Hawaiian Mythology
by Martha Beckwith 1940



Henry thinks that the Hawaiian Lono as "Great Lono dwelling in the waters" (Lono-nui-noho-i-ka-wai) is the Tahitian god Ro‘o, messenger of the gods and especially of Tane, who "sets himself in the cloud" and feeds upon it, is born and matured there, and travels on with it. Lono in Hawaii is associated with cloud signs and the phenomena of storms. According to some old Hawaiians, the god "with head hidden in the dark clouds above" (po‘o huna i ke ao lewa) is primarily Lono. In the address of the priest to the returning Lono at the Makahiki he is associated with the clouds:

Your bodies, O Lono, are in the heavens,
A long cloud, a short cloud,
A watchful cloud,
An overlooking cloud; in the heavens (it is),
From Uliuli, from Melemele,
From Polapola, from Ha‘eha‘e,
From Omao-ke-ulu-lu,
From the land that gave birth to Lono.
Behold Lono places the stars
That sail resplendent through the heavens.
High resplendent is the great image of Lono;
The stem of Lono links our dynasties with Kahiki, Has lifted them up,
Purified them in the ether of Lono. . . .

[In prayers to Lono the signs of the god are named as thunder, lightning, earthquake, the dark cloud, the rainbow, rain and wind, whirlwinds that sweep the earth, rocks washed down ravines by "the red mountain streams [stained with red earth] rushing to the sea," waterspouts, the clustering clouds of heaven, gushing springs on the mountains.

Lono the rolling thunder,
The heaven that rumbles,
The disturbed sea,

says the chant.

The Lono order of priests in the days of Kamehameha set up heiaus to pray for rain, abundant crops, or escape from sickness and trouble. A prayer to Lono, recorded in the Fornander collection under Thrum, shows how, after the coming of Kane and Kanaloa and the establishment of the ancestral line through Kumuhonua and Lalohonua and its spread over the island through Wakea and Papa, from whom were born the chiefs, there came Lono also from the ancestral birth-place, to whom were offered the redfish, the black coconut, the whitefish, and the growing awa; to Kane and Kanaloa were made sacred the red fowl, the pig, and awa: "Ku, Kane, and Kanaloa are supreme in Kahiki." The coming of Lono is heralded by cloud signs in the heavens and finally:

Lono and Keakea-lani,
Living together, fructifying the earth,
Observing the tapu of women,
Clouds bow down over the sea,
The earthquake sounds
Within the earth,
Tumbling down there
Below Malama.

Kea in the chant is the goddess Nuakea. Nuakea, descended from Maweke of Oahu, lived on earth as a prophetess and became the wife of Keolo-ewa, ruling chief of Molokai and son of Kamauaua. Her name is coupled with Lono's in the ceremony for weaning a boy child, in which the symbolic gourd of Lono plays an important part. The common people remembered the fructifying powers of Lono in the shape of a symbolic food gourd, which, like the stone of Kane, was used for family prayers only. Each householder kept in his house of worship, called the mua, a food gourd (hulilau) called kuaahu (altar) or ipu (gourd) of Lono, covered with wickerwork and hung by strings to a notched stick. Inside the gourd were kept food, fish, and awa, and a little piece of awa was tied to the handle outside. Morning and evening the pious man took down the gourd, laid it at the door of the house, and, facing outward, prayed for the chiefs, commoners, and for the good of his own family, then ate the food from the gourd and sucked the awa. The gourd prayer quoted by Malo for the ceremony at the weaning of a male child invokes both Lono and (Nua) kea, the goddess who provides milk for the nursing mother and is now petitioned to stop the supply. Both god and goddess are called upon to eat the food provided, Kea to see to the child's prosperity, Lono to send propitious cloud omens, and both to guard against the malice of sorcery. After this ceremony the child is transferred to the men's house and eats no more with the women. The chant runs:

My vine branch this; and this the fruit on my vine branch.
Thick set with fruit are the shooting branches, a plantation of gourds. . . .
How many seeds from this gourd, pray, have been planted in
this land cleared-by-fire? have been planted and flowered out in Hawaii?
Planted is this seed. It grows; it leafs; it flowers; lo! it fruits--this gourd-vine.
The gourd is placed in position; a shapely gourd it is. Plucked is the gourd; it is cut open.
The core within is cut up and emptied out.
The gourd is this great world; its cover the heavens of Kuakini.
Thrust it into the netting! Attach to it the rainbow for a handle! . . .

