Hawaiian Mythology
by Martha Beckwith 1940



Twelve generations from the beginning of the race, on the genealogy of Kumuhonua, during the so-called Era-of-overturning (Po-au-hulihia), occurs the name of Nu‘u, called also Nana-nu‘u, Lana-nu‘u, Nu‘u-mea, Nu‘u-mehani. He is called "a great kahuna" and in his time came the flood known as Kai-a-ka-hina-li‘i, which may be translated as "Sea caused by Kahinali‘i" or as "Sea that made the chiefs (ali‘i) fall down (hina)." Nu‘u himself is called Ka-hinali‘i from this catastrophe, and after the flood he is known as Ku-kapuna, his wife as Ku-kekoa, and their three sons have names of winds that bring rain (nalu).

The story of Nu‘u as told to the missionaries shows a decided tendency to strain after biblical analogy.

(a) Fornander version. Nu‘u builds "a large vessel and a house on top of it" called Wa‘a-halau-ali‘i-o-ka-moku. In this he is saved from the flood and after its subsidence Kane, Ku, and Lono enter the house and send him outside, where he finds himself on the summit of Maunakea on Hawaii at a place where there is a cave named after his wife Lili-noe. He worships the moon with offerings of awa, pig, and coconuts, thinking this is the god who has saved him. Kane descends (some say on a rainbow) and explains his mistake and accepts his offerings. In this version, as told on the island of Hawaii, he has three sons and his wife is named Lilinoe. Others say her name is Nu‘umealani. Some think he lands in Kahiki-honua-kele, "a large and extensive country." 

(b) Kepelino version. Nu‘u, called Nu‘u-pule (Praying Nu‘u) because he makes sacrifice to God, lives in the land Kahiki-honua-kele, in the mountains where Kumuhonua was made by God. This is after the flood, which came as a punishment for the sin of Kumuhonua. He built a Wa‘a-halau-ali‘i-o-ka-moku and survived the flood, in which his brother-in-law and those others who jeered at him perished. 

Although Hawaiian tradition knows of the flood of Kahinali‘i and the term Wa‘a-halau-ali‘i-o-ka-moku is familiar to old Hawaiians and may be translated "Canoe like a chief's house," the idea of a houseboat such as the legend describes is not a native tradition. Old people on Hawaii told Ellis that "they were informed by their fathers that all the land had once been overflowed by the sea, except a small peak on Maunakea, where two human beings were preserved from the destruction that overtook the rest, but they said they had never heard of a ship or of Noah, having always been accustomed to call it the Kai-a-kahinarii." 

The story of a flood in which two are saved on the summit of Mauna-kea has been told in connection with the myth of the underseas woman drawn up to become wife of a chief of Hawaii. Her father is Kahinali‘i and her mother is named after the waves of the ocean. The brothers in the form of oopu fishes make the ocean waters rise to cover all mountain-tops except that of Mauna-kea, where the chief, his wife, and his family are saved. The name of Kahinali‘i is to be recalled as that of the father (or mother) of Pele in the flood version of her migration myth, when the mother accompanies her in the form of a wave and the brothers shout at the appearance of a sea that covers the flat island of Kahoolawe. It is natural to suppose that such a legend would arise about a volcanic deity whose activities are likely to be accompanied by inundations. Among the Maori the mythical mother of the Pacific Ocean is a deity known by the name of Para-whenua-mea, an epithet said to refer to the devastation due to flood and closely resembling Pele's familiar chant name of Pele-honua-mea.

A biblical version of a flood story recorded by White from the Maori gives the name to a prophet who survives the flood on a raft upon which a house has been built, and elaborate flood stories outside the Polynesian area lay stress upon this house building.

White (Maori) version. Para-whenua-mea and his son Tupu-nui-a-uta build a raft and put a house upon it with food of fern-root, sweet potato, and dogs, and they pray for rain and all are drowned except those in the raft. After pitching about on the sea for eight moons they land on dry earth at Hawaiki and pay homage to the god. 

