Io-urutapu: the Māori Supreme Being
Pōtatau Te Wherowhero was a tohunga ahurewa, a priest of highest order in Māori society, and thus privy to one of the most disputed sacred teachings of Māoridom, the concept of Io.
It must be stated from the outset that my journey with this topic has been as an outsider looking in. I am thoroughly Pākehā, and as former New Plymouth mayor Andrew Judd adequately puts it, a “recovering racist”. As such, I offer these thoughts humbly, recognising that my grasp of the intricacies and realities of Io are limited by my Pākehā mind-set.
The topic of my master’s thesis was “Christianity from a traditional Māori framework: The life and impact of Wiremu Tamihana.” In the course of my study, one of the most interesting subjects peripheral to my study I came across was, Io, who some claim to be the Supreme Being in the Māori worldview. Consequently, my interest in Io comes from an intellectual and academic viewpoint.
Because this was a tangential topic of study, this article is unable to give a full account of the claims of Pōtatau. Even then, I wouldn’t want to argue against the veracity of the personal beliefs of one of Māoridom's greatest figures. Rather, I will consider the various views surrounding Io. Is it a post-colonial reaction and invention? Or is Io an authentic aspect of Māoridom that is shrouded in mystery?
Some argue that before they were exposed to European understandings of monotheism, Māori possessed a belief in a Supreme Being, Io. It is believed that understanding and karakia (prayer) concerning Io was highly sacred, known and practiced exclusively by the upper echelons of priestly society. Such an idea is contentious not just for Pākehā, but also among Māori. The influential and well-regarded late Te Rangi Hīroa (Sir Peter Buck) found the idea surprising. Early New Zealand historian, Edward Shortland, firmly believed that “neither in existing superstition nor tradition … is there to be found internal evidence that an idea of God existed more exalted than that of the spirit of a dead ancestor.” Hirini Moko Mead also doubts the notion “that Io was so exalted that the people did not know about him and were not supposed to hear his name.” He goes on to say, “There was no evidence that so important a matter was kept secret or could have been kept secret.” However, Elsdon Best, contends that “Io is not an understanding which evolved in their new land as other atua had, nor developed as a result of Christian influence but it came with them from their legendary origins, passed on by the select few from generation to generation and known throughout the Pacific.”
One must ask why such a topic should be so contentious. Is it the result of the post-enlightenment colonial view which maintained that there could be no intellectual parity between European and Māori and so the notion of a complex religious philosophy is inconceivable? In addition, the early discussion surrounding Io was from a distinctly academic standpoint. This had the result of leaving Māori without a voice. Conversation concerning Māori culture was seen by one commentator to be “full of Pākehā men talking down to other Pākehā men. Out-knowing each other. What fun! How useful to contemporary Māori living in cars! Like we know nothing about ourselves until the train spotters tell us.”
Does the contention concerning Io mean that any understanding should be discounted, or left in the too-hard basket? Does it mean as a Pākehā, I should refrain from seeking to communicate a mystery of a culture not my own? I would suggest, no, nothing should be off limits from critical engagement. But, I must acknowledge the limitations of my understanding. I am hindered by the legacy of my Eurocentric education, one that has, until recently, overlooked an indigenous perspective. Before, I would have thought this topic an interesting oddity, reinforcing a Christian-centric view of human religion. With no real depth of understanding, I would consider it another case of God revealing Himself to an indigenous people before Christian missionaries could arrive and do it for Him. It then becomes merely another little apologetic gem to be used in the argument for the irreducible religiosity of humanity. Now, however, the contentious topic of Io becomes part of a greater dialogue seeking to understand Māori religiosity and conversion. With these thoughts in mind and a genuine desire to further enquiry into a most important aspect of pre-European Māori religious thought, I will now examine how Io became a topic of discussion.
At the turn of the twentieth century, there was a great deal of interest surrounding the development of the human race. Charles Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” had proved to be a catalyst toward a wide range of philosophical, anthropological, and sociological hypotheses. One such endeavour was ethnography, which looked to map the development of culture. In studying Māori religion, the concept of Io was interpreted to show that Māori were linked to an older tradition stemming back to Polynesia, or to India. Such thinking sees a Māori understanding of a supreme being as consistent with the experiences of other peoples around the world.
