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The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead Volume Ii Part 46

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The power which Maori chiefs possessed of imposing, or at all events of enforcing, a taboo seems not to have been quite so absolute as might perhaps be inferred from the statement in the text.[1] We are told that the power of the taboo mainly depended on the influence of the person who imposed it. If it were put on by a great chief, it would not be broken, but a powerful man often violated the taboo of an inferior. A chief, for example, would frequently lay one of these sacred interdicts on a road or a river, and then n.o.body would dare to go by either, unless he felt himself strong enough to set the chief's taboo at defiance. The duration of the taboo was arbitrary, and depended on the will of the person who imposed it.

Similarly with the extent to which the prohibition applied: sometimes it was limited to a particular object, sometimes it embraced many: sometimes it was laid on a single spot, at other times it covered a whole district.[2]

[1] Above, p. 47.

[2] R. Taylor, _Te Ika A Maui, or New Zealand and its Inhabitants_, Second Edition (London, 1870), p. 168. Compare J.

Dumont d'Urville, _Voyage autour du Monde et a la recherche de la Perouse, Histoire du Voyage_ (Paris, 1832-1833), ii. 530.

To render a place taboo a chief had only to tie one of his old garments to a pole and stick it up on the spot which he proposed to make sacred, while at the same time he declared that the prohibited area was part of his own body, such as his backbone, or that it bore the name of one of his ancestors. In the latter case all the persons descended from that particular ancestor were in duty bound to rally to the defence of the chief's taboo, and the more distant the ancestor, and the more numerous his descendants, the greater the number of the champions thus pledged to the support of the family honour. Hence the longer a man's pedigree, the better chance he stood of maintaining his taboo against all comers, for the larger was the troop of adherents whom he enlisted in its defence. Thus chiefs, with family trees which reached backward to the G.o.ds, were in a far better position to make good their arbitrary interdicts than mere ordinary mortals, who hardly remembered their grandfathers. In this as in other respects the taboo was essentially an aristocratic inst.i.tution.[3]

[3] R. Taylor, _op. cit._ p. 169.

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