Hau kāinga, tūranga waewae

From He Kupu o te Rā . . .

He Kupu o te Rā delivers up a Maori word a day to my inbox. Here are the last two:

hau kāinga

Moumoukai, near Nuhaka in Northern Hawkes Bay

= home wind, homeland

Hoki mai ki te hau kāinga.
Return home. (Return to your homeland.)

This is an example of a command in simple active form.

My hau kainga is Nuhaka, under the shadow of Moumoukai:

Moumoukai te Maunga e rere ana te Awa o Waitirohia tae atu ki Nuhaka ka puta te Moana Nui a Kiwa [From the mountain Moumoukai, down the Waitirohia and the Nuhaka Rivers, to the Great Ocean of Kiwa]. (Ngati Rakaipaaka whakapapa [link])

Geological Map of Northern Hawkes Bay

See my earlier post: “Hau Kainga.”

tūranga waewae

Looking East from Arch Hill toward Eden Terrace

= place to stand, stomping ground. See Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

Ko Wairarapa tōku tūranga waewae.
Wairarapa is my place to stand.

This is an example of an equative sentence.

My tūrangawaewae is Te Uru Karaka (“the karaka grove”), the area around Newton Gully:

Plan of Surrey Hills, Arch Hill and Eden Terrace


The Coming of the Maori 2.0

High-Precision Radiocarbon Dating Shows Recent and Rapid Initial Human Colonization of East Polynesia” by Janet M. Wilmshurst, Terry L. Hunt, Carl P. Lipo and Atholl J. Anderson, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (27 Dec. 2010).

Eastern Polynesian (later dubbed “Maori”) carbonlifeforms are *proven* by carbon-dating to have arrived in Aotearoa (“New Zealand”) between 1210 and 1385 (by the Euro carbonlifeform millennial calendar).

Map of Pacific Migrations, Te Ara

The 15 archipelagos of East Polynesia, including New Zealand,Hawaii, and Rapa Nui, were the last habitable places on earth colonized by prehistoric humans. The timing and pattern of this colonization event has been poorly resolved, with chronologies varying by >1000 y, precluding understanding of cultural change and ecological impacts on these pristine ecosystems. In a metaanalysis of 1,434 radiocarbon dates from the region, reliable short-lived samples reveal that the colonization of East Polynesia occurred in two distinct phases: earliest in the Society Islands A.D.∼1025–1120, four centuries later than previously assumed; thenafter 70–265 y, dispersal continued in one major pulse to all remaining islands A.D. ∼1190–1290. We show that previously supported longer chronologies have relied upon radiocarbon-dated materials with large sources of error, making them unsuitablefor precise dating of recent events. Our empirically based and dramatically shortened chronology for the colonization of East Polynesia resolves longstanding paradoxes and offers a robust explanation for the remarkable uniformity of East Polynesian culture, human biology, and language. Models of human colonization, ecological change and historical linguistics for the region now require substantial revision.

Not sure about that. Although this timeline apparently doesn’t fit with oral history, it fits with Te Rangi Hiroa’s (Peter Buck) analysis in the 1950s — and it’s entirely standard (see Te Ara — The Encyclopedia of New Zealand [13C] and New Scientist [before 1300 AD]). (Ignore Paul Moon’s told-you-so in the Herald: he’s a controversialist who just likes to stir traditionalists among Maori — thereby, as an added bonus, to appeal to redneck bookbuyers.)

New Zealand: State of Inception


John Rapkin, Map of New Zealand (1852)

New Zealand as settler state is — or, rather, was — a state of inception:

not (or not just) a state of exception, in which the suspension of laws in response to supposed crisis becomes a prolonged state of being (or, in terms of Inception, a place where memories [history as taonga or the “true” history of the place] are stolen, i.e., extracted or excepted [→ an untrue, or truly frontier history of the place] — although that might seem to be how New Zealand works),

but (or but also) a state of inception, in which laws of all kinds except constitutional law is applied to forestall crisis (or, in Inception‘s terms, a place where memories are implanted, i.e., incepted [→ an untrue, or truly foundational — or “found-national” — history of the place], which is in practice how New Zealand works).

