Despite the many languages and vast distances between the islands of Polynesia, there are some words that are basically the same throughout all Polynesian languages. The two most emblematic being Mana (see our previous blog ‘what’s in a name’) and Moana (ocean).
Moana is incredibly important in Polynesian culture. Being the primary source of food, it guarantees life, is the place of birth and rest, and represents abundance, prosperity and protection. This importance of the ocean is reflected strongly in the ancient tradition of Polynesian tattoos, with many of its creatures used to symbolize associated meanings in line with their characteristic traits.
The history of tattooing in Polynesia is fascinating. Although nearly wiped out during the missionary years, traditional (more geometric) and modern (more figurative) tattooing is making a proud resurgence in Polynesian culture with the designs being symbolic in meanings specific to their owner’s life story and ancestors, or thought of as a way to give strength and protection.
Having already embraced Te Mana in the naming of our yacht, it seemed fitting to incorporate Moana in the form of a Polynesian design specific to our journey. So after working with local Tahitian tattoo artists and researching the symbols commonly used today*, we decided on the following design…
The manta. Symbolizing the sea, and representing freedom, accomplishment, protection, beauty, elegance, and good energy, it seemed an appropriate motif for our voyage, and so it now lives proudly on our bow.
At the heart of the manta is an ipu – a stylization of a gourd in which Hilo (navigator and god) is said to have kept the good winds. This is surrounded by the sun (the life giving source symbolizing positivity, joy, calm, and greatness), which is composed of the sky and waves (representing life, continuity through change, and the world beyond). Tiki eyes then watch over from either side for protection from all directions and to serve as guardians for our voyage.
Hammerhead shark patterning (determination, perseverance) fills in the wings, while the shell on the upper wing represents our home, safe shelter, and intimacy, and Marquesan cross on the lower wing symbolizes harmony and balance between the elements.
The two dots on the tips of the wings represent the islands we will be visiting. And near the mouth is the traditional motif for a bat (sociability) with two human figures, a male and female, to symbolize our forging of friendships in every port.
The tail stems from a palm tree, symbolic of the pacific islands representing peace, good vibrations, and serenity, as well as prosperity. While the tail itself is made of spearheads, for strength, bravery, courage, and overcoming obstacles.
With so many symbols and motifs in place to guide and protect us through our voyage, we can only hope Te Mana will find fair winds, smooth seas, and plenty of beautiful adventures.
* During the European colonization much of the knowledge of tattoo masters was lost and not passed down to the next generations. As a result many of the symbols used today come from Marquesan traditions, as the most complete record of Polynesian tattooing was published in 1928 by Karl von den Steinen based on notes he took during his expedition to the Marquesas back in 1897-98.