Hawaiian Mythology
by Martha Beckwith 1940



Polynesian type tale tells of a high chief who weds away from home and departs, leaving tokens with the mother for the child about to be born by which the child's paternity may be recognized. The story falls into an established pattern, but subject to infinite episodic elaborations and varying from romantic to realistic in treatment of details. In Hawaii a favorite carrier for the firstborn when he goes in search of his father is a stretching tree, sometimes spoken of as an "ancestor," who can take either tree or eel form, and this tree kupua in some cases goes by the name of Niu-ola-hiki or Niu-loa-hiki, variously translated Life-giving (ola) or Long or High (loa) coconut (niu) of Kahiki (hiki), the last word, hiki, being also sometimes explained as "traveling" and the whole name being interpreted as Long-traveling-coconut.

The tree as a pathway to another world occurs in Rice's version of the Kaanaelike romance; in the Hi‘iaka story, where one of Pele's brothers makes a canoe of his body in order to carry Lohiau back to Kauai after he has been for the second time brought back to life; in the story of Maui's uncle Nu-lo-hiki, who turns himself into a canoe to bring Hina to her lover at Wailua on Kauai and then into a coconut tree up which Maui climbs to visit Makali‘i in the heavens; in the romance of Hainakolo, where Niu-loa-hiki is an ancestor god of Keaunini who, in the shape of a tall coconut tree, shakes down a leaf sheath to form a boat for the youth's journey in search of his father and in the form of an eel ac-companies him on his wedding journey. In the story of Niauepo‘o, who goes to seek his father overseas, an ancestor named Niu-ola-hiki in the form of a stretching tree serves as carrier of the child. Closely related are the stories of Kalanimanuia and of Namakaokapao‘o.


Ku-alakai from Kahiki-nui-alealea meets Hina at Maniania in Ka-u district on Hawaii and leaves her with child. He gives her a feather cape and helmet, his loincloth and red canoe, and bids her send their child to seek him. The son Niauepo‘o asks after his father and desires to visit him, but refuses the sea road. Hina's grandparents give him a bow and an arrow whose flight he is to follow and invoke their ancestor Niu-ola-hiki to bear their child overseas in the form of a lengthening coconut tree. The boy clings to the tip, the mother utters a chant, and the god drops the boy down in Kahiki-nui-alealea. Here he finds the children playing games, competes, wins, and gains a boy companion named Uhu-ula (Red uhu fish). The arrow sent ahead to guide the way falls inside the house of the chief's grand-daughter and when the boys follow the arrow she takes Niauepo‘o for her husband. The boys are discovered and killed and their bodies thrown into the sea, but the ancestor restores their spirits to life, Uhuula in the form of the red uhu fish and Niauepo‘o in his own form. Each night the boy comes out of the sea and uses the stone walk, bathing pool, loincloth, water gourd, drum, and sleeping mats prepared for the reception of the chief's son. The guards report to the chief, a watch is set, nets arranged to trap him, and as soon as he has eaten food he becomes a human being again and is joyfully received by his father. Hina, however, enraged by his former treatment, comes from overseas to avenge him and turns her husband into an alakai fish. The daughter she bears after her return is named Maniania (trembling), from the cold and fear experienced by her son while being carried overseas, and the name is today attached to the place on Ka-u where she lived.


Ku, ruling chief of Lihue on Oahu, surprises the beautiful Kaunoa at her bathing pool and leaves her with his spear and loincloth as tokens for their child, whom he directs to be named, if a boy, Kalanimanuia. The boy is brought up at Kukaniloko in ignorance of his birth until his supposed father scolds him for giving away food too lavishly, when the mother sends him to Ku with the tokens. Ku does not recognize the child and orders him to be thrown into the sea off Kualoa point. Night after night his spirit comes to the heiau, chants a song, and leaves at cockcrow. The heiau kahunas worship the spirit until it gains strength to take on human form. Ku recognizes his son and nets are placed about the heiau to snare the spirit, which is then worked over until it takes first the body of a rat and then becomes almost human in form.

The rat-like boy woos his sister Ihiawaawa, and jeers at her three suitors Hala, Kumunuiaiake, and Aholenuimakaukai as unworthy of her, but she will have nothing to do with him because he looks like a rat. The lovers determine upon a test of beauty, the falling of a suspended cord to determine the winner. The night before the contest Kalanimanuia hears repeated knockings at his door and there enter the soles of his feet (puakuakua), then the knees (moi), the thighs (lolelua), the hair (limuhuna), the eyes (hohoea). The next morning he appears at the contest as a splendid youth. Wind, rain, thunder and lightning hail his coming and the cord tumbles of itself in sign of a high ranking chief. 


