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Tiki History

Many people are familiar with tiki culture because of its widespread popularity as a decorating style. It is also the dominant style in many tropical tourist destinations. However, you may not realize that tiki culture actually has its roots in several different locations. Tiki culture as it is represented in America combines elements that are distinctly Hawaiian, Polynesian, Maori, and from Easter Island.

The Polynesian idea of the tiki is said to have originated in the Marquesas Islands. According to Polynesian mythology, tiki refers to a male figure. Sometimes tiki is identified as a first man. The word ‘tiki’ can also refer to a wooden or stone image of this male god. The tiki figures are said to represent either the ancestor or creator of humans. Other tiki gods represent other areas of life. Besides wooden tiki figures, tiki images are also carved onto bowls, canoe paddles, and other items. Typically, this tiki figure stands with hands clasped over its stomach, with a large flat nose, round eyes, and a wide mouth. One common thread between most tiki figures is that the face is very flat, and much taller in proportion to the body. The word ‘tiki’ comes to the English language from both the Marquesas Islands and from the Maori language spoken in New Zealand.

According to Maori legend, tiki figures represent ancestors using simplified forms of the human figure. Sometimes these small figures are worn around the neck for good luck. These pendants, usually made of greenstone, are called hei-tiki. Some believe that these represent not only the ancestors, but also the goddess of childbirth. For many Maori, the wearing of hei-tiki is a central part of their cultural identity. The word ‘tiki’ is usually used to refer to larger wooden statues. Larger forms are used to mark the boundaries of significant or sacred sites.

One such place where tiki figures are used to mark a significant site is Rapa Nui, on Easter Island. This famous example includes a ring of very tall, yet partially buried, stone figures. Moai were carved many centuries ago, and they have overly large heads like many tiki representations. They were carved by Polynesian colonizers of the island. However, it is important to note that these figures are not called ‘tiki’ in Rapanui, the language of Easter Island; they are actually called Moai. These Moai represent deified ancestors in a minimalist style that is related to tiki and related forms found in many island cultures.

Similarly, in the Cook Islands Tiki is the guardian of the entrance to the underworld. Islanders bring offerings as gifts when someone is dying. Tiki-related symbolism also appears in Hawaiian culture, where the name appears as Ki’i. There are several different Hawaiian versions to the story of tiki.

In the United States, tiki culture refers to a blending of all of these tiki forms, along with related island motifs. The island culture symbolized by the tiki first became popular in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and remains popular today.



Ezine Articles Expert Author
Rene Thompson,
Wednesday, January 28th