The etymologies say it all: frontier — the vanguard of settlement; foundation — the grounding of the settlement.

frontier: from O.Fr. frontier, “prow of a ship, front rank of an army [i.e., the vanguard]” (13c.), from adj. frontier, “facing, neighboring,” from front “forehead, brow,” from L. frontem (nom. frons) “forehead, brow, front; facade, forepart; appearance.”

foundation: late 14c., “action of founding,” from L. fundationem, “a founding [i.e., a or the grounding],” from fundare, “to lay the bottom or foundation of something,” from fundus, “bottom, foundation.”

New Zealand as state of inception has always driven to ground itself in the place as a “steady state”: hence the Treaty, the Act of Dominion and other legislative moves, to provide a legal footing; hence the public education, health and other systems to administer its social arm — the “steady as she goes” welfare state; hence, even, the fetish for general histories, historical epics, etc., to voice the steady state history that is its back story. In effect, these are moves to assert a psychic sovereignty: a homeostatic home.

However, whether we see New Zealand as state of inception or exception, settlement comes down to making money by harnessing the psyche (as in — and as is — Inception).

(Note that I wrote New Zealand “is — or, rather, was — a state of inception” because I think things are changing as “we” seek to ape the US, the font of frontier capitalism. “We” are transforming New Zealand from settler utopia back into settler frontier — except that now it is the vanguard of a new settlement.)

Hau Kainga

hau kāinga: (lit. home wind) homeland, homepage, the “side” of the hosts on the marae (as against that of the manuhiri or visitors)

Hoki mai ki te hau kāinga. “Return home.” (Return to your homeland, i.e., to your “home wind.”)

Dame Whina Cooper (1975):

Kia matāra, hokia o koutou tuohutanga e whai kanohi ai te hau kainga. “Take heed: swallow your pride and reconnect with those at home” (lit. “Be watchful: return to your humility and look for a face at home”; compare Shane Jones‘s translation).

Compare the Tuhoe whakatauki (proverb):

Hokia ki nga maunga kia purea koe e nga hau a Tawhirimatea. “Return to the mountains to be cleansed by the winds of Tawhirimatea.”

The idea that home would be marked by a wind, a certain atmosphere (hau takiwā), is suggestive. Like the Greek pneuma, the Latin spiritus and the German Geist, hau means both wind and spirit (lit. air, breath, gas; vital essence, vitality of human life; food used in ritual ceremonies, a.k.a. whangai hau).

The concept of hau has become something of a cause célèbre since Marcell Mauss wrote about it in The Gift (1922) as the spirit of reciprocity that attaches to a gift and in the circulation of gifts guarantees the social order. The hau demands that the gift be returned to its owner: it is the “force . . . in the thing given which compels the recipient to make a return” (1). Failure to reciprocate entails a loss of mana, that is, spiritual authority and wealth. A series of three obligations constitutes a gift proper (on my reading of Mauss):

  1. giving: asserting the social bond;
  2. receiving: accepting the social bond; and
  3. reciprocating: confirming the social bond by responding in kind.

(Mauss took the idea from Elsdon Best’s “Maori Forest Lore” [1909], not entirely unproblematically, as Marshall Sahlins explores at length in “The Spirit of the Gift” [1972].)

To return to hau kainga as “home wind”: think to what degree we  know a place by its winds — characteristic winds and other atmospherics, humidity, scent, etc. It is essential to — but often latent in — our experience of place and dwelling or otherwise: everything that lives breathes, after all.

We can go further: Heidegger sees the appearance and disappearance of being as a wind — a “draft” (Zugwind) he calls it — in the “pull” (Zug) of which “relation” (Bezug) only the strongest like Socrates (and presumably himself — and genuine poets too, like Hölderlin) can stand (What Is Called Thinking 17-18; on the poets, see “Remembrance” 109ff.). Thus,

The saying of the more venturesome which is more fully saying is the song. But “Song is existence,” says the third of the Sonnets to Orpheus, Part I. The word for existence, Dasein, is used here in the traditional sense of presence and as a synonym of Being. To sing, truly to say worldly existence, to say out of the haleness of the whole pure draft and to say only this, means: to belong to the precinct of beings themselves. This precinct, as the very nature of language, is Being itself. TO sing the song means to be present in what is present itself. It means: Dasein, existence. (“What Are Poets For?” 135; for an alternate translation, see “Why Poets?“)


  • Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share (1949; New York, NY: Zone, 1988). [This text is not available online; Benjamin Noys’s George Bataille: A Critical Introduction (London: Pluto, 2000) has a section on the Accursed Share that deals with the gift (108ff.).]
  • Elsdon Best, “Maori Forest Lore” (part 3), Transactions of the New Zealand Institute 42 (1909): 436-41 (“The Mauri of the Forest”).
  • Jacques Derrida, “‘Counterfeit Money’ 1: Poetics of Tobacco (Baudelaire, Painter of Modern Life),”  Given Time: Counterfeit Money, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago, IL: UCP, 1994) 71-107.
  • Martin Heidegger, “Phenomenology and Theology,” trans. James G. Hart and John C. Maraldo, Pathmarks, ed. William McNeill (Cambridge: CUP, 1998) 39-62.
  • —. “Remembrance,” Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry, trans. Keith Hoeller (Amherst, NY: Humanity, 2000) 101-75. [On the wind as calling poets to their historical being (111).]
  • —. What Is Called Thinking, trans. J. Glenn Gray (NY: Harper & Row, 1968).
  • —. “Why Poets?,” Off the Beaten Track, trans. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge, UK: CUP, 2002) 200-41; “What Are Poets For?,” Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper Collins, 1971) 87-141. [On poets as risk-takers, those who “by a breath risk more” (see 236-41/134-39 and “Phenomenology and Theology” 61-62).]
  • Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. Ian Cunnison (1922; London: Routledge, 1970).
  • Marshall Sahlins, “The Spirit of the Gift,” Stone Age Economics (Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter, 1972) 149-84.

Ngā Taonga Tuhituhi: Written Treasures Exhibition at Auckland Central Library

Yvonne Tahana, “Exhibition Reveals Early Maori Writing,” NZ Herald (29 Nov. 2010) [slightly ed.]

Researchers have unearthed some of the earliest examples of Maori writing and drawing ranging from simple alphabet practice to a flirtatious letter.

Education professors Alison Jones, from The University of Auckland and Kuni Jenkins from Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi have been researching early engagement between Maori and Pakeha between 1793 and 1835.

Their samples focused on northern Maori because of the area’s first contact history and has turned up gems including an archival record of Ngapuhi chief Hongi Hika, famous for introducing musket warfare, practicing letters aboard a ship headed to Sydney in 1814.

In the top right hand corner someone has inked the words “written by Shunghee on board the Active.”

“That’s his only legacy,” Professor Jenkins said. “As soon as I realised who it was . . . I thought ‘oh my God.'”

The samples were good starting points for discussion about how Maori and Pakeha were sounding each other out and learning from each other during the period of massive change.

Hongi’s rendered name “Shunghee,” was a good case study of how the educationalists had learned more about the time from the simplest of documents, Professor Jenkins said.

Both professors believe 200 years ago the “h” sound in the name was probably more of a breathed guttural sound, whereas today it’s a soft ‘h’.

The period is also seen through the eyes of Titeri and Tuai, believed to be in their late teens or early 20s, who travelled to Britain in 1818 most likely with the hope of persuading settlers to move to New Zealand.

The men write about the industrial revolution, seeing “iron running like water,” and going to the zoo. One sends a letter with a lock of hair to “my dear girl Mary Ann.” Titeri could not write, but dictated his letters, then copied them from a slate on to paper. “He says when he gets back to New Zealand he’ll send her a mat, it’s so sweet,” Professor Jones said.

Eastern Ngapuhi Maori have already seen some of the works. For Professor Jenkins watching the reaction of grassroots people was magic. One bought a magnifying glass on his third trip back to see the work.

The work is being exhibited at Auckland Central City Library from Mon. 6 Dec. to Fri. 10 Dec.

The details of the exhibition are on the Auckland City Libraries site; there is a talk on Wed. 8 Dec 10.00am – 12.00pm at the Whare Wānanga, Central City Library, level 2 (map).

(The material was previously exhibited at the Whitiora marae on the Purerua Peninsula in the Bay of Islands.)

Meanderings about Cox’s Creek

Today I was surprised to find out that the source of Cox’s Creek—or Opoututeka (Opou, for short)—is the spring that was tapped by the old DYC vinegar factory behind Allendale House, the ASB Community Trust building on Ponsonby Rd. (It’s now the giant grave of the Soho development.) The area was called Tukitukimuta, “the beating of the flax,” presumably because the spring offered ready water for the preparation of flax. The creek that ran in a crescent down and around to what is now Cox’s Bay in Westmere provided a natural boundary between the territories of the Ngati Riu (based at Te Reho on Waioteao [Motions Creek] and elsewhere) to the west and the Ngati Huarere (based at Okahu [Orakei], Horotiu [Queen St and environs] and Te Tatua [Three Kings]) to the east.

