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POLYNESIAN MYTHOLOGY

HAWAII

The role of social commentator was also enjoyed by the Hula troupers of Hawaii who used ki'i or marionettes, manipulated by ventriloquists, to tell simple dramatic tales, full of gossip and satirical comments.

The Polynesians of Hawaii lived in a world created by their gods and heroes and felt a close involvement with them. The highest of traditional lore were the province of the divine chief, the inspirational priest and the ceremonial priest. Every Polynesian chief traced his genealogy back to the gods and was therefore the living link with the mythological past. The inspirational priest was the mouthpiece of the gods, the oracle and diviner, who was consulted before any events of importance. The ceremonial priest presided over the public ceremonies associated with the birth, installation and death of a chief, as well as those which regulated man's association with nature.

The role of social commentator was also enjoyed by the Hula troupers of Hawaii who used ki'i or marionettes, manipulated by ventriloquists, to tell simple dramatic tales, full of gossip and satirical comments. As well as being entertainers, they served in a religious capacity at the great public ceremony like the festival of the first groups for the god Lono. Laka, the goddess of the wildwood and sister of Lono was their patroness. Her presence was manifested in a small block of wood which was covered by a piece of yellow tapa and placed on the altar in the special hula house. 

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A comb-crested image depicting Lono

The Hula troupe comprised novices and experienced performers who came together under a kumu who was both leader, teacher and business manager. As his troupes were not food producers, he founded a chief to act as patron. Training was strict and surrounded by the usual tapus. Young aspirants were chosen for their beauty, grace, wit and liveliness of imagination.

The contrast between these vivacious entertainers and the solemn and dignified priests and bards were tremendous, but together they were guardian of the traditional lore and through them the Polynesians of Hawaii consciously preserve and transmitted the esoteric truths enshrined in their mythology.

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An image of ku-kaili-moku, god of war,  made of a framework of basketry to which feathers had been added  

Another image of ku-kaili-moku. The teeth are polished dog's teeth and the eyes are pearl shells. These feather gods were apparently portable  

CREATION OF THE COSMOS

Amongst the Polynesians genesis was conceived of either a process of growth or evolution from an intangible to a tangible state, or as the work of a pre-existent, omniscient creator who brought matter into existence, gave form to the formless and set all in an established order. Other creation myths of the evolutionary type were completely personalised. The two elements became an earth mother and a sky father, who were the progenitors of the gods, the elements, the land and all living things. In myths of this type, the first born sons of the primal pair played an active part in creation; separating their parents, raising the sky and creating lands, plants and man. The names and attributes of the greatest of these, the gods Tane, Tangaroa, Tu and Rongo were known throughout almost all of Polynesia except the west where Tangaroa or Tangaloa alone was known as the sole creator.   

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These grotesque wooden images scowled down on the
proceedings within the heiau or sacred precincts. This one was removed
from the heiau of Kawai'hai dedicated to Ku at Kailua, Hawaii. (British Museum)

GODS WORK FOR MAN

Ku's name means "to stand" and "to strike" and he was the god of war to whom human sacrifices were made. In Hawaii, where he was known as Ku-of-the-deep-forest, Ku-of-the-undergrowth, Ku-adzing-out-the-canoe, he was also the patron of wood workers; but he was also known as Ku-the-snatcher-of-land and Ku-with-the-maggot-dropping-mouth, who received human sacrifices. The family of gods classed as Ku were formidable gods of war in Hawaii.

Rongo was known as Lono in Hawaii. As Lono in the Hawaiian Islands, he was the god of agriculture and was said to have introduced the Makahiki rite, a harvest festival that was a time on singing and celebration. The high priest was blindfolded for five days of merrymaking and the people indulged in wresting matches and other sports. The Long god, an upright pole with a cross piece from which hung feather wreaths and long streamers of tapa was carried in a circuit of the island. Wherever it rested, tributes were exacted and when it returns to the ruling chief's district, he sailed out to meet it. When he landed, a spear was thrown at him which was parried by a special attendant. A mock battle follows. The following day, there was feasting and the Net of Maoleha, a large meshed net full of food, was shaken out. If no food clung to the net, a season of plenty was certain.

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A formidable puppet meant to inspire fear carved in a light wood
and covered with black tapa. The upper teeth are human and the lower
teeth are the palatine teeth of a fish. Six teeth serve as fingers. (British Museum)

Tane, known as Kane in Hawaii, signifies "man". He fulfilled many great tasks: separating earth and sky, beautifying the heavens and creating women. Kane's lifegiving qualities were symbolised in myths and prayers as The-water-of-life-of-Kane. He was lord of the forest and all the creatures who lived in it. All who used wood particularly the canoe builders invoked him. Hawaiian tradition also stated that Kane and Kanaloa (Tangaroa) as they were known there came from Kahiki (Tahiti) and such old gods were not considered very important. Hawaii, almost more than anywhere else in Polynesia, possessed a proliferation of gods. 

