Moai Kavakava, the spirit with ribs

Moai Kavakava wood carving

Undoubtedly, the moai kavakava is one of the most characteristic figures of rapa nui crafts. Formerly carved in toromiro wood, almost extinct tree and in the process of recovery, but other types of wood are currently used.

The shape of these carvings is always the same with small variations: a skeletal male figure with sunken belly and prominent ribs, which is precisely what the word rapanui “Kava Kava” means. The trunk is long and the limbs short with small feet. The face is sharp, with thin cheeks and aquiline profile and usually ends in a small beard. It has long and pointed ears and the eyes appear very open with expression of horror and are made of bone and obsidian. Some have high reliefs on the skull, others have a kind of helmet or hat and sometimes appear adorned with human hair.

There are also some similar representations of female gender but they are scarcer. Although their appearance is similar, they usually have no prominent ribs, are flat, with hanging breasts and almost without curves. In fact they look quite masculine because they are sparse, bald and even with small beards. These female wooden moais are called Moai Papa’a.

These figures are a stark representation of the aku aku or spirits of another world. It is said that when a person breaks a taboo (“tapu” in Rapa Nui language), a sacred norm, after dying, his soul transforms into an Aku-Aku and wanders between the physical and spiritual world.

The legend of the moai Kavakava

A painting in Hanga Roa depicting the ariki Tu'u Koihu carving the moai Kavakava Rapa Nui Easter Island
A painting in Hanga Roa depicting the ariki Tu’u Koihu carving the moai Kavakava

Legend says that one day, the ariki Tu’u Koihu, Hotu Matu’a’s eldest son, was walking at midnight through Puna Pau when he encountered two spirits, or aku aku, asleep in front of him. When he saw carefully them, he realized that their bodies were skeletal, and decided to leave and escape from them. However, when he tried to run away he woke them up, so the aku aku followed him out of fear that he would tell someone what he had seen.

Tu’u Koihu denied having seen anything but the spirits did not believe him and remained watching him for two days and two nights. Seeing that he did not say anything, they left. Once free of the spirits, the ariki returned to Tore Ta’hana, entered a hut, and carved in a piece of wood of toromiro the two fleshless figures of the aku aku he had seen and kept in his memory. This was the way the ariki found to tell what he had seen.

This was, according to tradition, the origin of the Moai Kavakava (“images with ribs”) that the islanders used to carve and hang on the doors of their houses, on the inside, to scare away evil spirits.