Hawaiian Mythology
by Martha Beckwith 1940



How traditional narrative art develops orally among a nature-worshiping people like the Polynesians can be best illustrated by surveying the whole body of such art among a single isolated group like the Hawaiian with reference to the historical background reflected in the stories and to similar traditions among allied groups in the South Seas. Something of the slant of thought upon which society is regulated must be realized as it is brought out in particular instances. For this purpose a division of the subject into stories of gods and ghosts, of ancestors as they appear in the genealogies of chiefs, and of fiction in the form of legend and romance has been here adopted, although one form often overlaps another.

Hawaiians use the term kaao for a fictional story or one in which fancy plays an important part, that of moolelo for a narrative about a historical figure, one which is supposed to follow historical events. Stories of the gods are moolelo. They are distinguished from secular narrative not by name, but by the manner of telling. Sacred stories are told only by day and the listeners must not move in front of the speaker; to do so would be highly disrespectful to the gods. Folktale in the form of anecdote, local legend, or family story is also classed under moolelo. It is by far the most popular form of story-telling surviving today and offers a rich field for further investigation, but since no systematic collecting has been done in this most difficult of forms for the foreign transcriber, it is represented here only incidentally when a type tale has become standardized in folklore. Nor can the distinction between kaao as fiction and moolelo as fact be pressed too closely. It is rather in the intention than in the fact. Many a so-called moolelo which a foreigner would reject as fantastic nevertheless corresponds with the Hawaiian view of the relation between nature and man. A kaao, although often making adroit use of traditional and amusing episodes, may also proceed quite naturally, the distinction being that it is consciously composed to tickle the fancy rather than to inform the mind as to supposed events.

The Hawaiians worshiped nature gods and these gods entered to a greater or less extent into all the affairs of daily life, played a dominant part in legendary history, and furnished a rich imaginative background for the development of fictional narrative. Hence the whole range of story-telling is included in the term mythology. Among Hawaiians the word for god (akua) is of indeterminate usage. Thus any object of nature may be a god; so may a dead body or a living person or a made image, if worshiped as a god. Every form of nature has its class god, who may become aumakua or guardian god of a family into which an offspring of the god is born, provided the family worship such an offspring with prayer and offerings. The name kupua is given to such a child of a god when it is born into the family as a human being. The power of a kupua is limited to the district to which he belongs. In story he may be recognized by a transformation body in the form of animal or plant or other natural object belonging to him through his divine origin, and by more than natural powers through control over forms of nature which serve him because of family descent. As a human being he is preternaturally strong and beautiful or ugly and terrible. The name comes from the word kupu as applied to a plant that sprouts from a parent stock, as in the word kupuna for an ancestor. So the word ohana, used to designate a family group, refers to the shoots (oha) which grow up about a root-stock. The terms akua, aumakua, and kupua are as a matter of fact interchangeable, their use depending upon the attitude of the worshiper. An akua may become an aumakua of a particular family. A person may be represented in story as a kupua during his life and an aumakua if worshiped after death. A ghost (lapu) is called an akua lapu to designate those tricky spirits who frighten persons at night. Nonhuman spirits who dwell in the myriad forms of nature are the little gods (akua lii) regularly invoked in prayers for protection. "Little gods who made not heaven and earth" they were called in contempt, after the introduction of Christianity had brought the scientific viewpoint to the contemplation of the forms and forces of nature.

