God stick with barkcloth


British Museum

British Museum

Representations of the deities worshipped by Cook Islanders before their conversion to Christianity included wooden images in human form, slab carvings and staffs such as this, known as 'god sticks'. They varied in size from about 73 cm to nearly four metres, like this rare example. It is made of ironwood (Casuarina equisetfolia) wrapped with lengths of barkcloth. The upper part of the staff consists of a carved head above smaller carved figures. The lower end is a carved phallus. Some missionaries removed and destroyed phalluses from carvings, considering them obscene. Reverend John Williams observed of this image that the barkcloth contained red feathers and pieces of pearl shell, known as the manava or spirit of the god. He also recorded seeing the islanders carrying the image upright on a litter.Williams established a London Missionary Society station in 1821 on Aitutaki, one of the southern Cook Islands. He lived on Rarotonga from 1827 to 1828, having been stranded there after the ship that brought him departed without him. He supervised the building of a large ship called the Messenger of Peace, and, deploring their heathenism, spread the Christian message to the islanders. The mission was very successful, many 'idols' were given up or destroyed. The London Missionary Society retained some examples, as evidence of the 'false gods' they had overcome, to be displayed in their own museum. The mainly Polynesian collection of the London Missionary Society Museum was originally loaned to The British Museum in 1890, and then sold to us in 1911.

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  • Title: God stick with barkcloth
  • Date Created: 1750/1850
  • Physical Dimensions: Length: 396.00cm (stored horizontally); Width: 60.00cm; Depth: 60.00cm
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Technique: carved; bound; wrapped; stamped; beaten
  • Subject: deity
  • Registration number: Oc1978,Q.845
  • Place: Found/Acquired Rarotonga
  • Peoples: Made by Cook Islander
  • Other information: Cultural rights may apply.
  • Material: wood; paper mulberry bark; feather
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: From London Missionary Society
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