Thursday, September 4, 2014

From the Maori rites

Light Poem

From the conception the increase
From the increase the swelling
From the swelling the thought
From the thought the remembrance
From the remembrance the desire

The word became fruitful:
It dwelt with the feeble glimmering:
It brought forth night:
The great night, the long night,
The lowest night, the highest night,
The thick night to be felt,
The night to be touched, the night unseen,
The night following on,
The night ending in death.

From the nothing the begetting:
From the nothing the increase:
From the nothing the abundance:
The power of increasing, the living breath
It dwelt with the empty space,
It produced the firmament which is above us

The atmosphere which floats above the earth.
The great firmament above us,
the spread-out space dwelt with the early dawn.
Then the moon sprang forth.
The atmosphere above dwelt with the glowing sky.
Then the sun sprang forth.
They were thrown up above as the chief eyes of heaven.
Then the sky became light.
The early dawn, the early day.
The mid-day.
The blaze of day from the sky.

I have long had a fascination with myths. Creation myths especially, and the similarities of expression and description across cultures. Mythology is simply primitive religion, just as religion is really just the same primitive mythology, but wearing a slightly more sophisticated modern mask. The incantatory power of language is present equally in deitic rite, in poetry, in prayer: the gods use language to fashion the world, and men use language to conjure the gods. For me these connections are as fundamental as they are inexorable – which is why, perhaps, I wrote "The Song of the Beating Pulse" and "First Genesis", which in a sense is really this same Māori "Light Poem".

The poem celebrates the coming of light, that pivotal moment in the world's awakening which recurs each day of the universe's life, in a way that renders our Biblical equivalent – the tyrant's curt edict: let there be light – insipid and matter-of-fact; though the significance of the word, the Logos, and the act of naming is identical. 

The poem seems to me to come in four distinct fragments, which the stanzas do not precisely define, despite their line-breaks. In the first the growth of consciousness; in the second the Logos; in the third the evolution of matter; in the fourth the birth of light. Order is also more logical than in the Genesis equivalent – perhaps because the Genesis version was constrained by the need to give each sphere of creation to its original deity and each original deity to his or her own day, thus leaving the anomaly of light, which belongs to the Creator-Father, being created on the first day, but the material sun, moon and stars to the fourth day. Quite probably, like that hidden sub-text in Genesis, each of the abstract concepts conceals and reveals a god in the Māori canon too, but I lack the expertise to comment upon that.

The poem, incidentally, should be chanted, not recited – much as the New Zealand "All-Blacks" chant the haka before rugby matches, recalling the ancient war-cry before pitched battle (the version at my link is at a wedding ceremony, and has women as well as men participating). Somehow, as I chant it in my head to write it down in these pages, the shadow of Ted Hughes' "Crow" seems to rise up darkly at my shoulder. 

The colours are mine - the original, at least the version that I have, is printed in book-black: blue because life emerges from the sea, and because the sky at its brightest looks blue to us; green when the earth becomes fruitful; red when life is fully blazoning; purple for the fulfillment, because purple is Argaman, the royal, the priestly, the divine colour.

As to the illustrations. I found the one at the top of the page at the website of Aotahi, the School of Māori & Indigenous Studies at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. They welcome you rather wonderfully to their site, in Māori and in English (does that accent on the "a" tell me it should be pronounced Ma-ori rather than Mowrie, as we English tend to do?)

Kei ngā maunga, kei ngā moana, kei ngā awa, kei ngā mana e tau mai nei, tēnā koutou katoa! Tēnei te karanga o Te Whare o Aotahi ki a koutou, nau mai, haere mai, whakatau mai. Tēnei mātou e noho iho nei kei ngā pae a Māui e mihi atu nei ki a koutou.

Greetings to the sacred mountains, rivers, seas and the prestigious settled here, welcome! Aotahi calls you all, welcome and greetings. We who reside in the different thresholds of Māui greet you.

The second illustration I am unable to place in geography, or indeed in time, though I am assured by the New Zealand travel company who has posted the picture that it is in New Zealand somewhere. But would you not have believed me if I had placed it on a page about the Aztecs or the Incas, the Iroquois or the Seminole, the ancient Egyptians or Babylonians? Just as the creation myth, the light poem, is both eternal and universal, so also this cultural ikon, Quetzcoatl surely - or perhaps those are angels' wings - in Māori form.

No comments:

Post a Comment