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No. 29 (December 1959)
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Experts do not yet agree on the nature of Maori decorative carving. Was it originally done in honour of ancestors? Or was there a more strongly religious motive? In this article Mrs Thornton, senior lecturer in Classics at the University of Otago, demonstrates that the origin of carving is magical and religious, and that most of the patterns are symbols of the food supply for which the ancient Maori depended on his gods.


“The Maori people have their own idea of their historic monuments and it is different from the European. Perhaps you could put it briefly by saying that they are more concerned with the sacred side of them than with their beauty.” This suggestion was made in an article published in this magazine last year (Issue 21, p. 34).

Perhaps an investigation like the one I am putting forward here may suggest that the meaning of Maori art down to its detail lies in the region of the sacred, and that its beauty is the artist's reverent tribute to powers that he believes to be divine. Aesthetic considerations would thus be secondary to an appreciation of the religious meaning expressed in this art.

Let us look at the picture of the carved figure of this ancestor. The whole body seems to be bursting with vitality. Now, it appears that the ancient Polynesians believed—as did the ancient Greeks and Romans—that the whole body of a man is full of creative power, and, in fact, that all the parts of the body have their own particular powers. This conception finds expression in many different ways. A wooden figure e.g. of the god Tangaroa from Rurutu, Tubuai Islands (see left) is covered with small figures of human beings all over. According to Tischner, this figure represents the god Tangaroa “at the moment of creation of other goods and human beings.” In addition, we know, of course, that the gods, by their creative powers, gave increase not only in the divine and human world, but also in the world of animals and plants: in fact, they were the creators and providers of food. Increase in human beings and food, however, is not only the work of the great cosmic gods, but it is also and perhaps more immediately the work of the “ancestors”

It is this idea that seems to underlie the decorative carving of the Maori human figures. W. J. Phillipps shows the picture of “A stockade post from the East Coast” (see right) which is topped by the figure of an ancestor. The body of this ancestor is covered with a carved pattern which is called tara tara o kai. This means “peaks and peaks of food,” as Phillipps says, who also points out that this type of pattern “is almost universally used on carved food stores or pataka”. The intention of this pattern is, then, to express and perhaps enhance the powers which are alive and active in the whole body of this ancestor, namely to grant food to his descendants.

The plain ridges on the above figure are called patapata which means “rain drops.” Some forms of these parallel lines of carving are called ‘pata nui’ or ‘patapata nunui’ which means “great rain” or “downpour.” The notched ridge is called pakati. If we divide this work into ‘paka’ and ‘ti’ we find the following: ‘paka’ means “dried provisions,” and ‘ti’ means “cordyline of several species,” a plant the tubers of which were eaten. If this is right, the notched ridge represents “dried provisions of ti-tubers.” The individual notch is called “arapata.” “Ara” has many meanings; perhaps “talisman” is most suitable here. For an “ara” of wood or stone was carried on a canoe. “Pata” means “drop of water,” as we have seen, and also “seed, grain, as of maize etc.”—If, then, the plain ridges represent “rain drops,” presumably as they fall in long line the notched ridge a row of food-stuffs, and the individual notch either a “drop of water” or a “grain of seed” or rather both these things at the same time, what is pictured here is food, and the seed from which food grows, and the rain that fertilises the earth so as to make food grow. The meaning of the details of the carving pattern is, then, the same as that of “tara tara o kai.

What about the name of this pattern as a whole: “rauponga”? “ponga” or “pongaponga” means “a method of adzing timber” which comes to much the same as what we should call a carving pattern. The particular character of this pattern is indicated by another meaning of “ponga”

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which is “cyathea dealbata, a tree-fern.” “Rau” means a “leaf” and a “plume, spray, feather,” also the “blade of a weapon.” “Rauponga” thus seems to mean “frond of a fern-tree.” The notches of the notched ridge would presumably represent either the leaves of the frond or the points of the serrated leaves, and the plain ridges the stem of the frond or the middle ridge of the leaves. The question to be answered now is: what was the significance of a fern-tree to the ancient Maoris? Te Rangi Hiroa has explained the practical significance of ferns in the life of the Maori people. He says: “The curling fronds of young bracken fern (rarauhe), when they begin to open out, indicated the season for shark fishing. The rhizome of the bracken fern was used for food. The curling shoots of forest ferns (pikopiko, mauku) were gathered as a green vegetable. Tree ferns (ponga) were cut down and the leaf heads lopped off to obtain the edible pith in the upper trunk.” We see from this that “rauponga” again refers to the power of the ancestor's body to provide food, in the same way as do the details of this carving-pattern.

