Exceptional and Rare Marquesas Islands Club, French Polynesia
Length 51in (129.5cm)
'u'u, finely carved with raised decorations on both sides of the head of the club, remnants of fiber cordage plugged at the base of the club; fine, rich dark brown patina with slight discoloration at the handle from fiber cordage (now lost).
Collected by Herbert Walter Levin (1881-1952), a factory proprietor of a significant construction business in Steudnitz, Germany, on a visit to the Pacific circa 1925-30, by descent to present owner
The Levin 'u'u
Warfare was an integral component of life in the Marquesas Islands in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the result of territorial rivalries or the need to avenge insults and indignities. War was carried on either in pitched battles using clubs, spears, and slings, or in ambush situations. The pitched battles were usually pre-arranged and involved much ritual preparation and invocation to the etua, the gods, for success. The ambushes were usually forays into neighboring valleys in search of heana, human victims for sacrifice. Leaders in warfare, toa, were high-ranking and influential persons in Marquesan society.
Clubs such as this one from the Levin collection, are called 'u'u, and were a Marquesan warrior's most prized possession. They served as both a weapon in close combat and as a mark of high status within society. They are made from ironwood (Casuarina equisetifolia), also called toa by the Marquesans, a dense, heavy, hard wood. The clubs were buried in the mud of taro fields, then polished with coconut oil, to give them a rich, dark patina. Strands of braided sennit, with human hair attached, were wrapped around the handle area. The hair was usually that of relatives. They were designed with a curved notch on the top edge so that the warrior could put it under his arm and lean on it. As a result, they vary in size, between 4.5 and 5 feet, depending on the height of the owner.
Among the first objects collected in the Marquesas was an 'u'u similar to the Levin one. Part of the Forster collection, it is now in the University of Göttingen. In fact, with rare exceptions, all 'u'u carved through the 1840s are so remarkably similar that they have been identified as a specific style: A/B by Karl von Steinen (1928) and A by me (Ivory 1994). Though no two 'u'u (nor the two sides of the same club) are exactly the same, their features are very consistent. The "head" of the club has two sides, each carved to resemble a large human face. Projecting knobs in the form of small heads suggest eyes and nose. A circle of striated lines surrounds each "eye", similar to the Marquesan tattoo design called mata toetoe. A ridgeline curves between the eyes to form arching brows. Along the top is a beveled edge on which a small face is carved in low relief.
Below the high relief eyes, a crossbar projects horizontally from the club. Another head, centrally placed on this crossbar, forms a "nose". Immediately below are three zones of low relief carving consisting of two bands of designs between which is yet another set of eyes. The upper of these bands usually consists of two separated rectangular panels joined on the inner edges by thin arm-like lines. The lower band is continuous and generally filled with abstract geometric motifs, especially the ipu, another tattoo design, in this case formed by a series of concentric curved u-forms and visible in the lower band of the Levin club. This motif seems to have served as an especially potent protective device. The word ipu refers to containers of almost any kind, including cups, bowls, skulls, shells, and turtle shells, and can be understood as something hard that protects or shields. It was frequently tattooed on the inside of a warrior's arms, a vulnerable spot, especially when raising the arm to attack by throwing or preparing to hit something.
The reason for all of the faces and eyes may have been to draw on the sacred power, and thus the protection of the ancestors, when in combat. Linguistics suggests that such repetition may indicate a symbolic relationship between the visual representation of the face or eye and an individual's ancestry, as embodied by one's genealogy. Mata is the Marquesan word for both face and eye, and also used to refer to genealogy. The term for the recitation of an individual's genealogy, which established one's place in the hierarchy of Marquesan society, is matatetau, literally to count or recite (tetau) faces/eyes (mata). Mata 'enata (face/eye people) are one's relatives, ancestors, or allies. Thus, there seem to be direct links between the notion of face and eyes and the ancestors, with their spiritual powers. The fact that there are two faces may have provided additional protection for the warrior, with eyes looking in two directions.
Such multiplication of faces, heads, and eyes is a form of visual "punning" with roots in the arts of the ancient Lapita Cultural Complex, whose peoples were the immediate ancestors of the Polynesians. Themselves most likely the descendants of indigenous Taiwanese, the Lapita peoples migrated across the Pacific from eastern New Guinea to Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji in little over 500 years, between 1000 and 500 BCE. Faces, repeated in patterns, are the single most important motif found on their distinctive decorated ceramic bowls.
The Levin 'u'u is a fine example of this type of club. It is also a distinctive one in that it follows the stylistic ground rules described above very carefully, but unlike the majority of such clubs, has two motifs engraved on the top of the head that forms the "nose" on Side 1. The Marquesans were the most extensively (and most exquisitely) tattooed of all the Polynesian peoples. Nearly 500 named tattoo motifs are still known today, and their variations and meanings are complex. The two motifs are a turtle (above) and an upside down female figure, a fanaua, the feared spirit of a woman who died in childbirth, but was also regarded as a protective one (Ottino-Garanger 1998, 199). Turtles, as creatures who go between worlds (the sea and land), are especially sacred. Specific motifs, such as these, may have been indicated the owner of the clubs.
Carol S. Ivory
Washington State University
Ivory, Carol. "Marquesan 'u'u: A Stylistic and Historical Review," Pacific Arts No. 9-10 July 1994: 53-63.
Ottino-Garanger, Pierre and Marie-Noëlle. Te Patu Tiki Le Tatouage aux îles Marquises, Tahiti: Pourcade, 1998.
Steinen, Karl von den. Die Marquesaner und Ihrer Kunst, vol II, Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1928.