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Hinepare, a woman of the Ngati Kahungunu tribe, wearing a hei-tiki Hinepare.jpg
Hinepare, a woman of the Ngāti Kahungunu tribe, wearing a hei-tiki
Hei-tiki; circa 18th century; nephrite and haliotis shell; height: 10.9 cm (4
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1/4 in.); from New Zealand; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (USA) Pendanr (hei-tiki) LACMA M.71.73.156 (1 of 2).jpg
Hei-tiki; circa 18th century; nephrite and haliotis shell; height: 10.9 cm (414 in.); from New Zealand; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (USA)

The hei-tiki ( /hˈtɪki/ ) [1] is an ornamental pendant of the Māori of New Zealand. Hei-tiki are usually made of pounamu (greenstone), and are considered a taonga (treasure) by Māori. They are commonly called tiki by New Zealanders, a term that originally refers to large human figures carved in wood and to the small wooden carvings used to mark sacred places. (The word hei in Māori can mean "to wear around the neck".)


Retailers sell tourist versions of hei-tiki throughout New Zealand—these can be made from jade, other types of stone, plastic, or other materials.

Origins and materials

One theory of the origin of the hei-tiki suggests a connection with Tiki, the first man in Māori legend. According to Horatio Gordon Robley, there are two main ideas behind the symbolism of hei-tiki: they are either memorials to ancestors, or represent the goddess of childbirth, Hineteiwaiwa. The rationale behind the first theory is that they were often buried when their kaitiaki (guardian) died and retrieved later to be placed somewhere special and brought out in times of tangihanga (mourning and associated activities). Because of the connection with Hineteiwaiwa, hei-tiki were often given to a woman by her husband's family if she was having trouble conceiving.

Robley, author of A History of the Maori Tiki, suggested a similarity of some tiki to images of Buddha, which were often fashioned in green jade. He believed they may have been a forgotten memory of these, in debased form.

The most valuable hei-tiki are carved from pounamu which is either nephrite or bowenite (Māori: tangiwai). Pounamu is esteemed highly by Māori for its beauty, toughness and great hardness; it is used not only for ornaments such as hei-tiki and ear pendants, but also for carving tools, adzes and weapons. Named varieties include translucent green kahurangi, whitish inanga, semi-transparent kawakawa, and tangiwai or bowenite.

A 2014 thesis by Dougal Austin supervised by Peter Adds, based on a survey of the collection of hei-tiki at Te Papa Tongarewa and early-contact examples in foreign collections, found that the mana of hei tiki is derived from the "agency of prolonged ancestral use" and stylistically was "highly developed ... from the outset to conform to adze-shaped pieces of pounamu." [2]

Examples of hei-tiki are found in museum collections around the world. The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (over 200) and the British Museum (about 50) have two of the largest collections, many of which were exchanged or gifted to European travellers and sailors at the earliest point of contact between the two cultures. [3] [4]


Traditionally there were several types of hei-tiki which varied widely in form. Modern-day hei-tiki, however, may be divided into two types. The first type is rather delicate with a head/body ratio of approximately 30/70 and small details such as ears, elbows and knees. The head is on a tilt, with one hand placed on the thigh, and the other on the chest. The eyes are relatively small. The second type is generally heavier than the first. It has a 40/60 head/body ratio, both hands are on the thighs, and the eyes are proportionately larger.


From the size and style of traditional examples of hei-tiki, it is likely that the stone was first cut in the form of a small adze. The tilted head of the pitau variety of hei-tiki derives from the properties of the stone - its hardness and great value make it important to minimize the amount of the stone that has to be removed. Creating a hei-tiki with traditional methods is a long, arduous process during which the stone is smoothed by abrasive rubbing; finally, using sticks and water, it is slowly shaped and the holes bored out. After laborious and lengthy polishing, the completed pendant is suspended by a plaited cord and secured by a loop and toggle.

Pounamu (greenstone) hei tiki ornamented with paua (abalone) shell and pigments, 1500-1850. MAP Expo Maori Hei tiki 15 01 2012 1.jpg
Pounamu (greenstone) hei tiki ornamented with paua (abalone) shell and pigments, 1500-1850.

Current popularity

Among the other taonga (treasured possessions) used as items of personal adornment are bone carvings in the form of earrings or necklaces. For many Māori the wearing of such items relates to Māori cultural identity. They are also popular with young New Zealanders of all backgrounds for whom the pendants relate to a more generalized sense of New Zealand identity. Several artistic collectives have been established by Māori tribal groups. These collectives have begun creating and exporting jewellery (such as bone carved pendants based on traditional fishhooks hei matau and other greenstone jewellery) and other artistic items (such as wood carvings and textiles). Several actors who have recently appeared in high-profile movies filmed in New Zealand have come back wearing such jewellery, including Viggo Mortensen of The Lord of the Rings fame who took to wearing a hei matau around his neck. These trends have contributed towards a worldwide interest in traditional Māori culture and arts such as Kiri Nathan including pounamu jewellery in her 2013 London Fashion Week exhibition.

