Story: Māori clothing and adornment – kākahu Māori

Page 8. Amulets and ornaments

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Ornaments, as well as being decorative, also had symbolic and ceremonial significance and were connected to Māori mythology.

The use of reel and tooth elements in the earliest forms of personal adornment show the broad Pacific heritage of their creators. Discovery of distinctively New Zealand rock types such as bowenite and nephrite or pounamu (greenstone or jade) led to the development of unique art forms carved with stone tools. Other forms of embellishment came from mammal and bird sources.

Neck pendants – reel and tooth ornaments

Necklaces left by the people known as moa hunters show they could equally have been called the ‘whale-tooth people’. Pendants made of sperm whale teeth have been found throughout the country. Teeth of orcas were also favoured. When actual whale teeth were not available, long hours were spent carving painstaking replicas in stone or bone. Their special significance is no longer known, but meticulous workmanship signifies their importance. They may have conferred the mana of the whale on the wearer, or indicated some spiritual connection. They provide a link between Māori and other Pacific cultures.

Some such pendants hung from necklaces with grooved or ridged reels, which were carved from bone or stone. Elegant tongue-shaped and chevroned (V-shaped) pendants were carved from whalebone. Often these had intricate stylised carving along the edges. Sometimes such chevrons were paired. By the 18th century, the rei puta had evolved – this was a single whale-tooth, often with a stylised face and eyes engraved at the end, which was worn by men of high status.

Other forms of necklace were also worn. Some were made of drilled shark teeth, reels of whalebone, shell or stone, or tubes of bird bone. Some took the form of pendants reminiscent of fish and fishhooks, eels, bird figures and seals. Others had humanoid elements such as bird-headed men.

Hei tiki

Hei tiki are carved neck pendants that have a human-like form, of which the origins are lost. Some think they relate to Tiki, the first man created by the god Tāne, or to other ancestors. Others believe they link to the human embryo, or to Hineteiwaiwa, the spiritual guardian of childbirth. They were the most highly valued of greenstone ornaments, although some were made of whalebone and other materials. There are some variations in form, but hei tiki retain their prestige today. Like all important taonga, hei tiki were sometimes buried on the death of their owner, but could be uplifted and ritually cleansed so that they could be worn by successive generations.

Perfumed pendants

Māori blended barks and mosses in aromatic gums and hot oils to create pleasing perfumes. Pieces of bird skin were dipped into these blends to create perfumed pendants that were worn around the neck.

Ear pendants

Māori had a wide assortment of ear pendants. Long polished drops of pounamu might be set off with pieces of white aute (paper mulberry). Shark teeth and even human teeth of departed loved ones were worn.

Other items to adorn the ear-lobes were birds’ tails, or even live birds. Pūhoi were white balls of gannet or albatross down, or pieces of rolled white bird skin.

How to cite this page:

Awhina Tamarapa and Patricia Wallace, 'Māori clothing and adornment – kākahu Māori - Amulets and ornaments', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Awhina Tamarapa and Patricia Wallace, published 5 Sep 2013