Hawaiian Mythology
by Martha Beckwith 1940



Stock episode of a kupua story is a riddling contest, called ho‘opa‘apa‘a, a term used to express the play of words back and forth in debate. The common situation is that of a famous riddler who has defeated all challengers but is finally outwitted and destroyed by an apparently mean antagonist. The most fully elaborated of these stories relates how a mere boy outmatches the most famous riddling chief of Kauai and avenges the death of his father in a similar contest. The event is commemorated in the name Kauai-of-Kaikipa‘ananea, which means "The expert in riddling," from nane, "to riddle," although the word is also used for other games of skill such as flourished especially in the courts of chiefs of the island of Kauai and were thence carried to other islands.

In such a contest high stakes are set, even to life itself. In more homely usage the art consists in betting on a riddle to be guessed, in a brag upon which the opponent has been induced to put up a bet, or in merely playing with language in a way to entangle the opponent with contradictory and seemingly impossible meanings. Puns were delighted in as a way of matching an opponent or fulfilling a brag. Taunts after the manner of "stringing" a less sophisticated rival must be met with a jibe more bitter. One series of objects of a kind must be matched with another, or a forgotten item, no matter how trivial, added. One object proposed must be met with another analogous in every detail, or its antithesis. A spider web is thus matched with the dodder vine, a kukui nut with a sea urchin as it is cracked and eaten with the use of thumb and fingers and a pinch of salt added, the contestant being careful in every case to follow exactly the words of his opponent, which he must show to apply equally well to the parallel he has chosen. Real knowledge is necessary for such a contest.

The contestant must be prepared to match his antagonist in material ways, and for this purpose he carried a calabash of the type used for traveling, in which were stored objects necessary for such uses. A famous riddler of the court of Keawe-nui-a-Umi was Kua-paka‘a who carried the bones of the wind ancestor in his calabash and knew how to summon each by name. Another was Pikoi-a-ka-alala who brags upon his rat shooting and wins by punning on the word rat (iole). He hits an old woman and claims to have "hit a rat" because of the name haumaka-iole (eyes like a rat) applied to the aged. He shoots at the topmost batten in the house, called kua-iole (back of the rat), and again scores. Folktales are told of Kapunoho the great riddler. Two brothers whom he encounters in the woods get him to put up losing bets against their brags, first by pretending to be just covering, instead of about to open, the oven of birds they are cooking; then by serving up chicken in an eggshell in answer to the riddle "chicken for the meat and chicken for the dish"; lastly, by licking fingers dipped in gravy to fulfil a bet upon "eating human flesh." Sometimes court language is put to more serious uses. An uprising against a ruling chief is begun, according to tradition, while the chief and his rival are engaged over a game of checkers (konane). Using the language of the game, the rival's kahu declares that he knows a move by which his master can "win the game." When the chief and his master both give permission for him to "make the move," he slays the chief who is his master's opponent not only in the game of checkers but in that of politics as well. 

An example of the full riddling match from the Kalapana legend shows the child challenger of the chief's riddlers playing upon the word hua, which refers to an offspring or fruiting as the result of the swelling out of inner forces. The rounding of the tuber or rootstock of the food plant is thus matched with the rounded egg of the fish or bird, the fruit of a tree with the rounded shapes of sun, moon, and stars in the heavens. Competitive claims apply in one case to the depth down to the underworld, in the other to the height into the upperworld. The riddlers chant:

The moon of Kaulua,
The moon that bore the first breadfruit of Lanai, . . .
The fruit of the taro swells down below,
The fruit of the sweet potato swells down below,
The fruit of the yam swells down below,
The fruit of the pia swells down below,
The fruit of the ape swells down below,
Down, down, down to Milu and below that!

The boy answers:

The moon of Kaulua,
The moon that gave birth to the great turtle and placed it,
The fruit of the seaweed swells below,
The egg (hua) of the fish swells below,
The egg of the turtle swells below,
The egg of the chicken swells below,
(At) the foundation of the house of Milu below,
The foundation of the house of Milu, laid below, below, away below.

The men then name the fruits that ripen above ground, banana, breadfruit, mountain apple, and a half dozen others, and conclude,

The coconut (niu) puts forth fruit above,
Up to the flying clouds and above that.

The boy answers:

Kaulua is the moon,
The moon gives birth to a great turtle,
At Po-niu-lua (punning on the word coconut) on Lanai is my fruit,
The fruit is the sun that hangs above,
The fruit is the moon that hangs above,
The fruit is the stars that hang above,
The fruit is the cloud that hangs above,
The fruit is the wind that hangs above,
The fruit is the lightning that hangs above,
Up, up above the flying clouds and above that!