Wonderferret, “Stables,” Flicker (21 Oct 2006) [from where the hole now stands—or doesn’t]

It ran (to anticipate) from Pollen St, down Williamson Ave, through Grey Lynn Park, through some intervening streets and across Richmond Rd near Woolworths, then through Cox’s Creek Reserve into Cox’s Bay in Westmere, as represented in the line that snakes through Grey Lynn Park here.

The Path of Cox’s Creek. Detail of “Street Map of the City and Suburbs of Auckland Compiled from the Latest Information” (Auckland: Upton, 1917), Auckland City Libraries [see Google Maps].

The gentle slopes about the stream were a mahinga kai, a place of seasonal food gathering, and thus a wahi tapu (likewise, from soon after the arrival of the British, John and Jane Cox [!] had market gardens downstream in Richmond on the Bay).

Harold Young, “Grey Lynn Looking Towards Coxs Creek” (16 Apr. 1898), Auckland Art Gallery/Toi o Tamaki.

The area, like the isthmus of Tamaki (Auckland) as a whole, was much contested, from the 1680 incursion by the Ngati Whatua led by Kawharu on. After the withdrawal of Kawharu’s taua, the Waiohua, led by Kiwi Tamaki and based at Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill), settled the abandoned territory—at least until another hapu of Ngati Whatua, the Te Taou, invaded about 1750. The Ngaoho line of Te Taou united Ngati Whatua and Waiohua. Settlement by Ngati Paoa (from the south-east) on the Tamaki and incursions by Ngapuhi (from the north) followed. From 1820, the area was ruled from Mangere by Apihai Te Kawau of Ngaoho. Ngaoho helped Ngati Paoa repulse the Ngapuhi (c. 1821-22), then settled at Te Reho with satellite settlements at Pahurihuri (in Kaipara), Okahu Bay and Horotiu. They were joined by Te Taou and Ngati Tahinga (from the south) by 1824. By 1835 they had gained muskets and a more secure hold on the isthmus, but by 20 March 1840, when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed with the British, they were again under threat and ensconced in two fighting pas at Okahu.

In the wake of the Treaty, Te Kawau lobbied for Tamaki as the new colonial capital. Hobson agreed, the land was gifted to the British as a tuku rangitira [see pp. 3-4] in consideration of the advantages to be gained from commerce, education and health and the protection of all under the law, and the Surveyor-General, Felton Mathew, finalised the site. After a brief negotiation led by the police magistrate Captain Symonds and Te Kawau and others, the British “bought” the isthmus in several blocks, Grey Lynn being part of the first and smallest block of 3,000 acres, the Mataharehare, Opou and [Maunga] Whau block, traded in September 184o for £200, 4 horses, 30 blankets, 10 cloaks, one tent and one sealing box (or, some say, for £200 worth of goods).

From 1841 what we know as Grey Lynn and Westmere were together called Newton District, an area of 900 acres (3.6 km²), being Sections 8 and 9 of the County of Eden. The land was auctioned off from June 1844: most of what is now Grey Lynn was sold to John Kelly, a surveyor, then, soon after, via a land agent, Jean P. Du Moulin, to John Israel Montefiore for about £1000.

Three years later, an area of 314 acres bounded by Surrey Crescent to the west, Richmond Rd to the north, Ponsonby Rd to the east and Great North Road to the south was onsold to James Williamson (1814-88) and Thomas Crummer (c.1814-58). They farmed it as Surrey Hills Estate.

Harold Young, “Surrey Hills Looking Towards Great North Road” (1897), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki.

In 1883, Williamson and Crummer sold the farm to the Auckland Agricultural Co. Ltd., run by Thomas Russell; he subdivided it into 272 residential lots.

Plan of Surrey Hills, Arch Hill and Eden Terrace, Compiled from Original Plans and Surveys by Boylan and Lundon, District Engineers” (Auckland: Wilson & Horton, 1880), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki.

