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Flywhisk handle

Flywhisk handle

Place: Tahiti & Society Islands
Category: Household

ironwood (Casuarina equistifolia), Tahiti and the Society Islands, l. 33.7 cm, h. 9.8 cm (figure), Inv. Oz 418

Humphrey No. 198: ‘The handle of a Fly-flap, made of wood, ornamented with a human figure rudely carved, supposed by some to represent an idol, from Otaheite.’

The handle is carved from a piece of dark-brown, finely polished ironwood, toa or ‘aito (Casuarina equisetifolia). Its lower part is shaped like a human figure while the upper part consists of a smooth round shaft.

The shaft, tapering slightly in the middle section, ends in a spoon-like form at the upper end with a small hole where the fibre bundles of the whisk were originally fastened. The seated image at the lower end is characteristic for the Society Islands in its iconography and has the following striking features: short legs with knees bent at right angles; a distinctly bulging belly on which the arms, bent at right angles, and the hands (each with three fingers) rest; in relation to the body, the head is large with the arched lower rim of the eyes and the sagittal forehead bulge above them particularly emphasised in the carving. A comparative overview by Oliver (1974, I: 72f.) shows a similar stylisation of anthropomorphic figures of a more recent origin, made of wood and stone. A correspondence in the representation of the figures can be seen in the complete flywhisks depicted by Parkinson (1773: 56, 75, Pl. 13, No. 11), which he called itee. Sculptures of this type, made of wood or stone, are found within the sacred grounds, marae, as wooden prow figures of large boats, va’a and pahi, and as the handle part of flywhisks. Such anthropomorphic figures basically embodied intermediaries between supernatural powers and the people, deified ancestors, ti’i, or protector gods (cf. Oliver 1974: 71ff.). In contrast to the ti’i, the generally larger, to’o, figures with plaited and feathered lashings represented higher deities. In Tahiti in 1769, Banks and Cook seem to have discovered on of these in the region of a marae. Cook (in Beaglehole 1955, I: 112) wrote in this connection about a large figure with a decorated head and a body covering made from feathers. Whereas Kaeppler (1978a: 136) listed six ti’i and to’o figures which appeared in the collections in Oxford and London as a result of Cook’s voyages, the two Göttingen flywhisk handles rank among the very rare examples of images from Cook’s own time. Apart from these two pieces, objects of comparable quality can be found only in the collections in Vienna, Dublin, and Herrnhut (here: missing) (cf. Moschner 1955: 223f.; Kaeppler 1978a: 138; Augustin 1993: 135 f.). Gundolf Krüger


Augustin, Stephan, Kunstsachen von Cooks Reisen - Die Sammlung und ihre Geschichte im Völkerkundemuseum Herrnhut, Museum für Völkerkunde, Dresden, 1993.

Beaglehole, John Cawte, The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery. The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768-1771, Hakluyt Society, Extra Series, 34, vol. 1, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1955-1968 I.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L, ‘Artificial Curiosities’ Being An Exposition of Native Manufactures Collected on the Three Pacific Voyages of Captain James Cook RN [Exhibition catalogue], Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, 1978a.

Moschner, Irmgard, ‘Die Wiener Cook-Sammlung, Südsee-Teil’, Archiv für Völkerkunde, Vienna and Stuttgart, 1955, vol. 10, pp. 136-253.

Oliver, Douglas L, Ancient Tahitian Society, 3 vols, Honolulu, 1974.

Parkinson, Sydney, A Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas in his Majesty’s Ship, the Endeavour, London, 1773.

Related artefacts

Flywhisk handle (fragment), Inv. Oz 419


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