The tiki statue has become a ubiquitous symbol of tiki bar culture and, to some extent, the surf culture associated with Hawaii and California in the first half of the 1900s. But before the tiki bar craze took off in the 1930s, tiki statues were already an integral part of Polynesian culture and history.
The Mythology of Tiki Statues
The culture of the Polynesian Islands, Hawaii, and New Guinea is where tiki statues and their mythology originates. Tiki statues usually portray humanoid forms or faces with superhuman characteristics or attributes. These statues are meant to house the spirits of Polynesian gods and they are rooted specifically in Polynesian creation myths.
In most iterations of these creation myths, Tiki is the name of the first man, who was created by Tane, the god of forest and birds. The first woman, whom Tiki happens upon in a pond, is named Marikoriki. She seduces Tiki and gives birth to a girl, Hine-Kau-Ataata, whose birth was responsible for the appearance of the first clouds.
So tiki statues we named after the first man in Polynesian mythology, but they came to represent various gods and other spiritual/religious entities. One of the precursors to the popular wooden tiki statues were the monolithic moai statues found in Easter Island. There are 887 of these and they are massive stone faces that likely symbolized the spirits of the Easter Island people's ancestors. Some of these moai statues date as far back as 1000 AD.
Throughout the centuries, tikis became an integral component of Polynesian culture and religious culture specifically. Different styles of tiki carving developed in the different islands and regions. The flexibility of wood allowed for much more complex statues than the stone predecessors. It also meant, however, that they were less long-lasting.
In Modern Times
Tiki statues became popular as decorative and artistic elements in tiki bars and restaurants with tropical or Caribbean dÃ©cor. As mentioned, this happened in large part due to the explosion of tiki bar culture, which started in California in the 1930s and spread quickly throughout the world. Today, an interest in tiki bar culture has risen again, as well as an interest in various tiki bar accessories (i.e. bamboo decorations, thatch for tiki bars, etc.). Also, tiki statues have inspired contemporary artists and sculptors, some of whom still practice the ancient art of tiki carving, but this time with new motifs and styles.