An animistic philosophy thus conditions the Hawaiian's whole conception of nature and of life. Much that seems to us wildest fancy in Hawaiian story is to him a sober statement of fact as he interprets it through the interrelations of gods with nature and with man. Another philosophic concept comes out in his way of accommodating himself as an individual to the physical universe in which he finds himself placed. He arrives at an organized conception of form through the pairing of opposites, one depending upon the other to complete the whole. So ideas of night and day, light and darkness, male and female, land and water, rising and setting (of the sun), small and large, little and big, hard and light (of force), upright and prostrate (of position), upward and downward, toward and away from (the speaker) appear paired in repeated reiteration as a stylistic element in composition of chants, and function also in everyday language, where one of a pair lies implicit whenever its opposite is used in reference to the speaker. It determines the order of emergence in the so-called chant of creation, where from lower forms of life emerge offspring on a higher scale and water forms of life are paired with land forms until the period of the gods (po) is passed and the birth of the great gods and of mankind ushers in the era of light (ao). It appears in the recitation by rote of genealogies in which husbands and wives are paired through literally hundreds of generations. It is notable that in similar genealogies such as the Hebrew, in which, as introduced by the missionaries, Hawaiians showed extraordinary interest, males alone are recorded.

Gods are represented in Hawaiian story as chiefs dwelling in far lands or in the heavens and coming as visitors or immigrants to some special locality in the group sacred to their worship. Of the great gods worshiped throughout Polynesia, Ku, Kane, Lono, and Kanaloa were named to the early missionaries. They are invoked together in chant, as in the lines:

A distant place lying in quietness
For Ku, for Lono, for Kane and Kanaloa.

They are recognized by the appearance of whatever natural phenomena have been associated with their worship by tradition or ritual custom, as color, scent, cloud or rainbow forms, storm signs, and the notes of birds. Each had a place in family worship. The first three, at all events, had, by the time of Captain Cook's landing, been drawn into the national temple worship. Subordinate gods attached to the families of the great gods were invoked by those who hoped to gain through them special skills or success in some particular form of activity. Even thieves had their patron god. Some of the names of these departmental gods as recorded in Hawaii are to be found attached to South Sea deities; others are of native origin. The elaborate cycle of story centering about the family of the fire goddess Pele of the volcano bears every mark of such local development.

The original character of these great gods is hard to determine. Buck thinks they were of human origin, chiefs whose superior ability in life or the mystery which surrounded them on earth led to their deification after their death or disappearance. I believe that they were at first conceived as nature deities of universal significance, like Pele, and their identification with a particular human being, perhaps as an incarnation of the god, came later. So Captain Cook was worshiped as Lono because the people thought the god, or possibly the chief who impersonated the god, had returned to them in the form of this impressive stranger. Worshipers of a god were sometimes identified with the god after their death. It also happened that a man acquired the name of an ancestor during life as a sobriquet. A certain Hawaiian chief was called Wakea because he had a child by his own daughter, a departure from custom like that narrated in the myth of the first parent. An episode told in the life of Lono the god seems to have become mixed up with the quarrel of the chief Lono-i-ka-makahiki with his wife Kaikilani. Thus confusion arises through the habit of doubling names and we are unable to say in particular instances whether the god or his namesake, or which namesake in the historical sequence, is alluded to. But divinity is thought of in Polynesia as lying dormant in the idea and manifesting itself in form only when it becomes active--an activity represented among a people obsessed by the social importance of genealogical descent as a succession of births. It seems to me therefore probable that different immigrant families brought with them the gods and ritual familiar to them in the south, and developed local or personal gods in competition with a rival's claim to sources of aid from the spirit world. The particular form such a god took depended upon some dream or incident which suggested that a god had thus manifested himself to them.

Hawaiian mythology recognizes a prehuman period before mankind was born when spirits alone peopled first the sea and then the land, which was born of the gods and thrust up out of the sea. In Hawaii, myths about this prehuman period are rare. No story is told of the long incubation of thought which finally becomes active and generates the material universe and mankind; the creation story in Hawaii begins at the active stage and conforms as closely as possible to the biblical account. No story is told of the rending apart of earth and heaven, after the birth of the gods. No family of gods is represented, no struggle of the son against the primeval father, no story of the ascent to the heaven of the gods after esoteric wisdom, no myth of Tiki and the first woman, or one so obscured as to remain doubtful. Even Wakea and Papa, whose figures play a dominating part in Hawaiian myth and story, are represented as parents upon the genealogical line, not as the Sky and Earth deities their names imply. Thus the imagination, which in Polynesian groups in the South Seas plays with cosmic forces, in Hawaii is limited to human action on earth, magnified by incarnations out of a divine ancestry. Cosmic myths are either absent or told in terms of human society.

