Culture is ever-changing, and anthropology now recognizes that religion is not just a cultural system, but rather “the interpenetration of cultural systems…and all religions….are best understood as products of…multiple contacts with outside cultures” (Glazier 2009:37). Such contacts result in syncretism, a reconciliation of different belief systems and practices in a blended analogy. In this essay, I consider an interesting case of syncretism, that of the Maori myth of a supreme being named Io, and explore the likelihood that an ethnography, albeit dated (early twentieth century), likely enabled this syncretism to flourish to this day.
Māori first came to Aotearoa New Zealand from Polynesia perhaps about eight hundred years ago. They brought with them stories of creation “that begin with the coming together of the Sky-father and the Earth-mother, who’s children were the earliest descendents of the Māori people, referred to as ancestors rather than gods” (Hume 2009:295). Many of the powers of nature were personified by deities. Tane was the personification of light and fertility and the creator of the first woman; and through her, the father of man. Tangaroa was god of the sea. And there was a deity of winds and storms, and one of war. There were also deities of nature: the rainbow, thunder, lightning, earthquakes, and Maui, the sun god (Anderson 1940). According to Hume, this is consistent with Polynesian traditions, which tend to be polytheistic and hold a worldview that encompasses both the spiritual and natural worlds as one (2009).
British missionaries arrived in New Zealand in 1814, distributed religious literature to the Maori, and held church services. The London Missionary Society, active throughout the Pacific Islands in the 1800s, as well as other Christian missions, soon followed, so that by the 1830s there was a rapid spread of Christianity throughout New Zealand. By the 1940s, a revolution had occurred in Māori culture with the general acceptance of Christianity. While the Māori pantheon had many gods, adding one more very powerful god conformed with their long-standing tradition of creating and adding new ones (Sutherland 1940). While some Māori repudiated entirely the sacred beliefs of their pre-European ancestors, most value the teachings handed down to them by their ancestors as symbolic ways of understanding the world and had “no difficulty reconciling and integrating them with Christian teaching” (Metge 1995:82).
According to Metge, Maori today, despite variations in belief and practice, generally accept three basic propositions: the existence of spiritual beings, including one supreme god; the existence of a spiritual realm which intersects with the world in which humans live; and the existence of a spiritual dimension to life in this world (1995). American religion and myth scholar David Leeming found that some New Zealand Māori, depending on tribal affiliation and regional location, have the tradition of a supreme god they call Io (or Iho), while others do not. Part of one particular Io version discovered by Leeming includes the following:
In the beginning there was darkness and water, where Io lived alone and was inactive. In order to become active, Io uttered words calling on darkness to become light-possessing darkness. So came light…Day and night were born. Io continued creating with words, calling on the waters to separate and the heavens to be formed. Then Io became the gods. Most important, he created Sky Father and Earth Mother (Leeming 2010:184).
The question is whether this one Maori supreme god originated before Maori contact with Europeans or later. According to New Zealand Maori researcher Bruce Biggs, the earliest full account of the origins of Maori gods is found in “Nga Tama a Rangi” (The Sons of Heaven), written in 1849 by Wī Maihi Te Rangikāheke, of the Ngāti Rangiwewehi tribe. Biggs says it describes Māori religious beliefs about the origin of many natural phenomena, the creation of woman, the origin of death, and how fish became the two islands of Aotearoa. All early accounts that predate European contact present the Rangikāheke version, which begins as follows:
My friends, listen to me. The Māori people stem from only one source, namely the Great-heaven-which-stands-above, and the Earth-which-lies-below. According to Europeans, God made heaven and earth and all things. According to the Māori, Heaven (Rangi) and Earth (Papa) are themselves the source (Biggs 1966:448).
