Easter Island symbols
On this page we collect the main Rapa Nui symbols that make up the iconography of Easter Island. Learn about the origin and meaning of symbols that have transcended history to become an inspiration for artisans and a tourist attraction.
- The main symbols of Rapa Nui
- Moai, the icon of Easter Island
- Manutara, the sacred bird of Rapa Nui
- Tangata Manu, the birdman of Easter Island
- Manu Piri, Rapa Nui symbol of union
- Make Make, the creator god
- Mangai, symbol of protection
- Honu, the Rapanui turtle
- Moai Kava Kava, the spirit with ribs
- Reimiro, symbol of authority
- Tahonga, a ritual ornament
- ’Ao, symbol of command and authority
- Ua and Paoa, ceremonial weapons
The main symbols of Rapa Nui
Throughout the history of Easter Island, the Rapanui people have manifested their idiosyncrasy through a series of original and own symbols, unpublished in other cultures. This unique image gallery is primarily inspired by the nature, lifestyle and beliefs of the ancient inhabitants.
Thus, for example, we can find designs of real beings such as birds and marine animals, along with others based on local myths and legends that represent spirits and divinities. In reality, both worlds intermingle giving rise to an interesting catalog of Rapanui iconography that has transcended the limits of history.
Currently many of these traditional figures have gained visibility because they have been incorporated into the wide range of crafts and souvenirs that tourists buy as souvenirs of their visit to the island. Unfortunately many visitors only notice the originality or beauty of the design but ignore its name and history. That is why we have set out to explain briefly the most popular symbols of Easter Island and their meanings. Enjoy this amazing “cabinet of curiosities” from Rapa Nui.
Moai, the icon of Easter Island
The moai, the gigantic statues of Easter Island, constitute the most important expression of Rapanui sculptural art and have become its hallmark and the main icon of the island. However, despite their world fame and the multitude of studies conducted on them, there are still many unresolved questions surrounding these stone giants.
Read more about moai, the gigantic statues of Easter Island
The full name of the statues in their local language is Moai Aringa Ora, which means “living face of the ancestors“. These stone giants were made by ancient islanders to represent their ancestors, rulers, or important ancestors, who after death had the ability to spread their “mana” or spiritual power over the tribe to protect it.
Manutara, the sacred bird of Rapa Nui
The manutara is the sacred bird that the ancient inhabitants of Rapa Nui worshiped during the Tangata Manu or birdman ceremony that took place in the ceremonial village of Orongo.
The meaning of Manutara or Manu Tara is “luck bird” in the Rapanui language. A name probably associated with the fact that their arrival coincided with the end of winter and the beginning of a season with a greater abundance of eggs and greater catches of fish. It is possible that these reasons later made him the center of the bird-man ritual.
Read more about manutara, the sacred bird of Rapa Nui
Unfortunately, the manutara can no longer live up to its name because it has not visited Rapa Nui for several years due to changes in the fragile island ecosystem. However, the memory of the manutara still lives on. The iconic image representing the manutara is present in many of the souvenirs that can be found on Easter Island.
Tangata Manu, the birdman of Easter Island
The figure of the Tangata Manu or birdman is the second most represented image in Rapa Nui after the moai. It has its origin in the unusual and extreme competition that took place every spring between the ceremonial village of Orongo and the islet of Motu Nui.
Read more about the Tangata Manu competition
It is not known with certainty but it seems that, as a reminder of each investiture of the bird man, a relief of a figure with the body of a human and a bird’s head was carved in the rocks of Orongo and especially in the vicinity of the houses of Mata Ngarau. More than 100 petroglyphs of the tangata manu carved in the rocks have been counted and according to that interpretation they would indicate the number of winners of the competition.
Manu Piri, Rapa Nui symbol of union
Manu Piri means union of birds in the Rapanui language and although the reason for representing this double bird is not really known, currently it symbolizes love and union between two people. The Manu Piri figures that have been found in engravings and paintings appear in three slightly different versions.
The first, which is the most frequent, shows two tangata manu facing each other, joined by the hands and feet. The second is formed by two manutara birds that join their beaks, while they merge two wings and a tail. Finally, the third version represents a two-headed manutara bird reminiscent of the double-headed eagle present on numerous historical coats of arms.
