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Maori Sacred Arts and Crafts

Sep 12, 2008
The Maori are the indigenous peoples of New Zealand. Like all cultures, the Maori expressed themselves in artistic ways. The Maori, however, have no word for "art." The traditional expert, or tohunga, in carving or weaving does not create a piece of art. They are merely the vessel used by the gods to express them in material form. This meant that all carvings, weavings and other artistic endeavors were charged with spiritual power, or mana. The act of creating a carving or other item was sacred, and a gift of Tangaroa, the sea god.

Carving was and still is a big part of Maori culture. Wood was used to carve flutes, elaborate posts, and war canoes with elaborate carvings, treasure boxes and wall panels. Whale bone and cow bone is used to make flutes and symbolic jewelry. Shells are also carved for personal adornment. The symbols portrayed are deep in religious and cultural meaning. The Koru, or spiral, is the symbol of life and rebirth. Tikis are often carved in personal pieces, on posts and wall panels to represent fertility or protection. They may be worn or displayed on special occasions.

Carvings of sea creatures and the tails of whales, a very special animal to the Maori, are also common. Another common carving subject is Manaia, a figure with a bird's head. Another is Marakihau, a sea monster who took human form. Elaborate bone fishhook ornaments were carved to symbolize prosperity, abundance and fertility. Today, new carvers still learn the skills passed down from generation to generation.

Weaving was a needed craft. From the sturdy New Zealand flax plant, the Maori learned to weave cloaks, skirts, baskets, floor mats, and sails. These weavings were dyed and decorated. Some were used in everyday tasks and some were reserved for sacred use. The weaving of fine cloaks was the pinnacle of women's arts. They often combined the flax with dog fur and feathers. Before the moa was extinct, moa feathers were often used for decoration. Today's students still study the weaving traditions. After attending the weaving school, they do not get diplomas. Their diploma is the work that they produce.

The Maori also have a lively history of music and dance. Visitors to Rotorua can attend midday concerts that introduce them to the culture. Traditional dances such as the Poi dance, the haka, or war dance and the complex Tititorea (stick games) are performed. The Maori have some unique musical instruments, including the putangitangi, or whistling bowl. This is a small, enclosed clay bowl with a small hole at the top. Whistling close to the top hole produces a mournful echo. The puritorito or spinning wheel is a wooden disk with string threaded through the center. The disk is spun in the center, and then the strings are pulled tight to create a sound like wind blowing through the reeds. The sound waves from this instrument were often used to loosen phlegm in babies. The koauau or short flute is a hollow flute carved from a flax stem. The end was covered by a finger, and then the musician would whistle into the opening, creating a variety of tones.
About the Author
Rodney Dagan invites you to explore the culture and arts of the Maori from New Zealand
You can also view more native and aboriginal art from around the world at Native Art World.
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