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Hawaiian Tikis - A Cultural Perspective

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Aloha, due to the lack of this type of information, I have attempted to address this subject in the draft document below.
I would appreciate anyone's comments or questions (good or bad) on the document.
This information is a work in progress.

Mahalo, Dave
Tikis of Hawaii http://www.tikis.net


Broadly speaking, Tikis are figurative wooden sculptures or images, images that are particularly unique and expressive that come from a rich and vital Polynesian culture. Today, they are considered "primitive" or "tribal" art. Art because of their artistic value. Primitive or tribal because they possess histories that link then back to an exotic society and culture that had no writing. While there are no explicit standards for measuring quality in art, instinctive judgment and visual sensibilities will rate Tikis a high position on any scale.

Tikis are not inherently magical or sacred. Spiritual powers may possibly be derived or manifested from them through prayer, worship, or offerings. In other words, a figurative wooden sculpture may become religious or spiritual objects if the owners become engaged in these types of activities centered around them.

Evidence suggests that in old Hawaii, Tikis (the figurative wooden sculptures themselves) were not considered Gods. David Malo's manuscript, "Ka Moolelo Hawaii." (HawaiianTraditions) states

"…and then the priest seized the food and offered it up to the heavens and not to the image, because it was believed that the god dwelled in the heavens. The image was only a representation (of the god) as it stood before all those gathered." Malo goes on to state that "wooden and stone images (that were) carved by hand, were just points of reference for the actual form of the god in the heavens when that person considered the god as his. Thus, if the god was of the heavens, then the image was made to be like the heavens."

Tikis served as a visual symbolic likeness of the invisible, a physical object as a focus for deified or holy spirits.

Tikis are not idols. To call Tikis idols (which is a derogatory term that indicates not the sacred but mere superstition) implies that those who worship them practice idolatry or take the image itself as a God. Moreover, the use of the term idol inflames the sentiments of anti-idolatry religions like Christianity, as the Bible, at least in places, instruct their followers to oppose idolaters and smash their temples and images.

Beyond the above, Tikis, in the context of the old Hawaiian cultures, and societies that originally produced them, are not well understood. The old Hawaiian societies were preliterate, because of this, there is no way to reconstruct a detailed account of all aspects of Hawaiian history and culture that influenced Hawaiian sculptural style. Therefore, a definitive explanation of the conspicuous iconic and symbolic features that give Tikis their strong visual impact cannot be provided.

However, despite the many ambiguities and uncertainties associated with old Hawaiian Tikis, fragments of history and theories regarding the meaning of some of the stylistic complexities associated with Tikis are provided below.


When most people think of Hawaiian Tikis, they think of the "Kona style" Tiki. These types of Tikis are believed to have developed on the Kona Coast of the Island of Hawaii and were popularized by King Kamehameha the Great. They are not necessarily believed to have been restricted to this particular area, or the only style of Tiki to have been found there, but rather a style of Tiki, which may have originated there. These Tikis were commonly used as temple or heaua sculptures. One of their prime functions was to inspire awe and terror in order to increase the influence of the chiefs and/or priests.

The main features of Kona style Tikis are an increased head size and headdress elaboration, faces dominated by snarling mouths and extended nostrils, and eyes dislocated into the hair (Figure X). This combination of features containing a certain degree of realism, coupled with a striking distortion and exaggerations of their elements reflect a possible indication of their potential legendary powers. While most Hawaiian sculpture is either male-oriented or asexual in form, a number of definitely female Tikis have been found among this group.


The most conspicuous feature of Kona style Tikis is their facial expressions. Dominated by the mouth, open, snarling, and threatening (often ringed with teeth), the mouths of the Kona style Tikis, suggests the readiness of the gods to devour the offerings placed before them, for such is the way Hawaiian deities are often depicted in chant and myth.

Kona style Tikis may reveal a protruding tongue. In the Hawaiian language, to stick out the tongue is ho'opake'o; to grimace is ho’ohaikaika; to thrust out the chin or to stick the tongue under the lower lip and form a lump is Ho'oku'eku'emaka. All gestures regarded by Hawaiians as outrageous or signifying contempt. All of these facial characteristics can be found on "Kona style" Tikis. Moreover, standing with hands on hips, termed Kuaki’i, is a rude gesture that signifies one wishes to lord over another.

A possible explanation for these facial expressions, and stances which portray, irreverence, bravado and pompous can be found in historical descriptions of the political relationships among chieftains of old Hawaii. These descriptions characterize these relationships as intensely rivalrous and prone to warfare. Therefore, the intense sentiments depicted on these images can be interpreted as representing those that characterizing the relationships between chieftains.

