Greenstone Symbols in New Zealand Maori Culture

By | December 28, 2013

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Maori pendants or earrings, carved from beef or whale bone, or pounamu (also called greenstone or nephrite jade, a stone found only in New Zealand) make beautiful gifts or souvenirs of their country of origin.

They become even more meaningful, however, when the significance of the symbol involved is understood. There are several common symbols used in traditional carving, and each has its own set of meanings which can be combined into carvings with particular significance.


The tikiis one of the most well known Maori carvings, and has been mass reproduced for tourism, often in plastic and in other materials. It is a stylized version of a person, often female, usually with three fingers on each hand, a large head which is cocked to one side and large eyes (often set with abalone or paua shell).

There is little consensus on the true meaning of the tiki. Some say it is worn to help with fertility, or that the misshapen limbs of the tiki represent protection against similar deformities at birth. It is also said the tiki is an image of the first man, or represents ancestors in general, or a particular ancestor. Tiki are good luck charms and can also symbolize loyalty, knowledge, perception and strength.


The manaia is a carving of a creature with the head of a bird, the body of a man, and the tail of a fish, thus representing air, land and sea. Sometimes, only the bird head is used, but it is always depicted as fierce. The manaia is a guardian and a symbol of protection.

Fish Hook

The fish hook symbol, or Hei-Matau comes from the traditional Maori way of life, where fishing was simply a way of gathering food. It therefore represents prosperity, determination, leadership and good health, as well as safe journey over water.

Traditionally, some Maori carvings were made from human bone, and in Maori legend the North Island of New Zealand was fished from the sea by Maui (a demi-god), using a fish hook carved from the jawbone of his grandmother.


One of the most simple and ubiquitous of Maori symbols, the koru is the representation of new life. The shape is similar to that of a young, unfurled fern, a plant which is very common in New Zealand. A koru shaped carving symbolizes new life or beginnings, growth, peace and/or harmony. This shape is often seen in other Maori designs, such as moko (tattoos).

Single Twist

The Maori twist carving can be single, double or triple (or more). A single twist represents the path of life and eternity, and is similar to a figure eight. This can also be represented with a circle or a disk.

Double Twist

The carved double or triple Maori twist represents relationships between people, whether friendship, partnership, or the bonding of two cultures. Thus, it symbolizes friendship, loyalty, love, and respect.

Whale Tail

A carved tail is a symbol of the friendship that existed between whales, dolphins and the Maori who were often at sea. These sea mammals were considered protectors, especially against sharks. A tail represents strength and protection, especially for travelers.

Discover the True Significance of a Maori Carving

Any of these symbols might be combined, or may have a unique meaning to the artist who carved them. The best way to discover the deeper significance of the symbols in a carving is to buy locally, and ask the artists themselves.

Art is more meaningful when it has a history and a purpose, and the traditional symbols of Maori carvings ensure that any piece of pounamu or bone jewelery has plenty of both.

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