Lucky charm and Maori symbol: in-depth study

Māori symbols are an art form typical of New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.

Understanding their meaning and symbolism is absolutely essential if we want to better understand the people from whom they come.

With use dating back thousands of years, Maori symbols offer us tremendous information about tribal cultures which, having not used writing, have left us few traces.

Between ancestral belief system, history of warlike peoples and colonization of the Pacific, the Maori symbol is undoubtedly a most fascinating subject of study.

In fact, these lucky charms teach us the past (necessarily), the present (because they are still used) and the future (through the prophetic aspect of some).

In this article, we will discuss the culture of the Maori people, some of the most important myths and ideas that reside within them, and finally, a modern expression of the phenomenon through the art of tattooing.

Contents :

Origin of the phenomenon

Maori jewelry: a unique craft in the world!

Main Maori symbols

The meaning of a Maori tattoo

A Maori fisherman's pendant, a Polynesian ring and a lucky tiki charm

The force of the sea

with lucky charms from Polynesia


Origin of the phenomenon

Like many primitive peoples, Pacific Māori primarily passed down their heritage orally, through stories told from generation to generation.

As their culture developed, they sought to inscribe their ancestral legends in a more lasting way.

The bone and wood sculptures of the early days were quickly no longer sufficient. It was then that the particularity of this people was expressed.

Where most civilizations developed an alphabet and a written language, these island populations developed another means of expressing their thoughts: the Maori symbol.

The use of symbols has therefore been part of Maori art since its earliest origins.

Hundreds of years ago, they were used to evoke stories of heroes of the past, creation myths and key information about the creation of different tribes.

Knowing the Maori symbols and lucky charms is therefore a necessity if we want to be able to understand what drives this people. As such, our collection dedicated to Polynesian cultures is one of the most popular on our site.

In short, even before the peoples of the islands developed a writing system, these symbols were already present in art to ensure the transmission of tradition and customs between generations.

Whether painted, tattooed or carved, each Maori symbol therefore had a strong meaning and some of the most complex could contain as much information as a sentence written in a “modern” language.

In reality, the way they were drawn, their orientation, the choice of associations between symbols, their respective sizes: all of this carried a very precise meaning which could carry complex information and ideas.

Knowing how to arrange symbols in the right way was therefore undoubtedly a complex art.

Those who mastered it generally occupied important positions in the tribes, their function being in certain aspects comparable to that of the scribes of Antiquity.

Some even believed that the most talented artists received their gifts from the gods themselves. They were then revered and their advice was listened to like that of great sages.

Thanks to this religious character (and undoubtedly also to the great love of the Maori for their roots), the Maori symbol is an area whose original meaning we can still know.

Even if it was largely oral, there was transmission.

Finely crafted and chiselled Maori gold jewelry.

Maori jewelry: a unique craft in the world!

As we have just mentioned, many of the shapes and designs used are not chosen at random or solely for their visual beauty.

They actually tell a whole bunch of stories, ranging from the creation of a family or a tribe to the most ancient legends, including warrior exploits carried out during great battles.

Thus, by the meaning they carry, Maori jewelry is often considered “taonga”, real treasures as precious as kings’ crowns. Often, these jewels are made of precious materials such as amber, gold or silver.

Jade in particular was very popular for clothing because of its marine reflections and its great strength.

This solidity, however, carries with it a major constraint: to shape the jade, many hours of work are required of the craftsman.

In short, these jewels are very precious. It is therefore not uncommon to see in a family a Maori pendant passed down for generations, each adding a precious stone here, a gilding there.

Thus, in addition to representing the history of the family, this type of Maori jewelry indicates the desire to pass on an increasingly important heritage to future generations. Thus, each model has a different and unique history and meaning.

From the point of view of their use, these jewels are, as we have seen, considered real treasures. Others are even used as religious objects, as the Maori consider them to possess part of the powers of elders and lineage.

This or that Maori pendant can therefore be reputed to contain the spirit of illustrious chiefs or great warriors who wore it before.

