Known for their cannibalism and a brutal warrior culture, Maori people started to create various weapons after 1500 AD. The 500 years of Maori culture before this date had been defined by a total lack of weaponry and fortifications.
It is believed that climate change and numerous earthquakes and tsunamis along the disappearance of bird species used for food, determined the transformation of the Māori culture. They fought for control over land, natural resources and food supplies.
The first war canoes were built and the first wars between tribes occurred. The use of weapons became vital for their survival and the skill of carving them was increasingly sought after.
The types of weapons (material, shape, purpose) Māori used throughout the decades tell the story of the inter-tribal wars they fought. From mare, patu and kotiate made of greenstones (pounamu) or whalebones to the wooden ones such as powhenua, taiaha or tewhatwha, Māori weapons are a direct reflection of their traditions, rituals and beliefs.
In ancient days battles between Maori tribes were fought with spears, knives, and clubs. These Maori weapons were traditionally made of wood, greenstone (pounamu), and whale bone.
Many of these weapons were adorned with detailed carvings. The wooden handles of knives and short spears, but also parts of clubs and other weapons included intricate carvings. Sometimes the purpose was to provide grip but mostly there was a spiritual and symbolic aspect.
The weapon design proves ingenuity through the intended use and creativity through ornaments. Anthropologists believe that the decorative motifs that we see on artefacts today had real purpose when they were initially carved. For example the face on a kotiate could be that of its first owner. The ornaments are also indicators of the environment the people inhabited, with its specific flora and fauna.
Apart from utilitarian items Maori carved weapons are also symbols of courage, determination, power and influence. They were exchanged between tribes as peace offering, seal of marriage, or as trade currency. Nowadays, e.g. among collectors and other enthusiasts, they symbolize facing and overcoming life’s challenges.
Types of Maori Weapons
The most common Maori carved weapons are the mere, patu, wahaika, taiaha, and maripu.
Mere and patu were short-handled combat weapons used for striking the opponent on the body or head together with kotiate, a weapon made of wood or whalebone in the shape of the lobed part of a liver. The name of the latest denotes “cut the liver in two”. Is seems that Māori knew where the weakest parts of the body were so they designed their weapons accordingly.
Pouwhenua, tewhatwha and tiaha belonged to a different class of weapons as they were designed as a long axe with different ornaments on it finished off with a blade. They were long-handled and some of them were decorated with feathers or split pigeon to distract the opponent. These weapons were easily manoeuvred during a fight and were suitable for stabbing. A strike from the blade was often fatal.
The Maori patu is a short club. Maori warriors used several different war clubs. The most common of the various types of patu is the mere. It’s best described as a flat striking weapon with an oval blade. The mere was commonly featured with a carved handle end. Authentic mere’s were hung around the wrist with a flax fibre thong.
The wahaika (Maori word for the mouth of a fish) is a particular type of mere. The wahaika has a distinctive shape similar to the mouth of a fish hence its name. This traditional club has a notched side which is used to wrest an opponent’s weapon out of his hand. It is used for thrusting and striking in close quarter hand-to-hand fighting. The wahaika was used exclusively by the most fierce, and respected warriors with the highest rankings. It was given as a ceremonial piece. More on Wikipedia
Often mistaken for a spear, the taiaha actually is a pointed staff used in hand-to-hand combat. The taiaha (pronounced tie-uh-ha) was handled with two hands in roughly the same fashion as some weapons used in martial arts.
A typical taiaha has a pointed blade at one end a flattened edge at the other. The pointed end commonly is adorned with wood carving. In many cases a carved head, with paua shell eyes and an extended, defiant tongue made of pounamu (greenstone jade). A full sized taiaha is around 1.5 meters (5 feet) in length.
Held in both hands the bladed end could be used to strike and poke opponents while the taiaha could be turned relatively quick and easy to use the blade for cracking the enemy’s skull. It was also used effectively to parry blows.
On the photo a taiaha with the commonly reoccurring, extended tongue. The pointed end is a carved head, with paua shell eyes. Just like the authentic, traditional taiaha, this replica taiaha is carved the same on both sides.
A kotiate is a short club normally made of wood or whalebone. Kotiate means to cut or divide the liver (koti = cut in two or divide; ate = liver). Its name probably refers to its shape, which resembles the lobed part of the human liver. source: tepapa.govt.nz Kotiate were mostly made of whalebone; later on also often crafted from wood for the Europeans. Buck, Peter, The Coming of the Maori, Wellington, 1952.
Mere and patu are similar weapons in shape and size, but they differ in the material they were made of. They are both short-handled, but while a patu is made of ordinary stone, hard wood or whalebone, a Mere was made of jade or greenstone. Because of the hardness of the latter and the limited tools available at the time, it is believed that creating a mere was a long operation which sometimes lasted more than one generation. However, in some parts of New Zeeland, both terms denote the same greenstone weapon.
The process of making a mere weapon started with choosing a flawless block of jade stone. Using quartzite, sandstone and water, the greenstone was cut roughly into pieces which were then used for carving the weapons into the well known shapes of tear drops or leaves. Both sides were convex with a rounded top and an elongated bottom with a hole for allowing a cord to go through. This was made of plaited dog skin and it was designed to pass around the warrior’s hand, thumb and wrist for a better grip.
Symbolism and Spiritual Aspects of Maori Weapons
Both short-handled and long-handled weapons were specific for the hand-to-hand style of fighting adopted by Māori. During the fight, every warrior had one weapon from each class. The weapon design also determined the fighting strategy, mainly to attack the tribes by surprise. This would happen during a social event or during harvesting beached whales with the attackers hidden within the animal.
Beyond the apparent reason of territory and resource control, Māori fought for cultural reasons too. In any archaic population the concept of balance is very important for the overall well being of the tribe as well as its status or prestige. One tribe might declare war to another to increase or impose their social status. The defendants fought back out of revenge and to re-establish the balance. It was a cycle of mana and utu, where mana was the authority of a tribe over land or other tribes, and utu was the appropriate response of fighting back.
As a consequence, weapons were also associated with status. Therefore the best weapon to have was a mere because of the material it was made of, the assiduous process of making it and its efficacy in combat. When not in use, it was hidden and kept in a special case. It was considered a great privilege to be killed by a mere and often the prisoners offered their own mere to be executed with to make sure they won’t be killed by an inferior weapon.
As any sacred object in an archaic society, it was believed that mere had supernatural powers. They were passed on from generation to generation and they were given names. When dead, the warrior was buried with its mere, but later on the weapon was recovered because of its supposed power. Mere were also an important part of the do-ut-des (I give you so that you may give me) gift exchange ritual. Giving a mere was a sign of good faith because they symbolized magical and economical power.
Maori Weapons in Modern Times
In the 19th Century the traditional weapons made of stones, whalebones and wood were replaced by metal ones which the Māori obtained from the Europeans by trading land and other commodities. The acquisition of muskets led to a ferocious inter-tribal war known as Musket Wars.
Māori weapons can be admired as artefacts throughout museums in New Zeeland and elsewhere in the world. Replica Māori weapons can be acquired by keen collectors or tourists as souvenirs.
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