Detectives have begun a murder inquiry after a young mother died and a teenage girl had her eyes gouged by relatives during a Maori exorcism.
Janet Moses, 22, had her eyeballs scratched and was subsequently drowned in front of dozens of relatives when water was was poured down her throat in an attempt to lift a curse. Her 14-year-old cousin is fighting for her sight after her eyeballs were also badly scratched during the ceremony in the village of Wainuiomata near Wellington, the capital.
Police have appealed for legal and cultural advice on how to handle the case, which began in October when Ms Moses’s sister stole a stone lion statue from outside a local pub.
Family elders became convinced that the family had been placed under a curse, or makutu, in which an evil spirit takes over the body of a weaker relative, as punishment for the theft.
More than 40 members of the family gathered for the ceremony in which they peer into the eyes of each relative to look for evidence of the spirit. The eyes of anyone believed to have the Devil in them must be scratched and flushed out and water poured down their throats.
According to reports, Ms Moses was held down and forced to drink litres of water. She died at 8am on October 12 after a night of exorcism. The ceremony continued even after her death.
Police were not called until 5pm that evening, when the girl was taken to hospital, where surgeons performed emergency surgery in an attempt to save her sight. She remains in hospital in the custody of the state.
Five other family members, three of them teenagers, also underwent exorcism but were unharmed. Police began a formal murder investigation last week focusing on the family. More than 100 members have been interviewed over the past month.
“We know what’s happened, but we’re assessing the culpability of individuals,” Detective Senior Sergeant Ross Levy told the local newspaper, The Dominion Post. “The focus of our inquiry has been on the family members. That is not likely to change.”
Makutu is a custom that dates back to Polynesian ancestors of the Maoris. It was used as a means of social control to keep people’s behaviour within an agreed code of laws. Maori experts said that the Wainuiomata ceremony, which left the family’s home ankle deep in water, was excessive, suggesting that the family did not know what they were doing and got carried away.
Hone Kaa, archdeacon of the Maori Anglican Church, told The Dominion Post that removing a makutu was so difficult and dangerous that he would rarely agree to perform it.
“It’s a very difficult process,” he said. “You may have to hold the person down because the spirit may fight within the person to stay, so you need others around you to restrain them. But I’ve never heard of great gallons being used.”
• Makutu curses have been interpreted as a way of enforcing tapu, the laws of Maori society, through the fear of transgression
• They can be cast in secret by tohunga makutu, specially trained members of the community, on those who fail to observe tapu and bring misfortune or death
Sources: The Maori: Yesterday and Today by James Cowan; Maori Religion and Mythology by Elsdon Best
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