Polynesian languages & Tattoos

And how they give us a key to the Polynesian heritage

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Map of Polynesia

Polynesia is a subregion of Oceania, comprising of a large grouping of over 10,000 islands scattered over the central and southern Pacific Ocean, within a triangle that has New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island as its corners. The people who inhabit the islands of Polynesia are termed Polynesians and they share many similar traits including language, crafts and beliefs.

The study of all of these aspects, and lately the study of genetics, allowed scholars to trace the origins of Polynesian people and their expansion eastward throughout the whole Pacific Ocean, reaching the Americas, or eastward through the Indian Ocean reaching as far as Madagascar.

This knowledge allows us to shed some light upon Polynesian cultures and their beliefs: knowing that they all share a common origin helps seeing parallels between them and interpret traditions whose purpose has been forgotten on some of the islands but is still prominent on others.
Traditional tattooing never stopped in Samoa for example, whereas it was lost over a long period in Tahiti and great part of the Hawaiian islands.

We can consider all Polynesian languages as dialects of one single great Polynesian language, derived from the Malayo-Polynesian family, which extends from Madagascar to Hawaii, from New Zealand to Formosa, Studying its evolution helps tracing the path along which ancient navigators moved, confirmed by archeological findings and by surviving traditions like tattooing.

In particular, there are some words that are common to most parts of the Pacific, testifying their importance. Two of them are moana and mana: "ocean" and "authority, vital force".
In Hawaiian, moana as a verb can also be translated as "to worship", showing how vital the ocean was to the life of the people living along her shores, and the respect that they paid to her.

Another word that is common all over the Pacific, which is somehow related to tattooing as well, is whare in Maori language (wh is pronounced f), fare in Tahitian, fale in Samoan, hale in Hawaiian, etc. Considering that the transcription of the word is due to European and American explorers, and that the English, the Spanish and the French unfortunately adopted different conventions, we can note that the pronounciation is actually the same, or very close, for all of them.

No Polynesian dialect, for instance, makes any distinction between b and p, d and t, g and k, I and r, or v and w. Besides I is often sounded like d and t like k, which latter was unfortunately adopted in the written language of the Hawaiian Islands to represent the same element which is represented by t throughout the rest of Polynesia.

A Dictionary of the Hawaiian Language - Lorrin Andrews, 1865

The presence within tattoos of elements named after parts of the house (we find some called like rafters and beams in Samoan and Marquesan tattoos for example) links ancient tattoos to the community houses (the long meeting houses typical throughout Polynesia).
Maori meeting houses are representations of the founding ancestor of each tribe.
They incorporate painted and carved elements, and the same happens with Maori tattoos, where the facial tattoo, or moko, is carved into the skin while body tattoos are inked in the usual way. 

Samoan manta tattoo structure

This introduces one of the reading keys of Polynesian tattoos: the relation between heritage, origins and power.
Having tattoos that relate to the ancestors and include references to them channels their mana, their energy, from them to the bearer of the tattoo, as a connection through the ages.
Elements like gourds in Marquesan tattooing serve this purpose of collecting and forwarding this energy and the authority it gives.

Marquesan feo'o compass tattoo

Understanding the Polynesian way of navigating the ocean also gives a great insight into the Polynesian cultural beliefs and on the representations of ancestors within tattoos: in order to sail the immense oceanic distances, navigators elaborated a way of interpreting the stars, the sea currents and all sorts of natural observations in order to safely go on such voyages without modern instrumentations. These techniques are known today as wayfinding and they comprise several sets of stars to be followed along with other references. To know which stars should be followed to reach a specific destinations, it was also necessary to know the starting point of each voyage.

Navigators knew their way on the ocean because they  always knew very clearly where they came from and where they were at during each stage of their voyages. Knowing the origin, the path traveled, and the surrounding environment were the keys to reaching the destination. In a similar way, a community must remember its origins and history to avoid losing its identity.

Knowing our origins, and honoring them, helps us find our place in the world. It means to honor the  achievements of our ancestors, committing to doing our best to uphold their example. It means receiving strength from our roots, for the whole plant, the whole family to prosper. Tattooing is important in this sense, as a constant reminder of our course through life.

Books about Polynesian Tattoos

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