The comparison of Hawaiian stories with versions from the southern Pacific offers an important link in tracing routes of intercourse during the period of migration of related Polynesian groups. When the peopling of Hawaii took place cannot be clearly demonstrated. It was probably some centuries after the Christian era and perhaps first by way of Micronesia, from whence the earliest Polynesian voyagers may have spread out fanwise over the eastern Pacific. The firstcomers to the Hawaiian group may have chanced upon these uninhabited islands. They may have followed flights of migrating birds or observed currents which brought strange pieces of wreckage to their shores. There is no archaeological evidence to show that any people of a different culture had lived here before them. Later migrations certainly took off from Tahiti, as is distinctly recorded in old chants and legends and further proved by linguistic identities and corresponding forms of culture between the two areas. Thus Hawaii, although for many centuries finally cut off from contact with the parent group, retained a considerable body of common tradition and still kept the memory of the ancestral bonds with "Kahiki" as the rootstock (kumu) of the family line. All were branches (lala) from the parent stock. The plot of many Hawaiian romances and hero tales turns upon such a claim to relationship with a chief in Tahiti through whom the child of the humbler parent lays claim to divine lineage.

Hawaii was a large and fertile land. After the hardships and struggles of early colonization the social order became stabilized, long voyages ceased, chiefs settled down to a life of leisure, and aristocratic arts and amusements flourished. Even in the humblest family, story-telling furnished entertainment for long evenings. In the courts of chiefs it was a popular amusement on the occasion of a journey or a visit. Genealogies and local legends were carefully preserved. Traditional hero tales and romances were spun out long into the night by means of song and dialogue, one detail following another according to a fixed pattern, or an episode being introduced from another legend to prolong the tale. A contemporary incident might be adroitly narrated in terms of some legendary episode; an old tale localized or moved forward into the cycle told of a contemporary chief; a story of gods made over into one of human exploit.

But a tale once composed retained its general form, even much of its detail. Since the habit of memorizing does not easily die out, a comparatively large body of such traditional story has been preserved, for the most part from oral recitation. Hawaiians today readily distinguish stories invented on a foreign pattern, of which, after the coming of the whites, they were prolific composers. It was through the introduction of the new art of letters that the missionaries won their most spectacular success over the minds of the leaders of the nation. Very soon after their arrival, the reduction of the language to writing was followed by the setting up of the first printing press west of the Rockies. The missionaries specialized in biblical knowledge, but free versions of foreign tales from Persian epic, The Arabian Nights, Shakespeare, Walter Scott, and lesser romancers of the day fill the pages of Hawaiian newspapers after the sixties. Wild romances were composed upon the foreign model with a setting of passion and mystery borrowed from other than native sources. The popular romance of Leinaala is said to have been inspired by the love passages in the Song of Solomon, and the magic employed is distinctly other than Hawaiian or even Polynesian.

Happily, however, some Hawaiian editors believed that the old stories handed down from their forefathers through oral recitation had equal claim to the interest of their readers. A call was sent out for such transcriptions and, from the period of the sixties, many such legends were committed to writing and printed as continued stories in the weekly journals. A single tale might run on for years, as happened in the case of one whose translation I had attempted, only to find that the transcriber had died without bringing the story to a conclusion. Luckily the mother of my interpreter was able to furnish the gist of the ending from her familiarity with the legend as told in the section of the country from which she came.

