The history of the tiki is rooted in Polynesian culture which was the “largest culture sphere” in human history according to renowned anthropologist Wade Davis. The Polynesian culture once covered 25 million sq kilometers of ocean. One of its most iconic symbols is the carved statue or tiki, in wood or stone, of scowling and grimacing ancient gods. These could have been anything from a few feet to a towering twelve feet.
In Hawaii, the tiki statue is called ki’i and one of the best places to view them is at Puuhonua o Honaunau on the Big Island. Once a sanctuary for ancient Hawaiians who broke the kapu or tribal taboos, this is now a beautifully restored park.
Hawaiian tiki or ki’i
Fierce looking ki’i stand guard around the Hale o Keawe Heaiu, an old sacred temple that housed the bones of 23 chiefs or ali’i. A number of the ki’i are solitary gods which stand guard on the beach looking out to the ocean for kapu breakers, while the extensively decorated and more fearsome ki’i hover untiringly at the heaiu.
In Hawaii, religious practices were an integral part of the history of the tiki. The tiki statues were often representations of the four main Hawaiian gods, Ku, Lono, Kanaloa and Kane. These were the gods of war, fertility, natural elements and creation and the expressions on the ki’i would mirror the personalities of the gods. Only the highest-ranking tribesmen were allowed to work on bringing forth the aspects of the gods through wood or stone.
Kona style ki’i akua
At the Ahu’ena Heiau in Kauai which was dedicated to Lono, the temple image posts are known as ki’i akua and are sculptured in the Kona style, deemed the finest of all Polynesian art. The wooden images stand around an anu’u, a Hawaiian oracle tower where the priest in a trance would pass on the messages from the gods.
On the head of the tallest figure, which is Koleamoku the god of healing, rests an image of a golden plover. According to Hawaii’s oral history, the golden plover was the bird which guided the first Polynesians to Hawaii.
Although most Polynesian tikis are carved in the traditional “power pose”, that is their knees are flexed, arms are akimbo on their hips, some of the ki’i standing here depict the gods with their hands raised to the skies.
Please note when visiting these temples that the heiaus are considered sacred places and are revered by the native Hawaiians. It is important not to touch any of the stones, the ki’i, nor the heiau and especially not to take anything with you.
In the history of the tiki, the wooden temple posts are referred to as ki’i in Hawaii, ti’i in Tahiti and tiki in New Zealand, the Cook Islands, the Marquesa Islands and among the Tuamotuan, a small group of Polynesians in French Tahiti.
According to some historians, the first carvings in the history of the tiki were developed in Papua New Guinea as a series of stone figures found across the islands and especially in the mountains. While dating of these statues is difficult, one is at least thought to go back to as far as 1500 BC.
Tiki pop culture
The history of the tiki turned a new page when the tiki bar was introduced into American pop culture. Don the Beachcomber opened the first Polynesian-themed restaurant in Hollywood, serving Cantonese food, tropical punches and decorated his place with real Polynesian artifacts.
The public fell in love with the tiki bar, flaming tiki torches and rum-based mai tais and zombies served in ornately carved tiki mugs. With the return of soldiers from South Pacific after World War II, the tiki culture spread like wild fire.
Soon tiki bars, tiki nightclubs, tiki lounges and tiki restaurants mushroomed in every American city. Some big budget ones like Mauna Loa in Detroit had dancing hula girls, giant statues and waterfalls. The tiki influence was everywhere, and was seen in home décor, architecture, music and clothing.
The dawn of the tiki culture turned to dusk in the 1970’s when it was deemed kitsch. However, the chapter was not completely closed on the history of the tiki. It is now enjoying a resurgence starting from the 1980’s when nostalgia revived the Tiki style. It is showing itself to be a unique pop culture phenomenon and artists are turning to primitivism in their work.
Tiki mugs as collectibles
Tiki mug collectors are hunting down the ceramic mugs made by any of the manufacturers including Trader Vic’s who was the other entrepreneur, after Don the Beachcomber, to successfully make a business of the tiki craze.
Interesting fact: In the history of the tiki, there are more than twenty different types of tiki mugs including such as: -
- Monkey mug
- Skull mug
- Scorpion mug
- Wahine mug
- Surfer mug
- Tiki Diablo mug
The next time you are sipping a mai-tai from a tiki mug or glass, reflect on the ancient history behind your drink and pay some respects to the gods!