The love of personal decoration appears very early in the history of the human race. (Brigham)
Hawaiian featherwork consists first of lei or strings of feathers worn in the hair, or in later times the neck; Kāhili used as royal insignia; ahuʻula cloaks or capes worn by chiefs; mahiole helmets; images of the god Kūkaʻilimoku, the war-god of Kamehameha; and a few other items. Brigham)
The Hawaiians were a close observer of nature. The hunters know the haunts of birds they sought and the season when the plumage was at its best.
The rare birds were never killed, but captured alive and released, after the feathers desired were plucked.
When the British ships Resolution and Discovery entered Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, in January 1779, they were greeted by thousands of people in canoes.
They had arrived during the Makahiki festival, dedicated to the god of peace and productivity, Lono. Presentations of cloaks and helmets were made to Captain Cook. (British Museum)
In contrast to the feathered cloak, which was also found in Tahiti and New Zealand, the feathered helmet is peculiar to Hawai‘i. Together with the feathered cloak, the crested helmet belonged to the insignia of the high chiefs, or later the king. (National Museum of Australia)
In the Hawaiian Islands, feathered cloaks, capes and helmets were worn by male chiefs to signify their status. These were worn during ceremonial occasions, which often took place at heiau (temple areas,) as well as during makahiki.
All of a chief’s garments were considered kapu, having a divine or sacred power, and would not be worn by anyone else.
It was a custom to cut the hair close at the sides of the head leaving a ridge of still, erect hair, like a mane on the top of the scalp, and this mane-like ridge was called mahiole, the same name given to the helmet. (Brigham)
Mahiole were constructed of the aerial roots of the ʻieʻie vine, woven into a basketry frame. They were perfectly fitted to an individual, and protected the most sacred part of the body, the head.
A net of olona fibers was laid over the framework, and feathers attached in bundles in the same way as for the cloaks. The featherwork starts from the bottom, so each new row conceals the quills of the feathers below. (Museum of New Zealand)
Small feathers of a uniform size were attached. Red feathers were gathered by specialist bird-catchers from the ‘i‘iwi bird, a honeycreeper, and the black and yellow feathers from honeyeaters. Garments made of these feathers were reserved for particularly high-ranking chiefs.
The shape of the crest echoes the crescent designs found on cloaks, and in men’s hairstyles and tattoo designs. The Hawaiian word for crescent, hoaka, means to ‘frighten away’, but also indicates brightness, splendor and glory.
The mahiole represented the political status of male chiefs who had various authority.
There are many different kinds of mahiole that can be seen today found in museums around the world from the mahiole haka (short crested helmet,) mahiole pōheoheo (knobbed helmet,) mahiole haka kahakaha (striped short crest helmet,) spoked crescent helmet and others.
On the island of Hawaii, helmets with a high crest were favored. Other helmets, which had mushroom-like ornaments on top, or which were decorated with human hair, were worn by warriors or lesser chiefs. (National Museum of Australia)
Kaumuali‘i’s mahiole is consists of red ‘i‘iwi, yellow and black feathers and knotted a million times into a lacy filigree. The mahiole was a gift from Kamehameha I in 1810 after Kaumuali‘i stepped down as high chief of Kauai. It is the only feathered mahiole whose owner can be confirmed. (Bishop Museum)