Māori string games

A DigitalNZ Story by Zokoroa

Photographs and articles on traditional Māori string games, together with a list of activity suggestions.

Games, String figures, string games, Whai, Cat's cradle, pastimes, Ngai Tuhoe, Māori, Gisborne, Rotorua, Whanganui

This story captures photographs and articles on Māori string games (also known as whai, huhi, or maui). Whai is also short for Te Whai Wawewawe a Maui. Suggestions for activities, including videos on making string figures, are also listed. 

Image: Maori girls playing a string game
Maori girls playing a string game

Alexander Turnbull Library

STRing Patterns

The following photos bring back memories of when our mother showed us string figure games that she had learnt as a student at Lake Rotoiti Primary School near Rotorua. She began with a length of string, the end of which she tied in a knot to form a circle. When laid across each palm between the thumb and little finger and pulled taut, a rectangular loop formed that created the basic pattern whai (see Diagram: First position). Then she followed the steps in Diagram: Opening A. You can add extra steps to create specific shapes that represent a story, an object or star path. The game can be played solo or with two or more people.

Image: Whai or Maori String Games
Whai or Maori String Games

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Image: Maori games and musical instruments: String game
Maori games and musical instruments: String game

Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga

Image: Whai or Maori String Games
Whai or Maori String Games

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Image: String games
String games

NZEI Te Riu Roa (New Zealand Educational Institute)

Types of materials

Flax (harakeke) was traditionally used for string games. You can also use string, wool, nylon and braid.  How long a piece of string?  - that will depend on the design. Some games use a two metre length of string (e.g. Cup and saucer), whilst some games need shorter or longer string. 

Image: string

String, braided "unbleached mud yarn, 75% riga [hemp], 25% New Zealand flax"

string

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira

Image: Group of men and women with kete and other items made from flax

1921: Group at Koriniti display flaxen items, including whai (woman standing on the right). Photo by James McDonald.

Group of men and women with kete and other items made from flax

Alexander Turnbull Library

Various designs

To get you started on creating various designs, TKI Health and and Physical Education Online lists four activities:                                   >  Cup and saucer Te kapu me te hoiha                                                                                                                                                         >  Parachute patterns - Ngā heketau te tauira                                                                                                                                                  >  Two of diamonds - Ngā taimana e rua                                                                                                                                                           >   Mahi whai relay Tānga mahi whai                                                                                                                                                              For lessons from various cultures, see String Figures and How to Make Them: A study of Cat's Cradle in many lands by Caroline  Furness Jayne (1906), which has detailed diagrams.   

Image: Maori girls playing whai

Postcard of Māori girls playing whai, photographed by Thomas Pringle, circa 1906-1920.

Maori girls playing whai

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Image: Children holding Maori string patterns

A group of children holding up a variety of Māori string patterns, photographed circa 1939 by H R Vine.

Children holding Maori string patterns

Alexander Turnbull Library

WORDS RECITED DURING STRING GAMES

According to Edward Tregear in The Maori race (1904) , the "Cat's Cradle” (whai, huhi, or maui) "was known to the Maoris as to almost all the inhabitants of the Malay Archipelago and South Seas. It was played with the two hands and a piece of string, assuming very complicated forms; sometimes a whole drama was played by means of the changing shapes. Two of the favourites were the ascent of Tawhaki the Lightning god, to heaven, and the fishing up of the land by the hero Maui. There were proper songs chanted as accompaniments to the movements of the players' hands." (See NZETC)   

Image: Whai , or Cat's Cradle , Volume 34, 1901, Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute 1901

1901: Description of popular patterns and the words recited aloud when a pattern was made.

Whai , or Cat's Cradle , Volume 34, 1901, Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute 1901

Alexander Turnbull Library

HistOrical photographs of Traditional DESIGNS 

Photographs, films and written accounts of string games were taken during Dominion Museum Ethnographic expeditions to various parts of New Zealand during 1919-1923.  In addition, you can view historical photographs of Ngai Tuhoe playing string games at Whakatāne taken by Werner Kissling in 1939 - see British Museum's Online Collection

Image: Dominion Museum recording 1923

Dominion Museum Ethnographic expeditions, 1919-1923

Photographer James McDonald and ethnologists Elsdon Best, Johannes Andersen & Dr Peter Buck visited NZ districts.

Dominion Museum recording 1923

Ministry for Culture and Heritage

Image: James Ingram McDonald

James McDonald: Dominion Museum photographer (1905-26)

McDonald took movies and photographs at Gisborne, Rotorua and Whanganui.

James Ingram McDonald

Ministry for Culture and Heritage

Gisborne district, March-April 1923

Account of the expedition's activities from Gisborne to Te Araroa and Hicks Bay includes string games.

MAORI FOLKLORE (Evening Post, 18 April 1923)

National Library of New Zealand

A special screening of photographer James McDonald's films was shown at the Whakaahua Māori Exhibition held in 1986 (see Papers Past: Tu Tangata, no. 28, ! Feb 1986). You can also see a summary of the scenes McDonald filmed listed on Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision: Gisborne (1919)Rotorua (1920); and Whanganui River (1921).  An article about the Gisborne expedition held in 1923 has been written by Natalie Roberston in the Journal of the Polynesian Society (March 2019), which schools can access online via the EPIC database Gale: Global issues in context.

