible.’²⁹

A few months ago, I visited an elderly Māori³⁰  deeply versed in the occult lore. We chanced upon the topic of the origin of life, and of that of the spirit. I put this question to him: ‘Do the lower animals, trees, and stones possess a wairua or soul?’

The old man picked up a stone from the ground, and replied: ‘All things possess a wairua, otherwise they could not exist. Matter cannot exist without such a principle. This is undeniable. Were this stone not possessed of a wairua, then it could not be seen by you; it could not exist, it would disintegrate and disappear.’³¹

When the grey-haired old man stopped speaking, I looked up and saw before me a fair land teeming with the homes of an alien and intrusive people, my own, who discourse glibly of aeroplanes and race over the trails of neolithic man in flying motor cars. And yet I was talking to a man who had evolved these views ere Zenobia dwelt by the palm-lined city of the Orient, when Europe was held by savage tribes of bushmen.

Of what use to me was the cramped mind of the twentieth century for understanding this man’s thought? Fifty centuries ago, we deserted the road he treads, long overgrown with the weeds of forgetfulness.

A.C. Haddon, ‘The hidden teachings of Māori’ (1914)‡

In the late 1850s, a great political rally of Māori was held in the Wairarapa district, North Island, when it was decided that instruction in the origin and history of their race should be given to the assembled tribes by three priests, whose words were to be taken down by two scribes, both educated in the mission schools.

One of the two, H.T. Whatahoro, carefully amplified his record subsequently from the dictation of certain learned men, who, in a building erected for the purpose, taught him the lore of the whare-wānanga, and subjected him to all the ancient forms and rituals.

Till recently these ancient traditions were considered too sacred to be imparted to Europeans. For fifty years, they were jealously guarded, but at length the tribal committee allowed them to be copied and made known. The author had access to the original folio volumes.

The author, Percy Smith, believes that Polynesians may be traced back to India. He even suggests tentatively that ‘these Caucasian Polynesians are an early branch of the Proto-Aryan migration into India.’³² This is, of course, mere hypothesis and will probably remain so.

Mr Smith’s method of working is an excellent one: he gives first a transcription of Māori texts, which is followed by careful literal translations of these, with brief explanatory notes and interpolations. Centre and core of the whole religious teaching is the doctrine of Io, ‘the supreme god, creator of all things, dwelling in the twelfth, or uppermost, Heaven, where no minor god might enter except by command.’³³

After death souls go to Hawaiki, the temple situated in the Fatherland, where they are divided. Those who showed love for Io ascend, after purification, to the twelfth Heaven to live in everlasting peace with the god. Those who chose Whiro, the evil spirit, went to Hades, where Whiro reigns together with the god of eruptions and earthquakes and the Great-lady-of-night, who ‘drags men down to death’.³⁴ There is no idea of judgment in the ultimate fate of souls. Rather, it is a matter of free choice during life.

There is abundant evidence that this high god is no modern introduction. The karakias or prayers to him contain many obsolete terms. There is a certain resemblance between Moses and the god Tāne, whom Io summons to give him the ‘three branches of knowledge and the two sacred stones,’³⁵ but the author disclaims all leanings to lost-ten-tribe theories.³⁶

In a passage of the book, the priest explains why his sacred knowledge was kept secret from Europeans, after whose arrival all became void of tapu and ancient teachings were lost. ‘We never wished that these [sacred] things should fall into the white man’s hands, lest our ancestors become a source of pecuniary benefit,’ he says. ‘All that the white man thinks of is money, and for these reasons this ancient knowledge of ours was never communicated to the Ministers and Bishops.’³⁷

Te Rangi Hīroa, ‘Creating the creators’ (1949)§

The discovery of a supreme god named Io in New Zealand was a surprise to Māori and Pākehā alike. For years, we had accepted that gods were co-equal gods and looked after their own domains.

While the literature had mentioned Io, the extent of his claims was not fully realised until Percy Smith and Elsdon Best furnished an extraordinary amount of detail by publishing copious extracts. They both enthusiastically accepted the Io material. But many were doubtful. Io’s separation of light from dark, division of the waters, and creation of the earth were too reminiscent of the first chapter of Genesis.

Doubts grew because the source of these claims, Te Mātorohanga, and his scribe H.T. Whatahoro, had been converted to Christianity before the detailed story of Io was written down. The discovery of a supreme creator in New Zealand led to a search for the same or similar ones in Polynesia. Incredibly, a mass of secret information allegedly locked up in the minds of cautious Christians was unloosed. The floodgates of memory broke open simply because they were asked about Io.

Io and his acolytes remained aloof from the masses. People had generally never heard of Io. The reason given was that the cult was supposedly too sacred for priests to divulge it to their own flock. The cult of Io did not interfere in any way with the popular religious system.

Unlike Whatahoro’s manuscript, there is some authentic evidence in support of Io in a long poem attributed to Tuhoto-Ariki, whose translation I have altered:

Whakarongo mai e Tama!
Kotahi tonu te hiringa,
I kake ai Tane ki,
Ko te hiringa i te mahara,
Ka kitea i reira ko,
I a ia te Toi-ariki,
Te Toi-urutapu, te Toi-ururangi,
Te Toi-uru-ora.
Listen, O my Son!
One only was the incentive,
Why Tane ascended to,
The topmost-sky,
It was the incentive of the thought,
That there he would behold,
With whom was source of regal might,
Of sacred and divine control,
And power over life itself.³⁸

The composer of this poem was clearly acquainted with ideas surrounding Io from after the creation periods.

