The Art of Infiltrating Cultures

Pounamu: a tale of superstition for atheists

I’m not a religious person. Like at all. At all at all. I’m very very much an atheist. My attempts at a spiritual experience are often awkward (if you don’t believe me read Religious rituals for the convinced atheist).

However, I feel spiritually connected to my pounamu more than I like to admit.

Double inner koru greenstone

For those of you not acquainted with New Zealand traditions, the pounamu is the Māori name for the New Zealand greenstone, often worn as a pendant. Many visitors to New Zealand would have heard that you’re not supposed to buy your own pounamu, but that you must receive it as a gift. This way it is your pounamu who chooses you, rather than you choosing it at the shop. But beyond that, the pounamu is blessed in the Māori tradition to remove its tapu (spirit, the sacred), so the receiver of the pounamu can wear it without offending the atua (spirits) and that misfortune is avoided in this process.

In New Zealand many families give their children a pounamu when they grow up and leave home, or when they go travelling, in order to protect them and bring them good luck. Maori carvings on the greenstone represent different aspects of spirituality.

My attachment to my pounamu might sound irrational to anyone who has not been submerged in this tradition. After all, that’s how I feel about superstitions in other cultures – and definitely superstition in any religion. But my pounamu to me is the one nonliving thing I couldn’t bear to lose (and I even regard it as a living thing sometimes).


I recently underwent surgery and I was asked to remove all jewellery. The thought of going under surgery without my pounamu to protect me really scared me.

I don’t wear my pounamu all the time. I like changing necklaces and earrings around or not wearing any accessory at all. But in certain situations I couldn’t bear not wearing my pounamu.

There’s no question that I’ll wear my pounamu every time I go overseas. Since now I live in Europe, the concept of overseas might not be universal. To me going overseas means going on a trip, unknown land, adventure, and maybe some danger. I do big solo trips, and my pounamu is always with me.

There’s also no question I’ll wear my pounamu every time I go into the sea. I have never been scuba diving without my pounamu. When we are together underwater I feel that our bond gets stronger. I have caught myself thinking “he likes seawater” more than once. And when I go diving it’s always with me, giving me a sense of safety, of being home.

Free floating pounamu in the Celebes sea

I also wear my pounamu whenever I’m sick or I feel sad or lost. Pressing it in my hand whenever I make a tough decision. I held it through my biggest life events.

My pounamu was blessed by someone who is no longer in my life, but the blessing remains. And my pounamu will always be in my life.

I have never lost it – despite the many trips and moves across countries and continents. and it is a dreadful thought, to lose one’s pounamu. Someone I know lost his pounamu twice, and it somehow found its way back, in a very improbable turn of events. I want to think that if my pounamu and I ever get separated it will find its way back to me.

This is a very personal confession from an opinionated atheist who shrugs at anything religious. But there’s something else. There’s something connecting me to the atua in my pounamu. Connecting me to Earth and Ocean. Connecting me to Whale and Shark. And although I would shrug at someone talking about going to church on Sunday or not breaking mirrors, I could not live without my pounamu.

What do you think?

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