Finally, we come to the most striking feature of this carving, the great spirals. Apart from a few smaller spirals, all the bigger spirals are double. In principle, these are the same as the great double spirals on the prows of war-canoes, the only difference being that in the case of the canoes the knotted ridge has gaps. The name given to these canoe spirals is either “pitau” or “tete,” both “referring primarily to the young shoots of a plant, especially the circinate frond of ferns,” as Te Rangi Hiroa says. The meaning conveyed by these spirals when they are understood as representing fern-fronds has been beautifully described by Te Rangi Hiroa in the passage referred to before. He says “The young fronds of the large tree ferns (Cyathea dealbata) had a majestic appearance as they rose from the centre of the leaf head to expand into the new leaf that would take the place of the old in the family of leaves. The symbolism of decay and growth was expressed in the saying:

Ka mate he tete, ka tupu he tete.

As one frond dies, another frond grows.

A variation of the saying to apply specifically to chiefs was made by adding kura (red) to tete so that tete kura symbolized the chief who had the privilege of adorning his face with red ochre.

Hinga atu he tete kura, ara mai he tete kura.

As one red frond falls, another red frond rises.”

This proverb makes it plain that to the ancient Maori the fern-frond was the picture of a chief's life-power. When the ancient carver carved such spirals on the prow of a war-canoe, he did so in order to place there the chiefly powers of attack and defence. Again, when he carved similar spirals on the body of his ancestor, he expressed by these the chiefly powers which he believed to be inherent in his ancestor's body. Such powers were warlike in battle, and creative of offspring and food in peace.

Maori decorative carving is not directly representational. A person who is outside the old Maori culture cannot simply look at this ancestor and say what the patterns mean. On the other hand these patterns are not simply a delightful play with forms. But what we have here is, as it were, a “picture-writing.” If one can discover the meaning of the patterns, one can “read the tale”; and the meaning of the patterns is indicated in the names, and can be interpreted by reference to religious beliefs of the Maori known from other sources.

The fact that the Maori people “are more concerned with the sacred side” than “with the beauty” of their historic monuments seems, therefore, to be an authentic indication of the meaning of these monuments. I want to suggest, then, that Maori decorative carving is religious and indeed symbolical, expressing and enacting religious beliefs.


Mr N. P. K. Puriri, of the tribe of Ngati Whatua, has been appointed Deputy Controller of Maori Welfare. Following his transfer to Wellington, Col. A. Awatere took over the job of District Welfare Officer, Auckland, and Mr J. Rangihau, until then welfare officer in Taupo, replaced Col. Awatere as District Welfare Officer, Rotorua.

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Dr P. W. Tapsell, holder of the Ngarimu V.C. post-graduate scholarship, has been successful in the final examinations for the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. Dr Tapsell who comes from Rotorua was a noted rugby player and was vice-captain of the 1954 Maori All Blacks. He now plans to attempt the London fellowship as well.

Only when Maori schools come under the jurisdiction of education boards will the North Auckland School Committees Association be prepared to accept complete representation from Maori School committees. Meanwhile, the Association will welcome only ‘honorary representation’, according to a decision reached by the Association in Kaikohe last August.

This will undoubtedly be a great disappointment to the Maori Committees which have been given full status by recent legislation and are attacking their new responsibilities with much vigour. It is not to be assumed that they will be very interested in the Association except on equal terms; yet they could greatly gain by the contact with more experienced bodies. One wonders whether the School Committees Association's decision is in the best interest of Maori children.

The Association covers 26 schools; the number of Maori schools in its district is 30.