In 1868 the Newton District, divided into the Surrey, Sussex (Grey Lynn) and Richmond (Westmere) Wards, had become the Newton Road Board area; in the early 1880s it became the Newton Road District, and in 1885 the borough of Newton. In 1898 it was renamed Grey Lynn, to commemorate its parliamentary representative from 1891-93, Governor George Grey. By 1902 the land had been further subdivided into about 800 rateable properties owned by about 720 ratepayers; the population of the borough was 4100. Most of the houses in Grey Lynn—mainly Californian bay villas and bungalows—were built from the 1880s to the First World War, and have never been replaced, making the suburb reputedly the largest concentration of 19th-century wooden houses in the world.

As it is described in the Cyclopedia of New Zealand (1902), Grey Lynn sounds as bourgeois as it now is (skipping over its working-class heyday in the first half of the twentieth century and the influx and efflux of Pasifika settlers in the second):

It consists of undulating land, and is dotted with large clumps of trees. The average level is considerably higher than that of Auckland city, and it is recognised as a healthy suburb. One of the best views of the beautiful Mount Eden is obtainable from Grey Lynn; to the north, overlooking Ponsonby, the glimmering, placid waters of the Waitemata are seen; and on the south-west, the horizon is formed by the Waitakerei [sic] Ranges, which genially shelter the district from the cold southerly winds. The visitor is struck with the new and neat appearance of the buildings—not an old residence is to be seen, and in every part of the borough building is in full swing. This sign of progress is not to be wondered at, considering that, apart from its other advantages, sections are cheaper there than in any other district adjacent to the city. Yet as the land is being so rapidly taken up the prices of property are continually advancing, and local residents who bought sections a few years ago could now sell them at treble their purchase prices.

In 1914 it was amalgamated with Auckland City.

  • “Grey Lynn,” The Cyclopedia of New Zealand (Christchurch: Cyclopedia Co., 1902) 523-26.
  • Kaaren Hiyama, High Hopes in Hard Times: A History of Grey Lynn and Westmere (Auckland: Media Studies, 1991).
  • Kawaru, Hugh. Land and Identity in Tamaki: A Ngati Whatua Perspective. 2001 Hillary Lecture. Auckland War Memorial Museum Maori Court. Auckland: 2001.
  • E. Earle Vaile, “The Suburbs,” Some Interesting Occurrences in Early Auckland: City and Province, ch. 21 (Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1955) 46.

Whaikōrero (and academic writing)

According to Kōrero Māori, the basic format for the whaikōrero (oratory) phase of a pōwhiri (formal welcome) is:

  • tauparapara (introductory salutation): a prayer or chant, suitable to occasion or purpose of the hui (meeting), to invoke the gods’ protection and to honour the visitors;
  • mihi ki te whare tupuna (acknowledgement of the ancestral house): a tribute to the principal ancestor and their descendants;
  • mihi ki a Papatūānuku (acknowledgement of Mother Earth): giving thanks for Mother Earth and all living things;
  • mihi ki te hunga mate (acknowledgement of the dead): a tribute to the dead who live on in the spirit realm;
  • mihi ki te hunga ora (acknowledgement of the living): giving thanks for our continued existence;
  • te take o te hui (purpose of the meeting): the purpose for which the groups have gathered; and
  • whakamutunga (conclusion): a waiata (song), suitable to the occasion or purpose of the hui, whereby the group lend support to what has been said and tapu (restrictions) is removed.

Joseph Jenner Merrett (1816?-1854). [The Hobson album]. A Meeting of Visitors Mounganui [Maunganui]. Tauraga [Tauranga] in the Distance. 1843. Hobson album. E-216-f-119. Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand/Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa.

In short, the elements are the introduction, the acknowledgement of the institution, of the place, of dead and living people, the purpose, and the conclusion. These are not unlike the elements of academic writing:

  • an occasion (kairos, καιρός: the right or opportune moment [as against chronos, κρόνος: clock time]) and a purpose (a thesis, θέσις: a position or proposition [as against topos, τόπος: location]);
  • an introduction and conclusion that address the occasion and purpose, but allow a degree of creative freedom; and
  • the body of the essay, which is institutionally and geographically situated, and draws on the authority of past and present authorities (a canon and a research community).

Protocols to determine the order of speakers vary, but there are two main arrangements:

  1. in tau-utūtu, tangata whenua (local) and manuhiri (visiting) speakers alternate, ending with a local speaker;
  2. in pāeke, all but one of the local speakers speak, followed by the visitors and the final local speaker.