Through the picture given in these recitals the background of old Hawaiian culture may be actually realized. It is that of a people divided into strict classes as chiefs, priests, commoners, and slaves, holding prerogatives according to inherited rank down to their minutest subdivisions, and of land similarly subdivided, parceled out by each district chief to his followers during his own lifetime and returned to his successor for redistribution after his death. Each such ruling chief represented a family group (ohana) claiming a divine ancestor of whom he was the oldest male of pure blood in direct descent, or lacking such, the female of highest rank, and through whom he inherited the land rights for his district, commanded the services of his relatives and hangers-on, and appointed his heir at death. From time to time this orderly system of inherited descent was broken by the usurpation of a popular leader, inferior in blood but ambitious for land and power and encouraged by a discontented faction within the following or by a powerful relative from a neighboring district. Many of the legends turn upon such a conflict with the old order, in which an adventurer of a younger branch leads a popular revolt.

It was under such an astute and powerful leader that the Kamehameha line was rising to power at the time of Cook's discovery of the islands in 1778. The complete success of the first Kamehameha and his final domination over the group was due not only to unusual strength of character but also to his readiness in adopting foreign ways of warfare and in following the advice of white men salvaged from the crews of looted foreign vessels, by which qualities he proved himself a capable dictator. The express commands of the dying chief, loyal to the old gods under whom he had won victory, were nevertheless powerless to prevent the final overthrow of the old religious system upon which had depended the stability of the social order. General demoralization had followed the economic changes which took place as a result of the conquest. Land was redistributed to the victors, old families were dispossessed and their holdings given to warring adventurers. Moreover, for forty years the presence of white strangers and contact with other countries had weakened respect for the old system by which law had been regulated upon religious tapus. Young Hawaiians visiting America on whaling ships around the Horn asked for teachers for their people. Almost immediately upon the death of the old chief in 1819 the rejection of the eating tapus between men and women took place. In 1820 the first missionaries sent out from Boston by the American Board of Missions were allowed to land and to take up their mission of teaching a new faith and imposing the standards of a foreign civilization. Within a few years after this event the whole nation followed their chiefs in repudiating the national worship and adopting the Christian religion. Social and political changes took western patterns. The uniting of the nation under a single ruler (moi) as in European countries was followed by the setting up of a constitutional form of government after the American model, the dividing up of lands for individual ownership, and the abolition of the class system. Chiefs and slaves were alike under the new law of Christian democracy. Destructive war ceased, however political intrigue might continue.

Foreign contacts of this period must certainly have influenced story-telling, especially those traditional narratives which are comparable with Bible incidents like the creation, flood, and fall of man, or episodes also which would have seemed indecent to the foreign listener. Borrowings from southern groups must have occurred, too, after interrelations were again established with neighbors of their own blood. Hawaiians joined whaling expeditions in very early days, and had intercourse with China and the Northwest Coast. Mexican cowboys were introduced into Hawaii to help in the development of cattle ranches and may have contributed some episodes from their own stock of racy story-telling. Modern interpolations certainly occurred and are to be recognized in tales collected direct from more than one native narrator and recorded in Hawaiian text. It is likely too that the long novelistic passages which occur in romances published for Hawaiian readers, as well as the handling of dialogue and incident to create a picture of life, are imitated from English models. It is highly probable that the almost complete absence of cosmic imagination already noticed is due to suppression under the influence of the hard-headed incredulity of the literal-minded English and Americans who became their mentors. But those tales which Hawaiians themselves accept as genuine are easily to be distinguished from the spurious. The strangeness of the concepts to our own culture And their consistency with Polynesian thought prove a minimum of foreign influence. Many episodes or whole histories correspond with southern types. Only in certain cases is this correspondence so close as to prove a late borrowing. In every case, however recently remodeled, the story is firmly based on native tradition and remains true in detail to native Hawaiian culture.