This type of belief is undoubtedly linked to tribal animism (an idea according to which objects can possess a soul, or at least something close to it).

Thus, more than a treasure and more than a symbol of heritage, a Maori jewel becomes a magical object forming the spiritual link between generations of the same family or tribe.

Worn for centuries with this in mind, the value of this type of Maori symbol is then no longer precious but downright priceless.

Maori warrior doing a war dance aimed at frightening his enemies.

Main Maori symbols

All this shows us that the Maori had immense respect for the elders and the notion of transmission.

While a whole bunch of their legends speak of the creation of the world or the first men, a significant number relate the exploits of notable ancestors.

Besides this, there is another subject that occupies a dominant place in Māori mythology : nature.

Like most primitive peoples, the Maoris indeed show great respect, even intense love, for the lands and seas that they have traveled for centuries.

So many of their stories revolve around the spirit of a particular river, or the genesis of a particular sacred mountain.

When we step back, we can also see that Maori mythology forms a complex whole, a big whole made up of small stories and legends which, put side by side, offer us a poetic and pictorial vision of the world.

The meaning of the different symbols that we are going to present to you may vary from one region to another, but the basis remains common.

We will therefore not attempt to go into details here but rather to present general ideas.

In short, here is the meaning of seven of the most common Maori lucky symbols.

Spiral-shaped shoot of a Pacific fern.

Maori symbol n°1: the koru

Main qualities of this Maori lucky charm:

  • Renaissance
  • Youth
  • Development

In Pacific cultures, koru is used to represent new beginnings, growth and regeneration.

Koru is the Maori word for a “loop” but also “fern”. Its spiral-shaped design also represents the growth of this plant.

Through the circular movement that it makes throughout its growth, this plant has been associated with the hope of development, departures towards a new life and towards the unknown.

When it is small the fern is folded on itself. As it grows and develops, it opens to the world to capture the light and humidity that gives it life.

A famous New Zealand proverb supports this: “As one fern dies, another is born to take its place.”

Thus, the koru symbol is also a reflection of the spirit of youth and renewal and, by extension, the personal development that accompanies taking on new challenges.

Through this link with youth and learning, this Maori lucky charm also serves as a symbol of the education provided by the family.

Maori twist, also called pikorua, made of bone mounted as a pendant.

Maori symbol n°2: the pikorua

Main qualities of this Maori lucky charm:

  • Relationships
  • Loyalty
  • Friendship

The simple Maori twist, or pikorua as the locals call it, is a symbol that symbolizes the life paths of two people who cross and uncross over time. Thus, it represents the strong bond that can unite two beings.

Furthermore, the two branches of the pikorua do not have distinct ends. This shows us the incredible loyalty that can exist in certain relationships.

Pikorua actually shows us the natural ebbs and flows that can occur in a relationship without the bond being broken.

More than just relationships between individuals, this Maori symbol has sometimes also been used to show the links between tribes and communities.

In the past, when food and resources were sometimes scarce, these expressions of friendship were an important means of negotiation and offering a richly decorated pikorua could help ease certain tensions.

This lucky charm therefore represents the strength and beauty of a lasting friendship and of individuals whose paths intertwine. It thereby inspires the importance of community life.

Because its infinite character also applies to the relationships with which it is associated, the pikorua is a perfect gift for lovers, newlyweds, engaged couples or anyone who wishes to highlight their unique connection.

Maori toki pendant made of blue stone worn on a man's neck.

Maori symbol n°3: the toki

Main qualities of this Maori lucky charm:

  • Strength
  • Authority
  • Solidity

In traditional Maori society, toki were used as tools and were not originally intended as jewelry.

There are imposing models, with thick and vulgarly cut blades. Others, on the other hand, are finer and rich ornaments decorate them.

The former in fact had a purely practical aspect of cutting wood, while the latter were only handled by powerful tribal chiefs during sacred rituals.

Because its blade had to be strong so that it would not break on contact with wood or stone, the toki is associated with strength and solidity.