Whaikōrero is formal in register, not unlike academic writing, and, like academic writing, it allows the relatively free combination of a set of devices and species of content: these include imagery, whakataukī (proverbs/sayings), pepeha (figures or forms of speech), kupu whakāri (prophecies), relevant whakapapa and references to tribal history.

Chamier the Epicurean

My thesis from the University of Auckland: “Chamier the Epicurean: The Life and Works of George Chamier (1842-1915)” (2008)

The abstract:

George Chamier (1842-1915) was an engineer and novelist, who was born and died in England, but spent most of his life on an eccentric orbit around the outskirts of the British Empire—through New Zealand, Australia and China and back to England again. After he had established himself as an engineer in Australia, he looked back on his life in a trilogy of autoethnographical novels, which work through the problem of how an “unsettled settler” such as he might get settled in the settler colonies. Philosopher Dick (1890) and A South-Sea Siren (1895; 1970, see 2nd ed.) are set in the eighteen-sixties in North Canterbury, New Zealand on a back country station [Horsley Down] and in a small town [Leithfield] respectively; The Story of a Successful Man (1895) is set in the eighteen-seventies in “Marvellous Melbourne.”

This thesis examines Chamier’s life and (fictional) works in the light of two key questions.

The first is: How can we understand the distinctive critical perspective on life in the settler colonies in the early days of European settlement that his novels articulate? The “outside insideness” of his position as an unsettled settler can account for the critical purchase he has on his own culture. Such a perspective is unusual in the history of local settler literature, not just because it is critical of settler society or “unsettling,” but because it is critical in an unusual way: Chamier unsettles himself by problematising his own position as a settler, thereby generating a critical autoethnography—to borrow Deborah Reed-Danahay’s definition, a critical “self (auto) ethnography” that is also “the ethnography of [his] own group,” his own ethnos (people).

And the second question that informs this thesis is: How can we understand the relation between his life and works, given the degree to which the former seems to inform the latter? In the novels, he makes sense of his life in hindsight as a sentimental education. He has his autoethnographical “stand-ins” take on a series of sentimental personas in the attempt to get themselves settled as they move through the Australasian colonies in an ironic appropriation of the grand narrative of settlement as a progress from frontier to town to city. To see his life in hindsight as “mapped out” in this way was a gesture of aesthetic settlement that enabled Chamier to achieve an Epicurean equanimity he was able to find only fleetingly in the scramble of life in the settler colonies.

See also:

George Chamier, War and Pessimism (1911): philosophical and literary essays.

Philosopher Dick is online at the NZETC (see his author page).

My essay from JASAL: “George Chamier and the Native Question” (2006).

A capsule bio at dnzb.

We Pagans


c.1375, from late Latin pāgānus “pagan,” in classical L. “villager, rustic, civilian” (cf. peasant), from pagus “rural district” (cognate to Greek πάγος, pagos “rocky hill, marker”), originally “district limited by markers,” thus related to pangere “to fix, fasten,” from PIE base *pag- “to fix” (cf. pact/peace, page, pale,/pole). Religious sense (paganism/paynimry) is often said to derive from conservative rural adherence to the old gods after the Christianization of Roman towns and cities, but the word in this sense predates that period in Church history, and it is more likely derived from the use of paganus in Roman military jargon for “civilian, incompetent soldier,” which Christians (Tertullian, c.202; Augustine) picked up with the military imagery of the early Church (e.g. mīlitēs “soldier of Christ,” etc.), i.e., pagans are civilians to the Church’s soldiers.

While we soldiers of Christ (or the other Abrahamic prophets) were/are all pagans before we were/are soldiers, there is another sense in which some of us are pagans. Pagans are those who dwell outside the polis, which is the site of modern neonomadism, where uprooted pagans go to settle or through which they transit, the place of the coming race. Those who live a relatively fixed existence—provincials (like me), indigenes, and other immobile non-nomads—remain beyond the pale of the modern, despite our attempts to get into the race.

But, if we sidestep the race and sidetrack the stragglers, it gives us a strength: a primitivism (f. L. primitivus, “first of its kind” or original) that is not necessarily atavistic (“ancestral,” thus, behind) or mediocre (“middling [i.e. from medius “middle” + ocris “sharp peak,” i.e., halfway up the mountain],” thus, beneath), but appropriate and/or appropriative (“made one’s own,” thus, beside).

