Pōwhiri and Hongi of New Zealand’s Māori: a Sacred Ritual

New Zealand Maori exchanging the sacred act of hongi, the breath of life.

New Zealand Maori sharing in the sacred act of hongi, exchanging the ha or breath of life.

The title is a bit of a mouthful, but let me explain.

I have been a ballroom dancer since I was about 12 years old, or about 15 years.  It has been quite an experience being involved with this subculture of ballroom dance, which has made up a large portion of my life.  During the summer of 2005 I had the opportunity to tour with the BYU Ballroom Dance Company to the South Pacific, during which we visited Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, and Tahiti.  My wife was also fortunate to join us on the trip.  It was a singular experience which has burned a place in my memory.

Naturally, as part of these tours we were also able to learn much about the locations and people of the places we visited.  One of the places that really struck me for its beauty and uniqueness was New Zealand.  Going to New Zealand was like stepping into a different world.  The indigenous people of New Zealand are known as the Maori, and the customs and traditions of these people were quite different than what we were accustomed to.  Some of the things we experienced with the Maori were very spiritual in nature, which immediately caused me to ponder, and which I have had opportunity to think about for several years now.  Specifically, the Maori ceremonial greeting tradition that they conducted with our BYU group as we arrived in New Zealand was one of the most significant experiences I had with the group.  This rite or ceremony is known as the powhiri, and has insightful elements for Latter-day Saints to consider. 

The Maori term itself means “normal,” “natural,” or “ordinary” in the Maori language, “meaning man, human being, as distinguished from spirit, or god, &c.”1.  Where they live is commonly called te ao maori, meaning “this common, familiar world, where men live, as distinguished from the dwelling-place of the gods”2Thus, even this people’s self-identity and existence in this world takes into account the existence of a supreme being.

The Maori are said to have inhabited the Polynesian islands by way of the waka, or ship vessels, which are like giant ocean-going canoes.  They say that the “waka was our only means of going from A to B… Without waka the Maori certainly wouldn’t be here… Our ancestors were truly dependent on waka to get here”3.  This migration is said to have occurred sometime between 800 and 1300 AD4.  Ancient populations migrating by boat to different continents and islands is interesting to the Latter-day Saint because of our own narrative of Book of Mormon people doing the same.

The powhiri is a welcome ceremony and ritual which the Maori perform in order to greet visitors to their land5.  There is a great documentary at NewZealand.com which explains this ceremony with multimedia.  It is described as the “embodiment of [Maori] spiritual and cultural being6.  This tradition is said to be very ancient, and has been passed down from Maori tribal ancestors.  Some of the purposes of the ceremony are “to ward off evil spirits and unite both visitor and host in an environment of friendship and peace”7.  In this sense, it is a type of at-one-ment of strangers, bringing both into desirable harmony and unity with each other.  It is an initiation of sorts to become one and a part of the tangata whenua, or Maori people.

The term powhiri has been etymologically analyzed by Maori in order to describe what it means.  There are two parts to the word – po and whiriPo is described as “a venture into the ‘unknown’ or a new experience,” while whiri comes to mean “the act or experience of exchanging information and knowledge”8.  And so the combined term could be interpreted as meaning a kind of mystical or novel act in which one gains and/or exchanges knowledge, not unlike the way we describe our temple experience.

Me standing in front of the marae where our BYU group experienced the powhiri greeting ceremony. (click for a larger view)

Me standing in front of the marae where our BYU group experienced the powhiri ceremony. (click for a larger view)

The powhiri ceremony most often occurs in a marae, or the gathering place of the Maori, where “the past meets the present”9.  There are typically several parts to a powhiri:

  • Kawa – customs or protocols for greeting visitors.  These introductory instructions are first given to the manuhiri, or visitors, such that they may be guided “safely through the spiritual and physical realms,” and so “they understand what is expected of them10.
  • Taki (or wero) – a challenge is presented, where warriors appear to determine the intentions of the visitors.  If the visitors’ intentions are peaceful, the warriors present a rautapu, or some sort of symbolic peace offering, which the visitors “nod and acknowledge that [they have]… received it”11.  Once this is done, the warriors guide the visitors into the sacred marae.
  • Karanga – the vocal call of a female begins which will be a kind a purifying preparation or “clear a spiritual pathway between the hosts and visitors… acknowledging the spirits of all our ancestors who have passed on into the veil of the world, without end.”12.  It is a type of call to the Maori and visitors’ ancestors.
  • Karakia – a prayer or blessing is offered to the gods to “bring everyone together. Asking assistance of a superior being to give spiritual protection to all those who are participating in the powhiri”13.  This is a type of demon or devil cleansing such that everyone may be “free from any destructive spiritual influences14.
  • Mihi – formal greetings and identification of who you are.  It is a recitation of your ancestors, history, family line (genealogy), and your relationship to one another.  These details were often only known by oral transmission and memory.15
  • Waiata – a spiritual song is sung.  “Traditional waiata of the ancestors were often aligned with spiritual events, which could include supporting karakia or prayer to evoke supernatural forces”16.
  • Koha – the act of gifting, in a very honorable, dignified, way.  Traditionally this was done by offering assistance in the gathering of food, or taonga, treasures.  Today it is usually a monetary-type gift. 17
  • Hongithe unique and very sacred Maori physical embrace wherein the two sides become one.  “The hongi is the traditional greeting of nose pressing.  It is the exchange of the ha, or breath of life… This greeting makes the visitor at one with the tangata whenua [hosts]”18.  “The most sacred part of the Maori is this portion here – the face and head.  When you make contact with a fellow human, it’s the embracing, the light touching of the noses.  Because you’re now dealing with the most sacred part of the person.  It’s the essence of life to mankind.  Where else does the breath of life enter man?”19.  This is the portion of the ceremony in which the breath of life is exchanged and intermingled between host and visitor, and makes the visitors one with the Maori, ready to share in all responsibilities and duties.  This tradition is said to have come “directly from the gods”20.  “In Maori folklore, woman was created by the gods moulding her shape out of the earth. The god Tane (meaning male) embraced the figure and breathed into her nostrils. She then sneezed and came to life. Her name was Hineahuone (earth formed woman)”21Sometimes this embrace in the ceremony also includes the hariru, which is a handshake between hosts and visitors, and even a kiss or hug.  One website describes it thus:

