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Maori and Polynesian: their origin, history and culture

Whence the Spiral in Tattooing?

Whence the Spiral in Tattooing?

(9) But even if we accept tattooing, the more primeval art, as the model and inspiration in wood-carving, we have still to find the origin of the spiral in tattooing. The finger-prints used as signatures or ownership marks might well have been one source of inspiration to artists who must have studied minutely every line upon the human form and epidermis. But the spirals on the fingers are too elongated and too involved in outside concentricism to have given the models to the artists of the older spirals, which are simple and rounded, especially in wood-carving. Of the elaborate spiral page 185work on the face and figure they may have been the inspiration. But there is not so much resemblance between the finger-print and the spirals of the canoe and house carving.

(10) There is much to confirm the idea that the art of tattooing amongst the Polynesians had the origin of its variety in the tribal or totem or individual marks. Even to the present day the carver of the ancestral wooden images distinguishes the tribe of the ancestor by the peculiar tattooing; each individual seems to have had some variation, by which he might be known either alive or dead on the battlefield. In the older style of tattooing, called mokokuri, consisting of dots and dashes or vertical and horizontal lines, it seems to the European eye more easy to make distinction; for occasional variation is sometimes introduced in the form of a mark like an S. And in one of Weber's illustrations to "Captain Cook's Voyages" a chief of Santa Christina is represented with tattoo marks that might well be mistaken for a reporter's shorthand; his brow is divided by four cross lines into panes or compartments, each of which contains its own special straight lines, or hooks, or spirals, or interrogation points. Some of these might possibly be the rude beginnings of the New Zealand spiral tattooing; but they are divided by long ages of development from it, for it is indeed a fine art. Again, in the Marquesas and on Easter Island there is elaborate floral and faunal tattooing that might have suggested some of the curvilinear conventions of the New Zealand art; and on the lower limbs of some of the Maoris we see elaborate leaf decorations, such as are to be found in the painting of the rafters of their carved houses.

(11) But the tattooed natural history on the bodies of the Eastern Polynesians is as different from the graceful spiral arabesques of New Zealand as the palaeolithic mammoth page 186and reindeer etchings from the neolithic geometrical designs. And the latter, though less pictorial and less natural, are undoubtedly the more advanced. That the delicate spiral varieties of the Maori face-patterns could have developed naturally out of the curves of the Eastern Polynesian floral and faunal decoration does not seem possible; still less possible is the evolution of the dot and dash of the older Maori tattooing into the later fine art. The change is rather revolutionary than evolutionary, and seems to indicate a new radical element that had cultivated the art before the Polynesians arrived, perhaps an artistic element that the Japanese found in their archipelago when they intruded and partly absorbed, partly drove south over the ocean. Mataora, the legendary inventor of the new spiral art, is said to have learned it in Po, or the under-world of darkness; and we have seen reason to think that this often means in the tropics the long nights of the northern winter, and the people that came thence and had their paradise in the bosom of the earth instead of in the sky.

(12) One feature of the art that seems to militate against its coming from a conquered people is that it is a warrior's decoration. The common men of the tribe and the slaves had no right to it; and the women only when they were about to be married, and so become part of a warrior's household, were allowed to be tattooed, and then only on the lips and the chin, and occasionally over the eyebrows. And in many of the pictures of natives in the books of the early voyagers and travellers there are married women without any sign of tattooing. In the illustrations of Tasman's visit to New Zealand none of the natives, either male or female, are tattooed. In Weber's volume of illustrations to "Cook's Voyages" a native family is pictured wholly without tattooing they must have belonged to one of the defeated aboriginal tribes; they have wavy, almost curly, hair, and they have page 187kilts on that seem made of skins. Yet, on the other hand, we find Colenso and other observers reporting that the women of the Southern tribes were often tattooed on the face like men; and in one of the illustrations to "Cook's Voyages" a woman is so represented.

(13) But there must have been many types of aboriginals in New Zealand at different stages of culture, as we can see from the varied styles of dwelling. And it is in the North Island especially we find legends of primitive peoples, supernaturalised into fairies, who teach the new-comers various arts. It is not an uncommon thing for a conquering aristocracy to absorb an art from the conquered and then prohibit the teachers from using it. Undoubtedly the Polynesians brought tattooing with them to their new country; but the sudden change from the stiff dot and dash to the beautiful spiral and curve and scroll combination must have been due to no mere change of environment and climate, but to new teachers and models, and after learning and monopolising the art they kept it surrounded with the religious rites and incantations of the old style, in order to secure the monopoly, allowing only the women of the conquered that they took into their households to have any share in it. This exception was made because the conquerors had darker skins and objected to the red lips and the fair skin of the women as unnatural and ugly, the reason the Maori men still give for retaining the custom with regard to their married women, whilst abandoning it themselves.