The men jeer and say that their fruit still hangs above. The boy continues:

There it is, there it is,
There hangs the great wind cloud,
The south wind is blowing,
The wind that goes roughly,
Beating the leaves of the trees,
Pushing against the trunks of the trees,
Making them fall below,
The trunk, the branches,
The leaves, the fruit,
Brushed off till they lie bruised and fallen below,
The breadfruit bears fruit above,
Struck by the south wind it falls below. . . .

and after enumerating all the other plants with fruit above ground which falls below he cries, "Eh! the men are defeated for lack of fruit that hangs above. Struck by the south wind it falls below. I have defeated you!"

The illustration is from the most complete story of a riddling match which has been described in Hawaiian legend, of which we have a number of variants. The competitors are a powerful riddling chief backed by skilled practitioners, and a mere youth who comes to avenge his father's death in a similar match and who turns the old men's jeers back upon themselves and matches their knowledge with a play of words always to his own advantage.


(a) Nakuina version. A famous family of riddlers belong to Kapalaoa on Kauai. The parents teach the art to their four children. The brothers Hale-pa-iwi (House fenced with bones) and Hale-pa-niho (House fenced with teeth) become riddlers for the chief Ka-lani-ali‘i-loa at Wailau and so great is their skill that they are able to outwit all competitors. The sisters marry on Hawaii, the younger sister to Kane-po-iki of Kona on Hawaii, to whom she teaches all she knows of riddling. He then insists upon challenging the Kauai champion, and his bones, staked upon the outcome, are left bleaching upon the walls of Ka-lani-ali‘i. His young son Kalapana prepares to avenge his father's death. Since his mother was not able to acquire the whole knowledge of her parents' art before their death, she sends the boy to her older sister Kalaoa who lives at Hilo-pali-ku; there he becomes proficient in riddling in spite of his still childish appearance. At the Kauai court he is jeered by the nine men inside the riddling house, just as at home he has been laughed at by his playmates for his fat stomach and short legs. Only the chief's younger brother, Keli‘i-o-ka-pa‘a, befriends him and sees that he has fair play. In his riddler's calabash he carries grass to spread out to sleep on, mats of choice weave, a block of wiliwili wood for a pillow, certain dried fish with punning names, fire sticks, firestones, kindling wood, bundles of cocked meat, awa root, a wooden dish and an awa dipper and strainer, a water bottle, a feather holder, fish cords, a black beach stone, a smooth pebble, a stone hatchet, and loincloths, all of which he employs to prevent being shamed before the superior luxuries enjoyed by his competitor. At first he is commanded to stay outside the house, but when he counters by demanding that his opponents then remain within they see that this will be inconvenient and admit him to the house, which is divided into two parts, one end finished neatly for the chief and his friends, the other left rough for the contestant. However, by spreading down his grass and mats and taking out fire, food, and drink, he makes himself so comfortable that the chiefs are constrained to begin the contest. At every turn they are outwitted and finally each is hacked to pieces, according to the terms of the bet, except the friendly younger brother, who is made chief in place of the riddler. The boy returns to Hawaii without having once lowered the sail of his canoe from the moment of setting forth to that of his landing again.

(b) Fornander version. In the days of Pueo-nui-o-Kona, ruling chief of Kauai, the father of Kaipalaoa called Hale-pa-ki is killed in a riddling contest with the Kauai chief Ka lani ali‘i loa. Death is the wager and so expert in the art is the chief that a fence of bones has been almost completed about his house. Kaipalaoa lives at Waiakea in Hilo with his mother Wailea who is skilled in the art of riddling, but who sends him to her sister Kalena-i-haleauau, wife of Kukui-pahu the ruling chief of Kohala, to complete his education. He then journeys to Wailua, Kauai, and challenges the chief to a riddling contest, invoking his own god Kane-pa-iki against the god Kane-ulu-po (god who presides over the cock crow) invoked by the Kauai chief's instructors. He is met by ridicule because of his childish years, but outriddles them all and has them all cooked in the oven prepared for himself and the flesh stripped from their bones in revenge for his father's death. (In the story of Pele and Hi‘iaka, Kaipalaoa is named as father of Wahine-omao and husband of Puna-boa.)