    Direction will be given for manuhiri to go forward to hariru/shake hands, hug or hongi with tangata whenua. Whether you hariru, hongi, hug or do all three is entirely up to you at the time. We trust people will feel culturally comfortable whatever their choice. The action of performing hongi is associated with the hariru. The two people shake hands, each using the right hand. At the same time the left hand maybe placed on or near the other person’s shoulder. The head is bent, the eyes closed, and sometimes foreheads touch as noses are pressed. Some choose to press once and some twice – both ways are of equal significance. Invariably, tangata whenua will indicate their kawa/ways by example. It is appropriate to say “tena koe”/”hello to you” or “kia ora”/”greetings” as part of the greeting. In this greeting our ancestors meet as we meet and together we share the breath of life. This physical contact between manuhiri and tangata whenua completes lifts the waewae tapu/sacredness of first time visitors, allowing us all to be one, as tangata whenua for the duration of this Gathering. The running of the marae, for the time of our stay, is now ours to share.22

  • Hakari – ritual feasting and sharing of traditional foods in a banquet to finish the binding together.  “At the conclusion of that you are finally part of the family.  And it’s a very happy occasion.  And you can feel it.  There’s a warmth in the room amongst everyone”23.  Such a climax in the ritual reminds me of being in the Celestial Room of the temple with friends and family gathered round.  It also recalls the feasts and tabernacles of the Israelites, or the marriage feast of the Bridegroom in the scriptures (D&C 65:3; cf. Matt. 25).
  • Poroporaoki (or Mihi-whakamutunga) – final speeches and farewell.  It is the returning of the esteem and authority of the Maori hosts back to them.  It is a time of reflection on becoming one or a part of the Maori people.

Our BYU group experienced all of this ceremony among the Maori soon after our arrival in the country.  It was a wonderful experience.  The hongi was a particularly moving and beautiful experience, as each of us pressed our noses and foreheads with each of our Maori hosts in the marae, and shared the breath of life with each.  It was a very sacred yet friendly moment of becoming acquainted with our new friends, being welcome in their country, and becoming part of their family.

There is YouTube example of a powhiri at the 2008 Parahaka Peace Festival.  The exchange of the hongi embrace begins at about 7:00 into the clip.  The taki can also be seen in this clip from Queenstown, New Zealand.

We participated in at least two powhiri while we were in New Zealand.  Little did we know the significance of what we were doing at the time.  But we grew into the culture throughout our visit, and were eventually fully participating with the Maori even in the haka dances.  I would love to do a more in-depth study of the powhiri ceremony and the spiritual traditions of the Maori at some point.  It is a fascinating culture, and we can learn much from them.

Notes:
  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C4%81ori.  “What is a Tangata Maori?“ []
  2. ibid. []
  3. Kawa.  See also waka, and Maori migration canoes. []
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maori []
  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Powhiri []
  6. Powhiri []
  7. ibid. []
  8. ibid. []
  9. Kawa []
  10. ibid. []
  11. Taki []
  12. Karanga []
  13. Karakia []
  14. ibid. []
  15. Mihi []
  16. Waiata []
  17. Koha []
  18. Hongi []
  19. ibid. []
  20. ibid. []
  21. ibid. []
  22. Cached “Te Marae” page on avpaotearoa.org.nz. []
  23. Hakari []

3 Comments

  1. Posted March 5, 2009 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Here is a picture of President Hugh B. Brown exchanging the hongi greeting with a Samoan woman at the Polynesian Cultural Center.

  2. Posted March 5, 2009 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    And another hongi at the Polynesian Cultural Center.

  3. Kemp Reweti
    Posted July 6, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Kiaora Bryce, you have done a fantastic job at explaining with the knowledge you have our customs and protocols well done, was also interested in your own interpretations of the processes you participated in, I am a young Maori 6th generation member of the church and have really benefited from this website as I continue to study more fully the amazing vistas of Temple knowledge and insight that this website provides, well done!!
    Kemp…

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