The Captain of HMS New Zealand, a battle cruiser funded in 1911 by the government of New Zealand for the defence of the British Empire and which took an active part in three battles of the First World War, wore into battle a hei-tiki (as well as a piupiu, Māori warrior's skirt). The crew attributed to this the New Zealand being a "lucky ship" which sustained no casualties during the entire war.

Hei Tiki was released in 1935, with a NY Times review describing the plot as being about a "chieftain's daughter who is declared tabu and destined to be the bride of the war god", attributing the title to mean "love charm" (a Hei-tiki pendant interpretation). [5]

The crime writer Ngaio Marsh gives prominence to an amuletic hei-tiki (which she calls simply a tiki) in her 1937 novel Vintage Murder . She emphasises its aspect as a promoter of fertility.

See also

Related Research Articles

Jade Ornamental stone, commonly green

Jade is a mineral, much used in some cultures as jewellery and for ornaments, mostly known for its green varieties, though it appears naturally in other colors as well, notably yellow and white. Jade can refer to either of two different silicate minerals: nephrite, or jadeite.

Nephrite Variety of jade

Nephrite is a variety of the calcium, magnesium, and iron-rich amphibole minerals tremolite or actinolite (aggregates of which also make up one form of asbestos). The chemical formula for nephrite is Ca2(Mg, Fe)5Si8O22(OH)2. It is one of two different mineral species called jade. The other mineral species known as jade is jadeite, which is a variety of pyroxene. While nephrite jade possesses mainly grays and greens (and occasionally yellows, browns or whites), jadeite jade, which is rarer, can also contain blacks, reds, pinks and violets. Nephrite jade is an ornamental stone used in carvings, beads, or cabochon cut gemstones. Nephrite is also the official state mineral of Wyoming.

Hei matau

A hei matau is a bone or greenstone carving in the shape of a highly stylised fish hook. They represent good luck and safe travel across water.

Mere (weapon)

The mere is a type of short, broad-bladed weapon in the shape of an enlarged tear drop. It was used to strike/jab an opponent in the body or the head, usually made from nephrite jade. A mere is one of the traditional, hand to hand, one-handed weapons of the indigenous Māori of New Zealand, and a symbol of chieftainship.


Bowenite is a hard, compact variety of the serpentinite species antigorite, (Mg3(OH)O4Si2O5). Classed as semi-precious gemstone it has been used for tools, weapons and jewellery by the Māori in New Zealand, and for jewellery by Fabergé. Deposits are found in several places around the world including Afghanistan, China, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States. It typically ranges in colour from dark green to light olive green, and in shades approaching yellow. Bowenite was named by James D. Dana in 1850 after George T. Bowen, who analyzed it in 1822.

Patu Club or pounder used by the Māori

A patu is a club or pounder used by the Māori. The word patu in the Māori language means to strike, hit, beat, kill or subdue.

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Theo Schoon New Zealand artist

Theodorus Johannes Schoon was a New Zealand artist, photographer and carver of Dutch descent.

Māori traditional textiles Indigenous textiles of the Māori people of New Zealand.

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Horatio Gordon Robley

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Waka huia

Waka huia and Papa hou are treasure containers made by Māori – the indigenous people of New Zealand. These treasure containers stored a person's most prized personal possessions, such as hei-tiki (pendants), feathers for decorating and dressing the hair such as the tail feathers of the huia, heru and other items of personal adornment. Waka huia and papa hou were imbued with the tapu (taboo) of their owners because the boxes contained personal items that regularly came into contact with the body, particularly the head.


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Manaia (mythological creature) mythological creature in Māori culture

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Peter Adds is Wellington-based academic, treaty negotiator and former head of Victoria University of Wellington's Te Kawa a Māui/School of Māori Studies. He is of Te Ati Awa descent. With a background in anthropology and archaeology, he has interests in Treaty of Waitangi settlements, indigenous astronomy, Māori development, and international indigenous issues.

Joe Sheehan is a stone artist and jeweller who works primarily in pounamu.

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Pounamu Hard, green minerals in New Zealand culture

Pounamu is a term for several types of hard and durable stone found in southern New Zealand. They are highly valued in New Zealand, and carvings made from pounamu play an important role in Māori culture.

Charles Eldon Fayne Robinson is a New Zealand Māori artist specialising in carving. Robinson has contributed to the carving of buildings on many marae in New Zealand as well as exhibiting his art in galleries and museums.


  1. "hei-tiki". Oxford Dictionaries UK English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. n.d. Retrieved 8 July 2018.
  2. Austin, Dougal Rex (2014). "Hei tiki: He whakamārama hōu". vuw.ac.nz. Retrieved 2019-04-12.
  3. MNZ-TPT Collection
  4. British Museum Collection
  5. "At the Globe". nytimes.com. Retrieved 3 March 2019.