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Art Through Time: A Global View

Ceremony and Society Art: Feathered helmet (mahiole)

» Hawaiian artist, Polynesia

Feathered helmet (mahiole)

Feathered helmet (mahiole)
Artist / Origin: Hawaiian artist, Polynesia
Region: Oceania
Date: Pre-19th century
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Plant fiber, feather
Medium: Textiles and Fiber Arts
Dimensions: H: 12 ½ in. (32 cm.)
Location: British Museum, London, UK
Credit: © British Museum/Art Resource, NY

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 mamowere 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.

Expert Perspective: Anne D’Alleva, Associate Professor of Art History, University of Connecticut

“One of the art forms that people are often familiar with from the Pacific is the very spectacular featherwork from Hawaii—these beautiful feather cloaks and head dresses, feather leis, the necklaces—this very, very spectacular featherwork that people wore. And the featherwork actually is a connection to the gods, is an evocation of this relationship because birds were often thought of in relation to the gods because they fly; they move between this world and the spirit world. And so the body of the gods are often thought to be covered with bird feathers. And so when an ali’i (chief) wears a feather cloak or wears a feathered helmet, his body or her body is enveloped in feathers just like the body of a god. And there is a spirit world that is populated by the gods and by the ancestors. And they are also present in our world. They can come here, they can be with us, and they are made present and embodied here through artworks.”

Additional Resources

British Museum Web site.

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.

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