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Maori and Polynesian: their origin, history and culture

Chapter XV — Polynesian Art: Carving and Design

page 191

Chapter XV
Polynesian Art: Carving and Design

The Canoe Spiral had probably a Different Origin
from the Tattooed Spiral

(1) Was it from tattooing that the beautiful openwork carving of the canoes and house-lintels took its model? Undoubtedly there is great likeness between the designs of the two arts. But it is to be noted that the human figure or face, neither directly or indirectly, neither distortedly nor conventionally, enters into the one art, whilst it is the basis and groundwork of the other. Not merely does the human form take a definite place in every bargeboard and lintel of a house, and in every bow-piece of a canoe, often distorted or conventional, still clearly a human figure, but the subsidiary coil and scroll-work that fill up the spaces between the figures and surround them, take the same outline in a crude and vague way. In the Maori tattooing, even in the broader spaces of the body, there is never found any item of the human face or form, although a face or bust is quite common in the tattooing of Easter Island and other parts of Polynesia. The scroll-work of the two differs completely, excepting in the use of the spiral.

(2) If tattooing was an inspiration for the designs of the wood-carver, there must have been some other; and this, as far as the canoe is concerned, we can naturally find in the forms that ropes take, either as binding material or as coiled page 192or sprawling over the platforms or the bottom of a canoe. Even the spirals can be accounted for in this way more easily than from the tattooing spiral or the fern frond. For it is, unlike these, a double, or interlocking, spiral, such as one would get by doubling a rope, and then coiling the double; whilst the intertwisted figures between the two spirals of the bow and the various spirals of the stern, even when they simulate a human form, are as manifestly rope-patterns, exactly like the withy patterns found engraved on the ancient stone monuments of the British Isles, imitations of primeval basketry. A maritime people like the Polynesians and their predecessors could find no more appropriate design for their canoe carved work than the coiling or intertwisting rope, which they so often used in navigation, and which, made of cocoanut fibre, was accounted sacred in the islands. It is true that the Maoris call the canoe-spiral pitau, evidently from the tree-fern frond. But their metaphors and analogies do not carry one far towards the origin of their implements or customs, and they are not much more fitted to give an accurate explanation of a phenomenon that is prehistoric than the Wiltshire gentleman or scholar or peasant is to explain the origin of Stonehenge.

The Human Figures in the Canoe Ornamentation
are unstoried

(3) As for the figures that adorn the bow and stern pieces, the two that look into the canoe are evidently guardian, perhaps ancestral, images; the huaki, in the bow, generally in a contemplative attitude, the puhi-kai-ariki, in the stern, being in an attitude of energy, as if engaged in propelling the ship, often puffing his cheeks. The tete, or figurehead, even though evidently, from its legs and high head and protruding tongue, in its origin a human figure, has, with its arms thrown back like wings, and its sharp tongue, taking on the semblance page 193of a beak, come to be more like a sea bird preparing to rise from the water. The transformation is probably deliberate; for the great god of the Easter Islanders, Mekemeke, is a composite of bird and man, or sometimes bird and turtle. The prostrate figure under the two spirals is said to be Maui, a most appropriate symbol for a far-voyaging canoe. Then there is an elaborate coil-ornamentation under the boarding or deck on which Maui lies; and in most cases the snake-like intercoiling has a monstrous head, with two long tusks, or tubes, bending out from the mouth, as in the marakihau of some east coast carved houses. It is evidently a taniwha, or sea monster, probably a composite of a walrus and a sea-snake. The two tusk-like mid-ribs that form the core of the high stern-carving seem also a reminiscence of the walrus. They are generally carved on their surfaces, and in most the bent point of the smaller one is held either by an arm manifestly exerting force, or by a twisted rope-bight or by a hook. These seem to point either to some mythical mastery of a tusked sea animal or to methods of catching it.

(4) There ought to be legends connected with each of these figures, as there are about almost every item of the important Maori implements and arts and customs; but none have been reported. It looks much as if their origin had been submerged in the submersion of the lore of the aboriginals that were mastered or absorbed. Had these carvings been pure Polynesian, it would have been the duty of the priests in wharekura, if not of the artists themselves, to hand on the legendary story of their origin. The great carved war canoes were a specialty of the east coast tribes, and were traded off to other tribes. And the east coast is that region which, according to tradition, absorbed most of the aboriginal blood. The carving families of the natives were evidently, taken over by the Polynesian immigrants. And as usual the legends of the new-comers and aristocrats page 194obliterated those of the absorbed tribes. There was no human blood spilt to celebrate either the beginning or the completion of these works of art, as there was at the founding of a great house or the launching of a great canoe or even at the tattooing of a chief's daughter. And this again seems to point to some racial difference between the origin of this art of maritime carving and that of the mere art of canoe-building.