(c) Kepakailiula episode. Kaikipa‘ananea is famous for his skill in boxing, wrestling on all fours, "catch who catch can," and riddling. He abducts Kepakailiula's wife and that famous chief comes to Kauai to recover her and takes the chief Kaunalewa of Waimea as his friend. After a successful boxing contest he is challenged to answer the chief's riddles on pain of death if he fails. The chief's public crier who "lives on nothing but the king's excrement," and is hence avoided by all because of his offensive smell, Kepakailiula bribes with kind words, fresh garments, and a good meal of pork and vegetables to reveal the answers to the chief's riddles. These are

"Step all around, step at the bottom,
Leaving, reserving a certain place"


"The men that stand
The men that lie down
The men that are folded."

Both refer to house building; for the first the thatch is trodden down to the base all around, leaving an opening at the door, and for the second, "the timbers stand, the battens are laid down, the grass is folded." The two chiefs have staked their lives on the result of the match and the oven has been heated by the Kauai chief in the expectation of securing the bones of his defeated antagonist. Upon his defeat, therefore, Kaikipa‘ananea is thrown into the oven, there is a general slaughter of his men, and the chief Kaunalewa is made ruler over the island.

(d) Pukui version. A Puna chief (unnamed) fond of riddling sends out men to search for fresh riddles and, when they return, poses them with a riddle which must be answered by naming parts of the body containing the syllable ki ( joint). As they do not understand what the chief is driving at, one after another suffers death. At last one young man, sent out in search of fresh riddles for the chief, encounters the old court jester who used to invent riddles for the chief's father and grandfather and who knows the chief's riddle. Pitying the young man, he teaches him the answer and how to turn the riddle against the chief himself. Thus the chief is slain and the young man escapes. This ends the practice of riddling in Puna.

(e) McAllister version. Ka-mahalo-lani-ali‘i, chief at Moanalua on Oahu, jealous of the admiration women show for the handsome Keli‘i-kanaka-ole (The chief without followers), challenges him to a riddling match, roasting in the oven to be the stake. Paeli, an upland man who has taught the chief the riddle with which he challenges his rival, takes pity on the handsome fellow and teaches him the answer. The riddle contains the description of a child's life from pregnancy to youth, and Keli‘i acts out realistically the interpretation, then escapes instantly and remains in hiding until the chief's death. 

Similar riddling matches are described in Scandinavian chants from the Elder Edda where gods in disguise challenge the old giants for their knowledge, and in such Indian legends as that of Rasalu at the court of the tyrant of the Pun-jab. In the South Seas riddling speech was a common accomplishment.

In Tahiti, the study of enigmas and similes, called paraupiri, was a favorite pastime in the schools and women might take part as teachers. Artificial language, proverbs, and plays on words belonged to the ali‘i period of Tahiti, represented by a dominating class similar to that of Samoa, Tonga, and Hawaii. An example of such word contests is the dispute in song between the Raiateans and the Tahitians as to the comparative value of their countries, or the piri sent by the chief of Tubuai to the priests of Tahiti, to answer which a priest of Ta‘aroa from Tahiti came to Tubuai. In the Marquesas, schools of learning were established in which pupils learned the legends, genealogies, and chants. The tuhuna o‘ono was the reciter who taught the sacred lore, the oho au the building in which he worked. Contests of wit were held between the masters of learning and in ancient times the defeated tuhuna was killed. Among the Maori, separate schools were held for experts in the secular art of agriculture, in the art of astronomy (which belonged to chiefs and priests alone), and in the ancient lore, including medicine and sorcery through incantations. Riddlers must be well informed in the names of plants and stars. Geographical knowledge was important. See, for example, a song telling the place names from Wanga-nui to Wairarapa; the detecting of a plot of revenge through interpreting the riddling words of a chant; the word sparring with which a man who goes courting worsts his host; and Rata's visit to the house of Pou-a-haokai. So in Niue an invading chief overcomes his elder in a bragging contest. In Tonga a "court language" is used by the chiefs which consists in conveying a message in symbolic language. When a Tongan chief asks for "cuttings of yam to complete the planting of his 'little yam patch" he is asking for a girl as wife, and the chief of whom he asks her answers in courtly language that "the seed yams are shriveled and old and it is too early to get plantings from the younger," meaning that one daughter is too old for him and the other not yet mature. A third wife is jealous when she gets as her portion the tail of the fish and the rump of the pig, until her father explains to her that these parts are a symbol of lordship for her children. "The double canoe is raised on the weather shore of Haakame," observes a man who sees a woman sitting on a hibiscus tree and dangling her feet in the sea. This same word play is employed in Samoa of which Mead says, "A village is proud of the reputation of being faigata [difficult] for the visiting orator," and "in this dextrous, graceful play with social forms the Samoans find their chief artistic expression."




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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