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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


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.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.




Meaning and Symbolism

The statement is commonly made, especially to tourists, that every cut in a piece of Maori carving has a meaning. Indeed, a gifted member of the Arawa tribe obligingly communicated to the well-known journalist, Ettie Rout, every detail of the lore of his ancestors about carving, and the result may be studied in the book Maori Symbolism. The perpetrator of this clever and successful hoax on a too credulous Pakeha must have had many a chuckle in the years that followed. Very little is known of the meaning of carving. Probably much of it was purely decorative. The number of carvers of the nineteenth century who had been taught by pre-European experts makes it highly probable that most of the teachers' knowledge was passed on to the pupils. It is not a convincing argument that the knowledge was too sacred to be handed on, as much information about equally sacred matters was revealed even to Europeans in the early days of the European settlement. It is a reasonable conclusion, therefore, that either the amount of symbolism in carving has been greatly exaggerated or that it had been lost by the time the Europeans came to New Zealand.

It is important to note that the figures in Maori carving, with very rare exceptions, are not religious, but secular. They do not represent idols, but renowned ancestors of the tribe. The nearest approach to idols were stone figures associated with agriculture and the so-called “stick gods” of which there are a few examples, mainly from the west coast of the North Island, in museums. These consist of a wooden peg about 18 in. long with a carved head on the upper end and the lower end pointed so that it can be stuck into the ground. Occasionally there are two heads, and sometimes the body or part of the body is shown. The tribal god was believed to enter the object when the shaft was bound with cord in a certain way and a fringe of red feathers was bound round the head as a beard. Without the binding the object had no religious significance. The practice of binding or wrapping deities was known in the Cook Islands and in Niue.

Symbolic Carving on Houses

The large carved house was usually named after an important ancestor and, in most parts of the country, was a symbol of that ancestor. The front of a carved house has at the apex of the gable a large carved head with no part of the body visible. This head is known as the koruru or parata. In old houses it is actually carved on the projecting end of the ridgepole (tahuhu), and the body of the figure will be seen on the ridgepole inside the porch of the house. However, the house itself also represents the body of the koruru, who is the ancestor after whom the house is named. The arms of the koruru are the maihi or sloping bargeboards. At the lower ends of the maihi, which project beyond the upright figures (amo) on each side of the front of the house, is an open-work design with three, four, or five ribs running parallel to one another. Usually there is a manaia head between the ribs and the amo. The ribs are fingers, and they and the manaia represent the hands of the ancestor. It is a very common convention to use a manaia head on the hand of a carved figure. The ridgepole of the house represents the ancestor's backbone, and the rafters (heke) represent his ribs. The inside of the house represents the stomach or bosom (poho). This explains the common practice in the Gisborne and Hawke's Bay area of naming a house “Te Poho o —”, where the blank is an ancestor's name, for example, “Te Poho o Kahungunu”, “Te Poho o Rukupo”, etc.

A glance through the illustrations in W. J. Phillipps's Carved Houses of the Western and Northern Areas of New Zealand will show that the Waikato district is exceptional in that its early houses do not have the hands at the ends of the maihi. Instead, there are open-work spirals similar to those carved on the lower ends of the maihi on smaller storehouses. It appears, therefore, that the Waikato people did not observe the usual symbolic form of the house.

Where the house represented the body of a famous ancestor it would naturally be highly tapu. This would, of course, be most inconvenient to persons entering the house. One way of removing tapu from a man was to have a woman step over him as he lay on the ground. This was the practice when warriors returned from war in a tapu state, the principle being that a woman, having no tapu herself, could neutralise it in a man. The same principle was adopted to protect those entering or leaving a carved house. Over the door a carved slab (pare or korupe) was placed, bearing a design of three principal figures. The central figure, or all three, would be female. Thus a man passing beneath the pare would have the tapu of the house removed from him by the female figures or figure.

