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Hei Matau, The Maori Fish Hook

Updated on September 29, 2010

The Maori Fish Hook, from Ancient Tool to Modern Jewelry

In the marine-based culture of the early Maori settlers the fish hook was an essential item. A well-designed, thus functional fish hook provided sufficient food for the family and the hapu (part of the tribe). Since food offered to guests is a notable status symbol to the Maori the possession of a quality fish hook added to status, prestige, and authority.

Other connotations of the Maori hook are the safe passage over water, prosperity, peace, and good luck. Because these items were such valuable possessions they were commonly worn around the neck with flax cords. This habit initiated the use of the fish hook as jewelry. Especially when the art of carving developed the designs became more and more sophisticated. And so the function of the Maori fish hook became more ornamental instead of functional.

In Maori 'hei' means to wear from the neck, and matau means 'hook' or 'fishing hook'.

Maori Bone and Jade Carved Fish Hooks

Originally the Maori fish hooks were carved from whalebone. Whales and dolphins are highly respected by the Maori and it is thought that the material used for carvings and other purposes largely came from stranded whales. Also bone from dogs, birds, and even humans was used.

Another even more highly regarded carving material was, and is, New Zealand's nephrite jade called greenstone or pounamu. Pounamu, which is the Maori word for this semi-precious stone, is considered to have a huge spiritual significance. This type of jade is not only referred to in many Maori legends, it also had to be harvested in, sometimes, very inaccessible and dangerous areas on the South Island of New Zealand.

About almost thousand years ago the Maori art of carving bone and jade was seriously developed. This was an extraordinary impressive achievement especially considering the fact that the Maori had no metal tools. Despite their culture being in the stone age they were able to craft the most intricate, detailed hei matau. Carving detailed, ornamental fish hooks of pounamu was an even bigger achievement considering the toughness of this type of semi-precious stone.

3 pounamu (jade)and 1 red agate Maori fish hook.
3 pounamu (jade)and 1 red agate Maori fish hook.

The Legend of Maui and The Magic Fish Hook

Once, very long ago demi-god and legendary seafarer Maui went fishing with his magic fish hook made of a jawbone tied to a flax line. Then Maui caught, what he thought to be a giant fish, but, once above the surface, it turned out to be a huge landmass.

This 'Te Ika a Maui' meaning 'Maui's fish' is known today as the New Zealand's North Island. Hawke Bay's coastline viewed from above still looks like a fish hook. Hence the name for this part of New Zealand; 'Te Matau a Maui', the 'Hook of the Fish of Maui'

Click the link or watch the video to find out more about the legend of Maui and the magic fish hook.

Spiritual Meaning of the Maori Fish Hook

Hei matau does not only stand for good luck, prosperity, abundance, strength, and determination. As are most Maori carvings the Maori fish hook pendant is more than a talisman.

Maori fish hook jewelry is considered a cultural treasure (taonga). It also represents the Maori's dependence on fishing, their connection to the sea, and the respect for all sea life including the god of the sea, Tangaroa.

Because Maori culture was oral previous to the arrival of European discoverers, carvings and other art forms were a way to pass on culture and tradition. Certain illustrious items were cherished, linking to important stories from the past, thus referring to historical events.

The most exquisite hooks were passed on from father to son, generation upon generation. They became highly treasured heirlooms thought to adopt the spiritual energy of the persons who had worn the fish hook necklaces previously. This spiritual essence is called mana by the Maori.

Manaia fish hook design
Manaia fish hook design

Combined Hei Matau Designs

Many of the Maori fish hook designs have other symbols incorporated. A popular example is the manaia hook.

Manaia is a spiritual guardian with supernatural powers. Manaia has a bird's head, a human body and a fishtail. These body parts symbolize heaven, earth and sea and the balance between these three elements. Manaia is used in Maori art to protect and ward off evil.

On the photo right a highly intricate, beautifully carved manaia hei matau. The bone has been stained with manuka wood smoke to emphasize the bone texture even more.

Courtesy photo by Shop New Zealand. Click the link to view more exquisite Maori fish hook pendants.

Contemporary Maori Fish Hook Necklaces

Maori fish hook necklaces are still very popular. Contemporary carving artists are creating the most beautiful pieces of artwork. Some of these artists are from Maori descendance some are not. Most of them use traditional techniques and patterns, and sometimes exclusive materials to create their works of art. Some other materials are red agate and Australian black jade.

These New Zealand carvers all have their own unique marks. Some prefer to work with the durable and very hard, translucent pounamu while others are specialized in creating stained bone hooks. Corresponding historic designs many use paua shell inlays for eyes to give the carving an even more lively appearance.

A few of the most well known master carvers from New Zealand are Kerry Thompson, David Taylor, Lilach Paul, and Stanley Nathan. But there are much more artists creating these stunning pieces of art with historical and spiritual significance.

The crafty fish hook pendants are especially loved by kayakers and boaters but getting more popular among the general public as well.

Photo's used on this Hub, if not attributed otherwise, are all courtesy of Boneart. For these and much more Maori fish hook pendants visit their website.


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    • profile image


      6 years ago actually spelled it wrong!! Shame shame!!

    • profile image

      Tsetse fly 

      8 years ago

      The spelling ‘Jewelry’ is also acceptable and legitimate , as correctly written UK English.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      you spelt jewellery wrong in the title

    • PADDYBOY60 profile image


      8 years ago from Centreville Michigan

      I love the old legends. The pictures are fantastic! I am a wood carver. I have never tried to carve bone. I might give it a try someday.

    • marshacanada profile image


      9 years ago from Vancouver BC

      I loved this posting. I am a carver and learned a few basic ways to carve these fishooks when I was in New Zealand. The carvings and animation in this site are lovely.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      These really are beautiful.I found the legend entertaining.


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