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Meaning of Maori Symbols and Designs

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Maori culture has historically been oral. This means they had no written language to pass on cultural heritage.

As a result carvings and other art forms flourished as a means to pass on ancestry, major historic events, beliefs, legends, and other cultural elements.

Even upon today the designs and their symbolism still tell the wonderful Maori tales. That’s why Maori symbols form such a substantial part of the national Maori identity and culture.

The elaborate artistic traditions of the Maori have in common that most, if not all, make use of these Maori symbols. Some of the most well known symbols or designs are the tiki, twist and koru but there are lots more.

Since the Maori had such a vivid spiritual and metaphysical culture many are still interested in the meaning of their symbolism. The Maori connectedness with nature, astronomy, and spirituality makes these expressions even in modern day very appealing

Read on to learn more about the meaning of Maori symbols.

Tiki
Maori TikiOne of the most popular and most recognizable Maori symbols. Tiki is emblematic for the whole Polynesian hemisphere, an emblem of Polynesian cultures from Hawaii to New Zealand. According to legends tiki was the first man on earth who originated from the stars. The first mortal person who created the first woman after his image.

The exact meaning of the tiki symbol is disputed. There are several opinions but the most accepted are that tiki stands for fertility, the frequently occurring hands placed on the loins is a direct reference to fertility. Tiki is a good luck charm meant to keep evil spirits away. Other theories state that tiki represents the human embryo, or the Maori god Tiki who was considered responsible for the creation of life.

Koru (Spiral)
Maori koru symbolKoru is the Maori word for “bight” or “loop” and refers to new shoots of the silver fern. The spiral shaped koru design is derived from this unfolding silver fern frond. The circular movement towards an inner coil refers to ‘going back to the beginning’.  The unfurling frond itself is symbolic for new life, new beginnings, hope, perfection, rebirth, a new start, awakening, personal growth, purity, nurturing, a new phase (in life), the spirit of rejuvenation, and peace.

The koru design, often worn as a Maori necklace, but present in many cultural expressions, is an integral symbol in Maori art forms. Both on itself as well as incorporated in more intricate designs such as carvings and Maori facial tattoos.

Matau (Fish Hook)
Maori symbols matauOriginally the Maori have been fishermen. Their main food source was the sea so a fish hook of high quality was a valuable item to posses.

Worn around the neck the hook became a symbol of prosperity, abundance, good health, power, authority, and respect for the sea and its life in it. It is also believed to provide good luck and safety while traveling over water.

The Maori fish hook symbol refers to being dependent on the sea for their food gathering. The matau is a talisman for good luck.

 

Pikorua (Single Twist)
Maori single twist symbolThe Maori single twist symbol consists of a closed loop with three knots. Pikorua, as the Maori name this symbol, refers to eternal emerging paths in life. The eight-shaped single twist symbolizes the strength of the bond between two people, their loyalty and friendship. It signifies the spiritual merger of two people for eternity. Although people will take different paths in their lives they will always be connected and will return to each other.

The twist is a powerful statement of loyalty, friendship, and love.

Double and triple twist are also eternity symbols. The triple twist stands Refers to the bond between peoples, communities, or cultures rather than individuals. Traditionally given as an offering of friendship between different tribes.

Maori twist symbols also refer to the so called ‘three baskets of knowledge’. This is a concept that, very roughly translated, has to do with how, the for humankind necessary knowledge to survive, came to the world. According to the legend the god Tane (creator of the first man Tiki) brought down those three baskets from the heavens.

 

Double and Triple Twist
Maori symbols double twistAlso an eternity symbol. Refers to the bond between peoples or cultures rather than individuals. These Maori pendants were traditionally given as an offering of friendship between different tribes.

Maori twist symbols also refer to the so called ‘three baskets of knowledge’. This is a concept that, very roughly translated, has to do with how, the for humankind necessary knowledge to survive, came to the world. According to the legend the god Tane (creator of the first man Tiki) brought down those three baskets from the heavens.

