Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.

HEITIKI or TIKI

The heitiki is a small, carved ornament, usually of greenstone, worn suspended from the neck. It is often incorrectly referred to as tiki. Tikis are, properly, the much larger human figures carved in wood guarding the entrance to a Maori pa and, also, the smaller wooden carvings used to mark a tapu place. The heitiki's origins are obscure. Best says that the first was made for Hina-te-iwaiwa, the Maori Moon Goddess and patroness of women. It is regarded as sacred, and the most widely held theory claims that it represents the human embryo, especially those of still-born children. These are considered to be particularly powerful spirits, owing to their having been cheated of life. Another version suggests that the heitiki is connected with Tiki, the Maori god who was responsible for the creation of life or who was the first life itself. In both explanations the heitiki is clearly a fertility symbol. There is also a third theory, which suggests that it was worn merely for personal adornment.

The most valuable heitikis are those carved from greenstone by the ancient craftsmen, though bone, wood, and whale ivory were also used. From the size and style it is thought that the greenstone was first cut to the shape of a small adze. It is also possible that heitikis were a by-product of adze making, being fashioned from the larger chips. Shaping the greenstone with primitive tools was a laborious task involving the use of stone, sand, and sticks, The stone was gradually smoothed by abrasive rubbing; then, with sticks and water, it was slowly shaped and the holes bored. Polishing was effected by rubbing it against wood, bark, and, finally, the skin. The completed heitiki was suspended by a plaited cord and secured by a loop and toggle. In earlier specimens pieces of paua shell were inlaid for eyes. The “tikis” sold as souvenirs are, if of greenstone, produced with the aid of modern grinding and polishing machines; the cheaper examples are either ceramics or mass-produced from green plastic.

In olden days the heitiki was the most prized of greenstone neck ornaments. Within a broad traditional pattern it showed many individual variations. The wry-necked form was sometimes called pitau, while the term tikipopohe was usually applied to badly made specimens.

by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.

  • The Maori, Best, E. (1924)
  • The Maori Heitiki – Greenstone Souvenir of New Zealand, The Leon Studios, Auckland (n.d.).


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This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

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