Polynesian tattoo symbol: fish


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Polynesian tattoo symbol fish

I'a: (Samoan, Marquesan, Hawaiian) m. fish.

I'a (ia in Tahitian, ika in Maori) is the general word used throughout Polynesia to indicate fish.
Specific representations may have different names based on their characteristics and particular meaning.

Fish have always been a fundamental resource in the life of Polynesian people.
The richness of the ocean granted both to settled groups and to navigators a neverending source of food that was fundamental during months-long voyages.

Fish in general therefore symbolize abundance and prosperity, but they can take on other meanings as well, inherited from the specific characteristics of the different species.

Hammerhead sharks for example symbolize tenacity and strength, determination. Since they move in large groups, often comprising thousands of them, they can also be a symbol of sociality.

Marquesan hammerhead shark tattoo motif

a is a Marquesan symbol for the hammerhead shark and b shows three versions of the traditional Maori motif.

Sharks are a constant presence in the life of Polynesian peoples: they are a common figure in everyday life and they appear in many legends too.
Ancestors are known to often come back in the shape of animals to guide, help and advise their descendants (in Hawaii they are known as 'aumakua),.

While sharks are not always represented fully, the shark teeth motif is an ever present symbol in Polynesian tattooing, testifying its importance and popularity:

Shark teeth tattoo motifs

This shows how feared and revered were sharks, and their teeth especially.
As an 'aumakua sharks are considered guiding spirits who protect and watch over their kin.

Bonitos belong to the tuna family, and they are an important resource that still plays the lion's share in many traditional Polynesian dishes. The traditional tattoo motif representing their tail, with the characteristic rows of triangles, closely recalls the shark teeth motif, and it's used as a symbol of prosperity and abundance.

Bonito tail tattoo motif

Whales are a frequent subject in Polynesian lore too, where they appear as protectors and guides.

Marquesan whale tattoo symbol

The two strongest ones swim at the head of the group to protect the others, and the look of the two paired whales is told to have inspired the structure of Polynesian double-hulled seafaring canoes.
Adult whales surround their calves when a danger is close, and thus they are also a symbol of nurturing and protection.

Grouped fish tattoo symbol

A group of fish together in rows can be used to represent a group of people or a party of warriors.


kena tattoo symbol details


A row of fish can be used to symbolizes prosperity:

Voyage to prosperity tattoo

Polynesian tattoo symbol enata representing family

Maori mangōtipi motifs representing the hammerhead shark:

Tenacity hammerhead shark tattoo

A whale is a symbol of nurturing and prosperity:

Nurturing whale tattoo symbol

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

Books about Polynesian Tattoos

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