Lono as god of fertility was celebrated in the Makahiki festival held during the rainy season of the year, covering a period of four months from about October to February. During this time the regular tapu days were suspended; the people left off their ordinary occupations and practised athletic games. Meanwhile ritual ceremonies took place and a procession moved through each district collecting offerings out of the abundance provided by the god in response to the prayers and offerings of the preceding year.

Lono-makua (Father Lono) was the name given to the material form which represented the god at this time. It was a straight wooden post or mast about ten inches in circumference and ten to fifteen feet long "with joints carved at intervals," says Malo, and a figure at the upper end which Alexander identifies as a bird. Near the top was tied a cross-piece about sixteen feet long to which were hung feather wreaths, imitations of the skeleton of the kaupu bird, and at each end long streamers of white tapa cloth which hung down longer than the pole. This was the so-called "Long-god" of the Makahiki.

Before the Long-god was brought out, fires were lighted on the beach and the people bathed ceremonially in the sea and put on fresh garments. This bathing festival was called hi‘u-wai (water-splashing). For five days thereafter the high priest was kept blindfolded and "merry-making, boastful demonstrations of prowess, and boxing were the occupations of the day." Offerings to the god were collected from each district. The Long-god was borne along the seacoast, the procession moving clockwise, with the land side to the right. A Little-god was in the meantime borne along through the uplands in the opposite direction, followed by the people, who gathered huge packs of edible fern as they went, and returned that same evening to the point of departure. It might take twenty days for the Long-god to make the circuit. At each chief's place the carriers were fed, the chief's wife hung a fresh tapa-cloth girdle about the god, and the chief clasped an ivory tooth ornament upon it. "Hail to Lono!" cried the people while the priest prayed to the god and pointed out the clouds from Tahiti which were the signs of his coming. Meanwhile the keepers of each god hung bundles of roasted taro tops on the sides of their houses to break the tapu on labor. Fires were lighted on the night of Kane, and if they burned brightly and there was no rain the bandage was removed from the eyes of the high priest and the next day all could go fishing and eat the fish caught. When the Long-god returned, the ruling chief sailed out in a boat to meet the god and on his return he was met by a company of spearmen; one of these threw a spear which he or his attendant parried, and another touched him with a spear. A mock battle followed and that night the ruling chief offered a pig in sacrifice at the heiau. A naked impersonator of Ka-hoali‘i spent the following night in a temporary booth and the next day all the people feasted on roast pig. A large-meshed net, the net of Maoloha (Maoleha), filled with vegetable food was shaken out and if none clung to the net it was a sign of a prosperous year. A structure of wickerwork was sent out to sea "to take Lono back to Kahiki" and an unpainted canoe "coursed back and forth in the sea." Finally, to free the pork tapu it was necessary for the ruling chief to spend a night in each of four booths in succession; and to free the fishing tapu on the aku fish, which alternated for six months with that for the opelu, the Kahoali‘i impersonator ate an eye of an aku fish and one of a man killed in sacrifice. "Now began the new year," concludes Malo.

During the passage of the Long-god from district to district, offerings for the god were collected in the form of vegetable food, live animals, dried fish, bark-cloth garments, ornaments, and other valuable property. If the offering was considered too small, the god remained overnight until more could be gathered, and the land overseer was likely to be dispossessed. In Kamehameha's day a kind of game was made of such an event; the pole was let down, and the whole following were at liberty to raid the district and take what property they pleased, but if anyone took anything after the pole was set straight again, he was subject to the owner's retaliation.

A comparison of harvest festivals reported from other South Sea groups shows that the idea is common, but the form each takes and the god to whom the occasion is dedicated must be regarded as dependent upon the special social system and special religious setup locally developed within the group. In Tahiti, a first-fruit festival is celebrated called the parara‘a matahiti, beginning in December or early January and invoking Roma-tane (Ro‘o-ma-tane), god of Paradise. In the Marquesas, harvest festivals are celebrated in the autumn at the seasons of ehua and mataiki. In Fiji, the Lord from Hades comes to the Tailevu coast in December and pushes the young yam shoots through the soil. Silence is imposed during this moon; at the end a great shout is raised and the news is carried from village to village that pleasure and labor are again free for all. In Tonga, at the time of presentation of the first fruits, the sports of wrestling, club-fighting, and boxing are indulged in. In San Cristoval, at the time of first fruits, the priest offers sacrifice as the news is sent forward from village to village and the people go forth, the men bearing weapons and sham-fighting as they go, the women carrying a fire stick for the sacrifice. They chant a song and set up symbols at a sacred tree in order that the creepers may be strong for climbing, the cooking successful, the adzes sharp, the craftsmen skilful at house building, the mat making prosperous. They burn sacrifices of puddings made from the first crops. Then they send on word to the next village, where a similar ceremony is performed.

