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The Ancient Woodcarving Tradition in Maori Culture

Picture of Joe Coates
Updated: 4 April 2018
Māori carvings play a key role in Māori customs and traditions and have as much meaning behind them, and as much significance, as their tattoos. Take a look at The Culture Trip’s guide and learn a little more about their history, the skill needed to produce them, and their importance to the Māori people.
Fertility Carving
Fertility Carving | © Sids1 / Flickr

Why Did the Maori Carve?

Anyone who lives in or has visited New Zealand for any amount of time will have (hopefully) seen examples of the beautiful and intricate carving that the Māori are so renowned for. You’ll see examples of it everywhere, adorning all aspects that were — and are — important to Māori life. You’ll see it on the prows of a wakas (canoes) and posts of a wharenui (meeting houses) as well as on taiaha (weapons). This is what makes Māori carving particularly interesting — not only are most things carved by a carver, basically, a functional work of art, but they also tell a story from the past. They preserved a tribe’s history in a time before things were written down.

It Was About Telling Stories
It Was About Telling Stories | © Scott.Symonds / Flickr

What Did They Use to Carve?

As you might expect, they used New Zealand greenstone — pounamu, as it is called in the Māori tongue. This material was much revered for its beauty as well as its functionality and was itself carved into beautiful and meaningful designs. The art of wood carving is called whakairo rakau and focuses on using a range of native timbers, particularly wood from the majestic giants of the forest, the kauri and totara. The Māori didn’t just cut down any old tree either. When they selected the perfect tree they performed a karakia (ritual incantation), which was recited by the Tohunga, in order to ensure that the act of felling went safely. This was because the Māori believed that to fell a tree was to fell an offspring of Tane, the god of forests and man.

A Giant Kauri tree
A Giant Kauri tree | © purdyrns / Flickr

Who Did the Carving

Tohunga Whakairo were the great carvers – the master craftsmen if you will. Nowadays, carvers can learn the art of carving through classes and much practise. However, the Tohunga Whakairo didn’t only have to learn the art of carving, they also had to act as historians. These Tohunga Whakairo were revered among their tribe because the Māori believed that the gods communicated through the carvers. The art of carving wood — just like tattooing and the carving of greenstone — was tapu, which means it was sacred. That means that no women were allowed near the carving whilst it was in progress and even the pieces of wood falling aside as the carver worked were never discarded.

What Are Some of the Carvings You Might See?

You might not realise this, but the only animal carved by the Māori that you will see in any of their work is the lizard.

The oldest Māori carvings date back to about 500 years ago. In these older carvings, you might find a one-eyed human figure depicted. Certain legends speak of one-eyed monsters, being part fish, part god and part man. These figures may represent such a being, a demi-god who lived equally well on land or in the sea.

The Taniwha is probably the most famous monster of Māori legend. In Māori legends Marakihau was often a mythical sea monster — or Taniwha. Marakihau may decorate the porches of carved houses. A typical feature of Marakihau is its human form, but including a long tongue by which the Marakihau monsters were capable of swallowing up canoes or men. Quite often a type of crown form was situated on the top of the head.

Carving with a Taniwha Figure
Carving with a Taniwha Figure | © Apple Verschoor / Flickr

Another figure that is commonly seen among all the other beautiful decorations is a face that is carved in profile and is very bird-like. This is Manaia and is a figure that is common in other carvings of tribes from around the world such as Hawaii, Easter Island and even some peoples in South America.

Intricate Ancient Carving
Intricate Ancient Carving | © Sids1 / Flickr

The koru is the most common symbol you are likely to see in the carvings of stone of wood. It represents the unfurling of life as people age and as they gain more experience in their lives. As a literal depiction of a young fern shoot, it also symbolises new life. The Māori differed from other Polynesians in that they preferred curves to straight lines in much of their carvings. Many carvings take the distinctive koru spiral form.