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. 

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.

Whai or Maori String Games

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Maori games and musical instruments: String game

Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga

Whai or Maori String Games

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

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. 

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

string

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira

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.   

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

Maori girls playing whai

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

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)   

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

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

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

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.

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

String Game - Ethnological Expedition

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

String Game - Ethnological Expedition

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

String Game - Ethnological Expedition

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

String Game - Ethnological Expedition

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

String Game - Ethnological Expedition

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

String Game - Ethnological Expedition

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

String Game - Ethnological Expedition

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

String Game - Ethnological Expedition

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

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.   

Johannes Anderson: Ethnologist & first Librarian at Alexander Turnbull

Johannes Carl Andersen

Ministry for Culture and Heritage

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

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

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

String games, Jerusalem, 1921

Ministry for Culture and Heritage

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

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

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