by Betty Fullard-Leo
Eons before the missionaries introduced their concept
of one God to Hawai'i in 1820, Polynesians had an intricate
nature-oriented belief system. A host of deities called
'aumakua could be called upon for protection, comfort
and spiritual support. The first 'aumakua were thought
to be the offspring of mortals who had mated with the
akua (primary gods). Among the most important of the
primary gods were Ku, Kane, Lono and Kanaloa, but it
was the 'aumakua that commoners could call on in an
easy, less ritualistic way.
'Aumakua were often ancestors whose bones had been
specially stripped of flesh upon death, wrapped in kapa
and ceremonially prepared before the bones were placed
in the custody of another descendant.
When an individual died, it was thought the spirit
of that person jumped from a rocky precipice, a leina
or soul's leap, designated on each island, to begin
its journey to the ancestral homeland. In a shadowy
place called Po, the ancestor spirits lived with the
supreme gods and were transfigured into god-spirits,
whose mana, or power, was almost as awesome as that
of the akua.
The spirit of a deceased ancestor first might serve
as an 'unihipili, a deity who granted requests for mercy
and gave warnings of pending disasters or destruction.
The earthly individual who safeguarded the bones of
the 'unihipili could summon him for guidance. If the
'unihipili was especially deserving, he became an 'aumakua,
an ancestral god honored by his descendants and easily
approachable in times of need.
Mary Kawena Pukui, a revered scholar of Hawaiian culture,
who died in 1986 at age 91, explained: "As gods
and relatives in one, they give us strength when we
are weak, warning when danger threatens, guidance in
our bewilderment, inspiration in our arts. They are
equally our judges, hearing our words and watching our
actions, reprimanding us for error and punishing us
for blatant offense."
An 'aumakua could manifest itself in varying forms
such as a shark, a sea turtle, a hawk, a lizard, a pueo
(owl) or any other animal, plant or mineral. Members
of the family were said to recognize their 'aumakua,
no matter what form it chose, whether it be an insect
on land or a crab in the ocean the following day. The
ancestral god might appear in a dream to furnish guidance
or spiritual strength in difficult times. When a fisherman
or craftsman was especially successful, credit was often
given to his 'aumakua for intervening with the principal
gods to impart the mana, or power, that enabled an earthly
being to develop such skill. Many a canoe paddler has
told of being lost or in danger between the islands,
only to be guided by his 'aumakua in the form of a dolphin
or shark to a safe landing.
Pukui explained in her book "Nana I Ke Kumu,"
that three types of strength were sometimes imparted
when an 'aumakua took possession of a human being. Temporary
energy, 'uhane kihei pua or "flower mantle energy,"
would allow a woman sick in bed to get up and do necessary
chores, but the moment the 'aumakua would leave, the
woman would be weak and sick again. Complete possession
by an 'aumakua, called noho, would provide supernatural
strength in times of emergency, or in another case,
might cause a reversal of one's character. For example,
a quiet, retiring person might suddenly be loud and
boisterous. The third type of possession was ho'oulu,
which could enable a mediocre dancer to achieve a measure
of greatness, perhaps during the performance of hula,
or in competition during games.
In ancient times, families were careful not to eat
certain forms of animal life if their 'aumakua was thought
to appear in that form, for if they did, they knew the
punishment could be as severe as death. Offerings of
taro leaves with sincere prayers could abate the anger
of an offended 'aumakua.
Until today, families still claim certain animals or
birds as their personal 'aumakua, and the more powerful
'aumakua, such as the goddess Pele, continue to be honored,
though in increasingly modern ways. Long ago, Hawaiians
showed their respect to Pele by never eating 'ohelo
berries until some had been offered to the goddess at
the crater's edge. Today, more often than not, offerings
to Pele involve a bottle of gin tossed into Halema'uma'u
Crater at the outset of an eruption. Few people question
the existence of this capricious goddess, preferring
instead to quietly respect her domain in the hopes that
she will treat those who live on her mountain slopes
with respect in return. People still insist she appears
on the roads around VolcanoÑsometimes as an old
crone with a little white dog, sometimes as a tempestuous
young woman with flowing black hair.
In any case, long after the principal gods lost their
notoriety once the state religion had been replaced
by Christianity, the 'aumakua have continued to be remembered
with fondness and reverence by many a Hawaiian family.
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