Te Wai Pounamu, the sacred stone of the Maori

Hei Tiki in jade (anthropomorphic pendant) from the Te Papa Tangarewa Museum in New Zealand.
KURA POUNAMU / MUSEUM OF NEW ZEALAND.
Hei Tiki in jade (anthropomorphic pendant) from the Te Papa Tangarewa Museum in New Zealand. KURA POUNAMU / MUSEUM OF NEW ZEALAND.

An exhibition at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris presents a selection of pieces of jade, the sacred green stone of the Maoris.

The gold of the Maori of New Zealand is a green stone: the Pounamu . Symbol of strength, prestige, it is at the heart of the culture of the inhabitants of Aotearoa , as they call this island of Oceania.

It is in these blocks of nephrite, bowenite or jade that the ancient Maori carved and polished their famous ornaments: the hei tiki , anthropomorphic pendants with eyes sometimes decorated with abalone, arms symbolizing the power of the chiefs. The latter are short-handled clubs that were held in hand during ceremonies and used to smash the skull of enemies during the fighting: many pieces from the collections of the Museum Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington.

A short-handed club, symbol of mana, that is, power and fame. © Kura Pounamu / Museum of New Zealand.
A short-handed club, symbol of mana, that is, power and fame. © Kura Pounamu / Museum of New Zealand.

The exhibition is covering several centuries and the visitor is invited to follow a course punctuated by 250 ancient or contemporary objects carved in these precious minerals.

„The wearing of a pounamu is an object of distinction,“ recalls Nicolas Garnier, anthropologist in charge of the Oceania collections at the Branly Museum. And in order for it to have value, it must be transmitted. This is done from generation to generation.

Te Rangi Topeora. A Maori dignitary wearing hei tiki photographed around 1860. © Kura Pounamu / Museum of New Zealand.
Te Rangi Topeora. A Maori dignitary wearing hei tiki photographed around 1860. © Kura Pounamu / Museum of New Zealand.

Maori culture has experienced a kind of renaissance in the 1970s, resulting in the revitalization of moko , traditional facial tattoos, ceremonial capes of vegetable fiber, and the importance of the newfound power of pounamu.