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.

Ancestor-worship and the Sense of the Supernatural
inspire it

(7) There is at the bottom of this luxuriance of terrific figures the idea of ancestor-worship. For there was great confusion in the native mind as to the destiny and character of the spirits of their relatives and friends, arising from page 196the coalescence of different racial beliefs as to the world and the life beyond death. In the midst of it there was the constant, steady belief that the dead were conscious of, if not present in, the domestic and other life of their descendants. And, as in all primitive religions, propitiation mingled in a singular way with terror and shrinking. Both feelings seem to find scope in these carved goblins. And over and above the spirits of ancestors and friends, to conciliate or drive off, there was a special class of mischievous demons to guard against in the housethe spirits of the unborn, who tried to take revenge on the living for the wrong done them in having died before birth. The Maoris were afraid of the doings of these; and doubtless their neck ornament, their much-prized heirloom, the hei-tiki, that in its semi-human, sometimes chaotic, outlines, head thrown on the shoulder, and limbs crowded together, suggests a stage in the development of the human embryo, was worn as an amulet to keep off these evil spirits.

(8) As a rule their house-carving has an ancient under-world significance, only now and again the more abstract gods being introduced, as for example the deities of singing, dancing, and oratory in one lintel. It is quite different with their kumetes and their carved boxes; they are often supported by two human figures; and in carving these not only do the artists show keen humour, but also a fine appreciation of truth to nature and human anatomy. The kumete in the Auckland Museum, with the wrestlers stretching over it, could not have been better done by the best European art-schools. In the house-carving there is no animal figure introduced that is not composite or monstrous, a bird-headed snake or a snake-headed lizard. These taniwhas, or chimeras, are evidently meant by their monstrosity to suggest the supernatural. But there is no hint of the dog or the rat, with which the Polynesians were so long familiar, although they page 197believed that the dog went to their Hades, albeit by a separate route. There may be a reminiscence of a domestic fowl, which many of the islanders had before the six canoes left in the bird-head of some of their monsters; but it is more likely to be a reminiscence of the moa, or of the immense bird of prey, the pouaka, of South Island legend; or, still more likely, a relic of that composite bird-headed divinity, which we meet in Easter Island, and which must have been common at one time to all the islands.

(9) And here that perennial problemthe three-fingered hand of the old carved figuresmight perhaps find a solution. In almost all cases the three fingers are widely separated, like the claws of a bird, and in a carving from the front of a foodstore in the Auckland Museum in which the central goblinesque figure is threatened by the bird-headed chimeras, it is difficult to distinguish the hand of the human figure from the claws of the monsters; that to the right has actually four fingers to its claw, and the hand of the human figure has on the point of what would be the middle finger in a man's hand a spur, or backward projection, a feature that appears in the hands of many of those monstrous images, though occasionally on the little finger. In most of the carved human monsters there is really a fourth finger, or rather spur, concealed on the other side of the weapon or limb grasped; the point of it often appears. It is possible that this claw-like appendage may be meant, like the wings sometimes set on the shoulders of our saints and spirits, to indicate that death has given to the dead something of the bird in its power of transit through the material world; it may suggest, like the bird's heads of the taniwhas, an element and a power that are beyond ordinary nature and beyond the human. Certainly the three fingers were considered by the old carvers a sacred essential, to depart from which seemed to them sacrilege.

page 198

Their Stone-carving is Elementary

(10) Taken as a whole, their carved woodwork forms a marvellous contrast to their carving in stone. This may be partly accounted for by the hardness of the greenstone, in which they usually worked, and the inefficiency of their tools. But when they turned to softer stone it was just the same: their imagination had its wings clipped, and except in the heitiki they refrained, as a rule, from all ornamentation; their meres were severely simple, and so, also, were their pendants for either the ear or the neck, even when made out of steatite. It looks as if the ancient stoneworkers, who spread out over the Pacific in early times, took but a feeble hold on life in New Zealand. And yet there are isolated specimens of finer work. Mr. Augustus Hamilton, the director of the Colonial Museum, has in his possession a piece of stonework found in New Zealand that is exquisite in its cameo-like carving. It looks like the handle of a stone dagger, with insect-like figures, probably meant for spirits returned from the under-world, delicately carved, partly on the outer curve of the handle whorls, partly on the body.