The two key ethnographers who gave significant contributions to understanding Māori culture were Percy Smith, founder and main contributor to the Journal of Polynesian Society in 1892, and Eldon Best, whose studies of Māori culture culminated in his work among the Tuhoe people. Their viewpoints have more recently been accused of manipulating the complexities of Māori religion and exacerbating colonial intellectualism which recreated Io to suit European ends; in other words, to sell journals and books. Jane Simpson contends that the vast corpuses written by Smith and Best do not show the realities of Io, but the extent of an academic community’s dedication toward a textually created myth. Jane Simpson would hold that their motivations were to show Māori were in no need of the missionary God, but could meet the post-Enlightenment tests of advanced mentality and introspective thought.
Another view argues that for Māori to possess any knowledge of a Supreme Being, it must be conclusively linked to post-European contact; it resulted entirely from an exposure to Christianity. The close affinity of Māori toward the Old Testament story of a chosen people, genealogies, land possession, and the recounting of a powerful war God who fought for his people, is well known. But this interaction does not naturally flow into a belief in the unique Supreme Being Io, but rather, to syncretistic expressions observed in various prophetic movements starting with Papahurihia in 1833. Peter Buck argues the sources which Smith and Best relied upon are the manuscripts of Te Matorohanga, a tohunga ahurewa of the Ngati Kahungunu tribe of the Wairarapa region. Buck argues that the manuscripts detailing the story of Io are inauthentic because Te Matorohanga and his scribe Te Whatahoro were both recent converts to Christianity and thus their writings certainly reflect their new perspective. Bishop Muru Walters agrees with these findings, but also states, “The supreme god Io which was developed about the late 19th century was not known by my elders’, my parents’, my uncles’ and my aunties’ tribes. It was developed by a few Māori of the Kahungunu tribe ...” There is an earlier written mention of Io in Rev. R. Taylor’s notebook dated May 7, 1852. This was later quoted by John White as “Io made the heavens and the earth.” However, both Buck and Walters dismiss the claims of White suggesting that he embellished and inaccurately translated what was written.
It also must be said that Rev. Taylor, in spite of recording the disputed conversations allegedly affirming Io, concluded, “Māori had abandoned the service of the true God, and cast aside his Word … fallen to their lowest state of degradation.” Taylor goes on to suggest, “Properly speaking the natives have no knowledge of a Supreme Being”. Then again, the focus of the Christian missionaries was not to examine the content and merits of a Māori religion, but to convert them to another. Indeed, Rev. W. W. Gill shows the extent of missionary bias against any concept of a high god, stating, “The sublime conception of a Supreme Being is unattainable by a heathen sage, and any notion of the contrary cannot pass unchallenged.” It appears as though some missionaries did not reject the idea on a basis of research, but because of what was to them the inconceivable notion that a “savage” could possess any knowledge of the God of the universe without being told. If the opposite were true however, this would insinuate that Māori indeed possessed an adeptness toward the abstract and it would also imply a complexity in what was deemed mere “superstition”.
Buck’s conclusion that “Io originated with the Kahungunu tribe, from which rumours of the cult spread to other tribes,” presumes Io as a localised post-contact development and it was this that inspired Te Matorohanga and other traditionally learned tohunga to quickly adopt a new foundation, a notion that is so far from the reality and experience of other tohunga, who were often the last to convert. Notably, Pōtatau Te Wherowhero is reported to have died in the faith of his forebears, holding nothing in the Christian faith to be at variance with the esoteric beliefs of his people.
The “Bringer of Night”
Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, of Ngati-Mahuta, could claim kinship to all of the main tribes of New Zealand, and trace his Chiefly lineage back to the commanders of both the Tainui (Waikato) and Arawa (Rotorua) waka (canoe). His Father, Te Rau-anga-anga, was the war leader of the Waikato tribes orchestrating the victorious strategy in the renowned battle of Hingakaka. Te Wherowhero proved the mana of his High Chieftain status was more than ancestral ties, for he was also a conquering general and a mighty toa (warrior) in battle, for “there you will see my skill in arms and the thrust and parry of mine ancestors.” It was during his war with Te Rauparaha that he acquired the name that became his title as king, Pōtatau, which means the bringer of night or darkness, the cavern (sepulchre) of man. Pōtatau is recorded to have stood firm in single combat against fifty of Taranaki’s finest warriors, in so doing, he claimed ownership of Taranaki by conquest.
