Maori War Canoe Ornaments

By: H. U. Hall

Originally Published in 1935

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THE Oceanian exhibition lately installed in the east wing of the Museum includes several fine examples of the prow and stern ornaments of the large Maori canoes formerly used in war and for long voyages. The building of such canoes and the significance of these carvings is here discussed by Mr. H. U. Hall, the Museum’s Curator of Ethnology.

THE “long ships” of the Maori, now no longer built, were constructed on the model preserved in their traditions of the ancestors who invaded and settled in New Zealand, perhaps about the middle of the fourteenth century A. D. The names of the vessels of a great fleet used to be rehearsed, with the names of the heroes who came in them and who were regarded as the ancestors of various Maori tribes.

The great canoes such as Cook saw and his artist, Webber, drew were great indeed. As lately as the middle of the last century the remains of a vessel over a hundred feet in length had survived; even later than that canoes of very considerable size were still in use for coastal voyages. The huge pines of North Island provided the long straight boles which were hollowed out to make the hulls.

For many years, it may be, before the building of a war canoe was begun, the tall pine stood, marked for a fall. Such a tree had often its own name, and was believed to have supernatural qualities. When the time came for it to be felled, the chief priest of the tribe was summoned to pronounce the proper incantations over tree and workmen:

O Io, the All-Parent . . .!
. . .Give to these thy sons
That they may possess the ancient and occult powers
Like thy godlike sons . . .
Like a canoe of the dark ages is my canoe. . .
Brave to breast the ocean waves is my canoe.
To reach the land, the mainland, direct her course.

The workmen were all of the class of tohunga, skilled men with powers above the ordinary, even above nature, akin to the priests and from whom priests were chosen. They and the timber, the tools and everything used in the building-“famous axes . . . with great edges, sharp axes”-all were taboo, set apart from common life, and only to be restored to it, after their long task was completed, by special rites.

Four intricately carved ornaments for canoes depicting tight spirals and bird people
Plate IX — War Canoe Carvings From New Zealand
Prow ornaments, or tauihu, and stern boards, or rapa, which show the great skill of the Maori wood-carvers. The stern boards are shown facing correctly in relation to the prows, with. the storm god, Paikea, on the lower rapa looking into the boat.
Museum Object Numbers: P3109 / P3108 / 18126A / 18126B
Image Number: 119

The tree was felled by undermining the roots. With the aid of fire and stone axes and adzes the trunk was shaped into a great trough, pointed at each end. A long ditch was dug, and the hull was buried in the earth for seasoning. In the meantime the separate parts were roughly shaped-the planks for the topsides or strake, the ornaments for bow and stern, the mast-and buried also, while the hull proper was dug out of its ditch and trimmed to a careful finish with the adzes. So with the other parts in their turn.

Through holes made in the edges of the planks and along the top of the hull, the strake was lashed on with stout cords made from the native “flax.” The holes were carefully caulked with the downy flower of a shrub, and laths were fastened and the crevices caulked, over the line where the strake joined the solid hull. Similarly the figurehead and the stern ornament were lashed in place, and the mast secured to one of the thwarts which stretched from one long side of the strake to the other, to serve as seats for the paddlers and as braces for the planks of the strake.

The canoe was built near a stream which led to the sea, and was launched by means of skids, with the appropriate ceremonies conducted by the great tohunga of the tribe, who supervised all the operations, and as priest recited the proper incantations.

On the setting out of an expedition and on other ceremonial or festive occasions the edges of the topsides of the canoe and the upper margins of the prow and stern ornaments were decorated with feathers. The figurehead was given a feather wig and sometimes bore two long curved wands to which bunches of albatross feathers were tied. Long streamers made of bunches of pigeon feathers tied together hung from the top of the carved stern board.

The central flat vertical portion of the prow ornament or tauihu was known as manaia. Its ornament consists essentially of two parts closely associated: the pitau, or spirals, one on each side of a taniwha, or sea-demon, commonly represented as composite, two figures in profile in mutual embrace; sometimes this figure is resolved into apparently meaningless curves. The taniwha had the power to draw down a canoe into the depths where it lived.

The manaia proper rests upon a recumbent figure of Maui, a demigod or hero who pulled up North Island with his fishhook out of the sea. The identity of the other figures associated with Maui is doubtful.

A transverse slab separates the manaia from the figure in the rear which looks into the boat. This figure is called Huaki; he is a name and nothing more. The figure looking into the boat from the carved stern board is called by the name of a storm god, Paikea.

The storm god can of course control the wind as well as raise it; it is wise to have him in the boat. The war canoes were too long in proportion to their width to make it possible to keep their bows into the wind in a gale. These long canoes had no outriggers, but a skilful and strenuous use of the paddles and balers kept them, broadside on in the trough of the waves, from being swamped or capsized.

The figurehead proper, with outspread arms conducting the ship, is a taniwha, another kind of sea-demon from that represented in the manaia: as in the case of the storm god, taniwhas, brought into the ship, could be induced to preserve rather than to destroy.

Cite This Article

Hall, H. U.. "Maori War Canoe Ornaments." Museum Bulletin V, no. 5 (March, 1935): 55-59. Accessed June 20, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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