Qat (Banks islands) version. Qat takes his departure from the world Gana. Here he builds a great canoe on the plain. His brothers laugh at him and ask how he will ever get it down to the sea: He takes into the canoe his own family and living creatures of the island, "even those so small as ants," and shuts himself inside while he prays for rain. A deluge follows which tears a channel to the sea and he makes off, taking with him the best things of the island and leaving a lake where the plain had been. He is expected to return and foreigners arriving at the island have been taken for Qat and his brethren. 

Thomson (Fiji) version. The twin grandnephews of Ndengei, the serpent god of the Kauvandra mountain on Viti-levu to whom men are indebted for fire, good crops, rain, and victory in war, have a pet pigeon which is their delight. During their absence Ndengei secures the pigeon to waken him in the morning with its cooing. The boys are angry and shoot the pigeon dead with the bow called "summer lightning." Ndengei proclaims war but Rokolo, head of the carpenters' clan, builds an impregnable fortress. Ndengei's seer dreams that if a vungayabi tree that stands near the wall is cut down the fortress can be taken. A flood follows the cutting of the tree, the fort capitulates, and the carpenters are exiled. They sail away and establish their craft on Rewa. For the boys Rokolo builds a wonderful boat called Na-wa‘a-nawanawa (The lifeboats) and they sail westward and are never heard of again, although it is prophesied that they will return. 

Brewster gives a song-and-dance version of the myth called the Meke of Turukawa (Song of the pigeon). He adds that it is because of the scattering of the carpenters over the islands that Fiji outrigger canoes and Fiji woodwork excel throughout the Pacific. Tongans learned the art from the Fijians. The place is shown where the "ark" was built by Rokolo. The river Rewa gushed from the roots of the sacred myrtle when an arrow was shot into it. In the Lau islands it is said that the god of carpenters shot Ndengei's cock with an arrow and Ndengei sent a flood. In Tonga the story goes that Tangaloa Tufunga, god of carpenters, who fished up the Tonga group, 7 came down with his son from heaven and built on Fiji an impregnable fort. A Fijian god sent rain and floated the fort away with the carpenters inside, and thus the carpenters came to be scattered over the earth. In Dobu a magic mango tree closes up when an attempt is made to fell it, but when finally felled its fall is followed by a flood. A myth of a tree rooted in the waters of the underworld is reported also for Hawaii by Mrs. Pukui, who had it from Ka-wahine-hula of Waipio valley:


Up Waipio valley is a kupua kawau tree which grows over the waters of Ra-wai-o-ulu (The water of growth [life]) and holds these waters together with its great roots. Were it not for this tree the water would fill the valleys of Waipio and Waimanu.

In the Marquesas a tree is planted over Tohe-tika's head to prevent his ever rising again. He causes it to rain and washes away the tree and drowns all the people. 

No natural catastrophe of this kind occurs in Polynesia without an explanation in the vengeance of an aggrieved god. Para-whenua-mea prayed for the flood because men would not listen to the teachings of Tane. The Maori say that in the days of Mataiho (Mataaho), Puta caused the land to be turned upside down so that all were destroyed because they would not listen to his teaching.  Another Maori story says that a woman lifts a bit of tongue from a tapu oven and eats it and in consequence the whole two thousand of her tribe are overwhelmed in a flood to appease the wrath of the sea monster (taniwha) who is the guardian of the fishing ground. In the Tuamotus, the spirit of the murdered Temahage, called Overturner-of-earth, is aided by his grandfather to submerge the island of Taiero, whose people were responsible for his death, and the neighboring islands. Tana-oa overturns the island Fatu-uku and drowns everybody upon it because he overhears himself criticized by his wife's family; only he himself and his wife escape. 

