Polynesian tattoo symbol: Kena's pool

"vai o Kena"

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Marquesan tattoo symbol vai o Kena

Vai o Kena: (Marquesan), Kena's pool.

A symbol of chiefly status, authority and prosperity.

Kena is probably the most known hero in Marquesan legends.
He was a mortal man born from the union of his mortal father and one daughter of Tu Tonga, god of the underworld.

The legend tells us that a Marquesan chief traveled to the underworld to fight its ruler, Tu Tonga, but eventually got trapped there while his two companions could escape thanks to the help of two daughters of Tu Tonga, whom they had married.

The two women gave birth to a son and a daughter respectively, named Kena and Tefio, who will later marry.

This story may have some importance in understanding how some representations of the vai o Kena symbol were created: according to Gell, after Von den Steinen, a symbol that often appears in the vai o Kena, called hope vehine and representing two women, may have stemmed by splitting and mirroring a symbol representing an etua, a divinity.

From etua to hope vehine

Given that vehine means "women" and hope can be translated as "back" (for which the symbol is usually referred to as "women's back"), but also as beginning, "beginning women" could be an alternative translation that connects to the story of Kena and of his divine origins.

This would explain the presence of hope vehine in many representations of the vai o Kena symbol:

Hope vehine within the vai o Kena symbol

There were pools where only chiefs and people of the highest rank may bathe, and the ones that Kena built were of this kind (two twin pools on different levels connected by a stream, for which the motif is regarded as a symbol of status and authority), but there was a second kind of pools that also added a meaning of prosperity to the symbol.

On islands like the Marquesas, where there was no protective reef and the coasts were often rocky and steep, access to the richness of the ocean was not as easy as on other archipelagos, so controlling fishing grounds was often vital to the survival of a clan.
Breeding pools where fish were raised were another important asset which guaranteed prosperity even during times of scarceness.

It's actually not uncommon to see fish element represented within the vai o Kena symbol:

Vai o Kena symbol including fish


Graphic variants of the Marquesan vai o Kena symbol


Detail from plate 54. Karl von den Steinen - Die Marquesaner und ihre Kunst:

Vai o Kena detail from Von den Steinen

Vai o Kena in contemporary tattoos:

Contemporary Marquesan male tattoo

Contemporary Marquesan male tattoo

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