Pōtatau was more than just a mighty warrior and great leader. As previously mentioned, he was a tohunga ahurewa, a great high priest of the Tainui whare Wānanga (sacred house of learning). His learning began as a small boy under the tutelage of his father. He learned the sacred lore of his forebears, the mythology of Polynesia, tribal traditions of Tainui, the many genealogical lines, and the tribal boundaries and relationships. In his early teenage years, his father sent him to be initiated into the lore of the whare Wānanga, where he would devote himself to the study and memorisation of the higher knowledge and esoteric teachings of Tainui. Pei Te Hurinui Jones relates the understandings of Pōtatau Te Wherowhero in his biography to the First Māori King. Crucially, the teachings of the Tainui house of Sacred Learning held, in spite of Meads aforementioned doubts,that Io was “so intensely sacred in himself that even the utterance of his name was avoided on all ordinary occasions.”
The curriculum began by tracing the tribal genealogies and inter-tribal relationships back to the stories of the ancestors and to their waka, to the origins of Aotearoa, and the evolutions of humanity and the world through the creation myths. Further back still Pōtatau’s training went, to the eight stages of te Kore, the formless void and to Io, who sits at the apex and centre of Creation.
Jones records four strands of creation that weave the generations into a story of origins and destinations.  Perhaps it is from this vantage point that Pōtatau believed that there is no variance between the esoteric teachings of Io and Christianity. His attention was on the overarching picture of people returning to where both religious traditions find their origins; be that reigning and worshiping in the presence of Yahweh, or journeying to te Rēinga [the way of the multitude] and through eleven stages of Heaven “until the pleasure of Io is known and the summons comes to attend at the courtyard of Te Rauroha.”
Pōtatau both encouraged his people to embrace Christianity and the missionaries to establish themselves within his territories, but he himself remained steadfast to the ancient teachings of his forebears. Jones explains that Pōtatau was unable to teach the sacred lore to his people, for it was far above their day to day thoughts, requiring sanctity and an eschewing of common practices. Because he saw no fundamental differences between the faiths, he was content to offer to his people the Anglican, Wesleyan and Catholic perspectives. In the last section of his closing ode, Jones quotes Pōtatau explaining:
The basket of the Wānanga will soon be lifted; let the hold of the priesthood be firm, lest the burden be spilled out; for that would indeed be a great wrong. As the multitude of the uninitiated are profane and unmindful- preoccupied as they are with lesser thoughts, they are unheeding and will not cherish our treasured sacred knowledge: It is stronger than that uttered a foretime: Wherefore, be steadfast; be steadfast!
In the rising up (anointing) rituals of the Tainui whare Wānanga, and in the later Kingitanga, Io is beseeched. In the Wānanga, Io is called upon to be the focal point of the initiates striving for knowledge, for the Kingitanga, Io is portioned to aid in the naming of the king. Both rituals denote an aspect of being consecrated, which is echoed in the coat of arms for the Māori king which contains the words Mana Motuhake, of which Motuhake means “set apart”. The sacred lore of Tainui, as already mentioned, set Io apart from all other aspects of Māori traditions and life to the point where Io is known as Io-urutapu, “the most sacred.”
Other sources for Io
Buck’s assessment that the idea of Io spread from the Kahungunu tribe to the spiritual leaders elsewhere, is challenged by the fact that Pōtatau Te Wherowhero died in the faith of his forebears, five years prior to Te Whatahoro’s conversion and manuscripts. Nor can it be maintained when considering Pei Te Hurinui Jones’s analysis of the written and oral records of the Tainui and Kingitanga. It also fails to account for the oral traditions surrounding Io from the whare Wānanga i te Tai Tokerau, detailed in the writing of Māori Marsden. According to Marsden, the whare Wānanga i te Tai Tokerau was established in the early 1850s in order to preserve Māori Tikanga, lore and understanding. Both the Te Tai Tokerau and Tainui traditions understood Io to be at the source of all knowledge; “Io-wānanga” the All-knowing. In turn, any seeking after wisdom was in actuality a seeking after Io.