We pagans of the pagus Anglorum are not inside, we’re beside, which paratactic orientation has virtues of its own.

Pagus Hispanorum in Florida

Arnoldus Montanus, “Pagus Hispanorum in Florida” [St. Augustine], Die Nieuwe en onbekende Weereld . . . (Amsterdam, 1671), repr. in John Ogilby‘s atlas America: Being the Latest, and Most Accurate Description of the New World (London, 1671).

Singular histories: three analogies

Contact histories that rely for their frisson on the absurd—or singular—nature of the encounter that constitutes them, like Anne Salmond’s Aphrodite’s Island: The European Discovery of Tahiti (Penguin, 2009), are “singular histories,” that is to say, strange histories and the history of singularities.

  1. They are “strange” like strange matter: they take their matter to be out-of-the-ordinary (i.e., non-atomic—or meta-physical), elementary (i.e., non-divisible—and thus foundational), and extremely dense (i.e., historically weightier than ordinary matter—or historiographical).
  2. They are the history of singularities, those points where historical matter is infinitely dense, i.e., at which the historical function by which data becomes “historical” takes an infinite value.

Salmond’s singularity is the encounter that took place the day the first British ships landed at Tahiti: the Tahitians had just farewelled their gods for the winter, and their gods, in the form of Wallis et al. on the Dolphin, heralding Cook and the Endeavour, materialised off the shore, apparently fulfilling a prophecy made by the local priest Vaita:

The glorious offspring of Te Tumu / will come and see this forest at Taputapuatea. / Their body is different, our body is different / We are one species only from Te Tumu. / And this land will be taken by them, / The old rules will be destroyed / And sacred birds of the land and the sea / Will also arrive here, will come and lament / Over that which this lopped tree has to teach / They are coming up on a canoe without an outrigger.

“It began with a moment of pure bewilderment” indeed (The Trial of the Cannibal Dog [Penguin, 2003] 39-40; the moment is reiterated on the same page of Aphrodite’s Island [Penguin, 2009] 39).

Aphrodite's Island Cover


In short, such histories reduce ad absurdum the historiographical ruse to produce history from myth: they reconstruct the past built on such “facts” as exist, attributing to them retrospectively what can be drawn from coincidence and retroductive logic, and structure them in the form of a teleological narrative, thereby ending up right where they started: now, here. It is, in fact, a denial of history.

It is a genuine ruse, from ruser, O.Fr. “to dodge, repel, retreat,” from L. recusare, “deny, reject, oppose,” from re-, intensive prefix, + causari, “plead as a reason, object, allege.” In other words, this denial involves special pleading for a kind of  causality that is, in fact, a rejection of causality.

This doesn’t make singular histories any less persuasive: they appeal to that popular fallacy, the credo quia absurdum, “I believe it because it’s absurd.” This is a misquote from Tertullian, who actually wrote “credibile est, quia ineptum est” (De Carne Christi 5.4). Translation? “It is believable because it is improper”—improper in several ways: meaningless, inadequate and tasteless. Apt. To address only the last, Salmond’s history, however well-meaning and balanced it might seem, is tasteless in its upshot that fate played into British hands, instantiating the maxim that history is always written by the victors.


Interestingly, Tertullian probably drew on Aristotle’s repertoire of topics—or ruses—for orators, one of which is based on the claim that an argument from probability can be drawn from the sheer improbability of a story, i.e., some stories are so improbable that it is reasonable to believe them (Rhetoric 2.23.22; 1400a 5ff.):

Aristotle from the Rhetoric on argument from the improbable


In fact, such singular histories are literally absurd.

The modern sense of absurdity is figurative, from M.Fr. absurdité, from L. absurditas, “dissonance, incongruity,” from absurdus, “out of tune, senseless,” from ab-, intensive prefix + surdus “dull, deaf, mute”; thus, “out of harmony with reason or propriety.”

They are out of harmony with the world’s music, which is atonal, not tonal, or even serial. Such harmonies that emerge are strange music, orders out of chaos, and as such can only be transcribed, not composed.

(For a counterargument from evolutionary theory, see Geerat J. Vermeij, Historical Contingency and the Purported Uniqueness of Evolutionary Innovations,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103.6 [7 Feb. 2006]: 1804-09.)