Polynesian artifacts are present all over the world. They permit a window into our culture from across the seas. Here, we take you on a discovery of an ambassador housed in the collections of the Museum of Natural History in Lille, France (Musée d’histoire Naturelle). It is a fly whisk that was reserved for people of rank in traditional Polynesian society. This oeuvre shows the level of master craftsmanship that Polynesian artists achieved when creating these types of objects.
The Austral Islands were settled sometime between 800-900 AD and most probably had an interactive relationship with the Society Islands (just north of them.) These islands became home to master craftsmen, whom by the eighteenth century, were producing important ritual objects for the chiefs of the Society Islands. Unfortunately, there are no written accounts dating from that time and the movements of these objects and craftsmen made it very difficult to attribute the exact location or origin of these objects. The fact that some fly whisks appear to have been collected in the Society Islands indicates that such exceptional objects were imported by powerful chiefdoms from the neighboring Austral Islands.
It was always believed that fly whisks with handles like this one came from Tahiti or the Society Islands in French Polynesia. However, in 1979, Dr. Roger G. Rose of the Bishop Museum in Hawaii published his research proving that they were almost certainly made on the Austral Islands of Rurutu or Tubuai.
Pomare II (1782 – 1821) noted these fly whisks were functional objects used to prevent insects from landing on the tapu (sacred bodies) of the royal family. The precious materials from which they were constructed symbolically marked their owners as members of the chiefly elite. Fly whisks were among a group of objects, including such other items as stools and feather girdles (maro ura, red, and maro tea, yellow), which were presented to chiefs as a sign of rank during their investiture.
This royal fly whisk is divided into two parts. The top portion consists of two tiki Janus figures sitting on twenty-one small reversed cones separated from the bottom portion by a ring of small figures. These figures are a simplified representation of a human body. The bottom part is made up of two different colored plaited coconut strands attached to the coconut roots. The excellent condition of this fly whisk allows researchers to examine the treatment of the fixed coconut fibers. The fibers (blackened with either fire or mud) were gathered into strands that were twisted to give them a wavy appearance. The part used to chase insects consists of five large wisps braided to the handle.
The two back-to-back Janus figures were probably not related to ancestors of the owner, but were possibly ancestral gods. Neither of the figures has breasts or genitalia. They may have been thought to have protective powers through watching out for the owner from in front and behind. In Polynesia, people had eyes and faces tattooed on their front and backs, which also had this protective watching feature. The figures may have been related to a long-forgotten myth about twins or brothers. Unfortunately, as there are no written documents about these objects, nobody really knows for sure.
Carved from the Wood of Sacred Trees
The handle was carved from a tropical hardwood tree (casuarina equisetifolia) known in Tahitian as aito or toà (“iron wood”) that grew deep in the forests of Polynesia. These trees were not only considered related to the deities, but also considered sacred. Only the most precious objects were made from this wood. A string between the two bodies holds four pieces of shell. Obviously, it would be difficult to kill flies by hitting them with these swinging shells and just imagine the pain if you hit yourself in the nose with these shells. The shells were probably used as a rattle to make noise and frighten the flies away. The two Janus heads on this piece form a triangular shape at the top and convex surface. A simple, incised curve represents the closed eyes. The basic nose is in relief; whereas the mouth is also an incised curve. Missionaries in Tahiti mentioned priests using whisks to brush flies from a freshly sacrificed corpse. Fly whisks, collected in the early nineteenth century from Tahiti, were rather similar to this one. The main difference was the handles; the Tahitian ones used bird bone (frigate bird, uinae) instead of the wood used in the Austral Islands.
In 1789, the Bounty mutineers stayed on the island of Tubuai. James Morrison was one of the Bounty mutineers who remained loyal to Captain William Bligh, but due to a lack of space, he was unable to accompany Bligh and other loyal crew members when they were set adrift in the Bounty’s launch. He wrote in his journal about “Elderly men with highly finished walking staves and fly flaps made of the same wood. On the top of the staves was usually a carved double figure of a man with one body and two heads. The staves, sharpened at the end, were used to dispatch human sacrifices in the marae (holy temple).”
In 1825, a report from the U.S. schooner Dolphin described this type of fly whisk as a lash: “At Toubouai, we added considerably to our collection of curiosities. The most ingenious wrought article was a lash, used by the natives for brushing the flies off their backs. The handles were carved to represent a man’s face, or some animal familiar to them. The lash itself was, in several strands, finely braided from twine of the cocoa-nut husk.”
Laurance Alexander Rudzinoff