Toki (Adze)
Maori toki symbolToki is the Maori tribal symbol of strength. This symbol resembles determination, control, strength and focus honor. Its shape represents an axe head.

The toki (adze) was used by the Maori as a everyday working tool for shaving and chipping and sometimes as a weapon. Special, ornate adzes were traditionally carved in stone and passed down as a heirloom.

The Toki had much meaning to the Maori, fashioned from stone or greenstone it was an essential tool for survival and day to day life of a Maori tribe. That’s the reason the Maori attribute the spiritual meaning of strength and power to the Toki.

 

Tear Drop (Roimata )
Maori teardrop pendantIndicates healing and comfort, reassurance, and positive energy. Often called a comfort stone. The teardrop symbol is also referred to as the comfort stone.

Roimata stands for healing and comfort , positive energy, reassurance. The drop is a stylized version of the toki and signifies strength, power, pride, and independence.

Drop
Symbolizes strength, power, pride, and  independence.

 

Circle – Porowhita
Maori circle Porowhita pendantThe closed circle with a hole in between represents the never ending circle of life and nature. It also stands for the belief that life has no beginning or end.

Both the spiral and the circle are also described as a metaphor for“a never-ending journey of discovery and re-discovery. The journey itself, with its indigenous perspectives and sense of orientation, is the most significant act of cultural recuperation. It reflects the importance of being on the move in the present while realizing that the path of tradition is a two-way track, it points, simultaneously, in the present towards the past and the future.” Source: The Circle & the Spiral: A Study of Australian Aboriginal and New Zealand Maori Literature

Maori whale tail (Muri Paraoa)
Maori whale tail symbolCore meaning; speed and strength. Indicates the support often shown by dolphins and whales to humans in distress. Therefore a symbol of protection. But also of speed, strength, sensitivity, the bond between animal and human.

Expresses respect for the sea and nature. Also a good luck charm providing safe passage over water.
The Whale is the most important animal in the life of the Maori. Besides speed and strength also success, confidence, sensitivity, and the bond between animal and human.

Maori Dolphin – Papahu
Maori dolphin design carvingThe dolphin is another Maori symbol of protection. Schools of dolphins were reported to attack sharks circling around canoes.

The dolphin shows affinity with the sea and nature in general. Resembles a free spirit. Nowadays the dolphin represents protection on all types of travelers.

Another Maori symbol of protection. Schools of dolphins were reported to attack sharks circling around canoes.

 

Guardian Angel (Manaia)
Manaia Maori guardian angelThe manaia symbolizes a mythical being with a bird’s head a human body and fish tail. The invisible light surrounding a person. Mythological being with a bird’s head, a man’s body, and a fish tail.

Manaia is considered the messenger between the Gods and mortals. In Maori culture the bird is thought to be an omen-carrier or intermediary between man and the spirits.

That’s why manaia, with its specific body shape, represents spiritual power and is seen as the guide that leads the spirits to heaven.Sometimes the manaia symbol is described as some kind of aura; the invisible light surrounding a person.

The Manaia symbol is described in many ways. The word doubles as the word for lizard and some say it is a beaked and ornamental figure. Others think its origins are in the human profile. There is also the movement that suspects the Manaia relates to a distant avian (bird) cult. Courtesy photo: Shop New Zealand

 

Koropepe, The Mythical Eel/ Fish.
Maori koropepe eel symbol pendantKoropepe is an eel-type fish, a mythical guardian. (pronounced cor-or-pep-eh) It is a symbol of new beginnings and youth, prosperity and abundance.The koropepe is thought to represent the curled eel which was one of the main protein sources hundreds of years back in Maori history. Many koropepe have a coiled appearance with bird-like heads. These heads are said to possess its spiritual power. The design is a relatively modern form as no ancient examples have been found.

 

Kaka poria / Kaka ring
Kaka is the Maori word for the indigenous parrot (Nestor meridionalis).These bone or stone rings were kaka poriahistorically used to tether the medium sized (up to 18 inches) New Zealand parrot.

