6 Maori Symbols, Meanings, Symbols and Tattoos

Today we are going to review the most important Maori Symbols and their symbolism. A tradition in contact with nature and spirits.

haka tatoo
Haka tattoo

What do the Maori symbols represent?

Maori symbols are recurrent in various art forms such as bone, wood and jade, carvings, murals and tattoos are an important part of Maori mythology and culture. This is because the Maori passed on their cultural heritage and history through oral tradition. At least that was before Europeans arrived at the shores of Aotearoa, the Maori word for New Zealand meaning “land of the great white cloud.”

You’ll be interested in: Discover Maori Mythology and its legends

Because of this oral tradition, these Maori symbols were an important means of telling historical tales and cultural beliefs. Therefore, each Maori symbol has its own meaning. Many of them have various meanings, and most of them also refer to important Maori myths.

Maori symbols in tattoos

There are dozens of different Maori symbols, of which we list some of the best known and currently used in many tattoos, usually in black. These symbols are the koru (spiral), the tiki (human figure), the matau (hook), and the pikorua (twist) among others.

1. Manaia

Among the earliest Maori symbols is the Manaia which is a mythological creature in Maori culture, and is a common motif in Maori carving and jewelry. The Manaia is usually depicted with the head of a bird and the body of a man, although it is sometimes depicted as a bird, a snake, or a human figure in profile. Other interpretations include a seahorse and a lizard.

Manaia Maori Symbols
Manaia Maori Symbol

Manaia is traditionally believed to be the messenger between the earthly world of mortals and the spirit realm, and his symbol is used as a guardian against evil. Thus, it is usually depicted in the form of a figure eight, the upper half culminating in a bird-like beak.

The designs of Maori symbols, the Manaia vary subtly in shape between iwi, although they are often depicted with three fingers, with these digits representing the trinity of birth, life and death. A fourth finger, representing the circular rhythms of the life cycle and future life, is also sometimes shown.

2.  Pikorua in Maori Symbology

The twist within Maori symbols or Pikorua resembles two intertwined pikopiko ferns. Pikopiko is a pale green new growth fern frond that thrives in shady, damp areas of New Zealand forests and Rua is the Maori word for the number two.


Entanglement has no beginning and no end, which refers to an eternal bond between two autonomous entities. These entities can be two people. The Maori symbol for pikorua shows how individuals sometimes go their own way on their life path, but always come back together because of their strong bond, hence the description of pikorua as “The path of love and life.” Another common description due to its meaning is “friendship pendant of two people”.

Pikorua symbolizes the strength and beauty of lasting friendship and interwoven lives. It is inspired by the symbols of life and growth. Because pikorua represents an infinite partnership, it makes it a perfect gift for lovers, newlyweds, brides or others who want to emphasize their connection, their love for each other, their loyalty and their friendship.

Pikopiko ferns
Pikopiko ferns

The Maori symbol is a very popular emblem because of its significance. The pikorua as the twist is called in Maori represents the bond between two people. Whether this can be for friendship, love or blood.

The twist symbol also resembles the path of life and eternity. In this context, it refers to the eternal bond between two people that will never fade even if these people will be separated for short or longer periods.

The shape of the pikorua resembles the life paths of these people and how they will always be together again. Therefore, the necklace with the Maori turning symbol is a popular gift among lovers, family, friends and even in situations where someone passed away.

3.  Hei Tiki

The name translates as hei (suspend, around the neck) and tiki (man). According to Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand, the origin of the hei tiki pendant is obscure. One theory is that the hei-tiki represents Hine-te-iwaiwa, a celebrated ancestor associated with fertility and the virtuous virtues of Maori womanhood. In marriage, the husband’s family used to give a hei-tiki to the women if she was having trouble conceiving.

Hei Tiki Maori Symbols
Hei Tiki

Another theory is that the hei-tiki is connected with Tiki, the first man in Maori legend. In some Maori tribes, hei-tiki were buried when their guardian (the person who wore the hei-tiki) died, and then would be retrieved and placed in a special place to be brought in times of mourning. It would then be given to the next generation to be used. This is how the mana (importance) of the tiki increases and grows.

4.  Toki – Adze in the Maori Symbols

Toki was originally a practical tool used in axes, chisels and weaponry within Maori symbols. They were also used in toki poutangata, a purely ceremonial taonga (treasures) handled by the tribal leader with the utmost importance.

Toki - Adze
Toki – Adze

The new age understanding of the design is that it represents strength and courage. This is because it had to be strong so as not to break when used as a tool, and because only strong and important individuals handled the toki poutangata in traditional Maori society.

5. Maori Koru and its Maori Symbols

Koru is the Maori word for the unfurling or silver fern of New Zealand. Both the symbol and the baby fern are characterized by their inner, circular or spiral shape. This shape, as well as the fresh fern, resembles new life, growth, a new beginning, new beginnings. But koru also spiritually, means: nurturing, tranquility, purity, personal growth, awakening and positive change.

Koru Maorí
Koru Maorí

The Maori symbol of koru is not only frequently used in carvings, but also in the famous Maori tattoos, the moko, which as part of tattoos represents spiritual power, authority and prestige called mana of a person.

Most carved Maori necklace pendants are made of bone or pounamu (a special type of jade endemic to New Zealand). So are Coru pendants. Other materials used are wood, Pacific pearl shell (of which you can see some in the photo below), mother-of-pearl shell, Australian black jade and red agate.

Koru’s spiral shape simulates perpetual motion. The inner curl resembles a return to the origin. Therefore, the koru resembles the concept of an ever-changing life and remaining the same.

Because of its Maori symbolism, koru necklaces are often given as gifts during occasions when the stone mile is worn. These Maori symbols coincide perfectly with taking a new step in life, such as someone going to live by themselves, getting married or having a (first) child. The koru symbolizes the strength of the bond between people.

6.  Hei matau fish hook in Maori Symbols

The hei matau or fish hook necklace as a Maori symbol signifies: prosperity, good luck, abundance, good health and safe passage through the water. What is unique about this particular emblem is that it is the only Maori symbol that evolved from a tool to an ordinary fishing hook, to a valuable piece of jewelry. The Maori toki (adze) symbol is also a jewelry symbol derived from a tool.

Maori Symbols hei matau
Hei matau fish hook

About a thousand years ago, when the Maori settled in New Zealand, they lived mainly on the fish they caught in the seas. Because fishing was so important to their livelihood, the fish hook was not only an essential tool, but also a Maori symbol of survival. This insignia became one of the Maori symbols of prosperity, abundance, good luck and even prestige.

Early fishhooks were worn simply as a necklace to prevent their loss. Later, when the items became more ornate with intricate and detailed carvings, the fishhook became a meaningful piece of jewelry.

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