But there is no authentic proof that the concept of a supreme creator named Io existed among central Polynesians before their dispersal to various islands. The Māori concept of Io was a local development in New Zealand. It appears to have originated with the Ngāti Kahungunu tribe, from which rumours of the cult spread to a few other tribes.

Details seem to have been added after the Europeans arrived, when Māori acquired knowledge of the biblical story of creation.  

The Io myth, for example, speaks of a clearing house for the spirits of the dead at Hawaikinui. The righteous will go through the east door and ascend to the heavens. Sinners will enter the underworld through the south door. This is contrary to Māori concepts of the afterlife. It is too closely allied to Christian teachings of heaven and hell to have been taught before European contact.

Āpirana Ngata, ‘Io’s only white adept’ (1950)‖

Casting doubt on the value of Whatahoro’s work, some people have concluded that the cult of Io evolved in New Zealand rather than in the Pacific as he claimed. I tupu ki konei.³⁹ I agree, it evolved here.

The evidence of the coverage of the cult of Io in New Zealand shows that it is not confined to one district like the Wairarapa or even the East Coast. The East Coast is fairly uniform in its Io tradition. You find it in the Wanganui River and at Thames. Remarkably from my point of view, you also find it on the East Coast at Tolaga Bay, in the Rakeiora whare-wānanga.

As a young man not long settled in the Hokianga and quite unaware of the tapu and prohibitions, Judge Maning⁴⁰  one day chased after his horse, which had strayed. Suddenly, he heard a voice intoning something. He began to follow the voice and broke in on an old chap stark naked up against a cliff intoning the Io prayer.⁴¹ The old tohunga pulled himself up and spoke to the young Pākehā, saying: ‘Oh well, you have only got the alternative of death or becoming an adept of this cult.’⁴²

Maning chose to become an adept and he was the only Pākehā who made a complete study of the cult of Io. He absorbed it all, karakia and everything, and was even initiated in it. Well, in due course he had to go to London for medical advice. He had cancer and wrote down all this material while he was dying. Then his conscience began to prick him because one of the things that you do when you become initiated in the cult of Io is to swear secrecy, and he had taken the oath of secrecy.

Well now, would that obtain in the case of an oath made to a savage? He was arguing that point when he heard of Bishop W.L. Williams from Gisborne.⁴³Williams was not a Bishop then but an Archdeacon. So, Maning sent for him and they discussed this question of conscience.

The Archdeacon said, ‘Well, your duty is clear. It does not matter whether the oath is given to a heathen or otherwise. Once it is given it is binding on your conscience.’ When the Archdeacon left, Maning ordered the housemaid to make a fire and he burned the manuscript.

Now, that story is well accredited. Bishop W.L. Williams told it to Bishop H. Williams,⁴⁴ who then told it to me. I said to Herbert, ‘What would you have done?’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I would have had the manuscript saved in the interest of science.’  

A cult like this couldn’t have continued to exist in seven different tribes if the secrecy around it had collapsed when the Pākehā came. But it didn’t.⁴⁵

Jerry Flexer, ‘Out of many gods, one’ (2015)¶

The American mythology expert David A. Leeming recorded a version of Io’s creation story. ‘In the beginning,’ it says, ‘Io uttered words calling on darkness to become light-possessing darkness.’⁴⁶ And there was light.

The supreme god Io can perhaps be traced to New Zealand ethnographer Elsdon Best, whose primary source was H.T. Whatahoro’s 1913 manuscript, itself based on the teachings of Māori priest Te Mātorohanga.

As a result, many now believe that, although the Māori pantheon contained many gods, Io rules over all as the uncreated creator of the minor gods, universe, and man.

There are obvious parallels between Genesis and the Io creation myth.⁴⁷But, beyond this, Christian missionaries made a variety of religious material available to Māori from the 1830s. This included Māori versions of the Old Testament. Māori felt an affinity with Old Testament stories, studied them with enthusiasm, and often recited whole passages they saw as relevant to them.⁴⁸

This casts some doubt on the idea of the Io creation myth being authentic and predating European contact.

Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal writes that early Māori mythological material contains no reference to Io before the late 19th century. While some scholars argue that Io was invented to bring Māori beliefs more into line with Christianity, the Io tradition, says Royal, was accepted by many tribal elders. Consequently, as Royal writes, today almost all tribes have a view one way or the other on Io.⁴⁹

Māori Christianity, another scholar suggests, absorbed the Io tradition in such a way that it now ‘identifies the Hebrew Jehovah with Io, allowing the genealogies of both traditions to be aligned and providing Māoris with both traditional and Christian identity.’⁵⁰  

Regardless of whether the Io myth is a Māori tradition that existed before Europeans came to New Zealand or was invented later, it is a fascinating example of religious syncretism.

Elsdon Best seems to have wanted to use the Io myth to establish that Māori were capable of higher order thinking. At the time, Western scholars and Christian missionaries associated the concept of a supreme god with a high culture. Best believed that, if it had not

been for the Io cult, Māori religion would be no more than shamanism.⁵¹

But for modern Māori, the question is moot. Many Māori tribes now accept Io as part of their traditional pantheon.

There is a lesson in all this for anthropology. As Allen Hanson writes, ‘anthropologists too are inventors of culture’ because ‘ethnographic research and writing inevitably produce cultural inventions’.⁵² Elsdon Best, in this case, seems to have been consciously trying to elevate Māori culture in the eyes of European colonisers.⁵³

What he may not have foreseen, however, was that his work would catapult the idea of a supreme god into wider Māori culture. Nor could he have predicted that Io would become an umbilical cord connecting the old Māori gods to their adopted Christianity.