What Exactly is the Manaia Symbol?

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The Maori civilization did not have a written language, making their symbols paramount in their culture. There are many Maori symbols that are popular today, each with its own profound meaning. One such symbol is the Manaia. The Manaia was both a symbol of protection and a mythological creature that influenced the Maoris. Here’s a closer look.

What is Manaia?

The Manaia is a mythological creature for the Maori tribes. This creature was a composite with the head of a bird, the body of a man, and the tail of a fish. However, the animals forming Manaia might vary, and could be a seahorse, a lizard, or a whale.

Most depictions and carvings of the Manaia Symbol showed it sideways. The Maori believed that this creature was the messenger between the realm of death and the living world. These people wore the symbol for protection since the Manaia was a guardian and the carrier of supernatural powers.

Although the Maori culture suffered the colonization of the European forces, the Manaia is still present among the surviving tribes. The Maori use this symbol to ward off evil and protect themselves and their loved ones. Even nowadays, Manaia is a common motif in carvings and jewelry.

Symbolism of the Manaia

Manaia carving
Pounama carving of the Manaia symbol by Sarang. Public Domain.

Here are some of the things that the Manaia symbolized.

  • A symbol of protection: For the Maori, the representations of the Manaia as a composite of bird, human, and fish symbolized protection in all realms. The bird stood for the domain of the Manaia in the skies, the human, for its power on earth. Finally, the fishtail represented its protection and domain on the sea. Such a wide range strengthened the idea of the Manaia offering its protection wherever the Maori went. 
  • Messenger: Since most depictions of the Manaia show it in profile, the Maori believed that one side of it belonged to the realm of the death, and the other, to the world of the living. In this sense, the Manaia was a connection and a messenger with the dead. 
  • Manaia, the Spiritual Guide: The Maori believed that the Manaia would place itself on one’s shoulder like a bird to protect the spirit from any evil. Once our time on this world had finished, the Manaia would guide the soul to its eternal resting place. 

Significance of the Manaia

Due to its rich symbolism, the Maoris used Manaia as an amulet and wore it often. Manaia was proof of the intricated connection of these tribes with the spiritual world. Some sources even refer to Manaia as the guardian angel of this culture.

Variations and Related Items

Since the Maori first arrived in New Zealand in the 13th century, the Manaia has had many changes. The Maori come from the Polynesian cultures, so it is no wonder that they have symbols similar to the Manaia. To name a few, the cultures of Hawaii and Easter Island also have Manaia-like images. 

The Manaia had great significance for the Maori due to the aspects it represented. Thanks to that, it managed to survive the colonization period and remained a potent symbol for the remaining tribes. Nowadays, Manaia comes in many variations, and it no longer resembles the triple composite. 

In modern Pounamu carving, Manaia has associations with other Maori symbols, varying its original shape. Either way, the carver always influences the final form of the Manaia. The Maori still use the carvings and jewelry of the Manaia in necklaces and amulets.

In Brief

The Manaia and its many variations are among the most popular symbols in Maori culture. As a symbol of protection, the Manaia is viewed as a guardian against evil. To learn about other popular Maori symbols, click here.