TIKI — FIRST MAN OR FERTILITY SYMBOL?By Jim Webber February 1st 2010
Christmas and New Year is an interesting time for exchanging gifts. For Maori, it’s another occasion on which to give something special like a pendant made of bone or greenstone — perhaps the classic tiki design about which I’ll expand upon later.
Greenstone or pounamu is particularly treasured because of its origins and its spiritual nature.
There is an old proverb — He iti ra, he iti mapihi pounamu, which means it might be small, but it is pounamu.
Iti means small and mapihi refers to personal adornment. And because it is pounamu it has significance that surpasses its size.
If you’re given a piece of pounamu it is accepted as having chosen you, as distinct from having chosen a piece yourself from a carver or a shop, and there is a belief that a pounamu adjusts to the wearer’s body and feels right.
. I think the same might apply to whalebone — once I was given a very ornate piece which caused inexplicable pains whenever I wore it: I returned it to the giver and later discovered that the pendant had a dubious history.
Pounamu needn’t be expensive. There are many well-made small greenstone pendants available these days, often made from offcuts in the making of larger pieces, and they make excellent gifts.
Just be aware that not all greenstone on the market comes from Aotearoa; try to check out its origins before buying.
The classic tiki shape goes back to the myth that Tiki was the name of the first man created by Tane.
The human form subsequently carved in wood thus became tiki — a name and concept which can be traced through many Pacific islands.
Tiki became the carved figure at the top of meeting houses. When the tiki was used as a pendant it became hei tiki to distinguish it from the large versions.
There is another widespread belief that tiki represents the human embryo and thus encourages fertility, however tiki were seen to be worn by men during the days of early European presence in Aotearoa, suggesting that the fertility symbolism was a later attribution.
Typical hei-tiki have large heads, often large abdomen and the eyes may well be inset with paua. In some old tiki red sealing wax was used to highlight the eyes.
There are many other pendant designs, of course. Often seen are the koru spiral, representing growth and harmony, and fish-hook shapes which suggest strength, prosperity and health. There is also the Manaia, a bird-like figure with head coming to a point, which has many different meanings in Maori lore.
Greenstone incidentally is usually worn on thin leather or plaited cord, and worn quite high — close to where the collarbones meet. Some of the main varieties of pounamu:
Inanga — greyish-green, fine textured
Kawakawa — strong, dark as kawakawa leaves
Kahurangi — rare, light green with lighter streaks
Tangiwai — olive/blue-green, very translucent, petrified tears
Finally, it is usual to have pounamu blessed, or else do it yourself if you are given an unblessed pounamu: You don’t need to speak in Maori to do this, nor does it need to be a Christian prayer. �
Find a natural water source such as stream, river or the sea, and prepare what you will say or think during the time you spend gently washing the pounamu in your hands.
It is usual to think of one’s ancestors and to seek their help in blessing the pounamu, to ask it to help bring peace and harmony to your life, to create a sense of warm affinity with the pounamu.
Dry the pounamu carefully and it will be ready for you to wear.