Rongomātāne and kūmara
The other food plants introduced from Polynesia proved difficult to grow in the new environment, so kūmara was increasingly important to Māori communities. Its importance and value rose further as the availability of suitable land for gardens diminished. Much of the activity to produce kūmara became ritualised – it was even associated with Rongomātāne (Rongo), a high-ranking atua (god). Rongo was also the god of peace, which may reflect the importance placed on kūmara gardening compared to fighting and warfare.
In one tradition Pani-tinaku brought kūmara to earth. Her husband was Rongomāui, the younger brother of Whānui (the star Vega). He stole the kūmara and gave it to his wife, who gave birth to it. As a curse, Whānui sent down Anuhe, Toronū and Moko, all names for the kūmara moth caterpillar, which attacks the leaves of the plant.
Before planting the main crop, there was a ceremonial kūmara planting known as the māra tautāne. This took place away from the main crop, and the tubers were set apart for the atua.
Rituals for planting
When the main crop was planted, karakia (prayers) were said, and an offering was made to placate the gods – usually a bird. Tapu (spiritual restriction) was invoked by the tohunga (priest), and remained in force until harvest. This kept people away from the gardens.
The harvest of the kūmara was highly ritualised. The tapu was lifted in a ceremony called the pure. The first fruits were set aside for the gods, usually Rongo, and a hākari (feast) was held.
Sweet and modest
Kūmara featured in some whakataukī (proverbs). Important chiefs with many followers were sometimes described by saying, ‘E tupu atu kūmara, e ohu e te anuhe’ (as the kūmara grows, the caterpillars gather round it). Another well-known saying, 'Kaore te kūmara e kōrero mo tōna māngaro' (the kūmara does not speak of its own sweetness), encouraged people to be modest.
The mauri (life force) of the kūmara crop was often protected by certain talismans. These included taumata atua – stone images representing atua, Rongo in particular. There were also atua kiato – wooden pegs with carved heads, which were inserted into the ground. Sometimes skulls or preserved heads were put on a post to preserve the mauri of a kūmara crop.