Importantly, Sir Apirana Ngata held that the Io tradition was not confined to one district, but was widespread, citing Whanganui, Thames, and the East Coast sources. To this list it has been shown that the Waikato, Taupo, Wairarapa, and Northland districts can also be added. Furthermore, Teone Taare Tikao from the Kai Tahu of Banks Peninsula recounts the creation in which Io “brought the sky and land into being.” Ngata also speaks of the account of Judge Frederick Manning, who, in 1833, was reluctantly inducted into the sacred religion of Io. Ngata relays how years after his initiation and upon his death bed, Manning was conflicted about publishing his writing pertaining to Io. True to the sacredness of the teachings, he chose to maintain its secrecy by having his manuscripts thrown into a fire. Pōtatau also claimed to have initiated Governor George Grey into the teachings of the Tainui whare Wānanga. Unlike Judge Manning, Grey wrote a book relating what he had learned. This led Grey to conclude that Io was the basis of the karakia in Māori religion by stating, “It was the great God that taught these prayers to man.”
In all of the traditions, Io can be understood to be at the centre of the universe, and the instigator of creation. By understanding the names by which Io is known, the process of creation can be seen to develop along with the names:
Io matamoe, the slumbering countenance
Io mata-ane, the calm and tranquil countenance
Io-kore-te-whiwhia, the unchanging and unadulterated, in whom is no confusion and inconsistency
Io-matua-kore, the parentless
Io-matua, the first parent
Io-mau, the precursor
Io-pukenga, the first cause
Io-taketake, the foundation of things
Io-te-wairoa, the source of life
As creation is established, Io receives the accolades befitting his status at the centre:
Io-moa, the exalted one
Io-tikitiki-o-rangi, the supreme one of heaven
Io-te-toi-o-ngarangi, the pinnacle of heaven
Io-nui, the great one
Io-roa, the eternal one
Io-uru, the omnipresent
Io-mata-kana, the all-seeing
Io-wānanga, the all wise
These are followed by the names that reflect how Māori attempted to grasp the reality of Io:
Io-matangaro, the hidden face
Io-Mataaho, only his radiance can be seen.
Io-urutapu, the most sacred
From the names Io is known, it is understandable that the concept was considered exceedingly tapu, completely removed or “set apart” from the trivia of day to day actions. Awareness of the esoteric lore of Io was thus kept from the denizens of common society and even those of higher rank were kept ignorant for it was held that it gained them nothing. Though they might hear the names of Io being spoken in the sacred rituals performed by the tohunga ahurewa, the general population appears to have been kept in the dark. Knowledge of Io was only revealed to those of the exclusive rank of tohunga. It was an awareness held only by those who spent many years in the whare Wānanga, and who were deemed to possess enough mana to receive such teaching. For Māori, the divine notion of Io is so far above from the actions of people and so tapu that it does not require anything from creation, nor can humanity do anything to acquire Io’s favour. It is thus a critical aspect of higher esoteric teachings, a fuller account of the realities of the world.
The concept of Io is unique because it does not sway the outcome of life events, nor does it generate any definitive rules, commandments or code of ethics. It is a concept set well apart from and above normal society. This stands in contrast to Yahweh of the Old Testament, who revealed Himself continually to humanity, physically gave them His Law and readily concerned Himself with the works and behaviour of His creation. There are similarities between the Biblical account where the earth was formless and void in Gen 1:2 and the Māori understanding of te Kore and the respective deities speaking order into creation. This is, however, where the similarities end. The deistic conceptions of the Māori creation story take over. Though there are certain aspects where Io appears to share with the likeness of Yahweh, the expression of these characteristics is vastly different. If anything, Io draws a comparison with the concept of Wisdom, in the book of Proverbs. Wisdom is continuously sought after, it is highly prized and it realigns one’s disposition toward the ultimate realities of life. To accredit Io as a post-contact development is to fail to grasp the clear differences and to oversimplify Māori religion. As shown, the knowledge of Io within Māoridom was shared throughout the land and not isolated to a particular tribe. The concept of Io, wherever the evidence directs, expresses that Māori possessed an affinity toward the theoretical; what we would describe as abstract philosophy and theology.