The legend given by Henry Lyman of the way in which Lono came to institute the Makahiki games is as follows:


Lono sends out two of his brothers as messengers to find him a wife on earth. They travel from island to island and finally in the Waipio valley on Hawaii beside the falls of Hi‘ilawe they find the beautiful Ka-iki-lani dwelling in a breadfruit grovecompanioned by birds. Lono descends on a rainbow and makes her his wife and she becomes a goddess under the name of Ka-iki-Tani-ali‘i-o-Puna. They live at Ke-ala-ke-akua and delight in the sport of surfing. A chief of earth makes love to her and Lono hears him singing a wooing song. He is angry and beats her to death, but not before she has assured him of her innocence and her love for him. Lono then institutes the Makahiki games in her honor and travels about the island like a madman challenging every man he meets to a wrestling match. He builds a canoe such as mortal eyes have never seen since, with a mast of ohia wood and a sail woven of Ni‘ihau matting and cordage twisted from the coconuts of Keauhou. The people bring heaps of provisions and pile them up before him. Forty men bear the canoe to the launching place, but Lono sails forth alone. His words of promise to the people are that he will return to them, not by canoe but on an island shaded by trees, covered over by coconuts, swarming with fowl and swine.

The story opens much like the version given by Ellis of the institution of the Arioi society by the god Oro, in the person of Oro-tetefa as Mühlmann thinks, whom he takes to be the earthly Oro and perhaps a historical person.


(a) Ellis and Mühlmann versions. Oro desires a wife of the daughters of Ta-ata, the first man. He sends his two brothers, Tu-fara-pai-nu‘u and Tu-fara-pai-ra‘i, to seek for such a wife. They visit island after island and finally at Moua-tahataha-rua (Red-ridged mountain) on Borabora they find the beautiful Vai-raumati. Oro makes of the rainbow a pathway to earth. He finds the girl bathing at Ovaiaia at Vai-tape on Borabora and makes her his wife. Hoa-tabu-i-to-rai is the child born to him. His younger brothers come in search of him, Oro-tetefa and Uru-tetefa. Finding the wife and having no suitable gift to present to her, one turns himself into a pig and a bunch of red feathers and the other makes the offering. To reward his brothers, Oro deifies them and makes them leaders of the Arioi society.

(b) Moerenhout version. Oro himself descends to earth on the island of Borabora and with his two sisters, the goddesses Teouri and Oaaoa, attends all the festivals where women are gathered. At Vaitapé he finds a girl of rare beauty bathing in the pool Ovaiaia, Vairaumati by name. The sisters approach her on his behalf and she consents to have an affair with him provided he is young, handsome, and a chief. Each night he descends on a rainbow to his bride. His brothers come to seek him and, finding him with the girl and having with them no presents to offer, one takes the body of a pig, the other of a bunch of red feathers and, retaining also their human bodies, they present their gifts. That night the pig bears seven little ones which are dedicated to the Arioi, which a man named Mahi now initiates at Oro's request. Oro quits Vairaumati in a column of flame after bidding her name the child Oa-tabou-te-ra‘i (Sacred friend of the gods). This child becomes a great chief and rules well. At his death he ascends to the heavens where his father and mother dwell.

The likeness between this late Hawaiian Lono story and that collected early in Tahiti as the origin of the Arioi society under the patronage of Oro does not argue for an original identity of Lono with the Tahitian god Oro, whose worship at the great temple at Raiatea probably arose later than the migration period to Hawaii. The theme of the descent of a god from heaven to a beautiful woman of earth is a stock theme in Polynesian mythology and recurs repeatedly in Hawaiian chant and story. Further investigation is needed to prove that it originally belonged to the Lono myth, tempting as is the hypothesis. Its application to the figure of this new god--who is said to have been introduced late from Maui into the orders of priesthood and who was worshiped without human sacrifice as a god of peace and of fructification of the earth, in contrast to the severe Ku ritual directed toward the preservation of the ruling chief in time of war or danger from sorcery and the enforcement of the tapu system upon which a chief's rank and power depended--would explain some mythical allusions which are now obscure. But the theme uniformly connected with the Lono myth and his institution of the Makahiki games is the jealousy motive and this does not appear in the Tahitian Oro myth, although it bears some resemblance to an episode in the life of the navigator Hiro. It gets mixed up in Hawaii with the late history of a grandson of Umi named Lono-i-ka-makahiki, to which it does not belong. A song of the god Lono in an epic form unusual in Hawaiian poetry is quoted in translation in the notes taken on the visit to Honolulu of H.M.S. Blonde in 1825. The allusion in the fourth couplet is to the play of pieces in the game of checkers (konane) in which Lono and his wife are engaged, but its secret meaning, divined by the chief, suggests getting rid of the lady's present lover in favor of the one who sends the message.


