Te Mau Taiaha
Te Mau Taiaha is the generic name for the martial art of using the taiaha weapon in hand to hand combat. Both the weapon and the art are indiginous to the Maori people of New Zealand.
For some eight hundred years prior to contact with European explorers during the late 1700s, the Maori had occupied many tribal territories throughout the islands they called Aotearoa, or “the Land of the Long White Cloud”.
Many Maori tribes maintained an almost continual state of warfare with neighbouring tribes. Disputes over territory, resources and similar feuds were seldom entirely resolved, due in part to the cultural concept of utu (justice, retribution), which equated personal and tribal honour with revenge.
As such, a high value was placed upon the arts of Te Whare Tu Taua (the House of the Warrior). Maori battlefield training originally incorporated a variety of projectile, long and close-range weapons in addition to unarmed combat, military strategy, and spiritual ritual. Even when contact with Europeans in the early 18th century introduced the use of firearms, martial arts such as the use of the taiaha and mere (short club fighting) were maintained for use in hand-to-hand combat.
The weapon itself features a 5-6 foot long hardwood shaft of ovular cross-section, tapering from a flat blade (rau) at one end, to a point at the other. The shape and decorations of the weapon are considered to represent those of a stylised human body. The spear-like point is known as the arero or tongue, and is likened to the protruding tongue of Tu Matauenga, the God of War. Both blade and point are traditionally fire-hardened and are nearly as sharp as steel.
The section of the shaft immediately above the arero features stylised eyes and a mouth, carved out of wood and inlaid with paua shell, a decorative sea-shell similar to abalone. A bunch of feathers forms a ruff around the neck of the weapon.
Survival and Contemporary Practice of Te Mau Taiaha
Although it has now been some two hundred years since taiaha were regularly employed in battle, the art was preserved by many devotees who saw beyond the immediate future and determined that the discipline had an intrinsic cultural value. Unlike many tribal martial arts from other countries, this method has been maintained as a form of physical training and as a way for young, urban Maori to connect to their ancestral traditions. Since the 1970s the art has been experiencing something of a renaissance, as young Maori are encouraged to immerse themselves in their cultural heritage. Many of several dozen tribal federations have maintained their own versions of taiaha instruction.
One of the most famous modern taiaha schools is a training camp that takes place every year at a location on Mokoia Island in Lake Rotorua, in the central part of New Zealand’s North Island.
Many Maori still consider the Taiaha to be tapu taonga (a sacred cultural treasure), and strict traditionalists preserve their tribal arts in secrecy, some refusing to teach anyone outside specific family lineages. However, other organisations take a more progressive approach to the art and will teach anyone who expresses a sincere desire to learn the traditional weapon.
A 2007 reality television series called TOA (Toa o Aotearoa, or Warrior of New Zealand) featured taiaha combat and training as a central motif and has been responsible for another resurgence in popularity for the taiaha.
Combat Training and Techniques
According to an ancient Maori proverb, Te Mau Taiaha should be taught “from the feet up”. Formal taiaha footwork patterns are based on a complex, dance-like step called karo (evasion), with many variations named for the characteristic movements of different animals. For example, the tuatara (lizard) pattern features slow, crouching, sinuous steps, in contrast with the light, active footwork of the tui (bird). Other patterns simulate the soft, penetrative foot action required when fighting on sand or when knee deep in water, or the careful steps employed when fighting barefoot on rocky terrain.
As in many Asian martial arts, however, these stylised formal patterns are intended primarily to improve strength, co-ordination, balance and mobility during the early stages of training. The footwork employed in orthodox combat and in sparring exercises is much more economical, and resembles that of fencing or even boxing.
Fighting techniques with the weapon include an extremely wide range of strikes, thrusts, parries and evasion techniques.
Maori tradition dictates that basic combat training should begin early; prior to European settlement, it was common for boys to be dedicated at birth to Tu Matauenga, and to be taught games from early childhood that would prepare them for adult lives as warriors. Most of their initial training in weaponry came from ti rakau, or stick games - contests of skill in manipulating, flourishing, throwing and catching or dodging short darts and staves. Eventually, once the student had developed sufficient hand/eye co-ordination, he would be introduced to sparring exercises and other, more combat oriented games. Before being allowed to handle a real taiaha, youths would practice their guards and thrusts with lightweight flax stems known as toi-toi, a New Zealand plant somewhat similar to bamboo.
In some tribes, a traditional rite of initiation, or ritual test, was required before a boy would be allowed to learn the more advanced secrets of his tribal fighting styles. A senior fighter would take one free strike at the novice, and if the latter was able to parry or avoid the attack, he would be admitted in to the Warrior’s House for more training. If he failed to defend himself, he would have to wait and continue to practice his skills.
In modern times, ti rakau still forms the basic level of taiaha weapon training, although many of the games have been codified into a series of on-guard stances. These are comparable to the eight guard positions of modern fencing, each bearing it’s own name (for example, popotahi (in which the taiaha is held diagonally across the body, right hand uppermost, with the rau threatening the opponent’s head whilst the arero threatens the abdomen/groin area. Other guard positions include huanui, an arero (point) forward stance traditionally used against left-handed enemies, and Te Otane, a position of invitation named after a legendary warrior chief.
Another aspect of taiaha instruction includes training in the ability to read an opponent’s intentions by studying his movement. Maori warriors traditionally duelled and fought on the battlefield without any form of armour, often clad only in a short grass skirt called a piu-piu. Experts were able to distinguish between a feint and a committed attack by noting whether the big toe of their enemy’s foot clenched the ground as they prepared their attack, and were also able to anticipate attacks by watching the flexion of certain muscles, such as the deltoids.
The final phase of taiaha instruction involves sparring practice, with staves whose tips had traditionally been bound with pua-pua (flax padding). Modern practitioners of Maori martial arts usually pad the tips of their weapons with rubber, and the TOA TV show featured a form of protective body armor to allow safer full-contact sparring with the weapons.
The intermediate phase of combative taiaha instruction deals with offensive and defensive manoeuvres, ranging from simple parry/counter attack drills to complex choreographed routines that simulate whole series of techniques. These routines can be performed either individually or with a partner; the most elaborate solo routines are known as wero (challenges) and are often performed during welcoming rituals for visiting dignitaries.
This custom is descended from an ancient tradition whereby representatives from other tribes would be greeted at the marae (village meeting grounds) by the greatest warrior of the host tribe. The warrior would demonstrate his prowess with the taiaha before placing a fern frond on the ground in front of the visitors. The actions performed during the wero combine practical combat techniques with symbolic gestures and flamboyant spins and flourishes that would not normally be used in serious combat. If the visitors accepted the frond, this signified a peaceful meeting - if not, then a duel or outright intertribal war could eventuate.
The wero is still commonly performed for politicians, celebrities and other high-profile people when they visit New Zealand, and is often also seen as part of tourist displays in cities such as Rotorua, which is a major centre of both modern and traditional Maori culture.
Ballara, Angela - The Role of Warfare in Maori Society in the Early Contact Period - Journal of the Polynesian Society – 1976. 85(4): 487-506.
Best, Elsdon - Games and Pastimes of the Maori – ISBN: 0909010315 – Te Papa Press - 1976 (first published 1925). 334 pages
Evans, Jeff - Maori Weapons in Pre-European New Zealand - ISBN: 0790008262 - Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd 2002. 72pp, 50 photos, drawings, paperback