Another interpretation of these types of facial expressions is that the open mouth and tongue represented the power of the spoken word in chant or prayer addressed to the spiritual beings, and the bared teeth were emphasizing the dangerous nature of the power.

In addition to the mouth-tongue-chin complex, a trait peculiar to Hawaiian Tikis, and especially the Kona style Tikis was the dislocation of the eyes. In the few original images that exist, the eye is located off the face in the hair pattern and is extended downward, dropping to the downward sweep of the hair. In other Kona style Tikis, the eye are triangles within the hair design, and the rear portions of the eyes are elongated vertically. The hair pattern in these images seems to serve as a frame for the eyes and appears to represent eyelashes or eyebrows, since it is both above and below the eyes.


The prominent and magnificent headdresses found on Kona style Tikis surely carried deep meanings in old Hawaii. Authorities on Tikis think that the headdress forms represent the genealogical succession of a god. This concept is based on the fact that in the Hawaiian language, a genealogy (or family tree) is often likened to the spine or backbone (iwikuamo'o). In old Hawaiian culture the head of a person was sacred, never to be violated. Hence, the symbolism of a backbone rising above the head suggests the covering and protection of the sacred part of the body by one's ancestry. Taken as an artistic statement, the top of the head dominated by a symbol of one’s family tree suggests the exalted and sacred status of the divine being depicted.


A consistent and conspicuous feature of "Kona style" Tikis is the almost uniquely Hawaiian three-dimensional stance of these freestanding humanoid figures. With an emphasis on the body surfaces with a massive musculature, the body parts are carved as distinct units with the head up, back straight, feet apart, knees flexed and thrust forward, heavy calves, and massive arms held curved at their sides with elbows commonly thrust out and back.

This classic and distinctly aggressive Polynesian "power posture" stance expresses potential action in an otherwise static pose, and gives these Tikis an extraordinary and expressive open three-dimensionality as well as an enhanced visual richness. This Polynesian power posture has been interpreted as the posture taken by wrestlers and boxers in old Hawaii prior to an athletic competition. It has also been suggested that it is also similar to a stance adopted in a couple of styles of Hawaiian dances: a dance called 'a ha' a (literally, "low style"), which was used by dancers and in the performance of rituals at heiaus or temples; and a dance called Hula Ku’I Molokai’I, a vigorous male dance imitative of athletes’ taunts, with foot stamping, thigh slapping, dipping of the knees and doubling of the fists as in boxing. Whatever the exact meaning of such a stance, it clearly suggests a general state of heightened and poised vitality, alertness, and strength.


Another style of Tiki from Old Hawaii was the Aumakua. These represented personal or family spirits.

There are a number of characteristics that distinguished the Amakua style Tikis from other style s of Tikis such as the Ku group. Generally Amakua Tikis were smaller in size than the Temple or Heiau images. Amakuas also lacked the elaborate headdresses, being either bald or having human hair affixed into the head. And a number of these types of images had pearl shell set into the eyes.

The Amakua type Tikis were the only group in which there are sculptures that could be clearly defined as female figures. Although most Aumakua images were without any definitive sex, it is probable that they thought of as males. Based on their near portraiture appearance, these images may have been carved with a particular individual in mind. However, these figures obviously go beyond a mere reflection of reality. Perhaps, the extent to which an image diverged from realism was as indication of their relative supernatural potential. Or, it could have been that the more distant the ancestry of aumakua, the more abstract the figure.

A lot of the literature on Hawaii makes abundant reference to using such images in "voodoo-like" practices of destructive telepathy (a slur on good voodoo) and the implication is both that all such practices had evil intent and that these evil practitioners were powerful and acknowledged members of society. The fact is that those who engaged in "black magic" were generally despised and not nearly as powerful as is thought, and that the same types of Tikis were used by beneficent practitioners for counter-sorcery and for healing.


I've got good news and bad news. First the bad news: I would have to guess you're new to TikiCentral. Had you been more familiar with TC you wouldn't have wasted your time banging in your piece of tiki edification (cite your sources!).

We, as a group, could care less about the cultural origins of all things tiki, and are more concerned with the sticking of straws into tiki's head and sucking out tropically-themed libations.

Yes, we know. We are a vast desert of sociological understanding. Cross-cultural heathens, gazing with desire at the primative cultures' odd ways.

The last scientific survey of Tiki Central members found that 94.0038% (with .002 margin of error) thought Trader Vic created the first tiki and brought it to Waikiki after divorcing Sunny Sund. In another survey 93.948872% (with .0002020 margin of error)thought that if tiki did in fact exist in Polynesia, it was only to promote the coming of Western civilization.

Oh yeah, the Good news: You found us, Welcome to Tiki Central!


