Hongi, our national greeting
The hongi, a touching of noses, is known around the world as a New Zealand greeting yet not actually used by all Kiwis. But with the resurgence of all things Ma¯ori, could that change?
University of Canterbury (UC) professor of Ma¯ori research, Angus Macfarlane, said the origins of the hongi held an important role in Ma¯ori mythology. The god Ta¯ ne-nui-a-Rangi, moulded the shape of the first woman, Hine-ahu-one, from earth and breathed life into her by pressing his nose against hers.
‘‘Tane is considered the progenitor of Te Ao Ma¯ ori (the Ma¯ ori world), and that is where the breath of life came from,’’ Macfarlane said.
He said the hongi, and the sharing of breath, was a symbolic show of unity between two people.
While the hongi could be very solemn depending on the occasion, it could also be lighthearted and youthful, Macfarlane said.
‘‘I play a lot of tennis and I go to the Ma¯ ori tournament each year. You see, after each match, it’s the hongi. The shaking of hands, the rubbing of noses and the exchanging of breath.’’
Te Hurinui Clarke, of the university’s College of Education, said there were many variations of the hongi between iwi. For some it was only a touching of noses but others included the touching of foreheads, a metaphorical exchange of breath and knowledge.
‘‘A hongi isn’t only a physical act, it’s also a spiritual act,’’ Clarke said.
Clarke, who came from the Bay of Plenty region, said the hongi in his hometown included two nose presses; one to greet the individual the other for their ancestors.
‘‘Often I forget that we do the double-tap when we go home. I find myself doing a single hongi and then getting pulled back in for a second.’’
Clarke said following the lead of someone more experienced in local tikanga (customs) would avoid confusion.
‘‘Always lead with your nose though. Any variations won’t be that great.’’
Although often seen on the marae, Clarke said the hongi was, and always had been, an everyday greeting in Ma¯ ori communities.
‘‘It’s not confined to formal settings, it’s also quite informal.’’
He said he understood why those unused to the hongi could find the full face contact intimidating, even scary.
Both professors said UC had been proactive in support of Ma¯ ori identity and culture and it had made noticeable differences on campus. Staff and students taking on board Ma¯ ori practices and principles.
‘‘People are starting to know that the Ma¯ ori world has a great deal to offer. It’s good to have two streams of knowledge. You have Western science and Ma¯ ori knowledge and they can be intertwined, they need not be kept separate,’’ Macfarlane said.
He said he would not be offended to see the hongi used on a more day-to-day basis, but the greeting’s spirituality would need to be respected.
‘‘We don’t want to put the meaningfulness, the depth of the hongi in jeopardy, that has to be protected,’’ Macfarlane said.
To have the hongi used by all New Zealanders as a national greeting would be something to celebrate, Clarke said.
‘‘I think it would be an indication of how much more bicultural understanding there would be between both Ma¯ ori and Pa¯ keha.’’
Catherine Duchess of Cambridge performs the hongi as she visits Christchurch City Council Buildings.