Posted by: kshayes513 | December 9, 2009

The Statue Sleeps

My friend Carol, a hula instructor with extensive knowledge of Hawaiian culture, recently sent this email to a group of friends planning to visit Salem, MA:

Kuka'ilimoku, Hawaiian war god. 19th century temple statue in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum

“When you go to Peabody Essex Museum please don’t forget to pay your respects to Kuka`ilimoku, King Kamehameha I’s war god, who lives there.  (Ku the Island Seizer)

“He is one of a very few ki`i (tikis) that escaped the destruction of the gods’ images perpetrated by the Hawaiians themselves after contact w/ the British (but years before the Christian missionaries got there: It was a political, secularist, and feminist move led by one of Kamehameha’s widows.)

“He is “asleep,” a state the museum had a kahuna put him in to prevent him from being too powerful without the required constant attention of a caregiver.  But I think you will still feel his mana (energy) if you visit him..

This made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, at the idea of a statue being so awake, so powerful, it has to be put to sleep. And notice that Carol says that Ku lives at the museum, not that he is “exhibited” there. When I asked her about it, she added this:

“Hawaiians don’t believe that a piece of carved wood has power per se; it’s more that the god with his power inhabits the physical statue.  I’ve had this explained to me in a way that sounded pretty much like how the nuns explained Catholic religious images to me; that surprised me, because the same nuns would have had me believe that “pagans” thought chunks of wood had power.

“The same word, ki`i, which is Hawaiian for tiki, can also mean a photograph or picture, so Hawaiians know the difference between a representation of a god and the god himself. This isn’t to say that they don’t believe the image has power by virtue of its likeness. Post “Enlightenment,” our own culture seems to have developed a very diminished idea of what “likeness” entails.”

I consulted another friend who has had some encounters with Maori beliefs in New Zealand (the Maoris are some sort of ethnic cousins to the Hawaiians) and she told me of an exhibit in New Zealand where bowls of water were dotted around for visitors to ritually wash themselves, so that they wouldn’t accidentally take any mana away with them.

If you’re Polynesian or come from some other culture that holds these kinds of beliefs, you may be saying, “So what?”  But for most Westerners, the idea of “inanimate” objects having any sort of power, consciousness or metaphysical energy is completely alien, and almost incomprehensible.

Yet Westerners also walked this close to the natural world, long ago, and we still hold onto some of those beliefs. I’m sure you know at least one person who talks to their plants or to their car; and many people confronted by a computer or some other complex machine that isn’t doing what we want, act as if the machine were deliberately thwarting us.

Then we have all our religious, patriotic and family symbols. The more we value one of these symbols, the more likely we are to act as if it had some level of awareness. How do you feel about seeing someone damage a picture of someone you love, or a saint’s image, or your national symbol? If you have strong feelings about such things, you may act as if God or your saint or your flag has actually suffered or been insulted. Does a picture or a piece of cloth feel pain or outrage? If you drop a communion wafer on the ground, have you hurt Jesus?

So what do people think about material objects in the world you’re building? I admit, this is a much bigger question for fantasy worldbuilders, as science fiction creators are unlikely to think about possible life or energy in things, unless they’re writing about AI or atomic physics!

So where do we find animism in current fantasy? (I say “animism” with conscious imprecision, as most people misuse it, like Carol’s nuns talking about pagan images, to oversimplify the beliefs of traditional cultures).

Greg Keyes, Children of the Changeling. His first 2 novels draw much on the mythologies of northeast Asia. The world includes the divine spirits of rivers and springs, as well as a rather scary “godsword.”

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Pratchett has introduced a number of “sentient” objects into the Discworld. The most famous is definitely The Luggage. If you’re an enemy of its current owner, beware!

Tolkien’s One Ring. While most objects in Middle Earth are perfectly ordinary, the One Ring seems to have a will and purpose of its own. This was portrayed in the movies by having the Ring whisper to the characters as it tried to tempt or terrify them. Pretty effective!

I’m sure there are many, many other good fantasy examples of objects like the stature of Kuka’ilimoku. Please post a comment and suggest some!


  1. In Tolkien’s books, the One Ring had the power of *Sauron* in it; it was not its own power. Indeed, I never thought of it this way, but it’s similar to how the Orthodox Christians understand icons: windows through which Divinity may shine. In this case, of course, a fallen angel rather than a Divinity!

  2. Also similar to what Carol says about the Hawaiian god inhabiting his own wooden image. I’m sure the similarity in the Ring is no coincidence; Tolkien must have understood this concept very well from his own studies of European mythologies.

  3. And even more, from European folk tales. Putting your soul into an object to ensure your immortality has a long history among folk traditions. It was picked up by some fairy tale authors, and moved on from there through Tolkien to horcruxes (to skim rather rapidly through a lengthy story tradition!).

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