The Hawaiians venerated, and in some cases still honor, a multitude of supernatural beings, or akua. During religious observances, akua often manifested themselves in carved figures or other objects, which served as vessels for their supernatural power (mana). Sacred images in human or animal form were known as ki'i. Some ki'i, often called akua ka'ai, were carved atop a pointed stake, which could be inserted into the ground or the thatched walls of houses or other structures to allow the figure to stand upright.
Small akua ka'ai, such as the present work, may have been used for private devotion. If so, they may portray 'aumakua, supernatural beings associated with individual families or activities. The ridge on the head of this figure may portray the crested helmet (mahiole) worn by high-ranking male chiefs. If so, the image may depict an ancestral chief or a deity clad in chiefly regalia.
Midshipman John Knowles, HMS Blonde, collected in 1825, on Sandwich Islands Voyage; Harry G. Beasley, Cranmore Museum, Chiselhurst, UK; [John J. Klejman, New York, until 1961]; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1961, on permanent loan to the Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1961–1978
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Emory. "Hawaii: God Sticks." Ethnologia Cranmorensis vol. 3 (1938), pp. 9-10. pl. III.
Wardwell, Allen. The Sculpture of Polynesia. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1967, no. 79, p. 66.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Art of Oceania, Africa, and the Americas from the Museum of Primitive Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1969, no. 2.
The American Federation of Arts. Primitive Art Masterworks: an exhibition jointly organized by the Museum of Primitive Art and the American Federation of Arts, New York. New York: The American Federation of Arts, 1974, no, 103.
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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, 193, 316-7.
Kjellgren, Eric. How to Read Oceanic Art. How to Read 3. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014, p. 148.