Thus, only the strongest men of the tribe could wield this tool effectively. Thanks to him, the Maoris of New Zealand knew how to dig their canoes, build their houses and sometimes even defend themselves.

When it was used as a Maori pendant, the toki was logically associated with the strength of warriors, the authority of chiefs and the solidity of its blade.

These are definitely traits that we would like to see shine in our home. It is precisely for this reason that many choose to wear this Maori toki pendant.

Wooden pendant carved in the shape of a manaia, a Maori mythological creature.

Maori symbol n°4: the manaia

Main qualities of this Maori lucky charm:

  • Communication
  • Guide
  • Bridge between the world of the dead and that of the living

The Maori people have many myths that explain the creation of the earth and the many islands that cover it.

In particular, there is a story that shows us the importance of manaia... which we are going to tell you.

According to legend, the men of an ancient fishing tribe were one day caught in a storm so terrible that everyone perished. Shortly after, a monstrous creature appeared in the village with the firm intention of devouring women and children.

It was then that the manaia came into play: he resurrected the men in a spectral form so that they could defend their own one last time. The village was saved, the manaia then returned from where it had come... just like the souls of the warriors.

Thus, the manaia is considered a kind of deity that protects people and helps them communicate with their ancestors. Physically, this mythical creature is made up of a bird's head, a human body and a fish's tail.

Added to this is an aura, a sort of invisible light, which would allow him to travel between the world of the living, that of the gods and that of the dead.

Thus, the manaia occupies the role of messengers between these worlds. In Maori culture, it is considered a powerful bringer of omens, an intermediary between man and spirits. When one of their number dies, the Maori also consider that it is the Manaia which carries their soul to the afterlife.

Legendary Maori fish hook known as "hei matau" in jewelry form.

Maori symbol n°5: the hei matau

Main qualities of this Maori lucky charm:

  • Prosperity
  • Abundance
  • Security

While with some lucky charms you shouldn't rely too much on their appearance, that's not the case with this one. The hei matau symbol represents a fish hook.

Given the particular geographical location of these peoples, fishing is a major, if not the main, source of food for them. Thus, the hei matau represents food security, or even abundance.

In fact, a good catch was synonymous with a prosperous village, while a bad one could mean future famine and great disasters.

Among all the hooks, that of the hei matau takes on additional significance.

Much of Maori mythology is based on the sea, and more particularly on the epic tale of those who sailed there to colonize the various islands in the region.

The Maori notably crossed the Pacific Ocean to find New Zealand (Aotearoa in the local language) in sailing canoes, fishing to survive during these long and dangerous journeys.

Legend actually has it that a long time ago, a huge fish was caught by a great sailor named Maui. With the help of Tangaroa (the god of waters and fishermen), he managed to hook it out of the water using a magic hook known as hei matau.

The back of this gigantic beast defeated for the brave would correspond to nothing more and nothing less than… New Zealand.

On this land (or this fish if you believe the legend), men were able to prosper and live in peace for centuries.

Thus, the hei matau is a Maori symbol synonymous with enormous willpower, prosperity and assured abundance for the future.

Small humanoid hei tiki statue made of jade.

Maori symbol n°6: the hei tiki

Main qualities of this Maori lucky charm:

  • Fertility
  • Life
  • Creation

The hei tiki is a very ancient symbol and, although it is undoubtedly the best known and most iconic, it is by far the least understood.

Often, tourists who visit the Maori tribes think that it is a simple totem of some deity. The reality is different.

In fact, the hei tiki corresponds to the first man to have set foot on the earth. Some tales say it comes from the stars. Others suggest instead that it was a creative divinity who gave birth to him from mud and seawater.

In any case, the hei tiki is indeed the equivalent of our Christian Adam. Thus, the Maori symbol associated with it is synonymous with fertility and the creation of life.

The strange position in which he is often shown, with his hands placed against his waist, actually corresponds to a position that Pacific peoples associate with fertility.

For some, a raised finger is an insult. For others, hands placed on the lower back are a sign of good health. Everyone has their own customs after all.

