Hawaiian Mythology
by Martha Beckwith 1940



The Oahu Waha-nui (Big mouth) family is placed by Fornander in the early period of contact with the southern Pacific, contemporary with Hikapoloa on Hawaii, Kaikipa‘anea on Kauai, Kamauaua on Molokai. He is said to have been a great voyager, to have so oppressed the Menehune people as to induce their migration to the sunken land of Kane, led by Kanaloa and Kane-apua and directed by their god Kane, and to have been himself killed in a sea fight. But the famous fictitious narrative (kaao) recording his voyage "to tread on the breasts of Kane and Kanaloa" connects Waha-nui with the island not of Oahu but of Hawaii.


(a) Fornander version. Waha-nui sets out from Hawaii with his seer (kaula) Kilohi to fulfil a vow he has made to sail to Kahiki and "trample" upon Ka-houpo-o-Kane-a-me-Kanaloa before returning again to Hawaii. Kane, Kanaloa, and Kane-apua, three gods with human forms, have been living on Lanai, but Kane-apua has angered his brothers by urinating in their water spring and they have taken bird form and flown away, leaving Kane-apua, who has no bird body, to shift for himself. As Wahanui passes Kaunolu point on Lanai, Kane-apua hails him and asks to be taken aboard. Waha-nui points out that the canoe is already overcrowded. Kane-apua twice raises a storm which forces the canoe back and is at length given a place in the canoe behind the sailing masters Ho‘okele-i-Hilo and Ho‘okele-i-Kau. As they encounter various dangers of the sea he proves useful, first, in dispersing their fear of the island Kane-huna-moku when it looms up and is taken by the sailing masters for the great dog of Hina, Ku-ilio-loa; next, in quieting the two kupua hills Pali-uli and Pali-kea (White and Black cliffs) which clash together and destroy canoes; then in riding in safety a storm, sent from the calabash that holds the bones of La‘a-ma‘oma‘o, by diving down and making the canoe fast with a rope made out of the intestines of his ancestress Hono-nui-kua-eaea where she lies with her face turned upward to greet her grandchild; lastly, in quieting his own dog at the landing at Kahiki. He tells Waha-nui to go until he comes to three men lying with their faces turned up-ward, who are Kane, Kanaloa, and Mauli. Waha-nui upon his return worships Kane-apua and is given a pilikua, here described as a double-bodied creature, "the bodies being joined together by means of the ribs growing into each other," and told not to show this wonder until he reaches Hawaii. Waha-nui cannot resist displaying it on Kauai and the ruling chief Kupakoili, advised by his diviner (kilokilo) Luluupali, kills the chief and all his followers except one man, who dives into the sea and later escapes to Hawaii and carries the news. The death of Waha-nui is, however, avenged. His successor sends a plausible invitation to the Kauai people to come to Hawaii, then massacres them all; not one escapes.

(b) Kamakau version. Kane-apua hails Waha-nui at the cape Apua. Kilohi is the pilot, Moopuaiki the kahuna. The canoe lands at Hale-o-Lono on Molokai, sails by the cliff of Kaholo, passes the cape Kaunolu in broad daylight and comes to Apua, where it is hailed by Kane-apua. After the storm the canoe lands at Kaunolo-pau and sails by way of Ke-ala-i-kahiki on Kahoolawe. It is bound for Kahiki-kapakapaua-o-Kane to tread on Ka-houpo-o-Kane, and Kane-apua warns him to tread upon it all if he would live. On his return Waha-nui brings the pilikua (dwarfs) and they become runners on Kauai. One is brought to Punalu‘u harbor on the Ka-u coast of Hawaii and lives above Kopu and Moaula. 

Analysis of the Waha-nui legend shows that it follows a traditional Polynesian type.

(A) A kupua is reluctantly admitted to an overcrowded boat (A1) by means of a forced landing, (A2) or upon promise of help in overcoming obstacles, (A3) or through a disguise (the floating gourd), (A4) or through other proof of supernatural power.

(B) He wards off the dangers of the way.

(C) He sends the party home with a culture gift which they lose through disregard of a tapu imposed.

All of these elements seldom appear in the legend as preserved. In Samoa, Tangaloa joins two youths from Tutuila sailing home from Manua, who take him aboard only because the canoe will not move without him. He carries them to Fiji, saves them from the "pointing finger of Fiji," and sends them home with food plants and mullet, but the mullet (or all but the coconut) they lose because they forget the instruction not to bail out the canoe before coming to land. In the Tonga version of the "Voyage to Bulotu" four gods sailing in a canoe are joined by a fifth, a woman Familie (Take care) or Haalefeke, who intercepts them at various places until her mysterious nature is recognized, and it is she who helps them come safely through the tests set in Bulotu. Through her, food plants are brought to Tonga. In a Tuamotu story from Anaa, Tararo asks to be taken by Kio, king of Marama, on a courting expedition to Rarotonga and, when he is refused passage, calls up winds and forces the canoe to take him aboard, then himself wins the beauty of Rarotonga. In an Aitutaki version of the Rata story, Rata, bound for Marama, refuses passage to Nganaoa, but when he comes floating overseas in a gourd he is allowed to join the party, after promising to destroy all the monsters of the way. In the Tahitian Rata story it is "the priest" who encourages the expedition and names the opponents; in the Tuamotuan, Tava‘a, one of the family spirits of the forest, is found "sitting in the bows as a guide for the voyage." In the Maori migration legend of the canoe Tainui, the female fairy Te Peri acts as directing god, seated at the bow of the canoe to guard against dangers. But for the warning spirit Saolevao, Lele‘asapai would never have succeeded in bringing down the yam planting from the flying gods in Alele. 

