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Pounamu: The History Behind New Zealand's Greenstone

Pounamu: The History Behind New Zealand's Greenstone

Picture of Joe Coates
Updated: 13 January 2018

The origins of New Zealand’s greenstone – as the nephrite jade that’s found in the South Island is commonly called – is steeped in Maori legend. It is said that the Maori ancestors actually set out sailing with the sole purpose of finding the stone of the Gods. When they eventually fetched up on the shores of Aotearoa (New Zealand) they found such a stone, and they called it pounamu. Read on to discover more.

Practicality-wise, greenstone made fantastic jewelry and, because it was so strong, could be honed to make “meres” – short, club-like weapons with unbelievably sharp edges – which were the prized possessions of Maori chiefs. Eventually trail-walkers carried the greenstone over the Southern Alps, north, and before long it had been exported by boat to the North Island.

Common Carvings and their Meanings

Hei Matu – Fish Hook

This is one of the most common symbols that pounamu is carved into. It denotes the importance of fishing to the Maori people and their close relationship with the sea goddess, Tangaroa. It’s no wonder that the Maori people have such an affinity with the ocean, as it’s believed that the North Island was once an enormous fish that was pulled from the depths by the the legendary mariner, Maui. To carry a Hei Matu is supposed to keep you safe whilst travelling the world and the roads of life. For added potency it is meant to be received as a gift, and given with love.

pounamu

 

Koru – Spiral

The Koru is another favourite of carvers of greenstone. The design itself is inspired by the unfurling of a new frond of the native New Zealand silver fern, the most recognisable plant in New Zealand – it adorns the chests of the All Blacks and the other international sporting representatives of this island nation. Symbolically, the Koru has a double meaning. The inner coil represents new life, as the Koru frond is literally the first step in the life-cycle of the silver fern. The outer coil signifies growth, and the unfurling and continuation of life.

The Hei Tiki

This cheeky looking guy’s history is slightly muddled. Commonly he is thought to characterize the first man, basically a Maori Adam, who was the son of the Sky Father and the Earth Mother. Conversely, others believe that he represents an ancient ancestress associated with fertility and the virtuous qualities of womanhood. What is agreed on though is that the tiki’s little tongue, which is usually carved poking defiantly out, denotes protection. The hands, which are usually arranged either side of the loin, symbolize fertility and virility. The eyes of these carvings are usually decorated with paua (abalone) shells to add an element of life to the little creatures.

The Manaia

Another mythical creature, like the tiki, the Manaia was said to have the tail of a fish, body of a human and head of a bird. Carvings of these supernatural beasts range from grotesque to the beautiful in their depictions of these supernatural beasts. They’re spiritual guardians, made from the air, land and sea. Because of this, they are also meant to help keep a person in harmony with their environment.

The Infinity Loop

This design is simplicity itself. The intertwining shape is indicative of the mingling flow of energies between the physical and spiritual worlds. It also signifies the relationships between people, and the way lives interlace.

 

The Adze

This is another simple design – basically a rectangular block. It represents strength and independence, two key attributes in Maori culture.