Image: String Game - Ethnological Expedition

Series of photos taken by James McDonald during a Dominion Museum Ethnographic expedition in 1923.

String Game - Ethnological Expedition

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Image: String Game - Ethnological Expedition
String Game - Ethnological Expedition

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Image: String Game - Ethnological Expedition
String Game - Ethnological Expedition

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Image: String Game - Ethnological Expedition
String Game - Ethnological Expedition

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Image: String Game - Ethnological Expedition
String Game - Ethnological Expedition

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Image: String Game - Ethnological Expedition
String Game - Ethnological Expedition

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Image: String Game - Ethnological Expedition
String Game - Ethnological Expedition

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Image: String Game - Ethnological Expedition
String Game - Ethnological Expedition

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Image: String Game - Ethnological Expedition
String Game - Ethnological Expedition

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

At the Science Congress (1923) film was shown by McDonald and a paper delivered by Andersen.

SCIENCE CONGRESS (Evening Post, 05 January 1923)

National Library of New Zealand

String figureS studied by Johannes Andersen 

During the Dominion Ethnographic expeditions, ethnologist Johannes Anderson studied the various string figures created and became an expert himself. As he met with different iwi, Andersen came across similar and new forms of string figures, some of which had differing names. He published papers on string games and delivered lectures to various groups. Andersen was also the first Librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library from 1919-1937.   

Image: Johannes Carl Andersen

Johannes Anderson: Ethnologist & first Librarian at Alexander Turnbull

Johannes Carl Andersen

Ministry for Culture and Heritage

Image: Andersen, Johannes Carl, 1873-1962 : Diary

In the back of Johannes Andersen's diary are research notes on Māori songs, string games, and bird songs.

Andersen, Johannes Carl, 1873-1962 : Diary

Alexander Turnbull Library

Summary of Johannes Andersen's speech delivered to Historical Section of the Wellington Philosophical Society, 1919.

MAORI STRING GAMES (Evening Post, 16 July 1919)

National Library of New Zealand

Image: String games, Jerusalem, 1921

1921: Women demonstrate string games to Johannes Andersen at Jerusalem (Hiruhārama), on the Whanganui River.

String games, Jerusalem, 1921

Ministry for Culture and Heritage

Rotorua: string figures, 1920

Andersen attended Rotorua gathering for the Prince of Wales & saw 18 new string figures.

PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY (Evening Post, 21 July 1920)

National Library of New Zealand

Whanganui River, 1921

Report of trip to Whanganui River in 1921 where string figures & their names were compared with Rotorua & Gisborne.

AMONG THE MAORIS (Evening Post, 28 October 1921)

National Library of New Zealand

Whanganui River, 1921

Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck) describes a speed competition between a Māori woman and Andersen to make string figures.

9 — Games and Pastimes - The Coming of the Maori

Victoria University of Wellington

Pioneer Club, Dec 1921

Andersen describes how he began documenting string games 3 years ago, & had noted 40-50 designs.

WOMEN IN PRINT. (Evening Post, 01 December 1921)

National Library of New Zealand

Gisborne district, 1923

Andersen recounts his trip to the Gisborne district with Elsdon Best and James McDonald.

MAORI PASTIMES (Evening Post, 29 June 1923)

National Library of New Zealand

Advert for 1924 lecture

Advert for one of several lectures given by Johannes Andersen.

MAORI STRING GAMES (Evening Post, 19 July 1924)

National Library of New Zealand

Image: Maori string games. Fourth series

Article published 1926

Series of articles on string figures published in New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology.

Maori string games. Fourth series

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira

Wellington Māori Club, 1936

1st AGM (March 1936) stated it had formed various study groups, including string games. Co-vice-president was Andersen.

MAORI CLUB (Evening Post, 31 March 1936)

National Library of New Zealand

Dominion Museum lectures

Dominion Musem Lecture to students, 1937

A "movie" of the East Coast expedition shown, which included Andersen practising string figures.

MUSEUM LECTURES (Evening Post, 19 March 1937)

National Library of New Zealand

Dominion Museum lecture, 1939

Lecture by Mr W. J. Phillipps was illustrated with two boys giving a demo of string games.

THE MAORI AT HOME (Evening Post, 16 June 1939)

National Library of New Zealand

WriTten accounts of Traditional string games

Various accounts of string games observed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be read online at Early New Zealand Books (ENZB) and the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre (NZETC).  

NZETC

1925: Elsdon Best gives an overview of string games by Māori and other cultures in "Games and pastimes of the Māori",.

Whai or Cat's Cradle - Games and Pastimes of the Maori

Victoria University of Wellington

NZETC

1930: Popular whai games mentioned by James Cowan in "The Māori: Yesterday and today”.

The Whai - The Maori: Yesterday and To-day

Victoria University of Wellington

Image: Cats Cradle (Whai). — Dominion Museum collection

NZETC

1941: Photograph of woman and man creating a string pattern included in Elsdon Best's "The Maori" Vol 2.

Cats Cradle (Whai). — Dominion Museum collection

New Zealand Electronic Text Collection