The kaka were eaten and used as pets to lure wild bird during the hunt. The giant kaka parrot was used by the Maori to assist them during the hunt for more kaka parrots. A so called kaka ring restrained the bird from flying away. These rings were both used as a tool as worn as pendant necklaces or earrings.

When not in use the kaka rings were worn as pendants. The most valuable items were those crafted of pounamu. Image credit: SpiritWrestler.

White Heron bird – Kotuku  Kotuku is the Maori word for the rare White Heron bird. It is a symbol of prestige, purity, and uniqueness. One of the greatest compliments among the Maori was to liken someone to Kotuku for its signifies everything rare and beautiful. Sometimes referred to as a darling or treasure. The kotuku is one of New Zealand’s rarest birds and is held in particularly high regard in Maori mythology.

As with other birds, the kotuku stands for the connection between the afterlife, he is a messenger of the spirit world.“The kotuku represents everything pure and beautiful in Maori mythology and oratory. Most importantly, the kotuku represents all the people of this land. The kotuku is a traveller, who came to this beautiful country and chose to stay.”
More Maori bird symbols; huia, kaka, torea
Next to the world famous kiwi bird which is emblematic to New Zealand there are some other birds featuring Maori artwork.

The huia bird, of which the long feathers were used as hair adornments by Maori chiefs and notables, is one of them. Intricately carved wooden treasure boxes used to store the huia bird feathers are a typical form of Maori art work.

Torea is the Maori word for the oystercatcher bird. Despite its name suggests this wader bird does not feed on oysters but on small crabs, worms, and other small marine creatures. Here some more info and a few carved torea pendants.

 

Can’t get enough of Maori symbols and their meanings? Maybe this book will satisfy your needs: Symbols of the Maori World

Want to buy a Maori carved pendant or another carving based on these symbols? Check out these New Zealand based stores:

126x32 White LogoNew Zealand and Maori Gift Store - we ship worldwide, if we don't have it, we'll search NZ for it

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11 Comments »

  • This is such a great resource that you are providing and you give it away for free. I enjoy seeing websites that understand the value of providing a prime resource for free. I truly loved reading your post. Thanks!

  • Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

  • Jan Johnson says:

    Great information. I’m a (great-grandmother) kayaker and just got my silver matau pendant in the mail today. I suppose a whale tail is next . . .
    Thanks again!
    Jan

  • Mike says:

    this for the informative information. It is great to see how some people are willing to share their culture with others who have an equal love for it as well.

  • godfrey amoguis says:

    great information. im also a kayaker from the philippines and i love to have one of this symbols for my necklace!

  • padraic kane says:

    Hi my name is padraic kane i am from ireland i am realy intrested in getting a maori tattoo .but i dont want to get one because i dont know what it means, i thinh they are beautyfull an i want to get one that is very popular with the maori people , an it also says something about me ,i am putting it from the top of the shoilder about 5/6 inches down my bicept . could you let me know of anyone that could email/ring about this ,thanks padraic ireland.

  • Elaine Gustavson says:

    I recently visited Napier NZ and saw the Maori designs in a church and several buildings there. I noticed they use red and black or an earthy tone of red and black. Is this typical? Why these colors? They are repeated patterns to form a boarder trim. What do these mean? I could send a picture if this website would allow it. Thank you.

  • miklint says:

    Hi Elaine, the red color (often combined with ocher)used on houses and canoes symbolizes the blood that flooded the earth during the separation of the gods Rangi (father of heaven or sky father) and Papa (the earth mother).

    The legend tells us that the forest god Tane, son of Rangi and Papa, separated his parents. The blood of Rangi is still present in the form of red clay and red evening skies. This is why the Maori perceive red as a sacred color. They call it kokowai.

  • Irene Dempsey says:

    I am an expat Kiwi living in Western Australia. I am a self employed caterer and want to design a business card promoting my business. My business name is Kai Aroha Catering and I want to know if there are any decorative Maori motifs depicting food?

  • eli says:

    hi im eli and ……..

  • Jackson says:

    I like this it helps me with maori symbols chaoooo!

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