The escape of a single couple or of a family group who have heeded the god's warning is a common ending to South Sea flood stories. A particular turn is given to some Tahitian versions where the husband proposes a more likely place of escape and the wife insists upon following the god's advice. The type is found on the island of Maui, where a low hill on the southwest side of the island which has escaped flooding by an old lava stream is explained as the place where a couple took refuge on the insistence of the wife during a volcanic eruption. 

Maori. Rua-tapu, child of Ue-nuku at Aotea, is angry because his father places the brother born of a royal mother ahead of himself, who is born of a slave mother. He takes a boatload of young chiefs far out to sea and drowns them all; only Paikea escapes. Rua-tapu promises to return "in the great nights of the eighth moon" and bids the people retire to the mountain in order to escape destruction. At the appointed time he comes upon the land in the form of a rushing tidal wave and all are drowned who have remained by the sea. 

Tahiti. Two friends go to fish and disturb the spot sacred to a sea deity called Rua-hatu-tini-rau in whose hair the hook is tangled. He is appeased by their prayers and bids them assemble all the royal family on a little reef as the land is to be submerged in revenge for the breaking of his tapu. Some scoff, but all the royal family are saved. 

Ruahatu, asleep in the sea bottom, is caught in the hair by a fisherman's hook and in anger sends a flood, but, pacified by the fisherman's offerings, tells him and his wife that they will be safe if they go to Toamarama islet. The man suggests climbing the mountain but the wife dissuades him and they alone are saved. 

Long ago Tahiti-nui and Tahiti-iki were submerged and, except for the birds and insects preserved by the gods, only a single couple and the things they saved survived. The man proposes fleeing to the lofty peak of Orohena, the woman foresees that it will be flooded and directs their way to Pito-hiti. This is the only land that emerges between Tahiti and Moorea. After ten nights the rain ceases. They remain in a cave in the mountain until the heavens are calm and clear. Nothing but bare earth remains on the land and they have nothing to eat but fish and red earth. Twins are born, and the third day a third child. Eventually Tahiti and Moorea are repeopled and plants and trees grow up and bear fruit and cover the ground. 

Andaman. Minni Cara once broke some firewood in the evening. A great storm came and killed many people and turned them into birds and fishes. The water rose up over the trees. Minni Cara and Minni Kota took the fire in a cooking pot and went up the hill to a cave where the fire was kept alight until the storm was over. 

The form of the name Kai-a-Kahinali‘i is used by the Maori in speaking of Te-tai-o-Uenuku, or -o-Ruatapu, son of Uenuku. Uenuku was "a very celebrated high priest and ancestor of many Maoris, living in Ra‘iatea, Tahiti, and Rarotonga at the time of the great migration to New Zealand in the 14th century." He stopped civil war, bloodshed, and cannibalism, says Skinner. A tidal wave in the Marquesas is called Tai-Toko, possibly from the ancestor Toko from two of whose twelve sons the Marquesans claim descent.

In myth it is difficult to say in individual cases whether terms like Kai-a-kahinali‘i refer literally to an inundation or tidal wave sweeping the land, a catastrophe which occurs all too often in the South Seas, or are to be taken figuratively as an invasion of some sort, the downfall of one leading family and its gods and the rise of another. Although tidal waves on the high islands are not so disastrous as the myth would represent, a small inhabited coral island is subject at irregular intervals to a complete inundation from which a small remnant may escape by clinging to the tops of the coconut trees. Churchill records an earthquake which sunk the land where two thousand lived, and there are records throughout the South Seas of occasions in which whole islands have disappeared utterly. In the Hawaiian group the sinking of populated coastal areas due to earthquakes or other volcanic phenomena must have left its traces upon old tradition. Such an area on the Hilo coast still shows the tops of submerged coconut trees which once grew on firm land. Another important area pointed out by tradition is the coast about the hill Kauiki in Hana, East Maui, where Kane and Kanaloa are supposed to have made their home. It is possible that the subsidence of this thickly populated area at a time of volcanic eruption resulted in the rise of a rival power on Hawaii under a reorganized priesthood which sought cooperation with the goddess Pele.




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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