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4 / Ceremony and Society

Feathered helmet (mahiole)
Feathered helmet (mahiole)
Artist / Origin Hawaiian artist, Polynesia
Region: Oceania
Date Pre-19th century
Material Plant fiber, feather
Dimensions H: 12 ½ in. (32 cm.)
Location British Museum, London, UK
Credit © British Museum/Art Resource, NY

expert perspective

Anne D’AllevaAssociate Professor of Art History, University of Connecticut

Additional Resources

British Museum Web site. http://www.britishmuseum.org.

Buck, P.H. Arts and Crafts of Hawaii. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1957.

D’Alleva, Anne. Arts of the Pacific Islands. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L. The Pacific Arts of Polynesia and Micronesia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Hiroa, Te Rangi. “The Local Evolution of Hawaiian Feather Capes and Cloaks.” Journal of the Polynesian Society.53.1 (1944): 1–16.

Holt, John D. The Art of Featherwork in Old Hawaii. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1985.

Feathered helmet (mahiole)

» Hawaiian artist, Polynesia

Traditionally featherwork was a common form of ornamentation across Polynesia.

Certain colored feathers were attributed more value than others. Since red was associated with gods and chiefs, red feathers were reserved for religious objects and garments worn by high-ranking members of society. In Hawaii, where the red-feathered i’iwi and apapane birds are small but plentiful, feathered capes made for the elite actually came to be known as ‘ahu ‘ula, meaning “red garment.” The name did not change even after Hawaiian artists began including yellow feathers alongside the red. Rarer than red feathers in Hawaii, the golden feathers of the ‘o’o and mamo were highly prized. This feathered helmet, called a mahiole, includes red and yellow feathers as well as the more ubiquitous black.

In addition to colors, the shape and form of an ‘ahu ‘ula or mahiole indicated the rank of the wearer. This particular helmet, with its broad yellow crest, is typical of headdresses created on the island of Kauai and likely belonged to the regalia of a high chief. Wrapping is extremely important among many groups in Polynesia, where it is associated with the notion of containing the sacred. By wrapping the Hawaiian chief in feathers, the helmet, worn with a long feathered cape, would have offered physical and spiritual protection during battle and signified social and spiritual power during ceremonial rites.

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