Hawaiians believed that the bodies of their gods were entirely covered with feathers, so when making images of them, they covered them in feathers as well.
This ‘aumakua hulu manu depicts the fearsome head of the Hawaiian war god Kuka‘ilimoku (Ku - snatcher of the islands). ‘aumakua hulu manu of Ku were taken into battle to inspire warriors. When they weren’t being used for war, they lived in a special god house contained within the heiau (temple).
Kuka‘ilimoku, as well as being the war god, was the favoured god of Kamehameha, who established the kingdom of Hawai‘i in 1810. As a result, Kuka‘ilimoku became Hawai‘i’s ‘official’ god.
The ‘aumakua hulu manu was made by tying clumps of feathers to a netting of olona fibre laid over a wicker-style framework woven from the ‘ie‘ie vine.
The image is covered mainly with red feathers, but yellow and black feathers are also used (black feathers for the eyebrows). White feathers are placed across the top of the head and down the central crest.
The glaring eyes of the god are made from shaped discs of pearl shell, and the pupil from a black seed. The gaping mouth is lined with dog teeth.
Red feathers were considered special in the Pacific because of the sacred connotations of the colour red. Feathers were symbols of high rank. They were used at many important ceremonies and preserved in treasure caskets.
In Hawai‘i, yellow feathers (obtained from the 'o'o and mamo birds) were considered even more ‘chiefly’ than red feathers (obtained from the ‘i‘iwi and ‘apapane birds) because they were rarer. The use of these feathers can also be seen in Te Papa’s magnificent Hawaiian feather cloak and helmet. The 'o'o and mamo became extinct during the nineteenth century.
To obtain feathers for god images, cloaks and helmets, specialist hunters would catch birds in the moulting season with nets and snares. The tufts of yellow feathers were plucked from the 'o'o and mamo and the birds released. Each bird yielded only a small number of feathers. However, the ‘i‘iwi and ‘apapane were covered in red feathers and these birds were usually cooked and eaten after plucking.
It took enormous skill to make feathered images like this one. They are testament to the artistry and mastery of the Hawaiians in making a colourful and powerful image from their natural environment.
This `aumakua hulu manu was sold in the auction of Bullock’s Museum in 1819. It was described in the auction catalogue as ‘A fine Feather Idol, of the Sandwich Isles’ – the Sandwich Islands being the name given to the Hawaiian Islands by Captain Cook.
The `aumakua hulu manu was bought by Mr Charles Winn for 2 pounds 2 shillings. He also purchased a number of other items, including the Hawaiian feather cloak and helmet. His grandson, Lord St Oswald gave the collection to the Dominion Museum in 1912. The `aumakua hulu manu of Ku was included in this gift.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (2003)