If heaven and earth are “themselves the source,” then as of 1849 there is no record of a supreme singular god. The supreme god Io (or Iho) can perhaps be traced to New Zealand ethnographer Elsdon Best, who based his writing on a 1913 manuscript compiled from information provided by an elderly Māori gentleman. Following Best, some now claim that although the Maori pantheon contained many gods, Io ruled over all as an eternal being, itself uncreated, and the creator of the other gods, the universe, and all things. Best’s explanation for the sudden appearance in Maori tradition of the one God Io was that the knowledge and worship of Io was so sophisticated and esoteric that it was available only to a restricted few ranking chiefs and high priests. He called these restricted few “the Io cult” (Best 1924).
However, according to American social anthropologist Allan Hanson, the manuscript Best relied on for the material on the Io cult was part of a collection of “manuscripts whose status as pre-European Maori tradition is questionable” (Hanson 1989:896).” And the Maori anthropologist Peter Buck observed as early as 1952 that Io’s ability to bring forth light from darkness, divide the waters, suspend the sky, and form the earth had too much in common with Genesis to have Polynesian origin (1952). Genesis is the first book in the Hebrew Old Testament, where we find the creation myth that forms the basis of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a:
In the beginning God made heaven and earth.
All was empty, chaotic and dark.
And God’s Spirit moved over the watery deep.
God said, let light shine and it did.
And God observed the light, and observed that it was good:
And God separated the light from the dark…
Not only is there a similarity between Genesis and the Io creation myth, but Christian missionaries made a variety of religious material available to Māori starting in the 1830s, including Māori versions of the Old Testament. Maori found an affinity with the stories of the Old Testament, studied it with enthusiasm, and often recited whole passages with significant relevance (Elsmore 2000). All this places some doubt on the authenticity of the Io creation myth as predating European contact. The Maori researcher Charles Royal has written that early manuscripts of Māori mythological material contain no reference to Io, who only begins to appear in manuscripts and oral discourse late in the 19th century. Royal notes some scholars have argued that Io was invented to bring Māori beliefs more into line with Christianity, a suggestion supported by Hume. Still, the Io tradition, says Royal, was accepted by many nineteenth and twentieth century tribal elders, and today almost all tribes have a view on Io one way or the other (Royal 2012).
One could surmise that Best enabled the propagation of the supreme god creation myth to make it more likely for traditional Maori beliefs to survive in the face of oncoming and relenting Christian influence. Hume’s view that Māori Christianity developed in a syncretism of Māori theology alongside a Western Christian theology seems reasonable (Hume 2009). She suggests that Māori Christianity “identifies the Hebrew Jehovah with Io…allowing the genealogies of both traditions to be aligned and providing Māoris with both traditional and Christian identity” (Hume 2009:296). Whether the Io creation myth is a Māori tradition that existed before Europeans came to New Zealand or was invented later, it is a fascinating example of religious syncretism.
It is plausible, I propose, that Elsdon Best wanted to show that the Māori were capable of higher-order thought that includes one supreme god, something Western scholars and Christian missionaries would have then associated with a high culture. Best wrote that if it had not been for the cult of Io, Māori “religion” would be no more than shamanism (1924). But for Maori today the question is moot. Most Maori accept the supreme god Io as part of their traditional pantheon.
There is, however, a lesson perhaps in all this for anthropology. As Allen Hanson points out, “it is becoming clear that anthropologists too are inventors of culture [and that] anthropological activities of ethnographic research and writing inevitably produce cultural inventions” (Hansen 1989:895). It seems sensible to view ethnographic work as we do any text; having potentially different impact than foreseen by the ethnographer. Elsdon Best might have sought to elevate Maori culture in the eyes of European colonizers (Cox 2014). What Best might not have realized, however, was that his ethnography would help catapult the knowledge of the supreme god from the “cult of Io” and into the wider Maori culture. Even so, he probably would have been content to know that the God Io would eventually allow Maori to reconcile differences between long-held Maori beliefs and their adopted Maori Christianity; a fascinating example of religious syncretism resulting from reconciliation by analogy. In Maori Christianity, there is one supreme Maori god Io. But all of the other traditional deities have been retained in the Maori pantheon, like an umbilical cord connecting with the mother of traditional Maori culture.
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