Ku-ula-o-kaha‘i (Standing breadfruit of Kaha‘i) from Kahiki-papaialewa, a land in the clouds, comes to Oahu and meets Pokai at Hoaeae. On his return to Kahiki he leaves a garment, a girdle, and a feather cloak as tokens of their child's parent-hood. Na-maka-o-ka-pao‘o (The eyes of the pao‘o fish) is born. While a mere baby he pulls up all the potato vines which his supposed father Puali‘i has planted. When his father attempts to kill him with an axe, the instrument slips, as the child pronounces a chant, and cuts off Puali‘i's own head and the child picks it up and hurls it a distance of five miles. Amau, ruling chief of Oahu, sends men to kill the child, but all are slain and finally the chief himself, and the son sets up his mother as ruler over Oahu. He leaves the tokens from his father in a gourd at the foot of the Kaha‘i breadfruit which is his father's impersonation on Oahu and travels to Hawaii, where he makes friends with some boys with whom he has wagered in a contest with arrows and is adopted as a friend by Namaka-o-ka-i‘a, whose father Namaka-o-ka-lani is defending Kona district against Ku, ruling chief of Puna and Ka-u districts. Having established his friend's father, he sails to visit his own father (incomplete). 

Parallel forms of the same general pattern occur in southern Polynesian groups.

Maori. (a) Tu-huruhuru is son of Tini-rau and Hina. Hina flees with her brother Rupe when the child is born, but leaves the child in answer to her husband's supplication. The boys, jealous because he excels in hurling the throwing stick, taunt him as a bastard and the child goes disguised as a slave to his mother's settlement. Obeying his father's instructions, when ordered to bring Rupe water to drink he pours it on his uncle's nose and when his mother dances he sings a charm which loosens her girdle. Both beat him; he escapes and tries to drown himself but is recognized in time, and his mother and her brother return to Tini-rau for the baptism ceremony. 

(b) Tuahuriri is deserted by his mother's husband, son of the great chief Kahukura-te-paku, because she has had an affair with another man and he feels himself insulted. The mother of a boy whom the child has struck calls him a bastard and he in-quires for his father and goes to seek him at his home in Waimea. His party is about to be killed and eaten as strangers when he alludes to "the red battens of my grandfather Kahukura-te-paku's house" and repeats the name given to him by his father. Honorable recognition follows, but he still cherishes a grudge and on another visit is believed to have left a deadly plant which takes off many of his father's people. 

(c) Tautini-awhitia is born after his father has gone to live at another place. He excels in sport, and the boys taunt him as "fatherless!" He goes to seek his father in a canoe made of the rewarewa pod and his mother chants a charm for his safety on the sea. He arrives safely at his father's home and is adopted as a slave by a little son of his father and sent to live in the bush. Two pet birds of the same kind as those which his father had brought to relieve his mother's pregnancy craving before he was born are taught to speak and reveal his identity, and he is gladly received with honor. 

(d) Wharematangi is son of Ngarue by Uru-te-kakara. Ngarue leaves his wife because her relatives call him lazy, but gives her a name for the child, a dart, and a chant to guide him to his father's house. He excels in dart throwing but is jeered at by his playmates because his father's family has not avenged an insult from another tribe, and goes to seek his father. The dart leads the way, protected by the chant, and he is recognized by its shape and received gladly. An expedition of vengeance is speedily planned. 

Marquesas. Kae's son Te-hina-tu-o-Kae (Hina-tuu-o-Kae), child of Hina-i-Vaino‘i (Vainoki), is mocked by the boys because he has no father. Hina sends him on her fish brother to the place where Kae lives. The boy bathes in the basin which Kae has prepared for his son; he tears up the bananas and sugar cane. The people, angry, take him to the old tuhuna and he is put in a hole to be strangled the next day. The lad chants his name. Kae comes, recognizes him, and puts him upon his head, thus consecrating the child, or recognizes him only after having him first thrown into an oven. 

