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Before the arrival of the Europeans Māori literature, stories and legends were handed down both orally and through weavings and carvings. Some carvings are over 500 years old.
Te Toi Whakairo is the art of Māori carving, and Tohunga Whakairo were the great carvers - the master craftsmen. A master carver was highly considered. The Māori believed that the gods created and communicated through the master carvers.
Often Manaia, a side-faced and sometimes birdlike figure, may be found in Māori carvings. Easter Island is known for its distinctive Manaia, made up of a side-faced man with a bird-head. In Hawaïi Manaia also exists, referred to by the Hawaïians as a bird-headed deity. In South America, and particularly in Peru, a number of different mania types estimated to have been carved around 2 000 years ago may also be found, leading to speculation as to whether early Polynesian voyagers visited South America, or whether South American voyagers traveled to the Pacific, introducing their Manaia to the Polynesians.
Marakihau carving represents deep sea taniwha (monster) and ocean gods, particularly to be found in the Bay of Plenty area of New Zealand. In Māori legends Marakihau was often a mythical sea monster. Marakihau may decorate the porches of carved houses. A typical feature of Marakihau is its human form, but including a long tongue by which the Marakihau monsters were capable of swallowing up canoes or men.
Sometimes a one-eyed human face can be found in older carvings. It is thought that this particular figure may represent a demi-god who lived equally well on land or in the sea. Certain legends speak of one-eyed monsters, being part fish, part god and part man.
The lizard is the only animal represented in Māori carving - possibly inspired from the native tuatara. Contrary to other depictions, the form of the lizard was never deformed or misshapen, possibly because the lizard was so revered. The small green lizard, found in the forests, was the most dreaded of all lizards. In carvings the green lizard embodies Rakaiora, seen as a god.
The lizard had a particular significance in ancient Māori mythology. This reptile was considered to be the emissary of the god Whiro. Whiro represented all that is evil on earth, and brought misfortune on unfortunate tribes. If the gods were angry and wished to kill a man, they would invoke the lizard to enter into a man's body, in order to eat away his life giving organs. The lizard is also present in art motifs.