The concept of Io, in the end, will continue to remain a mystery. The very nature of time and with years of cultural saturation, it is not surprising that what is left is contentious. Yet, the sincerity of not just Pōtatau’s beliefs but many others requires an honest look at the arguments. Accepting the limitations of my perspective, it is my view that there is enough evidence to suggest that Io was a legitimate aspect within the Māori tradition from before the arrival of Christianity. Does this suggest there enough evidence to accept Pōtatau’s claim of parity between Māori and Christian religions? Not entirely, it would imprudent to accept this claim simply on a basis of Io, further examination is required. The esoteric lore of Io shows an awareness of theological concepts such as the first cause behind creation, the existence of the human soul and its irreducible link to its creator. It shows a sincere mindfulness of the relationship between the sacred and profane and the need for holiness and purity before the sacred. The little that can be known of the concept of Io suggests Māori possessed a capacity for the theologically abstract and that their religiosity possessed vehicles through which inter-religious dialogue was and still is possible without intellectual disparity. The notion of Io is quite clearly an interesting topic of study, worthy of more than peripheral glancing. For if there existed a belief within the high society of Māoridom in a being so sacred and yet so central to not just human existence but also the universe, then surely there is more to the initial conversion of many Māori people.
The commitment of Pōtatau Te Wherowhero to rest in the faith of his forebears, to hold firmly to the traditions and teachings of the Tainui whare Wānanga is clearly not the actions of a stubborn old man. It is a measured and reasoned response of a seasoned intellectual, a faithful act of a deeply spiritual keeper of a forgotten sacred wisdom, a curious act indeed.
Jonathan Arthur graduated from Laidlaw College with a Master of Theology in 2014, his thesis examined a Maori expression of Christianity through the life and faith of Wiremu Tamihana, the Kingmaker. He now works for the Network for Learning in Auckland and is in the beginning processes of Presbyterian Ordination.
 Radio New Zealand Part 14 “The Governors” (2013). Online: http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/nights/collections/wednesday-drama/audio/2568782/te-wherowhero-part-14-the-governors.
 Sir Peter Buck, The Coming of the Māori (Wellington: Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, 1949), 526.
 Edward Shortland, Traditions and Superstitions of the New Zealanders: With Illistrations of their Manners and Customs (London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans & Roberts, Paternoster Row, 1856), 79–80.
 Hirini Moko Mead, Tikanga Māori: Living by Māori Values (Wellington: Huia Publishers, 2003), 309.
 Best refers to Tahiti, Rarotonga, Samoa and Hawaii. See Elsdon Best, Maori Religion and Mythology: Part 1 (Wellington: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 1995), 147, 151, 157, 160.
 Talia Marshall, “The coming of the Māori, and ‘this long uneasy history of being measured by someone else’s stick’: An essay on the first migration” (2016). Online: http://thespinoff.co.nz/books/10-08-2016/the-coming-of-the-maori-as-told-by-a-white-man-an-essay-on-the-first-migration/.
 See, Elsdon Best, “The Origin of the Māori: The Hidden Homeland of the Māori, and Its Probable Location,” Journal of Polynesian Society 32.125 (1923): 10–20; S. Percy Smith, Hawaiki: The Original Home of the Māori (London: Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, 1904).
 Edward Tregear, The Aryan Māori (Wellington: George Didsbury, 1885).
 Elsdon Best, Tuhoe, the Children of the Mist (New Plymouth: The Board of Maori Ethnological Research, 1925).
 A summary made of Jane Simpson’s argument from “Io as Supreme Being: Intellectual Colonization of the Māori?” 1997 by Kimberley Ruta, “Transcendental Unity: Mana-Mediations in Māori Lore” (Masters Thesis, University of Victoria, 2011), 78.
 Simpson, “Io as Supreme Being,” 56.
 Ibid., 51.
 For a detailed account of the prophetic Māori movements in response to Christian and biblical influence see: Elsmore, Like Them That Dream.
 Recorded by Te Whatahoro on January 5, 1865. D. R. Simmons, “The Words of Te Matorohanga,” The Journal of the Polynesian Society 103.2 (1994): 116.
