Superstition is a concept many of us are aware of, but is often misunderstood. Many define it as an irrational belief in supernatural influence, but you may only know it from the genius work of Stevie Wonder. In his own words, “superstition ain’t the way.”
Growing up, I would love to gather an audience and proclaim the 42 cousins I had. They’d gasp when I told them of my Mum’s ten siblings. To be fair, it wasn’t hard to have such a large family when they were Catholic and from Palmerston North. With 42 cousins, five aunties, and six uncles (each with their respective partners), family gatherings were an overwhelming affair that required meticulous planning. This was where I began to learn my first pūrākau. To begin with, we would roll our eyes or resist. But with age, the quiet moments when the adults gathered after dinner became more significant. We would huff at aunty’s call inside and slink around the room’s edges, trying not to disturb the kaumatua as they spoke of the taniwha, birds, and our tipuna. My kuia (grandmother) did not often tell stories of her past or her whānau, but when she began to perk up, a stillness settled over us. It was time to listen.
Kaumatua tell their stories to share their knowledge with younger generations. This has happened in cycles for centuries, and preserves our culture in the lines of pūrākau. Contemporary translations classify Pūrākau as “Māori myths and legends”, ranked next to the Greek gods and classical mythology. The “myths” and “legends” are the origin stories that attempt to explain the natural and social phenomenon, typically with supernatural beings. These stories vary between cultures with equally varying confidence in its factual background. This definition has a tight association with being a popular but false belief or idea. This out-dated translation is an inaccurate portrayal of the deep meaning pūrākau has for Māori. Pūrākau hold a place in our whakapapa, and can depict ancestors that actually existed, as close as six generations ago.
In the past decade, there has been a shift in our whānau. Spearheaded by my whāea kēkē (aunties) and māmā, threads have been woven between the divide from us and our whakapapa. There has been a renewal to seek knowledge of where we have come from. Our history has been passed on orally through pūrākau for generations. It seems that somewhere in the middle, the practice was instinctively hidden. I see the adults gently coax stories out of their parents with a quiet conversation or a kind question. Attempting to not ‘rock the boat’ or dislodge their mamae (pain/shame). My Nana remarked on the ‘hush-hush’ nature of sharing pūrākau when she was growing up, “Mum never spoke about it much. Nobody ever spoke about it much.”
When I sat down to have a conversation with her for this article, it took 30 minutes of calm kōrero (talking) between us before she started to tell me more. Many times, she spoke of birds and their presence in her life. Her mother would become very aware when pīwakawaka entered the house, “they are a tohu (sign/symbol) from tipuna, of a death, or a new beginning”. In our whānau, Ruru (morepokes) are another tohu that come from generational pūrākau. One night, out the back of her house, she felt “uneasy, as if something was watching”, and up in the tree, a ruru was there, peering down at her. There is a fear of sharing these stories. Pūrākau contradicts the dominant culture in Aotearoa. We are led to believe that we are exposing ourselves if we ‘admit’ to holding these beliefs. In these moments, where she can safely share, my kuia shines. So full of knowledge and awareness, but these conversations have a degree of sensitivity. We have lost so much to the ‘realism’ of colonisation, so there must be a softness in addressing these harsh realities for our elders; to remove judgement from the conversation. When pūrākau is accepted as a lived reality, sharing our stories links us to the cultural practices that have been lost along the way. I’ve seen it in my parents’ generation, where I see them teaching whakapapa and pūrākau without fear. My māmā told me that teaching her children pūrākau wasn’t a conscious decision, “it’s just what I know.”
Other students have felt the power of pūrākau. Ngaio (Ngāi Tūhoe) laments the power of our stories. “Pūrākau are powerful. They’re lessons as well as stories. Many of these stories are painted as mythology which is such a deliberate way of white-washing our culture”. When asked if pūrākau helps guide Māori in understanding today’s world, Ngaio says, “Creation stories give people a way of looking at the world. They tell us of individuals using Tikanga to secure their position in the world, permitting us to be grounded in our culture”. Ngaio says she is “more spiritual than religious, and pūrākau is a big part of that spirituality for me.”
Pūrākau has considerable standing in Te Ao Māori. A whakatauki (Māori proverb) ‘titiro whakamuri, kōkiri whakamua—looking to the past helps us move forward’, illustrates this. We use pūrākau as a vehicle to navigate the world’s murk. Stories from our history assist in clearing the dark mist that blurs our path. Pūrākau has helped explain and prepare us for life’s confusion and pain. It’s natural to write these strange and unexplainable things off as irrational thoughts. But, while this helps suppress the unsettling forces of nature, this can dance dangerously close to wrongly associating pūrākau in Te Ao Māori with superstition.
In Aotearoa, what is and isn’t superstitious is a discourse underpinned by colonial techniques to distill indigenous knowledge into a ‘sensible’ form as a way of erasure and degradation. The black cats in Western stories are not the same as our Taniwha. When I asked one of my friends, Celia, about this, she remarked about the multiple implications this misunderstanding has on indigenous knowledge. On the surface, “the main action is the dismissal of Māori knowledge, culture, and reality”. But under that is a reduction of an entire culture “on the grounds of its incompatibility with Western science, regardless of whether or not it is valid.” The insinuation of Pūrākau as a ‘superstitious’ practice because it doesn’t align with the post-enlightenment Western thinking attempts to mock, damage, and patronise Māori. This happens even when Māori practice and knowledge reach the same conclusion as ‘science’. Rather, it undermines any cultural practices that threaten the eurocentric (hegemonic) dominance.
Reconnection to Te Ao Māori is something our community must work towards every day. Colonisation has removed our ability to naturally identify with pūrākau in tauiwi (non-māori) spaces without feeling that they are irrational, unjustified, or ‘superstitious’. In my whānau, it has meant that we can start to understand the stories of our tipuna and the creation of our world and make it a part of ourselves. I asked my kuia about her experience when we finally returned to our marae. She let out a gasp, and her voice wavered, “Oh it was lovely. It was so—yeah, it makes me want to cry.” It was like she was coming home, finally accepted.