The great Polynesian explorers told far too many tales of whales to fit into a single post, and I hope to return to their stories throughout the course of this blog. Today I’d like to focus on one aspect of the Māori relationship with whales – their association with royalty.
Many of you may have seen the wonderful Disney film Moana, which tells the story of a young Polynesian woman who is torn between her duties as the future village chief and her calling to explore the ocean with the same sense of adventure that made her ancestors great navigators. Although whales do not feature in the film aside from a playful dolphin cameo, their teeth play a subtle but important role in the unspoken worldbuilding of Moana.
The demigod Maui is one of the film’s central characters, cajoled into helping Moana make up for a mistake from his past that is threatening her homeland. His muscular frame, boastful personality, and magical tattoos all mark him out as a powerful figure. One less obvious symbol of his status is his necklace, which is made of whale teeth. Although the characters never address Maui’s necklace, within the context of Polynesian culture it marks him out as a high-status man. The mythical Maui is not a perfect analogue to Māori royalty, but a whale tooth necklace can also be spotted on Moana’s father, the village chief.
Tui’s royal status is marked not only by his feather and seashell headdress, but by the necklace he wears. When Moana has a vision of her voyaging forebears, she sees an ancient chief passing on the same necklace to his son, inaugurating the next chief’s age of exploration. These necklaces are known as rei puta and have long been coveted forms of jewellery in Māori culture. Although the Māori did not traditionally hunt whales, when a whale was beached, they would make use of every part of the whale, using its teeth and bones to make jewellery like this. Some Māori tribes still have the right to do this under New Zealand law and continue to fashion special items from the remains of a beached whale.
But why are whale tooth necklaces associated with the sacred and royal figures of Maui and Tui in Moana? Whales descend from the ocean god Tangaroa in Polynesian mythology, imbuing them with sacred status. Whales struck the prehistoric Māori with their nobility, leading to their frequent association with aristocratic and royal figures in mythology and idioms. Paikea, the royal ancestor of the South Island tribes, was saved from his conniving older brother when he called a humpback whale to save him from drowning. The whale’s supernatural intervention legitimized Paikea’s particular royal line, and thus the lines of the chiefs of South Island tribes who claimed descent from him. A meeting between chiefs is described in the Māori language as te kāhui parāoa, or a gathering of sperm whales, and fallen chiefs on a battlefield are called he paenga pakake, beached whales.
A Māori proverb relates that “to have a whale’s tooth, you must also have a whale’s jaw to wield it”. This saying alludes to the greath strength of whales, the quality which above all may have linked them to royalty in the imagination of ancient Polynesians. Besides the sacred status invested in them as a demigod and a chief, Maui and Tui are both strong characters – one is renowned for his supernatural and physical powers, while the other is a leader concerned with the welfare of his people. By depicting these characters with whale tooth necklaces, Moana’s designers situate them in a long tradition of Polynesian reverence for the noble whales of the Pacific Ocean.