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According to tradition, around the tenth century A.D., Maui, the mythical Polynesian hero, caught an island. He reeled in, as if by magic Te Ika a Maui ("Maui's fish") and Te Wai-pounamou ("The Sea of Jade"), the North Island and South Island of New Zealand. For 600 years, no westerners bothered the Maori living there, but in 1642, the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman arrived. Several of his crew died there. As a result, no one else went there until Captain Cook (1728-1779) arrived in 1769. Cook was fascinated by what he observed.

Maori tattooing, or moko was an ancestral Polyne-sian art, restricted to those of high social status, who were known as rangatira. For the Maori, tattoos had the same significance as a signature or a coat of arms had for Europeans, and so nobody could copy the moko of another person. All the designs were similar, but each one had its special features, and no two were the same. The master tattooer, the tohunga ta moko, was a professional who dedicated his life to learning and perfecting his technique. The master tattooers were responsible for creating the designs for each person, and the tattoo had greater or lesser value, depending on the tattooer. The tattoo masters never had tattoos. Only a small number of people were chosen to be future tattoo masters, which authorized them to perform their apprenticeship with a recognized tattoo master.

All the Polynesians practiced tattooing, but the Maori developed it more than any other group. They scarified the skin for the aesthetic effect of the keloids that typically form on melanoderms, people with black skin. The cuts in the skin heal leaving very clear furrows and lines, so that the relief of the skin emphasizes the tattoo. The first tattooing was performed at puberty, with a ritual in keeping with the solemn occasion. Men tattooed their faces, and some also tattooed their bodies, especially the shoulders and the zone between the belt and the knees; women were only allowed to tattoo their lips, chins and, occasionally, their foreheads. The tattoo was completed over the course of a lifetime, and the skin was gradually decorated with new designs, and already tattooed zones were repeated in order to make them stand out even more.

Captain Cook discovered the fantastic world of Maori tattoos, the first written references to which are in Cook's diary of his first voyage. The French sailor Jules Sebastian Dumont d'Urville (1790-1842) also referred enthusiastically to them after his 1826-1829 voyage. Since then, the tattooed skin of the New Zealand Maori has aroused the admiration of the entire world.

The tattoo designs were basically curvilinear and symmetrical. They were initially very simple, but there was a growing tendency to decorate the spaces between the lines, giving very elaborate tattoos. On the face, they distinguished between the tiwana, the lines on the upper face, and the kawe, the lines on the lower face. Spirals on the buttocks were known as rape and those on the thighs as puhoro. Over time, new systems came into use, such as double spirals on the nose, pongiania, and around the eyes, ngu.

The designs for tattoos were inspired by wooden carvings and painting, at which the Maoris are experts. The incorporation of the triple spiral on the cheekbones was a response to the desire to distinguish between tattoo designs and woodcarvings. The upper triple spiral was called paepae and the lower koroaha. This design seems to have been adopted by the Maori, as it originated in the Mediterranean, and then spread to India and the Far East. Anyway, the Maori kept these sinuous forms, while other Polynesian peoples replaced them with more geometric shapes.

To create a tattoo, the design was first painted on the skin. Then, using a very sharp, fine chisel, made of bird bone, they made deep incisions following the lines. They then dipped the blade in a pumice stone container holding the soot of burnt resin of the kauri pine (Agathis australis) and repeated the operation. To clean away the blood, they used muka--fibers of New Zealand flax, harakeke (Phormium tenax). During this painful process, the tattooed persons had to be fed using special funnels called korere (see photo). Afterward, the wounds healed and left an indelible blue line. In order to prevent their beard from covering their facial tattoos, the men pulled out their facial hairs one by one. To finish, a fine layer of ochre powder, kokowai, was placed on the face, hair, and body.

Maori warriors, after their tribal wars, pakanga, kept the tattooed heads of their enemies as trophies. The first European ships to reach New Zealand started a repugnant trade in these tattooed heads, demand for which led to highly regrettable tribal wars. This led the western missionaries to try to convince the Maori to stop tattooing themselves. Some forms of traditional tattoo were still practiced in the twentieth century, but only a modified form of the original still survives, based on painting rather than incisions. These non-permanent tattoos are now a complement to ceremonial clothing, and are only used on ceremonial occasions. The elaborate tattoos of the past only survive in art works, like sculptures and drawings.
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Publication:Encyclopedia of the Biosphere
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2000
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