Fire Making

The rituals and processes relating to hika ahi (fire making) are the subject of this trapezoid-shaped scene painting. In Lindauer's portrayal a man and woman are engaged in producing fire for a hāngī within the pā. Māori understandings and rituals pertaining to fire often recall a collaboration between male and female in the practice and process of creating fire. Fire is created using a fire plough, usually made of the kaikōmako tree, a hardwood that proved a great carrier and medium. Kaurima, or pointed-end sticks, were rubbed vigorously by the male while the female held the plough in place. The kaurima were rubbed against kaunoti (grooved battens) in the plough which would produce both sawdust and heat. When smoke appeared, the charred sawdust was placed on kindling and blown until it caught alight.

Māori oral narratives tell of the deity Māui and his bringing the knowledge of fire to this world from Mahuika, the female deity of fire. Indeed, the kaikōmako tree is known as Mahuika's tree because she threw her last fingernail of fire into this tree. However, fire and the practice of making fire have many levels of ritual relating to use and function. For example, Elsdon Best notes over twenty-eight names for the ritual use of fire; these range from:

Ahi taitai: a tapu (sacred) fire over which a karakia is chanted to protect the life principle of man

Ahi torongu: a ritual fire to expel insects and pets from destroying food crops

Ahi manawa: a ritual fire for cooking the heart of those slain in battle.1

Ahi, or fire, was understood and applied in a range of ways. Lindauer's scene shows male and female collaborating to produce fire. The woman holds the plough in place with her foot while the man rubs the kaurima continually to create friction and heat, which would eventually smoulder and be encouraged into a small fire through blowing. A prepared fire stack of neatly placed rocks has a wood pile atop. This is a hāngī ready for lighting and the cooking of kai. In the background is the vast landscape of the pā which is encircled by an impressive pā tūwatawata. Fire Making was the last of the eight large scene paintings commissioned for Henry Partridge.

Nigel Borell

(originally published in Gottfried Lindauer's New Zealand: The Māori Portraits, edited by Ngahiraka Mason and Zara Stanhope, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki and AUP, 2016.)

  1. Te Rangi Hiroa, The Coming of the Maori, Wellington: Maori Purposes Fund Board, 1949, p. 501.
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