Tapu and noa
Women in traditional Māori society were considered very tapu during menstruation, due to the degree of tapu associated with blood. Menstruating women were kept away from common areas because of their tapu state – contact with materials essential to society was seen as insulting the atua (gods). Women were not allowed to enter the whare mata (housing for nets and snares), cultivated areas, shoreline or food storage areas, and did not associate with men or their belongings. Such acts were thought to bring dire consequences.
The presence of women was seen as a potent form of whakanoa (to remove tapu, or make normal). First-born females who had ceased menstruation were known as ruahine, and were required in ceremonial whakanoa processes.
Because of women’s ability to whakanoa, they were never to purposely walk over a man, for fear of removing his mana and tapu. However, when warriors returned from war they would crawl between the legs of the ruahine to whakanoa themselves from the killing and bloodshed, which had rendered these men extremely tapu. During the opening rituals for houses women took the integral role of being the first to enter – usually a puhi selected by the hapū would enter first to whakanoa the house.
Tapu or noa?
Some writers have interpreted women’s ability to whakanoa as meaning that women are perpetually noa (non-sacred or ordinary), ignoring the fact that women can also make objects tapu. As noa is considered the antithesis of tapu it is sometimes assumed that women have no mana, and hold an inferior position within Māori society. However, numerous narratives extol the power and mana of women, who hold important roles in Māori society.
Peacemaking was an important activity for parties in dispute, and women emissaries were often sent to negotiate a truce. Peace mediated by women was known as rongo ā whare. In a letter to Māori newspaper Te Puke ki Hikurangi in 1905, Te Waaka Tamaira noted, ‘i nga wa o mua ... ki te haere te wahine ki te hohou i te Pakanga kia mutu, kore rawa e taea te takahi e tetahi taha, e tetahi taha, tona whakatauaki he rongo taketake e kore e taea te whakahe, ki te takahia kua he’1 (in times past ... if a woman went to mediate a conflict, she would not be touched by either side, for the saying associated with this event was that a lasting peace cannot be undone; if it is, it is an unforgivable transgression).
The saying ‘Ano ko te whare whawhao a Te Ao Kapurangi’ (this is like the crowded house of Te Ao Kapurangi) refers to a Ngāti Rangiwewehi chieftainess who protected her people from the onslaught of war by having them enter a house through a doorway she was straddling. Their protection was ensured by a deal that she had struck with the enemy, Hongi Hika of Ngāpuhi, who agreed that only people who had passed beneath Te Ao Kapurangi’s thighs would be protected. The survival of Ngāti Rangiwewehi was due to the protection afforded by this woman’s genitals.
In addition to their role as mediators, high-ranking women were often given in marriage to their former adversaries, to show good faith in the pursuit of a durable peace. For example, after the siege of Te Rangiita on the eastern shore of Lake Taupō, the Ngāti Raukawa ancestress Waitapu was given in marriage to Te Rangiita ‘as a token of a greenstone (permanent) peace-making’.
Ka puta ki waho ra, Waitapu.
I haere ra ia i te maunga-rongo
O te ture a Whiro …
And begat Waitapu.
She it was who went by way of the peace-making
To end the fiat of Whiro …2