HINA - THE UNIVERSAL WOMAN

Each story or cycle of stories in Polynesian mythology had its supporting cast and in many of them, with the frequency of a refrain, there appeared a character called Hina, who was sometimes a woman and sometimes a goddess. The different facets of Hina's personality were mot often revealed by her composite names. She was most closely associated with the moon, and although she rarely received the worship accorded male gods, she was highly regarded in Polynesian mythology. Her companion resembles Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanic fires, in that both were said to command the lightning. As such, she seems to be another aspect of Hina herself, for the Hawaiians say that Pele's human incarnation was Hina-ai-malama or Hina-who-eats-the-moon.

There are many explanation of how Hina came to be in the moon. Hina's place for beating cloth was localised on many islands. The Hawaiians believed that a certain long black rock, visible above the surf-line, and a spot on the island of Maui, was where she worked. Stories from that district described her both as the mother of Maui and the ancestress of Kaha'i (Tawhaki) and Laka (Rata), who returned to the moon after a difference with her husband.

The Hawaiians attributed these procreative powers of Hina to yet another person called Haumea, mother of Pele. Sometimes they identified with the first woman who they called not Hina but La-ila-i or again Haumea was incarnated in human form as Papa, the wife of Wakea (Atea), but in Hawaii, Papa and Wakea were not the primal pair, they were the first ancestors of the island chiefs. Hina-the-Bailer was Wakea's second wife, after Haumea. This tangle of relationships strengthens the impression that all these various female characters really represent aspects of one being who acted as both a creative and destructive force.

HAUMEA, THE CREATOR

The Hawaiians regarded Haumea as the patroness of childbirth because she was said to have introduced natural childbirth. Before her, women were cut open to deliver the child. As a reward she was granted the name "tree of changing leaves" or "tree of never ending vegetable food supply". In some versions, it was from this that Makalei came, the stick which had the power to attract fish. The Hawaiians used a charred oiled stick for such a purpose.

Haumea possessed powerful magic. She was said to have saved her husband Wakea from being sacrificed by passing through the trunk of a breadfruit tree with him and escaping. As they fled, the fragments torn from her skirt change into morning glory flowers. But Haumea, the great producer sometimes used her powers destructively. Some say she withdrew the wild plants of the forest which people relied on when cultivated foods were scarce. A trickster, Kaulu, broke her power by stealing cultivated plants from the gods and killed her by tossing her into the net of Maoleha. This was the net of divination in which food is tossed each year at the Makahiki ceremony.

PELE, THE DESTROYER 

Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanic fires, symbolised woman at her most destructive. Like many other beings of Polynesian myth she was a great voyager. She was said to have come from Kahiki (Tahiti). Some say she was driven out by her elder sister whose husband she stole, or that she was driven towards Hawaii by a flood. Others say that she simply longed to travel and, tucking her little sister Hi'iaka (who was born in the shape of an egg) under her arm, she set off on the journey to Hawaii.

WONDER-WORKERS AND TRICKSTERS

Some of the most popular stories of Polynesia centred on characters who possessed extraordinary powers which derived from a supernatural source. The Hawaiians called them Kupua and delighted in their adventures. They were born in non-human form, either as an egg which developed into a monstrous creature, or as a plant or inanimate object. They were usually brought up by their maternal grandparents who later supported them in their adventures with their magic. When they took human shape, their supernormal nature was apparent in their ability to transform themselves, stretch or shrink themselves, fly to the air, take giant strides over the land and perform great feat of strength. Tales about them are concern with how they slew monsters, rescued maidens, defeated rivals and even disputing with the gods in all sorts of games of skill, riddling competitions and trials of strength.

The most famous stretching Kupua of Hawaii was Kana, who was born in the form of a rope and brought up by his grandmother, Uli. He was asked to rescue a woman who had been abducted and placed on an island-hill. Each time Kana tried to reach her by growing taller, the hill grew taller too, lifting the girl further away. Soon he became as thin as a cobweb and very hungry, so he bent over to Hawaii and put his head through his grandmother's door where she fed him. She also told him that the island was really a turtle whose stretching power lay in his slippers. Kana broke these off and rescued the girl.

                

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 (E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 14th December 2010)