Eyes closed, they touch nose-to-nose, forehead to forehead, the two embrace in a traditional greeting peculiar to the indigenous people of New Zealand, the Maori.
The salutation is known as the hongi typically thought of by non-Maori as rubbing or pressing noses, an intermingling, and exchange of breath, the “ha.”
But for me, a daughter of the Te Arawa tribe that settled in the thermal regions of the North Island, this description of the hongi is a denigration of an ancient and sacred tradition.
I recall as a young child strolling down the street clutching the hand of my grandfather when we chanced upon an old friend that he hadn’t seen in a while.
Eyes smiling in recognition, the two men drew close arm extended as if to shake hands. The gesture only drew them closer and then forehead to forehead, nose touching nose, with a hand on each others’ shoulder, they embraced, not a word exchanged. Yet within the silence, a volume of words was spoken.
The longer the two men held the position, the higher the esteem was shown. Then as their feelings deepened, tears of regret and sorrow would flow as they remember unshared moments stolen by time that has slipped them by.
The head is regarded by Maori as tapu, the most sacred part of the body and as the process deepens those that have since departed this world are remembered and grieved.
Their foreheads touching, the two become as one bonded by their ancestral ties and they enter a still deeper level. The connection to their ancestors reminds them of who they are, where they come from and whence they will return and in making this connection they honor each other, thereby honoring themselves.
Embodied within the sacredness of the hongi are their primal parents, Ranginui, the sky father and Papatuanuku, the earth mother, back to the supreme god known to Maori as Io Matua. But that is natural to the Maori bearing, needing no mention.
In bygone days, the name Io Matua was considered too sacred to be spoken. But today, we pay homage in songs and chants and recite genealogy for future generations.
However, it was not until each level of the hongi was felt and acknowledged, was the hongi considered finished and the two could talk freely.
The image of this meeting between the two men, the aroha (love) and respect that flowed, will be forever etched in my mind and up to this day, never have I seen nor witnessed anything so powerful and dignified.
Back then, the hongi was known to last from a few seconds up to several minutes, depending upon circumstances.
The Maori stems from a world steeped in spirituality, the word Maori itself meaning ordinary, according to H. W. Williams’ Dictionary of Maori Language.
Elders believe the word was derived directly from the gods to make a distinction between being human and being divine.
It is also believed the hongi was god-given, but in today’s world many perspectives offered by non-Maori tend to undermine its sacred form.
Performed mostly on formal occasions at the marae—the ancestral home of the Maori where the spiritual well-being of the tribespeople is maintained—the hongi signals that formalities are over and guests and hosts are able to freely mingle at their own leisure.
On these occasions, at the powhiri welcoming ceremony, the hongi is imparted with a light touch of the nose, maybe once or twice and a handshake between men, and a peck on the cheek between women called the hariru. A long line of people file through to be properly welcomed with hongi, after which visitors are free to mingle freely no longer regarded as guests.
The hariru is usually followed by a hakari, a celebratory feast usually cooked in a hangi, best described as an earth oven.
However, living outside of the marae environment in a foreign country, nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing this centuries-old tradition carried into the new millennia by Maori people, young and old alike.
Especially at times when strolling down the street they chance to meet and greet with the traditional Maori hongi, a gift from the gods.
But unfortunately, as the years roll on, few Maori witness the spirit of the hongi the way that I had as a little girl. Though still kept alive by many, the full meaning of hongi is lost, compromised by Westernization, as more regard the greeting about as meaningful as a handshake, or a kiss on the cheek.
Sources : www.theepochtimes.com