Polynesian tattoo symbol: breath

te hā

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Polynesian tattoo symbol: breath of life

Te hā: (Maori) s. breath, essence, sound.

Often referred as the "breath of life" (tihei mauri ora), breath is very important in Polynesian cultures and tattoos.
It is the root for hau (vital essence) and hauora (health, vigor)

The traditional Māori greeting, or Hongi, is performed by two people pressing their noses and foreheads together, and it symbolizes the exchange of breath between them.

Hongi, Maori traditional greeting

Exchanging the breath has a deeply sacred significance that comes from the story of the god Tane, who infused life into the first woman, Hineahuone after creating her from earth.

The action of mingling the breaths symbolizes becoming one, and it represents unity.

Hongi, exchanging te ha at a meeting

In Hawai'i we have another symbol representing the breath of the god Ku (Kuhanu), where hanu means both breath and spirit, essence:

Hawaiian tattoo symbol kuhanu

Ku is the Hawaiian god of war, and he is related to the dualism of life and death, as visually shown by the symbol.

The following Marquesan symbol represents the nostrils of a tiki, and it symbolizes the breath of life:

Marquesan tattoo symbol breath of life

The importance of breath is also reflected in tattoos, and how they are structured: a Polynesian tattoo must have "flow" and "breath".

By flow we mean that one important feature is that every element must flow along with the others in a balanced design.

Breath means that the elements should not stick one onto the other: some space should be allowed between them in order to let the design "breathe", coming to life through the flow of mana of all elements together.
The example below shows the difference between a stacked and a breathing design:

Allow some breath between elements of a Polynesian tattoo


The hā used within this small kirituhi styled owl tattoo:

Samoan full sleeve tattoo

Marquesan style breath of life symbol within the turtle of this Polynesian half sleeve tattoo:

Polynesian half sleeve tattoo

You can read the description of each tattoo by clicking on its photo.

Books about Polynesian Tattoos

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