If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Staff-god

By The British Museum
Staff-god in its barkcloth wrapping, late 18th–early 19th century, wood, paper mulberry bark, feather, 396 cm, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (© Trustees of the British Museum)
Staff-god in its barkcloth wrapping, late 18th–early 19th century, wood, paper mulberry bark, feather, 396 cm, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (© Trustees of the British Museum)
The Cook Islands are situated in the middle of the South Pacific. The wood carvers of the island of Rarotonga, one of the Cook Islands, have a distinctive style. The Cook Islands were settled around the period 800–1000 C.E. Captain Cook made the first official European sighting of the islands in 1773, but spent little time in the area during his voyages. In 1821 the London Missionary Society set up a mission station on the island of Aitutaki, followed by one on Rarotonga in 1827. The Cook Islands became a
British Protectorate
in 1888, and were annexed in 1901. Since then they have been administered by New Zealand.
Detail, Staff-god, late 18th–early 19th century, wood, paper mulberry bark, feather, 396 cm long, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (© Trustees of the British Museum)
Detail, Staff-god, late 18th–early 19th century, wood, paper mulberry bark, feather, 396 cm long, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (© Trustees of the British Museum)

The most sacred

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 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. This image was among fourteen presented to Reverend John Williams at Rarotonga in May 1827.
Conservators working on the barkcloth wrapping. Staff-god, late 18th–early 19th century, wood, paper mulberry bark, feather, 396 cm, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (© Trustees of the British Museum)
Conservators working on the barkcloth wrapping. Staff-god, late 18th–early 19th century, wood, paper mulberry bark, feather, 396 cm, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (© Trustees of the British Museum)
The only surviving wrapped example of a large staff god, this impressive image is composed of a central wood shaft wrapped in an enormous roll of decorated barkcloth. There are no other surviving large staff-gods from the Cook Islands that retain their barkcloth wrapping as this one does. This was probably one of the most sacred of Rarotonga's objects.
Detail, Staff-god, late 18th–early 19th century, wood, paper mulberry bark, feather, 396 cm long, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (© Trustees of the British Museum)
Detail, Staff-god, late 18th–early 19th century, wood, paper mulberry bark, feather, 396 cm long, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (© Trustees of the British Museum)
The shaft is in the form of an elongated body, with a head and small figures at one end. The other end, composed of small figures and a naturalistic penis, is missing. A feathered pendant is bound in one ear.
Little is known of the function or identity of these images. The ethnologist Roger Duff speculated that they represent Tangaroa the creator god, but without evidence. What is clear is that in their materials they combine the results of the skilled labor of men and women. They also have an explicit sexual aspect, thus embodying male and female productive and reproductive qualities. [1]

Male and female elements

This staff god is a potent combination of male and female elements. The wooden core, made by male carvers, has a large head at one end and originally terminated in a phallus. Smaller figures in profile appear to be prominently male.
Detail, Staff-god, late 18th–early 19th century, wood, paper mulberry bark, feather, 396 cm long, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (© Trustees of the British Museum)
Detail, Staff-god, late 18th–early 19th century, wood, paper mulberry bark, feather, 396 cm long, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (© Trustees of the British Museum)
Jean Tekura Mason, curator of the Cook Islands Library and Museum Society suggests that the other figures facing outwards could depict women in childbirth. The barkcloth, made by women, not only protects the ancestral power ('mana) of the deity, but contains it within the different layers.
Detail, Staff-god, late 18th–early 19th century, wood, paper mulberry bark, feather, 396 cm long, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (© Trustees of the British Museum)
Detail, Staff-god, late 18th–early 19th century, wood, paper mulberry bark, feather, 396 cm long, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (© Trustees of the British Museum)
Notes:
[1] S.J.P. Hooper, "Robert and Lisa Sainsbury collection," 3 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press and University of East Anglia, Norwich, 1997), p. 17.
© Trustees of the British Museum
The British Museum logo

Additional resources
J. Williams, "A narrative of missionary enterprises in the South Sea Islands" (London, 1837), pp. 115–16.

Want to join the conversation?

  • duskpin seedling style avatar for user Andrea Calderon
    If it is so important for the culture in the Cook Islands why they cannot be returned to its origins?
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      A very good question. I speculate. Maybe :1)Since the Native Cook Islanders (not the white New Zealanders who live among them) no longer hold to the old religion, maybe they don't want the staff god back; 2) the climate of the British museum is better for the preservation of the artifact than any available to the library or museum in the Cook Islands; 3) nobody with authority to request it and the resources to preserve it has yet made a request for it.
      Perhaps the best way to find out which (if any) of these is the case would be to write to the British Museum and ask whether or not the staff god's return has yet been requested, and, if so, why it hasn't yet happened.
      (7 votes)
  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    Where would a "Staff God" have been kept or stored? I can't imagine that island humidity and conditions were very forgiving to these sacred objects?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leafers sapling style avatar for user Alejandra A.
    What is the function of the Staff God and the wrapping? I understood that the Staff God probably represented an ancestor and that the wrapping may have protected the deity but what do the two things combined do?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine seed style avatar for user joshua.fuhrman2023
    what were the purpose of the staff gods?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Same purpose as gods in any society or religion.
      In terms of the staff gods, though, your guess is as good as anyone's.
      The article included the following sentences, " Little is known of the function or identity of these images. The ethnologist Roger Duff speculated that they represent Tangaroa the creator god, but without evidence.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user jonesa2020
    Who was the recipient of the staff god? As in, who was it given to/who got it?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine seed style avatar for user Alex Reinhardt
    what does a staff god do exactly
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Gods in and of different religions are depicted differently. Islam prohibits depiction of Allah, Christianity allows depiction of Jesus, the Son of god, and doesn't prohibit depiction of god the Father and the Holy spirit, but admits that none of these depictions are actual renditions. Other religions have no problem with various forms of depictions, and even with worship of those forms. In the Cook Islands, the gods were depicted in the forms of staffs wrapped with cloth. They did the regular stuff that gods in other religions do. The only difference here is the form.
      (2 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Jin Park
    Did all of the barkcloth(2nd photograph) have to be removed in order to take the shaft(3rd photograph) out?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • female robot ada style avatar for user Vicki Bamman
    The last paragraph says that the barkcloth "not only protects the ancestral power ('mana) of the deity, but contains it within the different layers." Is that the purpose of the wrapping or simply a result of wrapping it? I wonder if they wrapped the staff god in barkcloth as a way to retain it and its blessings…?

    The wrapping of a god reminds me of the custom in ancient Rome. A statue of Jupiter was kept tied to his pedestal near the altar, by strips of woolen cloth. They did not want him to depart from the city. Might the purpose of the wrappings be something similar?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby purple style avatar for user gustavoestebanfalcon
    I LOVE ART HISTORY I LOVE THIS COURSE
    :DDDDD



    The Hog Rider card is unlocked from the Spell Valley (Arena 5). He is a very fast building-targeting, melee troop with moderately high hitpoints ...
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Tanav Muthavarapu
    In one of the pictures I see people doing something on the Staff God did the people make it or did they clean it.How did they get , did they get it on their journey when starting a colony in Australia and make a trade.
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      The picture is of the staff god that is on display at the British Museum in London. The technicians are working to conserve it. The staff god itself was made hundreds of years ago by Cook Islanders. For some reason unstated in the essay, this staff god was presented to the Rev. John Williams at Rarotonga in 1827. Rev. Williams saw to its being shipped back to England, and the trustees of the London Mission Society eventually moved it from their own museum to the better care of the British Museum.
      (1 vote)