Handle for a Fly Whisk (Tahiri)

Date: 18th century

Geography: Tahiti, Society Islands

Culture: Maohi (Tahitian)

Medium: Ivory, coconut husk fiber

Dimensions: H. 1 5/8 x W. 1 3/8 x D. 11 3/4 in. (4.1 x 3.5 x 29.8 cm)

Classification: Bone/Ivory-Implements

Credit Line: The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1965

Accession Number: 1978.412.875


Comparable to the crown jewels of European monarchies, this ivory flywhisk handle was once owned by the Tahitian royal family. In the late eighteenth century, it belonged to the chief Tu-nui-e-a-i-te-atua who united Tahiti and neighboring islands under his rule in 1791, taking the name of Pomare I. The handle was among a group of objects sent by his son and successor - Pomare II - a recent Christian convert, to the missionary Thomas Haweis in 1818.
As well as being symbols of chiefly status, it is likely that such finely crafted flywhisks also served important ritual functions. Balanced on a wide collar at one end, a distinctive backward-arching figure creates a canopy or hollow space from which the central ivory stem extends in a series of openwork sections. These are bound at three points with finely plaited sections of coconut fiber cord. Coveted for its rarity, whale ivory was particularly potent since it was deemed to be the shadow or embodiment of the original creator god, Ta'aroa, from whom all others derived. Infused with his essence and potency, the bones and teeth of whales were therefore not merely symbolic or ornamental, they indexed the enitre chiefly lineage and further asserted the status and legitimacy claimed by the chiefs with whom they were associated.