Art/ Collection/ Collection/ Art Object

Whale-tooth Necklace (Lei Niho Palaoa)

Date:
early 19th century
Geography:
United States, Hawai'i
Culture:
Hawai'i
Medium:
Walrus ivory, human hair, fiber
Dimensions:
W. 4 1/4 x D. 16 in. (10.8 x 40.6 cm)
Classification:
Bone/Ivory-Ornaments
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Accession Number:
1979.206.1623
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 353
The hook-shaped pendants known as lei niho palaoa were worn by Hawaiian chiefs as marks of their noble birth and status. An element of formal regalia for both sexes, the necklaces were worn on important occasions and also, reportedly, by men in battle. The interpretation of the distinctive hook-shape remains uncertain. It may represent a stylized tongue, or alternatively, the crescent-shaped form may metaphorically allude to the role of the necklace as a vessel for supernatural power (mana).
The pendants typically formed the centerpiece of necklaces made of a single continuous length of finely braided human hair, up to 1,700 feet long, gathered into two large coils. Derived from the head, the most supernaturally powerful part of the body, hair was a sacred substance whose presence enhanced the mana of the necklace and its noble wearer.
Private collection, United Kingdom; [K. John Hewett, London, until 1961]; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1961, on permanent loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1961–1978

Kjellgren, Eric. Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York and New Haven: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007, 194, 318-9.



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