That heraldic tradition also has a presence on the island, since a new design of the Manu Piri has been chosen as the emblem of the coat of arms of the Illustrious Municipality of Rapa Nui. Not surprisingly, the slogan of the current administration is “Rapa Nui hai mahatu”, that means “Rapa Nui with love”.
Make Make, the creator god
A schematic face with large eyes, similar to a mask, represents the god Make Make. In some of its representations it also highlights a prominent nose that some researchers compare with the male genitalia. A relationship with a certain sense since Make Make is considered the creative divinity in Rapa Nui.
According to ancient legends, Make Make created the earth and after fertilizing the red clay the man was born and from it the woman. It was also Make Make who, with the help of the minor god Haua, brought the birds to the island from Motu Motoro Hiva, the islet known as Sala and Gómez, giving rise to the birth of the first manutara.
The Make Make mask is found especially in petroglyphs scattered throughout the island and inside caves where in some cases the natural pigments used to color it still remain.
Mangai, symbol of protection
The hook or mangai, in the Rapanui language, is an artifact spread throughout Polynesia and was considered one of the most precious objects that could be had on an island, since through its use, the inhabitants obtained the necessary food for their subsistence.
El anzuelo o mangai, en idioma rapanui, es un artefacto extendido por toda la Polinesia y era considerado uno de los objetos más preciados que se podía tener en una isla, ya que mediante su uso, los habitantes conseguían el alimento necesario para su subsistencia.
Read more about Mangai, the Polynesian hook of Easter Island
The mangai is currently the most popular pendant among the inhabitants of Rapa Nui and Polynesia, and its use has spread throughout the world. It is used as an amulet of prosperity, abundance, protection and good luck, especially for those who enter the sea, but it has also become a valuable decorative object due to its original aesthetics.
Honu, the Rapanui turtle
The turtle is an animal very present in the Rapa Nui culture and in the rest of the Polynesian islands. The sea turtle or honu, in the Rapanui language, has great spiritual significance and is believed to symbolize patience, perseverance and longevity. Legend has it that the first seven explorers sent by the first King Hotu Matu’a before his arrival on the island had an encounter with a turtle. It also appears in other myths such as the one that tells the story of a beautiful young woman named Uo who traveled to the island of Hiva on the back of a turtle.
Turtle meat, along with tuna, was a highly prized delicacy reserved for members of the ruling clans. Its shell was also used to make ornamental objects. In Tongariki there are several engraved figures that reflect its historical relevance. A few meters southwest of the great platform is a stone circle with an interesting group of petroglyphs where two bas-reliefs of sea turtles can be distinguished. In Rapa Nui there are more than 30 engravings of honu or turtles, but the details of the shell and the head of those here, together with those of the nearby and surprising set of Papa Tataku Poki, make them stand out among the others.
Currently several types of sea turtles visit Rapa Nui, among them the blue turtle and the hawksbill turtle. The two best places to observe them are the port of Hanga Piko and the small Pea beach in Hanga Roa Otai. In this last location, during the Tapati Rapa Nui Festival, a competition called Haka Honu takes place, which consists of sliding on the waves only with the body, adopting a peculiar posture that imitates the way the turtles approach the shore.
Moai Kava Kava, the spirit with ribs
Undoubtedly, the moai kava kava is one of the most characteristic figures of rapa nui iconography and crafts. Formerly they were carved from toromiro wood, an almost extinct tree and in the process of recovery, but currently other types of wood are used.
The origin of the moai kava kava dates back to a legend in which the ariki Tu’u Koihu, eldest son of the founding king Hotu Matu’a, after meeting a pair of aku aku or spirits, wanted to immortalize his image on a piece of toromiro wood. Since then, the islanders used to carve and hang these disturbing and emaciated images on the door of their houses as an amulet to scare away evil spirits.
The shape of these carvings is usually always the same with small variations: a skeletal male figure with a sunken belly and prominent ribs, which is precisely what the Rapanui word “Kava Kava” means. The highest quality figures made by contemporary artisans can cost thousands of dollars and in 2019 the auction house Christie’s auctioned in Paris an ancient moai kava kava for the astronomical value of 850,000 euros.
The reimiro is a crescent-shaped pectoral ornament, usually made of wood, with an anthropomorphic head with a goatee at each end and a profile similar to that of the Moai. This type of pectoral decorations, which could also be made with other materials such as mother-of-pearl or whale bones, were used throughout Polynesia as a symbol of authority.