Tonga. Tongaloa Eitumatupua descends from the sky by a casuarina tree and takes to wife a woman of earth. A boy is born and called Ahoeitu. Tongaloa gives the woman a mountain of earth and a yam for the child's garden. The boy asks for his father. The mother sends him to the sky by way of the tree. She anoints him with coconut oil and gives him a loincloth. The father is catching pigeons. He takes the boy home and gives him kava and food and sends him to play at throwing-stick with his sky brothers. They kill him and eat him but throw away his bones and head. These are gathered up, the brothers are given an emetic, and with Malay apple leaves as covering he is brought to life. The brothers now love him and follow him back to earth, where he displaces the old Tuitonga and rules as far as Uea. 

Lau Islands: Legend of Va. A woman is swallowed by a shark, escapes, and marries the lord of Notho in a strange land. Her son Vu never grows up but is stronger than other children. When they revile him because of his stranger mother he sails away alone to seek his mother's country. 

Each of the tales contains special incidents, emphasis upon which suggests the source from which the story is drawn. The tapu bathing basin and other preparations made to receive the expected visitor in the first two stories certainly belong to the Marquesas, where it is customary to prepare such a bathing basin, plant fruit and paper mulberry trees, and raise pigs in anticipation of a firstborn child, and where the account of the arrival of Kae's child born to Vaino‘i in the island of women almost exactly duplicates the episode in this Hawaiian story. The name Niauepo‘o is a class title in Hawaii for chiefs of the highest rank, born from the marriage of close relatives among high chiefs. The singular episode of the restoration of the different parts of Kalanimanuia's body has a parallel also in a Marquesan story where Ono is killed and torn in pieces, but the twelve sisters save his "head" and each bears a child in the form of one of the missing members. It is a variant of the theme of the ugly man grown handsome (by bathing, cutting up and making over by the gods, and so forth) and in this form is well known in Polynesian as in oriental and African story. For the slipping knife compare a Tonga version of Hina's flight from Sinilau, in which the parents do not recognize the children and attempt to kill them, but by pronouncing the family names they cause the knife to slip. 

The test of beauty in the Kalanimanuia story agrees with the Hawaiian custom of stretching a sacred cord (aha) which is supposed to fall of itself before a ranking chief, and the incident is therefore probably native to Hawaii. A story illustrating this custom is recited by people of Hilo to this day, as follows:


At the time when Lono-ma-ai-kanaka was living back of Hilo with some of his chiefs, one of the chiefesses wandered into the back country and lived with the commoners on popolo berries and wild ferns. After a time she longed for fish and proposed an expedition to the coast. At Ka-nuku-o-ka-manu (Beak of the bird) they approached Lono's encampment. Her friends were about to retire, but the chiefess ran forward, the cords fell before her, and she went and lay upon the chests of the chiefs and embraced their heads. Thus for the first time her friends of the back country knew that she was a chiefess of high rank, and they feared for their lives; but she dismissed them with honor. 

The stretching-tree kupua, called Niu-ola-hiki or Niu-loa-hiki in Hawaiian story, occurs in the Marquesas, Rarotonga, and the Tuamotus, generally as an intermediary between earth and heaven, man and the gods, a child and his divine ancestors, youth and manhood; or, in one case, as a symbolic connection between this world and that of the dead. In romance a chief goes by this path to woo a divine chiefess; the canoe in which a hero sails upon adventure is called by this name.

In the Marquesas, Tanaoa outsails his brothers in a canoe made out of a coconut sheath and named Niu-oa-fiti, here translated "Distant coconut at Fiji." Koomahu climbs up to heaven after his sister and, finding her waiting upon old blind Tapa for whom she is roasting bananas, he restores the blind woman's eyes with coconut water from the Niu-oa-i-Fiti, translated "Long coconut palm in Fiji." In the rite to consecrate a new-born child, two mythical "coconuts" are referred to, called niu-oa-i-fiti and niu-oa-ani, one for furnishing food for the child, the other for the navel cord, but whether invoked as gods is not made clear. In Rarotonga, to say that one "climbs the coconut tree Nu-roa-ki-iti" is equivalent to saying that one commits suicide. Ta‘aki goes to seek his father by the road between heaven and earth called Nu-roa-ki-iti. In the Tuamotus, in Fagatau, Tahaki climbs Niu-roa-i-Hiti and finds himself precipitated into Hina's bathing pool. An Anaa chant quoted by Stimson says, "The ship of Maui is the shell of the High-coconut-of-Havaiki." The tree Niu-roa-i-Havaiki grows from the head of Tuna-te-vai-ora, the demigod whose wife Hina-tuatu-a-akakai comes to Havaiki after a husband and becomes Mauitikitiki's wife. In the Chant of Rua, a canoe called Niu-roa-i-hiti is constructed in Nuku-tavake to sail to Vahitahi, which was the original home of the Nuku-tavake people. The story proceeds:

