Bone carving, New Zealand: Hei Matau

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Hei Matau (photo TNZ Tourism New Zealand)
Hei Matau (photo TNZ Tourism New Zealand)

Carved bone pendants

Maori bone artwork is soft and warm to touch, yet the finish is like polished glass. Over a period of time, the carving absorbs oils from your skin and changes color to a very light honey gold. The Maori believe this means the carving is taking on some of your spirituality and essence.

Hei Mataua symbol representing a fish hook – is a sign of respect for the sea and its creatures. It is also worn as a good luck charm, providing protection and safety while travelling over water. It also represents health, leadership, determination, strength, fertility, and prosperity for the Maori people – the meaning originates from a legend that tells the story about a fisherman who once fished solely with hooks carved from bone and who caught the biggest fishes.

Originally the pendants were carved out of whale bones but nowadays cattle bone is the most common material used. When buying a pendant make sure that it is actually carved and not mass-manufactured in e.g. China where pendants are reproduced with bone paste. New Zealanders mostly oppose these imports but can’t do much against it.

Different shapes and symbols: different meanings

There are several shapes with a certain meaning. As mentioned the fish hook (hei matau) is the most traditional and popular one but others have also a strong meaning to the Maori people: a twisted crossover design means friendship and binding to people to each other. A Spiral means a new beginning, growth and always harmony.

Almost all tourist shops offer those pendants but you’ll find them also in jewelry stores. Other materials are offered as well: gemstones or metal.