(11) And if this be taken along with the little stone bust, with half-simian face, found in the Marlborough Sounds, the tattooed faces cut on boulders near Kawhia, the black stone whorls sometimes found, and unexplained by the Maoris, the korotangi, or steatite petrel, and several carved steatite dishes, it seems to indicate a fitful effort towards the development of the art of stone-carving. The red-pottery-like bust, also found in the Marlborough Sounds, may indicate a feeble effort in the same way of an artistic pottery people from the coast of South America, where the art of making human faces and busts in pottery reached a high pitch, and there is a curious confirmation of this hint in Maori cosmogony, provided it is not tainted by the story in Genesis; in all the Maori versions of page 199the creation of man and womanand there are severalTane moulds them like a potter, generally out of red clay. It would have been much more natural for a wood-carving people to sculpture out of wood the mould into which life was to be breathed. It looks, indeed, as if the racial element that contributed the story of the creation of Tiki to Maori cosmogony had the art of making terra-cotta human figures. That man is made out of red clay, and not of earth, gives the story a native unbiblical air.

The Designs on Baskets and Mats are Poor

(12) Had the beginnings of this art of pottery flourished in New Zealand, instead of dying out, we might have had a development of designing in basketry and mat-making equal to that in tattooing and wood-carving, for pottery arises from basketry through smearing the baskets with clay for cooking, and then, in its greater freedom of ornament, it reacts upon the designs of baskets and mats. Compared with the designs of the American Indian textiles, those of the Polynesians are poor, both in quality and in variety; for they make no use of the spiral or scroll work that is so conspicuous in the tattooing and carving of the Maori. They use nothing but angular and linear patterns on their mats, their fans, their baskets, and their tapa. In fact, all the dyed designs of their tapa are manifestly taken from textiles, and those stiff checkers and lines and combinations of straight, horizontal and vertical lines that predominate in the islands were evidently taken with the six canoes to New Zealand. The feather-mat work was as clearly Polynesian in origin, for it never admits anything but the straight-line geometrical patterns, though it allows of a greater variety of colour than the textile brown, white and black, because of the greater variety in bird-colouring. The furthest the taniko, or border-pattern, goes, in the way of freedom, is the combination of two squares or two or more triangles page 200laid angle to angle. Two other facts seem to indicate that this designing in mats and ketes and the borders of mats was not derived from the pre-Polynesians; it was the one department of weaving in which men took part, and the making of the red or brown dye at least was sacred. The lattice-work panelling of the carved houses has not much more freedom of design. Occasionally there is a departure from the straight-line patterns, and a monstrous human figure is brought out; but it is stiff in its outlines.

There is more Freedom in the Rafter-paintings

(13) We are in a different world when we look up to the roof and see the designs painted on the rafters and the cornice. The colouring is as monotonous, black and red on the white ground of the wood; but in the designs the artists revel in the curve, the spiral and the scroll. The nearest approach they ever make to the straight line is the design in which long bird-beaks seem to interlock, probably the same as that which Professor Haddon found in the south-east of New Guinea developed from the beak of the frigate-bird. A few are clearly conventionalised from the grinning mouths of the images or from sharks' mouths. The design supposed to be taken from the maungapare or hammer-headed shark, with its involution and interlocking of curves, has certainly departed far from its model. That which is said to represent the patiki or flounder it needs a smaller stretch of imagination to see the origin of. We have little need of ingenuity to find the motif of those that represent the forest world, as for example those that imitate the flower of the scarlet kowhai. By far the larger number clearly draw their inspiration from the leaves of various trees and bushes. In many of them the leaf is not disguised in the least, just as in many of the old tattooing patterns. The artists evidently found most of their designs where they found their timber. They were page 201worshippers of Tane, the god of forests. And a confirmation of this appears on the rafters of the carved house at Matatua, in the Urewera country. Crudely but vigorously drawn, as if by a beginner of talent, there is the picture of a tree with a man snaring birds on it. The rock-paintings found especially in South Island caves and gorges of rivers are not on so high a level as the Esquimaux or American Indian picture-language. They are probably but the marks or signatures of pilgrims or travellers as they took shelter.

(14) It is strange that in such scenery and with such consummate art-sense there is no nearer approach to the landscape. But the crudeness or absence of landscape is a feature of all European painting, too, till less than three centuries ago. There was not the eye to take in the scene as a whole, however much its colour or individual detail might impress the sensuous imagination.

(15) If the New Zealand art of sculpture and designwhat might be called static artbe taken as a whole, it must be placed very high in the scale of culture, and form a complete contrast to many features of the Polynesian life. It is a development of neolithic or conventionalised art, and not of palaeolithic art, or art that copies nature. And thus it is that, though there is nothing Mongoloid in it, it comes nearer to the art of Japan than to that of any other country bordering on the Pacific. And when only an ocean intervenes, and all the races that lived in New Zealand must have been maritime and far-voyaging, we cannot well hesitate as to there having been some common racial source for the two. The Japanese must have absorbed much of the race that they drove off southwards, and absorbed with them not only their maritime habit, but their artistic habit. The difference between the two is partly to be accounted for by the dominance of Chinese influence afterwards on Japan, and the importance of South Asiatic influence on New Zealand.