Story: Pounamu – jade or greenstone

Page 5. Symbols of chieftainship

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Mere pounamu (greenstone weapons)

Mere pounamu (or patu pounamu) were considered to be the most valuable greenstone items. They were the main symbol of chieftainship and were as valuable to Māori as precious stones were to Europeans.

Traditionally, mere were used for stabbing and cutting, rather than delivering axe-like blows. The latter was too risky as the weapon could hit another and break, wasting the years of work put into its making.

Toki poutangata

The toki poutangata was a war adze, though it was rarely used in battle and was never used for shaping wood. Like the mere pounamu, it was carried by chiefs to symbolise their authority. It was owned by chiefly families and was used on ceremonial occasions, such as being placed on the chest of a chief lying in state.

Tribal heirlooms

All tribes have stories of pounamu artefacts. In particular, toki (adzes), mere pounamu and toki poutangata are central in these. These items are often given names, and they are seen as being tapu (sacred) and having great mana (status). They were a talisman to remind people of stories of battles and great events in which their ancestors took part. They were also a physical representation of connection, through whakapapa (genealogy), to venerated ancestors, and the artefacts were often remembered in songs.

Protective stone

Stones, including pounamu, were often used as a talisman to represent and protect mauri – the vitality, or life force of both living and inanimate things. Ngāi Tahu gifted a pounamu boulder named Mauri to the National Museum in 1986. It now acts as a mauri stone for Rongomaraeroa, the marae of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Similarly, when the Te Māori touring exhibition returned to New Zealand, a pounamu boulder named Te Māori was its mauri. The stone was returned to Ngāi Tahu and placed at the Southland Museum.

Te Āwhiorangi

Te Āwhiorangi is an adze that is remembered in a number of tribal traditions. This is the Ngā Rauru tradition relating to this adze.

Te Āwhiorangi was said to have been used by the god Tāne to cut the sinews that bound Ranginui (the sky) and Papatūānuku (the earth). It is said that Te Āwhiorangi became a symbol of mana for all adzes ever made.

This adze was passed down from Tāne through a line of paramount chiefs to Turi. It was later used to make the voyaging canoe, Aotea, of the Ngā Rauru tribe. Eventually, this adze was considered so sacred that it was deposited by the ancestor Rangitaupea above a burial cave so it would not be disturbed. It is said that when it was discovered by Tōmairangi, who had married into the tribe and was unaware that she was trespassing upon a sacred site, lightning, thunder and snow came from the heavens. She said, ‘Kotahi te mea i kite ai au i reira, anō he atua, ka nui taku mataku’ (I saw one thing there, which was as a god, and I was greatly afraid).

Following this, Ngā Rauru and some of the Ngāti Apa tribe assembled at dawn where two priests chanted incantations over the adze. As they did, lightning, thunder and mist descended.

In the late 20th century this adze was said to be held by Ruka Broughton of Ngā Rauru, a tohunga, lecturer and Anglican priest.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Pounamu – jade or greenstone - Symbols of chieftainship', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 June 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 12 Jun 2006