Moihi Te Matorohanga, also known as Moihi (or Mohi) Torohanga, was of the major Wairarapa hapu Ngati Moe. His family hapu was Ngati Whakawhena. He was also kin to Ngai Tahu of Wairarapa, Ngai Tukoko, Ngati Kahukura-awhitia and Ngati Kaumoana. His various hapu were the intermarried descendants of Kahungunu, Tara, Rangitane and Tahu. His father was Tiina; his mother, Whenuarewa. It is likely that he was born in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, as he was an old man when he died, a while before August 1876. The place of his birth was probably a settlement in Wairarapa called Te Ewe-o-Tiina. He does not appear to have married, and left no children.
As a child Te Matorohanga was trained at two whare wananga: Te Poho-o-Hinepae in Wairarapa, and Nga Mahanga at Te Toka-a-Hinemoko in the Nga Herehere area of Te Reinga, north of Wairoa. His teacher at Nga Mahanga was Nuku. He may also have studied at a whare wananga near present-day Napier.
About 1836 he spent a period of four months at Uawa (Tolaga Bay) in Te Rawheoro, the whare wananga of Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti. During this time Nopera Te Rangiuia, the main tohunga, accused Te Matorohanga of witchcraft and of causing the death of Te Rangiuia’s son. Te Matorohanga denied the accusation and never returned to Te Rawheoro.
After this, Te Matorohanga became the authority on genealogies at Te Poho-o-Hinepae whare wananga, and lived for some time at Te Whiti pa, near Gladstone in Wairarapa. With his close relatives, Eraiti Te Here and Te Mapu, he owned land near Greytown, comprising part of Te Ahikouka block, from Te Umu-o-Puata to Te Rata. He built a house there.
In 1865 at Te Hautawa, Papawai, a group of people who were clearing bush asked Te Matorohanga to tell them the stories of the elders to pass on to their children. Te Matorohanga agreed, but said that a house should be found and set apart for the purpose. The house of Terei Te Kohirangi and Pene Te Matohi on the bank of the Mangarara Stream (Papawai Stream) was offered and accepted. The group of listeners included Hoani Te Whatahoro Jury, who, in 1863 at Ngaumutawa in Wairarapa, had begun to write down Ngati Kahungunu traditions and genealogies as dictated by the tohunga Nepia Pohuhu. He now performed the same service for Te Matorohanga.
Te Matorohanga warned his listeners ‘it will take years to write down all that I am about to tell you’. Indeed, the recorded information is exceedingly wide-ranging and detailed. It includes stories of creation, accounts of the discovery and settlement of Aotearoa, genealogies of ancestors, and incidents from tribal histories. Te Matorohanga’s version of the story of Kupe has been retold many times.
During the sessions at Te Hautawa, Te Matorohanga sometimes seemed to regret his decision, because of the tapu nature of the traditions. In May 1865 he became angry with Te Whatahoro, telling him that he did not fully realise the depth of the matters they were examining, which went to the roots of Maori cosmogony. He again emphasised that the teaching must take place in a special house, not in quarters associated with daily living.
On one occasion Te Matorohanga demonstrated to his listeners his powers as a prophet. On 10 May he told the people that his night had been disturbed by dreams of a red sky. It was a sign that some disaster would befall Ngati Moe. He sent his pupil, Riwai, to Huru-nui-o-rangi, where Pirika Po confirmed Te Matorohanga’s prophecy by warning that Ngati Te Waiehu were coming to make trouble. Riwai returned to Te Hautawa on 11 May bringing with him a group of Ngati Moe kinsmen for protection. Te Matorohanga said he had fallen asleep waiting for Riwai and had seen the harbinger of death, Tu-nui-o-te-ika, coming to ambush him. Riwai then told Te Matorohanga of the warning he had received from Pirika Po; Te Matorohanga assured him that the danger had been averted.
When the sessions ended on 26 May, Te Matorohanga told his listeners that whether copied into books or not, the teaching was still tapu. Disregarding their protests he carried out a tapu-removing ceremony. Before dawn he heated stones in the small fire that had been burning in the house, raked the embers, and cooked 12 very small potatoes. When they were ready he put the books to lie among them, and recited a karakia.
Te Matorohanga shared his knowledge with other interested people. He trained numerous students, but always referred them to Nepia Pohuhu and Rihari Tohii if he was uncertain about any issue. Pohuhu in his turn told his students that if he made a mistake, Te Matorohanga would correct it.
It is not known exactly when or where Te Matorohanga died. Elsdon Best later gave an account of the death of a tohunga who may have been Te Matorohanga. The tohunga was eating with relatives when he had a sign which he interpreted as his approaching death. He went aside to pray, then asked his people to put up a tent for him where he could go to die. His main pupil came and was asked to perform the ritual whakaha, inhaling the tohunga’s breath of life in order to pass on his mana. The old man then waited; as the sun sank below the hills, it laid a pathway on the sea for his spirit to follow to join his ancestors.
Te Whatahoro retained his transcripts of Te Matorohanga’s teachings until, in February 1899, at Papawai, Tamahau Mahupuku called attention to the words of James Carroll, that the tales of the ancestors should be collected while there were elders still alive who could explain them. He suggested setting up groups to encourage this. At a meeting held at Tamaki-nui-a-Rua, Hawke’s Bay, on 15 March 1907, much previously transcribed material was read aloud before the sub-committee known as the Komiti o Tupai of the Tane-nui-a-rangi committee. The accounts given by Moihi Te Matorohanga and Nepia Pohuhu and transcribed by Te Whatahoro were among those unanimously considered to be accurate. The approved teachings were written down and endorsed with the stamp of the committee.
In 1910 the Tane-nui-a-rangi books of the teachings of Moihi Te Matorohanga and Nepia Pohuhu were sent to the Dominion Museum in Wellington to be published. They were not published, but were eventually copied by Elsdon Best. Te Whatahoro’s original complete manuscript of the teachings of Te Matorohanga is no longer extant, although fragments may remain, and there is a copy of one section made by Te Whatahoro in 1876 when the original manuscript was falling apart.
The surviving transcripts have been of considerable interest to twentieth century scholars. S. Percy Smith published in 1913 and 1915 a two-volume work called The lore of the whare-wananga. He claimed to have used ‘original documents which [Te Whatahoro] lent me’ as the basis for the work. These documents may have included transcripts of some of the original talks given by Te Matorohanga and Nepia Pohuhu. However, Smith used other less reliable sources, so that not all aspects of his work reflect authentic Ngati Kahungunu tradition. Elsdon Best drew on his copies of the Tane-nui-a-rangi books in the preparation of The Maori, Maori religion and mythology and his other works. It is clear now that Smith, Best and subsequent writers on Maori religion and tribal tradition are indebted to Te Matorohanga and his peers, and to their scribe, Te Whatahoro.