Ao Rapa Nui, symbol of command and authority of Easter Island

On the left an ’Ao, in the center a Rapa and on the right detail of a modern ’Ao Rapa Nui
On the left an ’Ao, in the center a Rapa and on the right detail of a modern ’Ao

Learn about the origin and meaning of the Ao Rapa Nui, a traditional scepter or cane from Easter Island that is a symbol of command and authority and a tourist souvenir today.


The ‘Ao Rapa Nui

Ancient engraving showing tribal chiefs carrying the 'Ao Rapa Nui Isla de Pascua
Ancient engraving showing tribal chiefs carrying the ‘Ao

The ’Ao, whose shape resembles a five-foot double-blade oar, is considered a symbol of command and a ritual accessory used by tribal chiefs in war dances.

The upper end was decorated with two schematic faces on both sides. The hair was simulated by vertical lines, the eyes were decorated with bone and obsidian, and the mouth was barely hinted at. This flat face was often painted in two colors, white and red or black and white, possibly imitating the takona or body paint designs applied by matato’a or warriors during combat.

Drawings of the ’Ao have been found on the slabs of Orongo houses showing the same type of face and on the engraving found on the back of the Hoa Hakanani’a moai currently on display in the British Museum in London.

The rapa is an object very similar to the ’Ao but its average length does not exceed 60 cm, the blades have a more ovoid shape and are not painted. It is believed that it served as an accessory in ritual dances and enchantment chants. At the upper end, a minimalist face is suggested with the eyebrows represented by a pair of curved lines that meet in the center in a straight line indicating the nose.


The path of the Ao, from Mataveri to Orongo

Beginning of Te Ara o Te Ao, the trail between Mataveri and Orongo - Ao Rapa Nui Easter Island
Beginning of Te Ara o Te Ao, the trail between Mataveri and Orongo

The name of this accessory is related to the Te Ara o Te ’Ao trail (the path of the ’Ao) that starts in the Mataveri sector and ascends the slope of the Rano Kau volcano until it reaches the ceremonial village of Orongo. In ancient times, this path was used by the participants of the Tangata Manu ritual who competed to get the first manutara egg and thus choose the ruling tribe or ’Ao clan.

The Tangata Manu ritual began in the village of Mataveri located at the foot of the Rano Kau volcano, near the current Easter Island airport. There resided, in large communal boat-houses (hare paenga), the chiefs of the most important clans accompanied by their families.

During the months that they spent there, celebrations were organized with feasts and dances, during which, according to tradition, several victims of the rival clans were sacrificed and then devoured. It seems that the nearby Ana Kai Tangata cave could have been one of the settings chosen for these terrible practices.

Read more about Ana Kai Tangata

When the time came, the most powerful groups led by the matato’a, aspiring to the title of birdman, would organize themselves to participate in the competition. Some priests, called “ivi atua”, prophesied who would be chosen and the hopu manu or young servants of the leaders were appointed, who would compete on behalf of their clan.

At the beginning of July, all the participants, only men, ascended the slope of the Rano Kau volcano to the village of Orongo along the Te Ara o Te Ao trail. Possibly the name comes from the Ao, although it seems that the dominant members who had the privilege of participating were also called that.


Where to see the Ao Rapa Nui

An 'Ao Rapa Nui exposed in the Museum of La Merced in Santiago de Chile
An ‘Ao Rapa Nui exposed in the Museum of La Merced in Santiago de Chile

This unique object immediately caught the attention of the first visitors to Easter Island. During the 19th century most traditional ‘Ao were bought or, more frequently, stolen from their owners for sale to collectors.

Currently, it is possible to see some authentic specimens in various museums around the world. For example, in Chile, some ‘ao can be seen in the Rapa Nui collection of the Fonck Museum in Viña del Mar and in the showcases of the “The Spirits of Rapa Nui” room of the La Merced Museum in Santiago.

In recent decades, the population of Easter Island has dedicated itself to recovering the ancestral values and customs that were being lost. Celebrations such as the Tapati Rapa Nui Festival or the Rapa Nui Language Day, and the shows of folk dances and songs allow the preservation and strengthening of the unique cultural identity of the Rapanui people in an increasingly global and homogeneous world. In this way, locals and foreigners can admire the use of traditional clothing, the art of takona and ritual objects such as the ‘Ao.


Where to buy an Ao Rapa Nui

A magnificent 'Ao Rapa Nui exhibited at Mana Gallery
A magnificent ‘Ao Rapa Nui exhibited at Mana Gallery

Visitors interested in acquiring this symbolic object of the Rapanui culture can buy wooden reproductions at the stalls of the Agricultural and Craft Fair located in Atamu Tekena, the main street of Hanga Roa. The Craft Market located next to the church of Santa Cruz and some shops in the city also offer a wide variety of good quality wooden objects and souvenirs.

The most demanding tourists will have to visit Mana Gallery, where they can find true works of art. There is also the possibility of buying polo shirts and t-shirts, small ornaments and silver Rapanui jewelry inspired by the ‘ao. A different way to remember this ancient symbol of the ancestral culture of Easter Island.