Each element has its own specific meaning and the way they are portrayed or combined is what gives a carving its own special character. The meanings of some elements vary from region to region but all share common roots.
Maori designs in particular have special significance. The pre-European Maori had no written language so tribal history and the stories of the gods were kept using many forms of fine arts and crafts ranging from basket and cloth weaving to complex wood, bone, shell and jade carving. These artifacts were then handed down through generations of tribal elders and became sacred objects or treasures Taonga, telling the history of a tribe and taking on the spirits of past great leaders and warriors who had worn them.
The Manaia is a mythological creature in Maori culture.The Manaia is usually depicted as having the head of a bird and the body of a man, though it is sometimes depicted as a bird, a serpent, or a human figure in profile. Other interpretations include a seahorse and a lizard. The Manaia is traditionally believed to be the messenger between the earthly world of mortals and the domain of the spirits, and its symbol is used as a guardian against evil. In this form, it is usually represented in a figure of eight shape, the upper half culminating in a bird like beak.
A hei matau is a bone or greenstone carving in the shape of a highly stylized fish hook typical of the Maori people of New Zealand. They represent strength, good luck and safe travel across water. The fish hook shape of the hei matau finds its origins in Maori legend, which holds that the North Island of New Zealand was once a huge fish that was caught by the great mariner Maui using only a woven line and a hook made from the jawbone of his grandmother. Legend holds that the shape of Hawke Bay is that of the hei matau, which caught in the fish’s side on the beach.
The hei-tiki is an ornamental pendant of the Maori which is worn around the neck. Hei-tiki are usually made of pounamu which is greenstone, and are considered a taonga (treasure). They are commonly referred to as tiki, a term that actually refers to large human figures carved in wood, and, also, the small wooden carvings used to mark sacred places.
The koru is a spiral shape based on the shape of a new unfurling silver fern frond and symbolizing new life, growth, strength and peace. The circular shape of the koru helps to convey the idea of perpetual movement while the inner coil suggests a return to the point of origin. It is an integral symbol in Maori art, carving and tattoos.