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April 16, 2018 | by  | in Ngāi Tauira | [ssba]

Tapu and Noa

Remember when you were younger and you got a growling for sitting on a table? Your cousin, or your classmate, looks at you with an all knowing look and says “that’s tapu”. To this day the idea of cutting my nails or hair at night makes me feel uneasy. Again, I was told it was tapu, and that tapu must be respected.

The western word taboo originates in the word tapu, a word harvested by pākehā adventurers in our Pacific waters. But they are not the same thing. Often when we think of the word tapu we imagine a set of restrictions and rules. An invisible police officer who will punish us if we break these rules. Outsiders who are critical of Te Ao Māori will call tapu “sexist” when it means that women must sit at the back, that we generally do not speak on the pae of the marae, when we cannot enter the cemetery while bleeding or pregnant.

Tapu is not a rule book. When we navigate tapu we are navigating safeties and risks in our environment. Tapu is balanced with noa. It is about the sacred, respect, and balance. Noa is the mundane, the plain, the everyday state of the world. Tapu is the bleeding woman, and when she stops, she is noa. Tapu may be those in positions of mana or power.

To whakanoa is to settle a space and make it safe – to use kai or karakia or waiata to settle our minds and our wairua after it has been charged. When we enter a pōhiri it is a tapu space because it is a ritual of encounter. Historically, this encounter could be one of danger. Thus, we whakanoa by singing together and eating together. Everyday we interact with tapu and noa; we engage in a conversation, whether we know it or not.


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