Despite the breakdown of classes, Hawaiians of chief stock take pride today in preserving family genealogies, possibly at times distorted by a desire to aggrandize their claim to rank. Blue blood is still to be recognized in some fine old Hawaiians who do honor, in the dignity of their lives, to their inherited tradition. Many old Hawaiian chiefs during the first hundred years of foreign contact remained on their holdings in the back country conducting their lives much according to the old pattern, retelling their family tales or those belonging to their own locality, repeating their family chants and genealogies, treasuring their family gods or setting up new gods for immediate protection against want or sorcery. In everything relating to the past the family bond remained sacred. The old pride of rank did not easily lose its hold upon the imagination. About the places where the old gods walked, where the forefathers dwelt, lingered still their active influence for good or evil; wahi pana (storied places) they are called. Even today a mere child of the district will point them out. Local entertainers may always be found ready to tell the legend, embellished by a chant at emotional moments to break the monotony of recital.

On the edge of the royal fishponds below Kalihi, in a house built for King Kalakaua, lives David Malo Kupihea, holding among his kindred, who have settled close about him, a position corresponding in humble fashion to the old patriarchal dignity of the past. Beyond the soft fringe of overhanging cassias shimmer the surfaces of the ponds outlined in enduring stone, and there are dusty exhalations from neighboring dump-heaps to which the once royal area has been consigned as the creeping population of the city seeks to build up firm land upon the bordering marshes. There Kupihea rules alike over fishponds and dump-heaps. As tradesmen come and go it is to "papa" that they appeal for adjudication. Descended from a long line of sorcery priests of Molokai in the high-chief class, educated in the best English-speaking schools of Honolulu side by side with the children of the newcomers, inheriting from his fathers the office of guardian of the royal fishponds, he keeps his love for the old learning taught by the elders of his own blood, and takes an even emotional interest in discussion with those who show a willingness to learn.

According to Kupihea the great gods came at different times to Hawaii. Ku and Hina, male and female, were the earliest gods of his people. Kane and Kanaloa came to Hawaii about the time of Maui. Lono seems to have come last and his role to have been principally confined to the celebration of games. At one time he was driven out, according to Kupihea, but he returned later. Kane, although still thought of as the great god of the Hawaiian people, is no longer worshiped, but Ku and Hina are still prayed to by fishermen, and perhaps Kanaloa--Kupihea repeating to me softly the prayer with which he himself invoked the god of fishes.

Of the coming of the gods he had explicit evidence to offer: "Ku and Hina were the first gods of our people. They were the gods who ruled the ancient people before Kane. On [the island of] Lanai was the gods' landing, at the place called Ku-moku. That is the tradition of our people. Kane and Kanaloa [arrived there], but not Lono. Some claim that Lono came to Maui. It is said that at the time Kamehameha quartered his men at Kaunakakai on Molokai before the invasion of Oahu, he went to Lanai to celebrate the Makahiki [New Year] festival and on that occasion he said, We come to commemorate the spot where our ancestors first set foot on Hawaiian soil.' So it seems as if it must be true that the first gods who ruled our people came to Lanai."




Source: http://www.sacred-texts.com


1. Coming of the Gods
2. Ku Gods
3. The God Lono
4. The Kane Worship
5. Kane and Kanaloa
6. Mythical Lands of the Gods
7. Lesser Gods
8. Sorcery Gods
9. Guardian Gods
10. The Soul after Death
11. The Pele Myth
12. The Pele Sisters
13. Pele Legends

14. Kamapua`a
15. Hina Myths
16. Maui The Trickster
17. Aikanaka-Kaha`iI
18. Wahieloa-Laka
19.  Haumea
20. Papa and Wakea
21. Genealogies
22. Era of Overturning
23. Mu and Menehune
24. Runners, Man-Eaters, Dog Men
25. Moikeha-la`a Migration
26. Hawaiiloa and Paao
27. Ruling Chiefs
28. Usurping Chiefs
29. Kapua Stories
30. Trickster Stories
31. Voyage to the Land of the Gods
32. Riddling Contests
33. The Kana Legends
34. The Stretching-Tree Kupua
35. Romance of the Swimmer
36. Romance of the Island of Virgins
37. Romances of Match-Making
38. Romances of the Dance
39. Wooing Romances
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