Until recent times the carved houses in most districts had no carving inside, apart from the pou toko manawa, the post supporting the ridgepole in the middle of the house. However, on the East Coast and in the Urewera and Arawa districts there were houses with carved figures on all of the poupou or wall slabs inside the building. This has been said to be a post-European practice which started on the East Coast and spread to Rotorua. It is clear, however, that fully carved houses did exist in pre-European times, as such a building in an unfinished state was seen by Cook in Tolaga Bay on his first voyage. Each of the major figures on the poupou was named after an ancestor. Since about 1870 it has been the practice in the Arawa district, and later in other districts, to identify some of the ancestors by illustrating incidents in their lives. For instance, in the great “Tama te Kapua” house at Ohinemutu, Tama te Kapua and his brother, Whakaturia, are shown on stilts to illustrate the incident when they used stilts to rob the fruit off Uenuku's tree in Hawaiki. It is not clear whether this is an ancient practice. There seems to be no pre-European carving of this type remaining, but that is not to say it did not exist. In most cases there is nothing to identify the ancestor represented. Indeed, it is not uncommon for the figures to be named after the house is finished.

Symbolism in Storehouses

It is common for the bargeboards of a large storehouse to depict a number of men hauling a whale ashore. As pointed out by Phillipps (Maori Houses and Food Stores, 1952, p. 99), the uppermost figure holds the tail of the whale and appears to be presenting it to the chief, represented by the tekoteko, the carved figure at the apex of the building. Why the whale is there nobody knows, but it is a reasonable assumption that the whale, representing a huge single amount of food, would be a most appropriate symbol of plenty to place upon a storehouse. Another feature seen on storehouses is an embracing pair of human figures, one male and one female. Usually the figures have naturalistic heads and are tattooed; but some with grotesque heads are known. Of 10 storehouses with a pair of figures, seven have this feature on the amo, or upright slabs beneath the maihi. The other three have the embracing pair carved above the doorway. Seven of these storehouses are from the Rotorua – Bay of Plenty area and the others are figured in sketches of North Auckland buildings drawn by Augustus Earle in 1827. These northern pataka have the typical designs of the Rotorua – Bay of Plenty area and were probably carved by experts from there. Captain Cruise recorded that when he was in the Bay of Islands in 1820 a pataka was being carved by a man who had been brought all the way from Thames to do this work. The embracing pair are sometimes said to represent the primeval parents of all living things, Rangi and Papa, the sky-father and the earth-mother. It is a reasonable supposition that there is a certain element of fertility symbolised by the figures on storehouses

The Tiki

The term tiki is applied to carved human figures generally, both by the Maori and by other Polynesians. The name possibly has some connection with the myth of Tiki, the first man created by Tane. On the other hand tiki or tikitiki is also a general term for carving in many parts of Polynesia, as, for instance, in Niue, where the Tiki myth is unknown and human figures were not carved. In New Zealand, however, tiki is usually applied to the human figure carved in greenstone as a neck ornament. The full name is hei-tiki. It is commonly supposed that this ornament is a fertility charm representing the human embryo, and that it should be worn only by women. However, as Buck records (The Coming of the Maori, 1949, p. 296), early European visitors saw men wearing the hei-tiki and it is probable that the squat shape of the figure was influenced by the hardness of the material and that it was later likened to an embryo and endowed with magical powers. Buck considered this to be a recent development. The shape is, as Skinner remarks, probably due to the fact that tiki were often made from adze blades.

The Lizard

The symbolic nature of the lizard in carving has already been dealt with.

General Symbolism

It is common for European students to see phallic symbolism in many carved objects. It is true that when the older carvers made a human figure, they carved a man in his complete form without shame or inhibition. This, of course, has nothing to do with phallic worship. The handle of the carved canoe bailer is often interpreted as a phallus, but this is quite doubtful. The same shape was used in the uncarved bailers in most parts of Polynesia, and the handle there is plain and completely functional. The Maori enriched the bailer with carving, and at the end of the handle he carved the inevitable human head, leaving the handle otherwise plain so as not to interfere with its use. The result may look something like a phallus, but this is probably purely coincidental. There is very little evidence of phallic symbolism in carving designs. It is worth repeating that the human figure was the basic design of the Maori carver, and when he was decorating objects, such as feather boxes, he used this basic design and probably had no thought of symbolism. It is interesting to observe that on these lesser objects the human figures are very frequently female. This is possibly because of the lack of tapu associated with women.

Last updated 22-Apr-09

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