By 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 in 1888, and were annexed in 1901. Since then they have been administered by New Zealand.
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.
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.
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. 
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.
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.
 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
J. Williams, "A narrative of missionary enterprises in the South Sea Islands" (London, 1837), pp. 115–16.
Want to join the conversation?
- If it is so important for the culture in the Cook Islands why they cannot be returned to its origins?(5 votes)
- 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)
- 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)
- It was actually displayed outside in the village common. It was intended to be seen by the people.
Source: Barron's AP Art History book(1 vote)
- 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)
- what were the purpose of the staff gods?(2 votes)
- 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)
- Who was the recipient of the staff god? As in, who was it given to/who got it?(1 vote)
- what does a staff god do exactly(1 vote)
- 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)
- Did all of the barkcloth(2nd photograph) have to be removed in order to take the shaft(3rd photograph) out?(1 vote)
- Hey David Alexander do you know where I can find one of those staffs at a museum,
Bob C. Cornell(1 vote)
- The Met, in New York City, has one, but it is not currently on view. You can see it on the museum's web page, though.(1 vote)
- 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)
- Bark cloth contains Mana because of the royal patronage (and sometimes labor) that goes into it. This sacred material was wrapped purposefully to add to the overall mana of the object.(1 vote)
- I LOVE ART HISTORY I LOVE THIS COURSE
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)