Uncoiling the meaning of the Maori koru

Fern coil - the nascent leaf

It looks like the end of life, not the beginning: dark, hairy, oily-looking stalks sticking out of the fern tree’s base, with black clusters on their ends. It seems that the fern has suffered some disease or is about to shed this wizened thing so new life can begin. In reality, these black clusters are the springtime renewal itself. For each is a tightly coiled spiral out of which, as the spike below sheds its hairy sheath, unspools the entire complexly-articulated, meter-long, bright green leaf, once tightly hidden and concentrated within the unappealing coil.

Pre-historic giant nautlus at Te Papa Museum

We have long been intrigued by spiral seashells like the nautilus, whose shells present a calcified record of their lives. The excretions they deposit at their outer edge harden into the shells, layer by layer outward in a spiral, so the gradations present a history of their life experience.

Fern coil and the full-blown leaf

The nascent fern is different, however, for the whole elaborate leaf is encapsulated in the coil out of which it emerges. In that way, it can be compared to one’s genetic imprint unfurling into childhood and then maturity, complete even at its start, but still subject to external effects of culture, experience and so on. More spiritually, it can be seen like the undeveloped potential of a person, prepared to become the fullness of her achievement over time.

The koru used in a traffic barrier

It’s no wonder the fern coil has great symbolic power for the Maori and, in various forms, shows up all over the country, as the koru, or loop. For the Maori, it has represented, naturally, new beginnings or new life and growth. The coil unfurling in the light has also spoken of their core spiritual values of awakening to understanding or enlightenment.

As a spiral, furthermore, the coil points both outward and inward. So it has meant not just opening up the future, but looking back to the source of life as well. The Maori koru tells us that there are constants in life despite change. It coils outward to possibility (whether personal maturation or via generations to come) as well as inward to its roots (whether one’s personal character or a people’s cultural heritage). Reconciling where you’re going and where you’ve come from, as the koru does, can bring peace and balance to life.

Not all fern trees develop out of this coil. The most notable is the silver fern, whose complete leaf is the symbol of New Zealand itself because of its Maori roots and the emblem of its famous international rugby team, the All-Blacks. The delicately etched, pointed leaves of the fern are bright green above, but a silvery white underneath.

The story goes that Maori would crease a bit of the silver fern leaf along a pathway to show its silver underside and so mark their passage in a way that foreign eyes could not perceive. The koru, and the messages hidden within its spiral frond, can still indicate a way of living – one of realizing potential with a sense of balance – that today we often struggle to perceive.

(For more pictures from New Zealand, CLICK HERE to view the slideshow at the end of the New Zealand itinerary page.)

This entry was posted in New Zealand 2012 - 2014. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.