slayton_fauna&_nude_4© Eric Slayton, Nude wtih Hawk, from the series Fauna and Flora, 2000

slayton_orn_cola_4© Eric Slayton, Colaptes Auratus, from the series Ornithological Study, 2003

More of Eric Slayton’s work here

“But Hertz had also found—I discovered it amongst his papers—a text whose significance we had both missed, for I had been unaware of it myself. Speaking of the hau, the spirit of things and particularly of the forest and forest game, Tamati Ranaipiri, one of Mr. Elsdon Best’s most useful informants, gives quite by chance the key to the whole problem. ‘I shall tell you about hau. Hau is not the wind. Not at all. Suppose you have some particular object, taonga, and you give it to me; you give it to me without a price. We do not bargain over it. Now I give this thing to a third person who after a time decides to give me something in repayment for it (utu),’ and he makes me a present of something [taonga] . Now this taonga I received from him is the spirit (hau) of the taonga I received from you and which I passed on to him. The taonga which I receive on account of the taonga that came from you, I must return to you. It would not be right on my part to keep these taonga whether they were desirable or not. I must give them to you since they are the hau of the taonga which you gave me. If I were to keep this second taonga for myself I might become ill or even die. Such is hau, the hau of personal property, the hau of the taonga, the hau of the forest. Enough on that subject.’

This capital text deserves comment. It is characteristic of the indefinite legal and religious atmosphere of the Maori and their doctrine of the ‘house of secrets’ ; it is surprisingly clear in places and offers only one obscurity: the intervention of a third person. But to be able to understand this Maori lawyer we need only say: ‘The taonga and all strictly personal possessions have a hau, a spiritual power. You give me taonga, I give it to another, the latter gives me taonga back, since he is forced to do so by the hau of my gift ; and I am obliged to give this one to you since I must return to you what is in fact the product of the hau of your taonga.”

Interpreted thus not only does the meaning become clear, but it is found to emerge as one of the leitmotifs of Maori custom. The obligation attached to a gift itself is not inert. Even when abandoned by the giver, it still forms a part of him. Through it he has a hold over the recipient, just as he had, while its owner, a hold over anyone who stole it. For the taonga is animated with the hau of its forest, its soil, its homeland, and the hau pursues him who holds it.”

excerpt of “The Gift”, by Marcel Mauss

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