On 2002-09-22 01:34, Tikis of Hawaii wrote:
I would appreciate anyone's comments or questions (good or bad) on the document.

wow lotsa data.. no pictures! i know this is a draft ~ it would be easier for me tofollow along with diagrams.

i'll print a copy to read later.. thanks for the post..

oh and citations might be nice, the document sounds pretty authoratative.


[ Edited by: dogbytes on 2002-09-22 21:44 ]

On 2002-09-22 20:15, Tiki_Bong wrote:

We, as a group, could care less about the cultural origins of all things tiki, and are more concerned with the sticking of straws into tiki's head and sucking out tropically-themed libations.

"We, as a group," should not speak for the whole of the group.

Some of us actually do care to learn about "cultural origins of all things tiki."

Dave, I only skimmed your article (will go back & read it post-morning coffee. But, I think your perspective is interesting & that what you are writing may be a worthwhile endeavor. Thanks for sharing it w/ us.


Tiki Chris

(shhhh .... don't tell anyone, but I was k-i-d-d-i-n-g)

Tiki Bong, looks like us tiki central jokers may have to resort to using smileys! : ) : )

Hey, look at the funny-looking tiki in the middle.


Well, this explains why, even after hours of praying to it, my Mr. Bali Hai mug won't grant me three wishes...

On 2002-09-26 17:57, Tiki King wrote:
Well, this explains why, even after hours of praying to it, my Mr. Bali Hai mug won't grant me three wishes...

Before I started keeping finds like them for myself, I gave away a beautiful set of tiki mugs (the Maois with big open brown puppy-dog eyes) to a then-beau, whose sweet Alabama mother was pretty, um, distrustful of ANYthing that could be remotely associated with demonic activity. She was, therefore, not too thrilled when her son's girlfriend, a nice girl who actually does attend church, had given him six matching pagan idols for Christmas. "You know, demons can attach themselves to things like idols." I tried to explain that while, well, that indeed might be true of an actual statue that was used for worship, I didn't think it likely that any pagans had ever prayed to or sacrified any babies to this particular group of decorative ceramic drinking mugs.

Ok, maybe some babies had been conCEIVED after downing too many tasty libations, but none slaughtered.

Ok, maybe some brain cells had been slaughtered, but no infants.

damn, I wish I still had those mugs...

[ Edited by: Formikahini on 2002-09-27 15:26 ]


"You know, demons can attach themselves to things like idols."

Only if you're lucky!

midnite, Overlord of the Seventh House, waving a dead Tiki Gardens cd over my head.

I think that was really good I find Hawaiian and Polynesian history very interesting keep up the good work I hope to see more articles from you. Also if anyone wants I have a few papers I did for school concerning the immigration of Polynesians to Hawaii


Interesting article. I really enjoyed reading about the "Kona style" & how this is the style considered to be "Hawaiian". Why is this style considered to be "Hawaiian" more than other styles? Also, I'm left wondering just how many Hawaiian styles there are. Are the "Amakua style Tikis" a individual style in the same sense that the "Kona style" tikis are?

Could you be using the word "style" to mean a few different things?


"There are a number of characteristics that distinguished the Amakua style Tikis from other style s of Tikis such as the Ku group."

What's the difference between a style & a group?

By the way, have you read Martha Beckwith's HAWAIIAN MYTHOLOGY, especially Chapter 8?

Oh yeah, I agree w/ Tiki Bong & dogbytes about citing your resources & showing pics to illustrate the more descriptive bits.

Anyway, thanks again for posting the piece. Will you post subsequent re-writes?


Sorry. Upon the 2nd & 3rd readings the joke was pretty obvious. Still, the first 2 paragraphs seemed pretty harsh (of course, I'm not always the kinder, gentler Tiki Chris that I should be either).


Yeah, that middle tiki's real funny looking...HEY! Wait-uh-secon...tha's....

Tiki Chris

[ Edited by: Tiki Chris on 2002-09-28 03:21 ]


I found this interesting article in a local publication - this appears to be a good place to add this information.
I'll be watching the racks for the next edition to add to this update.
Hope this is legible otherwise I need to work on enlarging the scanned image somehow...


Nice writeup, but wouldn't it be best to call da bugguhs ki'i? :)

Nice first post.

Tikibars added this:

This got me thinking about classifying Tikis like we do with animals and plants:

Kingdom: art
Phylum: tribal / ethnic
Class: pacific islands
Order: hawaiian / rarotongan / rapa nui / marquesian / maori / etc
Family: wood carvings / stone carvings / weapons / fetishes / etc
Genus: (family of wood carvings) tikis...
Species: specific tikis...

Art / tibal / pacific islands / hawaiian / wood carvings / tikis / Ku

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