The word rei, very common in the Pacific islands, means necklace or pendant and miro means “wood” but also “boat” in the Rapanui language. Based on this interpretation, some theories hold that the reimiro could represent the image of the ancient ships, with stern or bows decorated with heads, that brought the first inhabitants of the island. Other scholars argue that this breastplate was also known by the name of rei marama (lunar breastplate), so the reimiro could symbolize the favorable phases of the moon to start planting certain crops.
According to oral tradition, the reimiro was part of the ceremonial dress of the kings or tribal chiefs although it was also used as a status sign for high-ranking men and women during festivals and celebrations. The figure of the reimiro is one of the most important rapa nui symbols. It has been found in several petroglyphs and among the symbols of the indecipherable Rongo Rongo script, but it gained even more relevance when it was included in the flag of Easter Island known as Te Reva Reimiro in the late 19th century. The Rapanui emblem, officially recognized in 1993, shows a white background on which stands out the image of a reimiro painted in red, the color of mana or supernatural power, which symbolizes local authority.
Tahonga, a ritual ornament
The tahonga is a rounded wooden ornament that slightly elongates at the bottom and gives it the appearance of an egg or a coconut. The upper part is sometimes decorated with one or two human heads, a bird’s head or a simple protrusion.
It seems that the tahonga was originally carved from coconut nuts that floated on the seashore but since they were difficult to find, it was used to work on smaller pieces of wood. This unique object, about 10-15 cm in size, was worn around the neck with a cord made of braided female hair.
Tradition has it that like the reimiro, the tahonga was worn by the ruling classes as paraphernalia to demonstrate their rank in public events. It is said that the ariki or supreme chief himself could carry up to six of these elements, three on his chest and another three on his back.
However, the tahonga is more closely related as a decorative symbol used during the initiation ceremony “Te manu mo te poki”, which could be translated as “the bird for children” and which represented the passage of children into adult life.
The participating adolescents became “poki-manu” or “bird-child” and were in charge of the “tangata tapa manu” or master of ceremonies. This expert took the children and shaved their heads, put on them a feather crown, painted white stripes on the extremities and circles on the buttocks, similar to those seen in the moai statues of the Ahu Nau Nau in Anakena, and finally hung coconuts or tahongas as a ornament on them. Thus dressed, they went up to Orongo, each carrying a chicken and ending the ritual there while singing and receiving gifts from their relatives.
The ’Ao, whose shape resembles a one and a half meter long double-paddle oar, is considered a symbol of command and 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 insinuated. This flat face used to be painted in two colors, white and red or black and white, possibly imitating the takona or body paint designs that the matato’a or warriors applied themshelves during combat.
The name of this accessory is related to the Te Ara or Te ’Ao path (the’ Ao path) that started from the Mataveri sector and ascended the slope of the Rano Kau volcano until reaching the ceremony village of Orongo. This path was used by the participants of the Tangata Manu ritual who competed to get the first egg of the manutara and thus choose the ruling tribe or clan ’Ao.
The relationship of the ‘Ao with the cult of the manutara is confirmed in the drawings that have been found on the slabs of the houses of Orongo that show the same type of face and in the engraving found on the back of the Moai Hoa Hakanani’a that is currently exhibited at 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 paddles have a more ovoid shape and are not painted. It is believed that it served as an accessory in ritual dances and incantation chants. At the top 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.
Ua and Paoa, ceremonial weapons
The long cylindrical rod known as Ua was considered both a weapon and an ornamental element of the chiefs during the parades as an “officer’s staff” and they were used as Rapanui symbols of power and dignity. This wooden stick is usually less than a meter and a half long and its upper end is decorated with two human heads stuck at the nape of the neck. Legend has it that this double face represents the ability of a warrior to see back and forth at the same time, a great advantage in the middle of a battle.
These heads are all the same style and show a high forehead decorated with curved incisions, which for some represent wrinkles and for others hair, prominent cheeks, thin lips similar to those of moai statues and open eyes made of bone and obsidian. These precious ceremonial weapons were carved from a very scarce wood on the island and kept in reed pods to protect them.
The Paoa was a weapon very similar to the Ua but it did not exceed half a meter in length. This short, heavy mace was the primary weapon for hand-to-hand combat so it was more abundant. Although it is believed that during the period of clan wars, known as huri moai, spears with obsidian or mata’a tips, which were more lethal, were used more.