Pacific tribal mask believed to represent an illustrious ancestor.

Maori symbol n°7: wheku

Main qualities of this Maori lucky charm:

  • Respect to elders
  • Legacy
  • Culture

The wheku symbol, which literally means “carved face”, represents the face of a tipuna (ancestor).

Often, this type of sculpture is found at the top of the walls of traditional Maori houses. More than a simple decoration, the wheku often represents a founding member of the community who marked history with his courage and his exploits.

After the death of this type of individual, the name of the tribe sometimes changes to his, and wheku bearing his image are hung on the walls of homes.

So, each wheku is different and tells us a unique story. This therefore makes them irreplaceable and makes these Maori lucky charms very valuable goods.

On a financial level, collectors sometimes buy them for crazy sums. Historically, the legends they tell us allow us to better retrace the history of men. Culturally, wheku often crystallize the soul of an entire community.

Old woman of Maori origin with cultural tattoos on her face.

The meaning of a Maori tattoo

The Maori are therefore indigenous peoples originating from New Zealand whose history, culture and traditions are exceptionally rich. Their symbols are remarkable and the meanings behind them teach us great life lessons.

Among all their art forms, there is one that has stood out from the others: moko, more commonly called Maori tattoo.

Just to understand what we're talking about, here are hundreds of examples of Maori tattoos, each more symbolic than the last.

Young man who got Maori tattoos, white on one side and black on the other.

Maori tattoo: complex and deep

More than simple designs made on the skin, these tattoos take on a truly sacred character. While many Westerners decide to get them for their beauty, forgetting the true meaning of a Maori tattoo would be missing the point.

In particular, the Maori consider the head to be the seat of the soul, and therefore this part is the most sacred of the entire body.

Thus, the facial tattoo is the most meaningful. Such a curve will tell of an exploit that man accomplished, while another motif will recall the life of a great elder.

A little advice: don't get Maori tattoos on your face that you haven't previously deserved and then go strutting around in the middle of a small village, the locals will really (really) take it badly...

Additionally, tattooing was (and for some still is) a rite of passage. Thus, in certain regions it remains a very ritualized event in which we can participate only after a long initiation rite.

For indigenous people, the first Māori tattoo is usually done in their mid-adolescence. At each stage or important moment in the individual's life, others were added gradually.

The skin of the old men then ends up being covered with symbols, thereby creating a magnificent fresco comparable to the greatest works of art.

So, as every life is different, no two people will have the same Maori tattoos. If only because of the variations in local shapes (almost each village having its own way of drawing symbols), your tattoo will certainly be unique.

Due to their age-old tradition and the deep anchoring of this tradition in their culture, Maori tattooing is considered one of the most accomplished, most beautiful and most complex in the world.

Traditional tattoo artists (called tohunga ta moko) are often true virtuosos whose artistic talent, highly prized, is sometimes very expensive.

Warrior in traditional clothing whose body is covered with Maori symbols in the form of tattoos.

The original tattoo legend

We can find meaning in Maori tattoo through many tales and legends. There is one, however, that stands out from the others. It's called the legend of Mataora.

One day, a young warrior named Mataora fell in love with Niwareka, the princess of the underworld. He then went underground to ask his sweetheart to marry him. She accepted, and the two engaged couples came to earth to live out their love.

However, Mataora mistreated Niwareka, so she decided to return to the world she came from. Taken by remorse and guilt, he followed his wife to hell only to be greeted with laughter and mockery.

Indeed, the young man had an immaculate face, while it was customary in the other world to paint one's face to mark one's rank, one's social status and, more broadly, one's power.

It didn't matter to him, Mataora had come to win back his bride. He then apologized to his wife's family who forgave him. So that he would not have to endure more jokes, they also taught him the art of ta moko.

Once back in the world of the living, Mataora shared his new knowledge with other men.

According to this legend, Maori tattooing is closely linked to the underworld... This at least has the merit of offering us a different point of view on the question!

Leg completely tattooed with tribal motifs and symbols.

How is a traditional tattoo done?

