Polynesian tattoo symbol: unity


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Polynesian tattoo symbol lokahi - unity

Lōkahi: (Hawaiian), unity, accord, harmony.

It's a Hawaiian symbol made of three small triangles arranged to shape a bigger one. Kahi is the short version for the word 'ekahi, the number one.

We wrote about the importance of balance in Polynesian cultures by introducing symbolic opposites like light and darkness, life and death, positive and negative forces, but balance was sought for in every aspect of life.

A first level of symbology for this element connects directly to our previous article about darkness and light, since the empty space that remains enclosed within the triangle represents light coming out of darkness.

Lokahi symbol light from darkness

Also, the world was never considered as simply the space where people lived, but as a whole that encompassed both physical and spiritual aspects, as shown by the the three elements composing this symbol, and representing the world of people, the world of spirits, and nature.
They are all interconnected, and must be cared for and kept in balance in order to live a prosperous and healthy life.

Hawaiian unity symbol explained

None of these aspects can thrive on its own, and there's another concept, illustrated by the word kuleana that highlights this connection: kuleana has the double meaning of "privilege, right" and of "responsibility", and it represents a two-way responsibility, meaning that if we take care of the land, and the sea, they will take care of us. If we don't, we'll suffer from that too.

Roberto Gemori was interviewed recently about this subject for an episode of the podcast Conversations with Mother Earth by Dana Petrović.
The video is below for those interested in knowing more about the connections between Polynesian tattoos and nature, while a partial transcript is below.

"[...]Polynesian people sailed the whole Pacific Ocean without the modern technologies that we have. And how did they do it? They did it because they were keen observators. They observed nature, its patterns... the currents, the streams, the clouds, the winds, the migratory patterns of animals... and all these were like pieces of a puzzle that they composed to understand how to move -the stars- , and the important, the wayfaring technique that they used consisted in... actually, they had to know where they were, to have the indications for where they wanted to go. So knowing where you were, and where you come from, are absolutely important in wayfaring, in Polynesian navigation, and this reflects in the culture, that's why they're so rooted, and they value so much tradition: because looking at your past, where you come from, is necessary to understand where you're going.

Q: [...]they are always exposed to the sea and of course to the whims of nature; Mother Earth can be moody sometimes, they know it better than anyone else.
A: Yeah, yeah, they knew, and they had a stronger connection to earth, that's true, and we see it in tattoos as well because, oftentimes, there are animals and creatures included in the tattoos, and that's because of, as we said before, the three levels. So if you think about the whale for example, which is a common theme in the tattoos, and in the cultures, of Polynesia, the whale appears in the tattoo as a symbol, and normally it represents prosperity, of course, nurturing.
But it also reminds us of stories and legends like the one of Paikea, anyway, where a hero rode on the back of a whale to go back to shore, or to find a new land; so this is the story that the tattoo reminds us of, and below this there's the meaning, which is almost usually that we are related to these creatures, to this... to nature. We have to observe, and to respect nature if we want to thrive in it.
Actually there's even a Hawaiian word, kuleana, which means both responsibility and privilege, because they are interconnected, it's very strong the relation between the two. If we nurture the land, if we take care of it, it will take care of us.
It's a serious deal. If we don't, nature will turn its back on us. And we see it everyday now, with pollution, over-exploitation of the land, the soil impoverishment... actually Polynesian people knew this; they knew this before because they observed. That's something we've lost.

Q: [...]this is exactly what I considered when I researched this deep connection to Mother Earth of tattoos[...]
A: Actually, there are even more levels because during the tattooing process blood flows out of the tattoo and... sinks into earth, and then putting earth in your body because tattoos were made from burnt nuts and wood, and that soot was mixed with oil, so it was natural elements getting into... into the body, and the blood pouring out of the body, so even physically there's a connection between people getting a tattoo and nature.
In Samoan for example, 'ele'ele is a word that means both blood and soil, which shows this deep connection[...]"

The audio transcript and the whole Conversations with Mother Earth series can be found on WebTalkRadio.


The flight of the albatross motifs show the voyage toward balance, represented by the lōkahi symbol on top of this Hawaiian half sleeve tattoo:

Hawaiian half sleeve tattoo

The lōkahi symbol within the manta symbolizes harmony with nature, and balance between nature, the world of humans, and the spiritual world:

Tahitian turtle harmony tattoo

You can click on the images to read the full description of both tattoos.

Books about Polynesian Tattoos

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