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The Role of the Tohunga—Past and Present

Issue: Vol 26 No. 2 (2007)

Journal: Religious Studies and Theology

Subject Areas: Religious Studies Buddhist Studies Islamic Studies Biblical Studies

DOI: 10.1558/rsth.v26i2.135


In traditional Maori society before the coming of the white man [pakeha], the spiritual leader [tohunga] was the person who was in communication with the gods and spirits [atua] and who maintained the laws of sacredness [tapu] and regulated the life and events of their village. Because of his great authority and power [mana], the tohunga, his instruments and dwelling were tapu. However, with the coming of the white man with his guns, goods, new diseases, and his ignoring of the laws of tapu, the tohunga was seen as losing his mana. Those who continued to use the traditional methods of healing against the new diseases, often with disastrous results, were regarded as charlatans to the extent that legislation was eventually enacted against any who continued to claim to function as a tohunga.

However, emerging out of the Maori wars was a new form of tohunga who had accepted Christianity and combined its teachings with some of the Maori culture and customs. Thus they have become the new Maori spiritual leaders and faith healers, exercising not their own power through the strictures of tapu, but the power of God and his holy angels to heal and restore the Maori to fullness of life.

Author: Adrian M. Leske

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