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Maori and Polynesian: their origin, history and culture

House-carving revels in the Human Figure

House-carving revels in the Human Figure

(5) The east coast of the North Island between Poverty Bay and Tauranga is also the home of the best carved work for the houses; and into it too, especially on the lintels of the doors and on the barge-boards, the same intertwisted rope-work appears as in the canoe carvings; but the rope is generally square and often braided, and far oftener than in the canoe-pieces takes the form of interlocked withylike conventional human figures. And as a rule the carving is not so fine or lace-like, except on the lintels of the doors and on the barge-boards of the foodstore. As the rope-coil is the basis of the canoe carving, the human figure, monstrous or realistic, grotesque or conventionalised, is the basis of the house-carving.

(6) And the idea of most of the figures seems to be that of scaring away or terrifying intruders or enemies. Most of the images have enormous cavities for mouths, that remind one first of all of the devil-dancers' masks of Ceylon, and next of the masks worn by actors in the Greek drama. The likeness is so strong in the double-bayed aperture that community of origin is suggested. But out of the mouth of most of the Maori figures a huge tongue is thrust, intended to symbolise terrifying defiance. In some a bird-headed composite monster is threatening the figure from either side. page 195In others there are interlocking coils of a snake-like monster, or a composite lizard monster. The tekoteko on the ridge-pole is as a rule a realistic little human figure squatting or with shortened legs, and similar figures are to be found at the bottom of the pillars that support the ridge-pole inside the carved house. Along its walls the great rectangular slabs that support the roof are carved into monstrous ancestral images with enormous mouth and protruding tongue, and often with a demon-like figure between the legs. Some of the figures on the bargeboards and outside boards, especially of food-houses, are still more demon-like with their haliotisshell eyes, their grotesque mouths, and their enormous oblique and pointed eye-hollows, that seem to pass into pointed animal-like ears; they are like nothing so much as the mediaeval images and pictures of devils, figured often in church carvings, and revived in Auld Nick of the illustrations to Burns's "Tam O'Shanter." All the figures have a striking reminiscence of the gargoyles on the ancient cathedrals of Europe. There is undoubtedly the same idea at the basis of all those terrifyingly grotesque figuresthat of scaring off evil spirits from the buildings they are intended to ornament. This is possibly the reason of the special attention given to the ornamentation of foodstores; the demon-like images are meant to scare away the spirits that in flying to the entrance of the under-world might pass across the house and spoil the food, the gift of the Rongo.