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Maori Carvings & Their Meanings

The art and natural talent for Maori Carving is highly regarded in Maoridom. It was expected that all high ranking chiefs should be well versed in the art of woodcarving. When it came to carving a large project like a Marae or Canoe it was of the utmost importance that a carver never made a mistake as it could cost him his life. It would not be seen as a physical error but as a spiritual omen. Carvings were originally carved with greenstone chisels, but with the coming of the European, metal chisels were quick to take over.


This is a head without a body carved in a more realistic manner. The Parata was fixed to a canoe and the main gable to a house.

Are the names of masks or faces distinguished by having bulbus eyes , owl like in appearance.

Is a conventional mask, fairly stable in attitude with a figure of eight mouth, cut black eyes and a V shaped forehead.

(Wall panel) The Poupou are carved panels that sit against the walls inside the Marae. They represent ancestors related to the tribe who belong to the Marae. They can tell a story about the ancestor or associate symbols with this character

Walking Sticks
(Toko Toko or Rakau Korero)
These are generally decorated either carving representative of an ancestor or a legend. When the Maori have a full HUI (meeting) on the Marae the men carrying the Toko Toko are generally recognised as being orators and having the authority to speak.

(treasure box)
Were well carved and much treasured being handed down from one generation to another. A halo of Tapu (sacred power) surrounded them because of ancient treasures they may have contained. Particularly combs and feathers once worn on the head of ancestors.

Teko Teko
Carving was usually used by the Maori people as a method of commemorating ancestors and were usually carved in postures of war dances or as in the case of Teko Teko with tounges out thrust , or carrying clubs or spears. All in defiance of an enemy.

Hei Tiki
The Tiki was regarded by the Maori people as a memento of a deceased ancestor and was handed down from family to family. Today the Tiki is regarded as a good luck charm for both Maori and Pakeha.

Paua Eyes
Paua eyes were used because they reflected the light at night, which made the carvings more life like, and people felt they were being looked over when they slept at night.

Applied colour in Maori art was limited to the use of, prepared red and blue white clays, Sooty carbon pigments, dyes from swamp mud and various concoctions from plants. Mixed with shark oil formed a kind of unfixed paint that was often applied to carvings. red was a sacred colour in Maori belief and especially associated with the gods and high born persons.

The surface decoration of spirals and a large variety of notches will quite often tell you what area of New zealand it came from. Some say that the flow of the designs represents the life force that permeates everything.

The Manaia represents a bird like figure which has mysterious significance for it is customary to place Manaia figures in the corners of buildings It is considered a protector to ward off evil spirits.

Monsters of various kinds were called Taniwha. They were said to lurk in caves on the land or along sea coasts, in rivers and as a class were feared as they readily attacked humans.

The Pare sat above the door outside the meeting house and would often depict a legend or an historic event associated with an ancestor of the house. Some pare on meeting houses are very old as they are handed down from one house to another.

A single tongue poking out beyond the mouth was an act of defiance. The double tongue (Arero Roa) quite often if an ancestral carving was giving a double tongue it meant he was an important orator on the Marae. Knowledge was often passed on in the form of stories and legends so as to keep it interesting and it would stay in peoples memories. This meant that half the story was basic truth and the rest was exaggerated window dressing... Hence he spoke with two tongues.




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Maori Carvings and their Meanings
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