Jun 19, 2012

Weapons & Warriors: The Tewhatewha of the Māori

This axe-like wooden club was another weapon that was not wielded in the same manner a European invader would have anticipated at first glance. Like many weapons designed by the Māori, they were not used to chop at an enemy like an axe or club. Forward strikes and counter attack slashes were the preferred techniques. Something else confusing to someone who was expecting to battle against an axe was that the sharpened end wasn’t the end with the axe shaped head.

The entire weapon was carved from one solid piece of wood. One end was carved with a fat flat end about half a foot wide that resembled a lumber axe. The rest of the length was nearly five feet and tapered into a sharpened point. At the bottom of the axe-head a hole was drilled and feathers were tied by a cord to dangle. Sometimes designs were carved into the wide flat portion of the head.

The Tewhatewha is only the weapon of a chief, so a common warrior would never hold one in battle unless he is taking over for the chief. It was used as a device for communicating strategies and orders to the warriors that followed the chief more often than as an actual weapon. The chief often carried other weapons, like the Mere, that were more lethal in close combat. The axe-like carved end was not used to chop an enemy down and if an enemy must be struck by the fat end, it was with the back and not the blade. It was treated with as much respect and reverence in a similar fashion to the Taiaha. The real power of this weapon however was in its symbol of station. It guided the warriors into battle.

Imbued with the spirit of an ancestor, the Tewhatewha is as much a companion and guardian as it is a weapon, just as the Taiaha. I have heard the feathers were a means to communicate with the spirits through the wind, but I couldn’t confirm that in my research. I liked the sound of it though. These same feathers helped to distract opponents on the battlefield as well as declare to the other Māori warriors that the chief was signaling them. Some have said the head of the Tewhatewha resembles half the fin of a whale, and that it was meant to symbolize the power and grace of the whale.

I hope you enjoyed this edition of Weapons and Warriors, click here to view the entire catalog of weapons and cultures. Thank you, see you later this week for the finale on the Māori warrior.


  1. Fascinating stuff, as always, Tim. I LOVE the haka. I saw one performed when I was in NZ. It's frightening, chilling, and beautiful. Can't wait for your post on that one!

    1. I definitely enjoyed writing these posts, and I've moved New Zealand up my list of places to see after learning about these proud people. More than just The Lord of the Rings sightseeing.