 Buck, The Coming of the Māori, 526.
 The Kahungunu tribe is a reference to Te Matorohanga. Bishop Muru Walters gave these remarks during the Pacific Region Religious Liberty Congress in June 1993. Michael P. Shirres, Te Tangata: The Human Person (Auckland: Accent Publications, 1997), 108.
 The notes were from a conversation Taylor had with a teacher from Wawarua Shirres, Te Tangata, 108.
 John White, The Ancient History of Māori, His Mythology and Traditions: Horo-Uta or Taki-Tumu Migration., vol. 2 (Wellington: Government Printing House, 1887), 1–3.
 Buck, The Coming of the Māori, 532.
 Rev. Richard Taylor, Te Ika A Maui: New Zealand and Its Inhabitants (London: Wertheim and Macintosh, 1855), 23–24.
 Ibid., 29–30.
 Best, Maori Religion and Mythology Part 1, 151.
 William Williams, Christianity among the New Zealanders (London: Seeley, Jackson, and Halliday, 1867), 19.
 Buck, The Coming of the Māori, 535.
 Radio New Zealand Part 14 “The Governors”
 See, Table No. 1 “The Canoes,” Genealogy of King Pōtatau Te Wherowhero. Pei Te Hurinui Jones, King Pōtatau: An Account of the Life of Pōtatau Te Wherowhero the First Māori King (Auckland: Huia Publishers, 2010), 20–21.
 Ibid., 280–281.
 For a full account of the battle see, Ibid., 4–18.
 A quote said to be from Te Wherowhero. Ibid., 37.
 Kelly explains Te Wherowhero was a cavern into which many warriors had disappeared never to be seen again. Leslie G. Kelly, Tainui (Wellington: The Polynesian Society, 1949), 345.
 For a description of this event see, Hurinui Jones, Pōtatau, 98–100.
 Ibid., 32.
 Ibid., 238.
 See Footnote 5
 Hurinui, Pōtatau, 246.
 Ibid., 34.
 Ibid., 238.
 Ibid., 249–256.
 For a description of these stages see. Ibid., 273–276.
 Ibid., 151.
 Hurinui cites Te Wherowhero refrained from kaitangata, and the unruly practices of utu. Ibid., 32.
 Ibid., 262.
 “Tis the searching- Where shall I seek? I will search in the flowing tide: ... where else could I seek in this searching for Io?” Ibid., 31.
 Ibid., 212–213.
 Ibid., 223.
 Best, Part 1, 153.
 Māori Marsden, The Woven Universe (Masterton: The Estate of Rev. Māori Marsden, 2003), 16–23 and 31–33.
 Ibid., xxx.
 Ibid., 16; Philip Cody, Seeds of the Word (Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2004), 52.
 Apirana Ngata, “The Io Cult - Early Migration - Puzzle of the Canoes,” The Journal of the Polynesian Society 59.4 (1950): 336.
 Herries Beattie, Tikao Talks (Auckland: Penguin Books, 1990), 23–28.
 Ngata explains that as a young man, Manning whilst living in Hokianga stumbled across a Tohunga reciting the sacred Io Incantations, who subsequently gave Manning two choices; death or becoming adept in his cult. Ngata, “The Io Cult”, 336.
 Ibid., 337.
 Hurinui, Pōtatau, 151.
 Sir George Grey, Polynesian Mythology and Ancient Traditional History of the New Zealand Race, as Furnished by Their Priests and Chiefs. (Auckland: H. Brett, 1885).
 Ibid., 11.
 Lists of Io’s names can be found in the following sources. Marsden, The Woven Universe, 16; Cody, Seeds of the Word, 54; Samuel Timoti Robinson, Tohunga: The Revival Ancient Knowledge for the Modern Era (Auckland: Reed Books, 2005); Best, Māori Religion and Mythology: Part 1, 153.
 For a description of this story, see. Ibid., 239–246.
 Proverbs 2:1-5, 10, 12; 3:13, 21; 4:5-6; 8:12; 9:11-12. There are many more descriptions of Wisdom that could be sought to identify the similarity; the few listed will give some indication.
 Jonathan H. A. Te Rire, “The Dissipation of Indigeneity through Religion” (Masters, Otago University, 2009), 33.