Thursday, February 6, 2014

New Land, Old Spirits

"He iwi kotahi tatou: now we are one people."

It's Waitangi Day today, a day which observes not only the creation of modern New Zealand via the medium of contentious documentation, but also the coming together of two cultures, Victoria Regina's British Europeans and the various Maori iwi of Aotearoa. Just as the debate continues today (literally) over what Te Tiriti means and what nationhood represents to us 174 years on, so too does the meeting of cultures continue in every sense.

I'm not a deeply spiritual person, and I'm pretty sure I don't believe in ghosts, although Mrs Simian and I, like some of our student friends, lived in a flat in Dunedin that seemed to have its own set of occasional unexplained footfalls in its hallway. I'm sure most people could relate something similar, or knows of someone who can. I do like ghosts stories though, and I think they're culturally more important than the superficial spookiness we easily rate them by.

Grant Shanks and Tahu Potiki's series of New Zealand supernatural anecdotes are collected in two books, Where No Birds Sing and When the Wind Calls Your Name, a series of true stories which concern not just ghosts and restless spirits but many tales peculiar to a local sense of the supernatural. Echoes of abandoned sites of burial, slaughter and suicide, the persistence of tapu and reverence of pounamu and taonga like patu and hei-tiki, totem animals like dogs, birds and eels, and the enduring image of deceased ancestors among the living and in the landscape.

Belief in the spiritual and supernatural brings landscapes alive and adds meaning to places and names. It's worth observing that a lot of the book's stories, formulaic as they seem, concern actual encounters between the physical European world and some spiritual manifestation from the world of Maori. In many cases the story's protagonist is pakeha or perhaps sits on the fringes of traditional belief, and the encounter provides them with an explanation not only of the uncanny, but of the place where they met it. In a way the question of whether the phenomenon was real or imagined is beside the point; the story is given colour by it, but the kernel of each tale is the discovery of a history that offers some context; a story within a story connecting a spiritual sensation with an actual event. So ghost stories endure.

Stories unite people and shape their own histories in their telling. These collected stories are best described as 'eerie' - there aren't many which could be said to be actually frightening, though there are some which are deeply creepy: 'The Walkers', with its spectral drowned fishermen making their journey home across a beach and through giant driftwood stumps; not to mention Shanks' account of the titular story, an area of dead bush in a Fiordland valley featuring an encounter with an eighteen-point stag that recalls (to me at least) some key imagery of Grendel's Mere in Beowulf. The tales have a local and a universal element; Shanks' approach is as a confessed European among Maori. He compares his encounter and some of those mentioned in the book to a personal impression at a site from his own ancestry, the battlefield of Culloden, equating the same sense of awe and unease, what he describes as "the point before understanding". These are modest, personal stories, and believe them or not, they each carry a similar sense of questioning one's place in a world which is both physical and spiritual. Sometimes they are profound experiences; although at least one ('A Hand of Poker') is a wonderful shaggy dog story and a fitting end to an entertaining, thought-provoking and sometimes chilling collection.

I'm currently reading Shanks and Potiki's follow-up, loaned to me by Al who is blogging it right now. Yes, we've synchronised blogs! Head on over to Phasmatodea to read his account of When the Wind Calls Your Name.


  1. Excellent! Good for you mentioning the animal totems, a very important part of Maori and other cultures which I neglected to mention. May the mother-of-eels never have cause to appear in our swimming hole!

  2. It's always strange when I see my name somewhere online. Even more weird when it is, in fact, my brother.

    I can't remember if you've ever met my family.

  3. I've met your Mum! But no, nobody else. I think I knew Tahu is your brother, but wasn't a hundred per cent, so thanks :)

    It is strange, true. I'll be having a namesake coming up very soon, by the way...

  4. I think I have read this, although it must have been about when it was published....