HAWAII’S WOODEN GODS GOOD POLYNESIAN ART
Huc M. Luquiens Appreciates Carved and Feathered Deities of Ferocious Mien and Lost Symbolism
By LORIN TARR GILL
“If we were forced to choose a single specimen to represent the characteristic art of Polynesia, it might well be one of the extraordinary wooden gods of Hawaii,” Huc Luquiens, assistant professor of art at the University of Hawaii, asserts in his paper on “Hawaiian Art,” soon to be published by the Bishop museum.
The carved wooden gods of these islands, primitive as they may be, are a kind of sculpture that fits easily into our traditional categories of art, the artist says.
The large temple images are fantastic, yet possessed of an unexpected and strenuous realism that is not usually found. Squat and powerful in form, but lively to a degree, with enormous heads of demoniacal expression, with elaborate crests or formalized hair masking the brows, with open mouths carved in the shape of horizontal “figure eights” and showing the teeth, they are idols well fitted to fill the enemies of the king and his followers as well, with fear and awe.
“The eyes stare characteristically over upturned nostrils, and, in some specimens, tongues protrude from the snarling mouths in a common Polynesian gesture of defiance. The arms and legs are heavily muscular, but flexed in the attitudes which give the figures their animation.
“These are the images,” Mr. Luquiens says, “that the early explorers found guarding the royal tomb of Keawe at Honaunau. They were to be found on the central platforms of all the larger temples, set up in semi-circular groups like high chiefs in grim ceremonial conclave, while other figures of similar menacing aspect stared hideously from the outer walls to give warning that the ground within was sacred.”
Identities Are Lost
For the most part, the author explains, it is no longer possible to give the Hawaiian idols names. There is considerable diversity in their form and appearance but their identities escape us because the smaller detail of religious practice is lost.
Since 1819 no man in Hawaii has seen the ancient rites of the temples in actual operation and early observers before that date hardly gave a clear picture of what they saw. For the present, these images are simply the relics of a cult long disused and works of art whose value would not be increased by giving them designations of doubtful authenticity.
To dismiss these gods as ugly is to miss their plastic quality. The artists were thinking in terms of magic and violence and they had skill in giving expression to their thought. They understood the use of wood. Even in long weatherworn examples, or those partly burned in the reformation of 1819, the rugged surface still retain their character.
“In this Hawaiian sculpture of the wooden idols there is practically no era of degeneration resultant from the adoption of European tools and ideas,” Mr. Luquiens says, “The manufacture of the images came toso early and so definite a close with King Liholiho’s breaking of the tapu that we may almost take it for granted that all the larger temple gods were made in the full flush of old Hawaiian tradition.”
The strangely distorted features of the temple images are unmistakably symbolic in some respects, the artists believes. The monstrous heads, the peculiar treatment of the mouths and eyes, and the detail of hair or headdress all show the marks of a symbolism we cannot now trace.
Beyond the probably symbolism, however, the distorted forms of the images doubtless have their literal significance. There is no doubt that the Hawaiian cultivated an ideal of ferocity for its own sake and that the exaggerated features of the idols were proper embodiments of the spirit of a people whose foremost god was the god of war.
However, not all Hawaiian images are greatly distorted. In the Hawaiian islands there is a large series of small household, or family gods which, in comparison with the large temple images, are naturalistic in conception. Many of them, no doubt, are aumakua, the ancestral patrons and protective dieties who constitute a large part of the Hawaiian pantheon.
Their naturalism takes on a variety of forms. While ferocity plays its part, a more common type is the solid warrior, crested and severe. There are also many representations of women, usually in a vigorous and aggressive guise that proclaims them leaders along with the men.
An oddity of Hawaiian manufacture for which there is no counterpart in the traditional categories of art is to be found in the portable featherwork representations of the Hawaiian war god, Kukailimoku, Mr. Luquiens asserts.
“Feather gods were peculiar to the Hawaiian islands,” he says, “and are a striking product of the specific Hawaiian imagination.”
The images which were actually carried into battle were made over a strong wickerwork of the aerial roots of the ieie, which in turn was covered with a tightly fitting net of olona fiber to which the feathers were attached. Staring eyes of pearl shell were added, and sometimes human hair. The brutal mouths were lined with dog teeth saved from ceremonial priestly repasts.
“At first glance,” the artist explains, “these heads seem hardly to possess the plastic quality of the thoroughly sculptural wooden idols. Still they are not to be too lightly dismissed. The ceremonial use of features was widespread throughout Polynesia.
“The war god, Ku, was all in all the dominating figure of the Hawaiian pantheon. Kaili, the true war god, in a more special sense, of the kings of Hawaii, was supposed to have existed in the form of two feathers from the forehead of the bird, Hinawaikolii, which came from Tahiti. These were bound with a cord and preserved in a coconut vessel.This god was taken into battle, but its power, by prayer, was vested in Kukailimoku, who carried out the instructions of Kaili and the kings.
“In using the brilliant red feathers of the native iiwi to cover the surface of the images of Kukailimoku, the Hawaiian priest-artist,” Mr. Luquiens says, “was employing not only the most vivid and costly pigment at his command, but also a material of the greatest symbolic potency. There was no lack of expression in the completed image, nor of the stark violence of barbaric emotionalism.”
KALAIPAHOA, POISON GOD
This small god is believed to be the poison god, Kalaipahoa. A peculiar malignity was attributed to his image which was carved from a poisonous wood.
(Star-Bulletin, 7/4/1941, p. 5)