Rono [Lono], Etooah [akua or god] of Hawaii, in ancient times, resided with his wife at Karakakooa [Kealakekua or Path of the gods]. The name of the goddess, his love, was Kaikirani-Aree-Opuna [Kaikilani-ali‘i-o-Puna]. They dwelt beneath the steep rock. A man ascended to the summit, and from the height thus addressed the spouse of Rono:

"O Kaikiranee-Aree-Opuna, your lover salutes you: keep this, remove that: one will still remain."

Rono, overhearing this artful speech, killed his wife with a hasty stroke.

Sorry for this rash deed, he carried to a morai the lifeless body of his wife, and made great wail over it.

He traveled through Hawaii in a state of frenzy, boxing with every man he met.

The people astonished said, "Is Rono entirely mad?" He replied, "I am frantic on her account, I am frantic with my great love."

Having instituted games to commemorate her death, he embarked in a triangular boat (piama lau), and sailed to a foreign land.

Ere he departed he prophesied, "I will return in after times, on an island bearing coconut trees, and swine, and dogs."

A second question of relation with the Oro figure in Tahiti arises in connection with the Arioi society, of which Oro was the patron god. The dramatic dances whose performance was an important part of the program of this society correspond to the schools of dancing in Hawaii organized under expert leaders and dedicated to gods of the hula, whose elaborate performances on the island of Hawaii were witnessed by Vancouver in the latter part of the eighteenth century. That these were connected with the Makahiki festival and hence must have been on this island under the patronage of the god Lono is proved by the fact that Kamehameha and his queen were obliged at this time to withdraw before the dance "as they are prohibited by law from attending such amusements, except on the festival of the new year [that is, the Makahiki festival]" and that the performance itself on that day "was contrary to the established rules of the island" and only permitted out of compliment to the foreign visitors.

The hula dance in Hawaii is developed in connection with the Pele deities, and these deities are invoked together with Lono in the prayers offered to Kane in the heiau. Laka is the male god named as patron of the hula dance. He is represented in the ohia lehua tree, whose red blossoms were used for decoration of the altar in the religious ceremonies of the dance. Emerson identifies Lono with Laka, and there is some ground for the association in the fact that in the Ku ritual Lono is invoked with Ku in prayers connected with the setting up of the Ku image cut from an ohia lehua tree of the forest. Lono-makua, the name given to the Long-god of the Makahiki festival, is also the name of Pele's fire keeper as represented in the fire sticks, symbol of fertilization. Laka as a form of Lono, god of fertility, would give a further objective idealization, in the fiery red flowers of the lehua which grows native on the mountainside about the volcano, to the symbolic association between fire and fertilization. Lightning is also an attribute of storm clouds as well as the rolling thunder. The word Lono belongs not only to the idea of sound but also to that of hurling, as a spear. On the Kumuhonua genealogy Laka is named as the son of Kumu-honua (Earth foundation) and Lalo-honua (Earth below), thirty-six generations earlier than Wakea and Papa, the first parents of the Kane people. It is tempting to think that this Laka, god of the wildwood, son of Ku (Kumuhonua), the ancestral god of the first Hawaiian immigrants through union with a woman from below, came to be replaced after the rise of the Kane gods by the great god Lono dwelling in the heavens.

The relation of the god Lono to the Kamau-nui family of Maui, from whom Kamapua‘a the hog man is descended and with whom the Kamauaua family of Molokai seem by their name to be connected, will be discussed in connection with the legend of the hog kupua. It would seem likely that Lono was the god worshiped by this family. Lono names are common in the Kamapua‘a story and appear on the genealogical line of ruling chiefs of the island of Maui. The close relation felt between a god and his offspring or his worshiper on earth makes it increasingly difficult to disentangle the threads of myth from those of accumulated legend and to identify figures in story or in ritual worship which have branched off from the main source through the storyteller's instinct for fresh combinations out of an old stock of tradition, or the worshiper's for dreaming such a recombination.


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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