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The Los Angeles County Museum of Art
“The large canoes that had attached a prow such as this were carved from one large totara tree trunk. The additional prow and stern ornaments were attached later, creating an extremely skillfully carved whole. The soft totara wood made for good carving, and the more skilled the carving, the higher the status of the owner and the vessel’s occupants. The canoe ornaments have the curvilinear style of classic Maori carving, with spiral frets and abstract figural patterns. There is no specific meaning known for the double-spiral design on this nonrectangular prow. The carved seated figure added to the end of the prow was meant to protect and watch over the canoe’s occupants and would gain mana, or power, as more successful expeditions were completed. The figure could represent an ancestor, and with this ancestral power, also mana, that could provide courage, endurance, and enterprise on the canoe’s voyage—both for the canoe and its occupants.
Canoes played an incredibly important part of Maori culture and myth. They were said to have carried the first ancestors to the islands, and were highly decorated and intricately carved to show their significance. This was because the high-status craftsmen (tohunga) were able to control and harness mana in important objects such as canoes, for which a well-carved prow held the mana. This was seen as integral during the war expeditions for which the canoe with this prow was used. There are few complete surviving examples of classic Maori war canoes (one such vessel is in the Auckland Museum in New Zealand).”