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Mokomokai: Commercialization and Desacralization

Significance of Moko and Mokomokai in Maori Culture

Significance of Moko and Mokomokai in Maori Culture

Maori moko are tattoos that are unique in appearance, design, and significance. There were two methods involved in the creation of moko: in one the flesh was carved away and the pigment placed inside the grooves, resulting deep, dark lines. The second method was similar to most of Polynesia with the pigment inserted underneath the skin with a sharp-toothed comb (Gell 1993: 246-7). The carving method was limited to the facial moko while the rest of the body was tattooed in the more conventional method.

The men were tattooed on the face, the backside, thigh and lower torso. The women were also tattooed on the body, but the facial design was usually limited to the lips and chin. However, there are examples in history and in traditional carving in which important women had full-face moko (Starzecka 1996:47). These women were of equal or higher rank than the male chiefs of their generation and their full-face moko was representative of that status (Simmon 1999:127). They were symbolically men and usually never married. “Moko sites and design, as well as extent, varied between men and women, though in both sexes it marked rites of passage and significant events in one’s life” (Starzecka 1996: 40). For women of chiefly rank, tattooing was an important ceremony that accompanied puberty and marked the entry into womanhood (Lewis 1982: 60). The tattooing ceremony was done individually, not as a group ceremony or initiation (Gell 1993: 244). Ta moko, the art of tattoo, was much more than mere body decoration; it was intricately connected to the social, political, and religious life of the Maori.

The moko contained information about a person’s lineage, tribe, occupation, rank, and exploits. They were unique to each individual and told about their life and history (Blackburn 1999:15, Simmon 1999: 50). Some authors suggest that early 19th century Maori society was highly stratified with eight different levels of hierarchy; these levels were indicated through the moko designs (Simmon 1999: 129-130). Others argue that the social structure was less rigid structure and had fewer social strata but in both cases, moko, or lack thereof, was an important signal of position in the sociopolitical structure (Gell 1993:240-1.) Disregarding all other reasons, obtaining a moko was expensive and the heavy financial constraint prohibited all but the chiefs and warriors from commissioning an elaborate moko (Gell 1993: 246).

The moko also showed mana, or divine personal power and status of an individual (Starzeck 1996: 61). The moko not only indicated mana but contained mana itself. The mana of the moko was such that, later, when slaves were tattooed so that their heads could be traded, they were given tattoos whose patterns were meaningless. If they were given correct moko, the virtue of the moko would render them tapu, and they could not be killed (Simmon 1999:140).

Each moko was completely unique to that individual (Robley 1998: 15, 91). Maori chiefs knew each line of their moko and could draw them from memory. They were often used as marks of identification and were used to sign treaties, land grants, and deeds during the period of European colonization (Gilbert 2000:67, Robley 1998:11). More importantly, the moko served not only as a means of identification of an individual, but through the moko, an individual “achieved identification with the ancestors through donning an ancestral (tattooed) mask” (Gell 1993:251). The moko symbolically connected an individual to his ancestors and lineage.

Not only the tattoos, but also the art of tattooing- ta moko, was very sacred and surrounded by strict tapu and protocol. The most prominent tale of the origin of ta moko involves a mortal, Mataoro, who is married to the daughter on the chief of the underworld. One day he beats his wife and she returns to her father’s realm. Mataora journeys to the underworld to regain his wife, and while there learns the art of ta moko from his father-in-law (Starzecka 1996: 35, Neich 1994:21, Gell 1993:254-259). This was a sign of reconciliation between divinity and man. Ta moko was a gift from the gods, and as such, was considered sacred. On a more practical level, the moko made Mataoro worthy of marrying above his status and serves as a reminder to avoid evil action (the beating of his wife) (Gell 1993:255).

Tattoo experts were trained in special schools and the practice was controlled and surrounded by numerous tapu (Neich 1994:20). A tattoo expert was a position of respect and prestige (Hiroa 1982:299, Robley 1998:100).

During the tattooing process, the individual receiving the tattoo was subject to a number of strict rules due to the sacredness and importance of the ritual. This tapu came from the bleeding that necessarily accompanied the ritual (Robley 1998:62). The ritual was done out of doors in a temporary shelter built for that purpose (Best 1934: 223). The person receiving the moko could not speak, feed himself, or be touched by anyone else. He was also limited in the kind of vessels he could eat from and the food he could eat (Robley 1998:58-59). An elaborate carved funnel was used to feed the person being tattooed so that they could eat without touching any contaminated substance (Starzecka 1996: 40). After the procedure was complete, the person who received the tattoo abstained from sex and washing for several days until the tattoo began to heal (Blackburn 1999:13,15). At the end of the ceremony a collective ritual was held “in order to ‘recompense’ (utu) for the bloodletting (i.e. degradation) of their chief, a slave or captive would be killed and the chief’s supporters would be given a feast (at the chief’s expense)” (Gell 1993:248). A similar festival was held at the tattooing of chief’s eldest daughter (Gell 1993:246). All of these tapu indicate the importance of tattooing and its cultural significance.

Often the tattooed heads of the deceased were dried and smoked in order to preserve them from decay. These dried heads are the mokomokai. The process of drying the heads was also accompanied by tapu. The people performing the ceremony and the relatives of the deceased were not allowed to touch food until the process was complete (Robley 1998:146).

The mokomokai were an integral part of Maori society. They served as personal remembrances of the deceased and reminded the family of his good character and leadership (Robley 1998:134).

The Maori took heads as trophies during war, and heads were embalmed and preserved during peace as well as war. This honor was usually reserved for persons of importance and their loved ones, including women and children. The heads remained with the families of the deceased, who kept them in ornately carved boxes. They were protected by strict taboos and brought out only during sacred ceremonies. (Gilbert 200:67)

The children and widows of the deceased used the head to remind them of the deceased, but also to signify that to some extent the presence of the departed chief was still a part of tribal and family affairs. This kind of close kinship and identification with ancestors is an important part of Polynesian society (Gell 1993:251-252).

The heads of slain enemy chiefs were also kept and played an important role in the rituals and ceremonies relating to war and peace. They were trophies of war and were displayed on posts to testify of the success of the tribe’s warriors (Robley 1998: 136). These heads of enemy chiefs were treated with great disrespect (Lewis 1982: 93). However, these captured mokomokai were also important in the rituals of peace negotiations. When a side was conquered, it surrendered the heads it had captured and the return of the heads signified that the grievances had been settled (Robley 1998: 134-5). In other circumstances, heads would be traded between both sides to peacefully end intertribal wars and disputes. Because of their essential role in negotiation of peace they were very valuable and would never be traded. Because without returning the mokomokai of the chiefs, peace could not be achieved (Robley 1998: 138).