On your next vacation in Hawaii, discover 10 amazing Hawaiian folk tales that will explain the “Aloha State” – “the paradise of the Pacific.”
Islanders joke that “Hawaii, not just volcanoes and pineapples.” Actually, Hawaii is the legendary land of gods and goddesses, including Pele, the hot-headed goddess of the volcano, and Maui (son of Hina-lau-ae and Hina).
Studying Hawaiian mo-olelos (stories) provided a new perspective on what I experienced on my vacation on the Big Island of Hawaii. The origin stories reveal the native Hawaiian’s respect for nature. I share below:
Table of Contents
Hawaiian Folk Tale
Pele immigrated from the far distant land of Hapakuela (located at the edge of the sky) to live on Hawaii-net. She arrived first but her family followed afterward. Her mother was Kahinalii; her father was Kanehoalani. She had two brothers named Kamohoalii and Kahuilaokalani.
Originally, Pele resided on Kauai island. Next, she moved to Kalaupapa, (on the island of Molokai). She made her bed in the crater of Kauhako. Still not content, she next traveled to Puulaina and dug out a crater. Soon bored, she decided to dwell in Haleakala. Pele hollowed out a crater for her home. Her final home is located on Kilauea, on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Land of the Volcano
The goddess Pelehonuamea (Pele) was enraged when Kahawali flew down a hill faster on his sled. Her incandescent rage bubbled up. She pounded her feet until the earth quaked. The hill split in two. Then she screamed for fire to follow her. Bubbling black lava spewed forth.
Thunder cracked. Lightening rent the sky. She summoned her ministers of vengeance to follow her down the hill. Turning around to see the goddess of doom in hot pursuit, Kahawali ran away from the burning lava.
Water of Life
The four Hawaiian gods of water are named Ku, Lono, Ka-ne and Kanaloa. Originally domiciled in Kahiki, they came down to the seas and immigrated to the Hawaiian islands. Kahiki is defined as lying above the skies. Originally, they made their home Nuuanu Valley (which is now Honolulu).
Across the vast terrain of the Pacific Ocean, Polynesians worshipped the four gods. Water is the source of life. “If any one is dead and this water is thrown upon him, he becomes alive again. Old people bathing in this water go back to their youth.”
The god Maui was disturbed that the sun departed the land too quickly for his mother Hina to dry her kapa (cloth) during the day. So he decided to create a rope to snare the sun. He cut down coconut trees and harvested the fiber of the coconut husks to weave a strong cord.
He then climbed Haleakala mountain to snare one Sunbeam after another and hold it captive. Maui warned the Sun that he would kill it. The Sun bargained to go down more slowly if Maui would let it live. This is why the sun lowers its face later in the day depending on the season. This is also why Maui’s nickname is the “slower of sun.”
Hina and her four sons (Maui-mua, Maui-hope, Maui-kiikii, and Maui-o-ka-lana) could not understand why they sometimes glimpsed the red flame of a fire dancing on the shoreline when they rowed their canoe. They would head back to cook their fish but the mud-hens (alae) would scratch it out. As the keepers of the fire, they were charged with protecting it.
But Maui-mua would not be dissuaded so he convinced the alae to tell him where fire lived. Told to find “a green stick,” he still could not bring forth fire. But when alae told him a dry stick, he brought forth fire. But his revenge on alae was to rub the mud-hen’s head red with blood. And so the fire’s flame glows red for all to see.
Na Lua’i a Pele
The goddess Pele staged the fountains of creation wherever her volcanic temper exploded. In the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, visitors can witness the Destruction Trail. The volcano erupted on Kilauea Iki in November 1959. According to the National Park System (NPS), it was “one of her most impressive displays of the 20th century.”
It lasted 15 weeks. There were 17 separate eruptions. The lava shot “geyser-like fountains” 1,900 feet (580 meter) in the air.
The goddess of the volcano (Pele) carried the banana to Hawaii. The sweet flesh of the banana is hidden under its coat of yellow skin. It grows high in the banana trees in fertile Hawaii.
But according to legend, it is unlucky to dream of bananas. If you want to pack a banana for your lunch on the beach, hide it in your backpack. Do not meet a person carrying bananas.
Hina called on her son Maui to fight Kuna (a giant lizard) who kept sending sticks, leaves, and water over the falls where she dried her kapas. Kuna had caused Hina’s cave to flood when he blocked it with a boulder. Hearing his mother’s call, Maui awoke from a dream. In the night sky, he saw her image like a cloud in the Hawaiian sky. Jumping in his canoe, he paddled to Hilo to observe the Wailuku River (translated the Waters of Destruction).
The only solution was to damn the river. Seeing Maui brandishing his club, Kuna quickly crawled away from his scene of mischief. He hid above the falls in a gorge. Then he jumped into the river to escape Maui’s rage. This is why Maui called on the goddess Pele to send him hot stones in the river. The water turned boiling hot for the giant lizard.
Maui and Kuna then jumped out of the caldron to fight above the thunderous waterfalls. Maui clobbered him with his war club and the lizard fell over 80-foot Rainbow Falls. He still lies there today, a lizard transformed into a giant rock. And Maui continues to battle the tricky lizard.
Water, sticks, and stones beat Kuna (the rock), just like the lizard tried to drown Hina. The boiling waters above Rainbow Falls constantly relive the heated battle of Maui and Kuna, according to legend.
Hawaiian Island Cat
Popoki is the Hawaiian word for cats. Unlike the mythical whales that swam the seas and the birds that owned the skies, the cat did not roam the islands until 250 years old. According to research, Captain James Cook traveled with cats on his ships. Some jumped off board during his visit to the islands in the 1770s. A native discovered the cat and saved it. Today, feral cats roam the Hawaiian islands.
On my first night at the Fairmont Orchid on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island, I met a black cat who traveled between tables at the restaurant. He happily slowed his stroll to allow a 4-year-old girl to pet him. Although we called “meow meow” to him, he only spent a few minutes by our table.
This friendly black cat is nicknamed Midnight. Hotel guests love to stroke him. I think this “popoki” deserves his own Hawaiian folk tale.
Popoki Folk Tale
Midnight is a lava rock that sprang to life when a wave washed over him. A fish popped out of the water and landed on the rock. It bounced up like a kitten. The curious kitten looked up the beach and saw a man stepping into a dugout canoe. He raced down the beach to go fishing. Maui laughed as the black cat jumped into his lap. After a day spent fishing together, Maui dropped the kitten back at the beach. The feline sat alone as the sun sets.
And so each day ends on the Big Island of Hawaii with a black blanket laid over the land, sea, and mountains. But the black cat named Midnight stays awake all night to watch over and protect Maui and his family.
“May there always be warmth in your Hale, fish in your net, and Aloha in your heart.” – Midnight