Breath of Life
The first time I exchanged a memorable hongi was with a very distinguished maori gentleman at the Wellington Art Gallery (during a private showing of a Goldie exhibition). He looked uncomfortable standing in a line-up top heavy with parliamentarians and more than a few sombre suited types. I never found out his name because he didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak maori.
When we first caught each other’s eye it was probably because we recognised the ‘hang this fuss and bother’ stuff look in each others demeanour. We were both how we’d say in maori, a little bit hoha! Being hoha describes a sense of being at odds with oneself and ones surroundings. Actually, I was alot hoha that day, I just wanted to get lost among the paintings, beautiful ta moko faces of women like Ena Te Papatahi and Pipi Haere Huka who were among Goldie’s favourites.
“Tā moko are permanent body and face markings. It is distinct from tattoo and tatau in that the skin was carved by uhi (chisels) rather than punctured. This left the skin with grooves, rather than a smooth surface. Tohunga-ta-moko (moko specialists) used a range of uhi (chisels) made from albatross bone which were hafted onto a handle, and struck with a mallet.
The pigments were made from the awheto for the body colour, and ngarehu (burnt timbers) for the blacker face colour. The soot from burnt kauri gum was mixed with fat to make pigment. The pigment was stored in ornate vessels named oko, which were often buried when not in use. The oko were handed on to successive generations.
Men were predominantly the moko specialists, although records do reveal a number of women during the early 20th century also took up the practice. There is also a remarkable account of a woman prisoner-of-war in the 1830s who was seen putting moko on the entire back of the wife of a chief.
In pre-European Māori culture, many if not most high-ranking persons received moko, and those who went without them were seen as persons of lower social status. Receiving moko constituted an important milestone between childhood and adulthood, and was accompanied by many rites and rituals.
He was like a silver ghost the old man, he seemed to glide passed people and before I knew it he was standing in front of me, his hand outstretched but his body leaning into the space between us. His approach was direct and funnily enough I didn’t expect him to do anything else other than hongi me. It is a very humbling occasion this pressing of noses greeting.
“In the hongi (traditional greeting), the ha or breath of life is exchanged and intermingled. Although we did not all hongi everyone (we hugged and kissed) at Haranui Marae, we came to understand that through the exchange of this physical greeting, we were no longer considered manuhiri (visitors) but rather tangata whenua, one of the people of the land. The Nga Puhi tribe view the hongi as a very sacred act and an integral part of the powhiri.
When Maori greet one another by pressing noses, the tradition of sharing the breath of life is considered to have come directly from the gods. 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).”
We stared into each others eyes for a long time me and this complete stranger. The movement was as slight as the flutter of an eyelid but I recall it happened so seamlessly, he bent his arm and offered it to me. I hooked my arm through his and we set off into the main gallery. He made a beeline toward paintings of old maori men Patara Te Tuhi, Wharekauri Tahuna and Tamehana.
As we moved from one painting to another I would see him move as if to stroke the face of the person, a gesture I realised was one of great love. He seemed oblivious to the hands off gallery protocol and while he did not actually touch the paintings he must have come pretty close and I half expected us to get thrown out just for the thought! But he didn’t and we didn’t!
I finally became aware of a shadow and realised when we moved it moved. Having caught my eye, the shadow was making hand signals to get my attention. We had managed to be away for nearly one and half hours though it felt only like ten minutes. I was astonished. My old friend too seem to know that our time was up. He pressed noses with me one last time and I watched after him as he went with the shadow, taking his place beside a very prominent maori politician of the day. I’ve often wondered who he was but more than his name I remember when he exchanged a hongi with me I felt like I knew him anyway.