The chief as high priest performs ceremonies proper for the occasion and despatches heralds to call the people together to the court before the House-of-learning. During the ceremony he becomes possessed by the god, who reveals that the demon god Rua-tuputupua has taken possession of the ship. Chants are uttered to free the ship from the power of the demon, invoking Tane, Tagaroa, Tu. Te-tahi the captain chants songs. He sends one herald aloft to watch for land birds, then another, who sees birds riding the waves. The land of Vahitahi, lying twenty miles distant from Nuku-tavake, is now in sight. The seer at Vahitahi foresees the ship's arrival and knows that it is possessed by a demon. Every effort is now made to exorcise the demon. The ship is hauled upon the reef with erotic songs in-tended to arouse the men to their highest pitch of energy. The songs describe the safe passage of the reef, the bringing of the ship to shore, its lodging there, and precautions to prevent the demon from escaping on land. All proceed in file to the temple. The demon is exorcised into a pool of fresh water and the ship cleansed with smoke from its influence. 

Besides these allusions to a stretching tree or a swift canoe with a name obviously a variant of that of the Hawaiian kupua, there are a number of legends told in the South Seas where a lengthening unnamed tree serves as roadway between earth and heaven. In Mangaia, Tane climbs a tree beset by insects whose top seems to reach the sky, from which he shakes down nuts upon his own homeland. A ladder-like tree beset by insects is alluded to in the Samoan Ahoeitu story. In one Samoan story a lad goes up to the moon on a tree; in another a boy sent to climb a tree at an ogre's house finds that it stretches upward when he attempts to pick a nut. In Tonga, a child born with strength in his hands goes up to visit his father in the sky on a casuarina tree that grows up from his own staff. In the Banks islands a lengthening Casuarina tree saves Qat and his brothers from Qasavara. In Dobu a scabby-skinned man, deserted by his fellows, travels to the sky on a lengthening casuarina tree. In San Cristoval, brothers cause a betel tree to stretch in order to rid them-selves of a younger brother, and it lengthens to the skies and bends over to the boy's home. A lengthening areca tree which a man climbs after nuts for his brother carries a man to the country of the skies. In a tale from North Borneo, a man escapes to the sky by a lengthening tree which pigs, woodpeckers, and porcupines are attempting to fell. In Whitsuntide island of the New Hebrides, Tagaro comes to earth and begets a son who follows him to the skies on an arrow which turns into an aerial tree root. Again, a grandmother sends a child up a tree after fruit and when he gives her none she causes the tree to lengthen. In the Lau islands the daughter of Turi climbed a tree and "flew like a bird right up to heaven and married the god Mbengga." 

In Hawaii, according to information given by a worshiper of Kane-huna-moku, the kupua Niu-ola-hiki in his tree form is the path that leads to the land of the gods, a land of "sacred coconuts," where Kane, Lono, and Kanaloa first made man. Here the "coconuts" are phallic symbols. The chant addressed to Ku and Hina by herb pickers is identical with that by which the mother of Niauepo‘o summons the boy's ancestor to bear him safely to the far land of his father:

O Life-giving coconut!
Budded in Kahiki, Rooted in Kahiki,
Forming a trunk in Kahiki,
Bearing leaves in Kahiki,
Bearing fruit in Kahiki,
Ripened in Kahiki!

The myth of the "life-giving," or "far-traveling" coconut palm of Kahiki or Avaiki may be regarded as the symbolic expression throughout Polynesia of the blood tie which connects a migrating people to their original ancestral line. It is a claim upon paternal recognition. It is a living impersonation of the family line which carries the genealogy of the newborn child back over whatever distance of time or space to his ultimate ancestry and to all the honors and dignities which such ancestry implies. It is the claim made by a migrating people for recognition by others of their line of their divine patrimony. It probably has phallic meaning in connection with the sexual life of the child who becomes himself an element in the preservation of the family line. The Tuamotu references strongly suggest ritual symbolism. So also the eel form in Hawaii, employed, like the coconut palm and the canoe, as a phallic symbol.




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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