Polynesian tattoo symbol: birds


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Polynesian tattoo symbol manu

Manu: (Panpolynesian) m. bird.

Manu is a common word in Polynesian languages to indicate birds.
Some specific representations have different names based on their characteristics and particular meaning.

Birds are an ever present symbol in Polynesian tattoos, enjoying a prominent role in many traditions throughout the whole Pacific Ocean.
It's easy to understand why if we think that the observation of the migratory routes of some birds like the golden plover and the arctic tern inspired Polynesian navigators to embark on the oceanic voyages of exploration that led them to discover every land scattered throughout the whole Pacific area, reaching north to the Hawaii and possibly Canada, south-west to New Zealand and south-east to Chile.

Birds are seen as messengers and emissaries of the gods, often having divine powers themselves.
In Samoa the golden plover is considered an ancestor of humans: when the world was still only water and darkness, the golden plover was flying over it on a journey to explore this new world, until he got tired and asked for a place to rest. Tagaloa then threw some rocks, which became the land. There, when the bird pecked on a worm, breaking it into pieces, humans were born.
On this account a chevron pattern that resembles the legs of the plover, called fa'avaetuli (like the plover's legs), is used to represent ancestors, while a zigzag symbol called fa'aanufe (like the caterpillar) representing the chunks that the worm was split into, is used to represent people.

Polynesian ancestors and people motifs

a shows the fa'avaetuli motif and b shows two versions of the fa'aanufe motif representing people.


kena tattoo symbol details

Since the bird is common to all traditions, many different versions can be found depending on the style of choice. Some of them follow below:

Samoan tattoo symbol faagogo tern

fa'agogo: (Samoa) m. tern.

The tern is considered a symbol of safe return as it never passes the night at sea. Navigators following them know therefore that they will soon reach land.
Arctic terns were also a symbol of voyagers as they crossed the whole ocean during their migrations, tracing the route to be eventually followed by Polynesian navigators.

manulua: (Samoa) m. two birds.

The manulua symbol represents two birds joined together and it symbolizes the union of two families. Its related meaning is blessing, prosperity and protection.

Samoan tattoo symbol manulua two birds
Marquesan tattoo symbol manu bird

opea: (Marquesas) m. bird.

In Marquesan tattoos birds are symbolic of voyages and messengers from the gods. They empower with divine authority.

koa'e'ula: (Hawaii) m. red-tailed tropic bird.

The red-tailed tropic bird was a revered animal and its bright red feathers were reserved for the highest chiefs only.

Hawaiian tattoo symbol koaelua red tail tropic bird

While a single bird can represent a traveller, and is also a symbol of freedom and watching the world from a higher perspective, compositions of several birds can be used to represent other meanings as well:

Polynesian tattoo symbol for leader

A group of birds with one in front of them (a) can symbolize a leader, while having a bird in front that is different (b) can be a symbol of uniqueness and pride.

Chasing pigeons are usually symbolic of help always granted to the dear ones as it was said that a pigeon would protect the fallen mate even at its own risk of being caught:

Chasing birds symbolize help and support

In Hawaii, where the style is very geometric, dark lines called mōlina represent the flight of the albatross, which flies for long period far from land before returning, symbolizing thus long voyages, both physical and spiritual:

Albatross flight tattoo voyage symbol


Two chasing birds represent two people always supporting each other, and therefore help always granted to the dear ones:

Family protector tattoo description on TattooTribes

A row of birds can represent a long voyage:

Polynesian tattoo symbol enata representing family

A row of birds represents a voyage and the one alone on top symbolizes a higher perspective reached:

Higher perspective tattoo symbol

Another example of chasing birds inside this hammerhead:

Tenacity hammerhead shark tattoo

You can click on the photos to read the full description of each tattoo.

Books about Polynesian Tattoos

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