Maori tattooing traditionally does not involve the use of needles, but rather knives and scissors made from shark teeth, sharpened bones or pointed stones.

The chisel, also called uhi, was either smooth or serrated. The different models were used depending on the pattern to be created or the skin type of the person being tattooed.

The inks used by the Maori were made from natural products. Burnt wood provided the black pigments, while brighter colors came from caterpillars or burnt gum mixed with animal fat.

Pigments, considered very precious substances, were stored in special containers called “oko”.

Nowadays, however, most of these traditions have been left aside, particularly because the pain of these tattoo techniques is far too strong.

If you want to get a Maori tattoo, you will only have to make an appointment as for any other type of service.

Serious tattoo artists will do their job twice. A first meeting will help you understand yourself better and discover the major events that have marked your life. Thus, certain Maori patterns and symbols will be assigned to you.

The second appointment will consist of the tattoo session itself (which can itself be spread over several days depending on the size of the work).

Black and white photo of a well-dressed man who has had Maori symbols tattooed on his face.

Actually, how did Maori tattoo art become so popular?

The art of Maori tattooing was introduced to New Zealand by the people previously inhabiting Eastern Polynesia. As we said at the beginning of this article, the Maori have only very recently begun to use writing.

Finding a precise date at the start of the phenomenon is therefore complicated to say the least. We can, however, say that the art of tattooing is at least several centuries old in this region of the world, if not thousands of years old.

In 1769, Captain James Cook arrived in New Zealand, discovering the intricate patterns that covered the skin of indigenous people.

They quickly became fascinated and the phenomenon intrigued them. Some scholars even say that the moment “tattoo” itself could come from the Polynesian language word “tatau”.

Very interested in the scope and meaning of Maori tattooing, the explorers decided to bring back examples to show their king.

You should know that at the time, the custom was to keep the heads of defeated enemies as a war trophy, a kind of symbol of power, conquest and military might.

European navigators decided to exchange some of these heads for firearms.

Soon, the tribes who had benefited from this exchange were attacking their neighbors for the sole purpose of obtaining tattooed heads, which could be exchanged for guns and more ammunition.

Traders then sold these heads to museums and wealthy private collectors in Europe and the Americas.

Eager to obtain as many weapons as possible, the Maoris decapitated slaves and sometimes even tattooed heads post-mortem, undoubtedly marking the beginning of the decadence of an art that was nevertheless ancestral.

As barbaric as it may seem, all this at least had the merit of establishing Maori tattooing as a global phenomenon, with the largest museums in the world proudly displaying tattooed heads, and of making their culture known.

It is undeniable that this “headhunt” (of which you will find a more detailed chronology here ) cost thousands of lives.

However, by putting the Maori people at the forefront, it offered a sort of protection to their civilization which, unlike many other primitive cultures, was able to resist as best they could a certain standardization resulting from colonization.

Lucky charms featured in this article:

Maori toki pendant

Maori toki pendant

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Maori tiki ring

Maori tiki ring

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author picture(Cyril Gendarme)

Discover the author: Cyril Gendarme

Cyril Gendarme is a writer whose website "The Lucky Door" ("La Porte Du Bonheur" in French, his native language) has become a reference in the field of esotericism. Born in Belgium, Cyril has been attracted to the mysteries of the world since he was a child. When his interest in occultism was awakened, a particular subject caught his attention: lucky charms.

After years of study and in-depth research on esoteric traditions from around the world, Cyril decided to share his knowledge with the public through the internet. In 2019, he launched "The Lucky Door," a website dedicated to exploring lucky charms, magical symbols, and esoteric arts.

The Lucky Door is much more than just a showcase for those curious about magic, divination, or tradition. It is the result of Cyril's passion for researching and understanding the mysteries of the universe. Every piece of information available on the site testifies to his dedication to sharing his knowledge of the most hidden symbols and their unique powers.

In addition to his online work, Cyril regularly organizes workshops and conferences in different countries. His presence on social media is also highly appreciated, where he offers personalized advice and happily answers questions from his community.