The floating-gourd trick in order to be taken into a canoe or to pursue one in which the supernatural being has been re-fused passage is to be found in Polynesian trickster cycles. In Hawaii it is told of the sorceress Hina-ke-ka (Hina the bailer). In the Marquesas, Tanaoa's brothers have gone off in a canoe and left him deserted. He follows in a coconut gourd and turns them all into porpoises, then himself wins the beautiful Meto with his flute playing. White has a mixed story of Tautini who floats to land in a bowl-sized canoe after his uncle's fishhook. In the Banks islands story of Qat, the trickster follows his brothers when they steal off with his wife and canoe, comes floating beside the canoe in a painted coconut gourd, and makes the landing before them. 

A common belief in spirit guidance dominates all these stories and may normally play a part in the make-up of any travel story. The incident of the guardian spirit or god through whose advice the hero wins success on a dangerous mission, whatever its objective, is therefore not necessarily borrowed from one story t' another. But the particular treatment of the incident in the reluctance of those in the canoe to give passage and the repeated effort of the supernatural being to gain it, together with the fact that it is only through his help that the quest is attained, gives the tale a type form very characteristic of South Sea travel stories and which may derive from a common, perhaps borrowed, source. It is interesting to observe that an incident based upon reverence for a god is often diverted to farcical ends in the make-up of such a story. The helpful spirit is often, like Kane-apua in the Waha-nui legend, a trickster spirit whose troublesome acts distort the actual moral pattern of the tale.

The meaning of Waha-nui's vow is rendered obscure by the chant language employed. It must refer to some vengeance to be taken, such as Brewster describes from Fiji as mbuturaki, which consists in knocking a man down and stamping upon him; "when a number of them got a victim down and jumped upon him, he generally bore their marks for the rest of his life." In a Tahiti story Maui in a rage stamps upon the disk of the sun until it is cracked and weakened. In Maori myth Tawhaki, angry with his parents because they did not avenge the attempt made against his life, "went to heaven and trod on the Toka-tami-whare," who were his ancestors. Treading upon the prostrate bodies of relatives may be used as a mark of submission, as in the Hawaiian legend of Kamapua‘a where his family submit to this treatment after their son has conquered the land. But the expression may well here refer to a voyage to ancestral lands circling the Pacific as in the Kaulu chant, Kane referring (in Hawaii) to the sun's path north of the Equator, Kanaloa to its path to the south.

Kane-apua's connection with Lanai is well established. Aiai, when he goes about marking out fishing grounds and setting up altars, finds him fishing off Kaunolu point on Lanai. Fish gods named Kane-apua and Rae-apua were worshiped at Lanai in Ellis's day, and Kalakaua names them as worshiped by Molokai fishermen. Emerson calls Kane-(lau)-apua a healing and beneficent god from Lanai who is joined with his relative Kane-milo-hai as an emissary to save men from death. The akuhekuhe fish is said to be one of this god's forms. He is named as a brother of Pele, who is left as guard on an outlying island of the group. He is named as the fourth son of Hina-ai-malama and Konikonia. He is one of the bird brothers named in the legend of Aukele-nui-a-Iku and legend says that Aukele and his brother Apua bring the first coconut to Hawaii. His connection with Kane and Kanaloa is that of a younger brother and lesser deity, who nevertheless by trickery gains his ends much like the younger Maui among the sons of Akalana.

Waha-nui, the explorer of the Pacific and tyrant chief over the early Kane people on Oahu, is possibly represented in the mythical Ke-ali‘i-wahi-lani who looked down from heaven and, beholding the beautiful woman La‘ila‘i dwelling on the island of Oahu, came down and made her his wife and thus became the father of "one of the ancestors of this race." An often quoted chant associates the name of Wahi-lani of Oahu with the adventure described in the legend of Waha-nui:

O Wahi-lani, o ke ali‘i o Oahu,
I holo aku i kahiki,
I na pae-moku o Moa-ula-nui-akea,
E keekeehi i ka houpu o Kane a me Kanaloa.

"Wahi-lani, chief of Oahu,
Sailed away to Kahiki,
To the islands of Moa-ula-nui-akea,
To tread the sunken land of Kane and Kanaloa." 

The purpose of Wahi-lani's voyage in this chant is identical with that of Waha-nui's. The localization on Oahu is unmistakable and agrees with that of the Waha-nui family on Oahu, with the Wakea and Papa stories, and the traditional placing of Luanu‘u, who is also called Wahi-lani, on the north coast of Oahu.

The name of Wahi-lani is, however, given to a chief of Kohala district on Hawaii in the time of Keawe-nui-a-Umi. This chief is named as one of those who accompany Keawe on his quest for Paka‘a and he is jeered at by Paka‘a's son as "not a chief by birth" but a petty chief, ruling over a land where sweet potato is the food and grasshoppers the fish of the land. He (or his son) joins the rebellion against Keawe and is slain, and his bones are displayed by Lono-i-ka-makahiki together with those of the five other chiefs whom Keawe slew. In both the Waha-nui legend and the Paka‘a appear the Hawaii names of Ho‘okele-i-Hilo and Ho‘okele-i-Puna (or -Kau) for the sailing masters, and in both legends the same device is used to force a landing by raising a storm. It looks as if the two stories took shape at the same time, when early legends were being relocalized and drawn into the cycle composed about the popular figure of Keawe-nui-a-Umi at the time when he held court as ruling chief on the island of Hawaii.




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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