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Winter 1999

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'Aumakua
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.


"Readers may submit editorial comments to any of our stories by sending an email to les@lbdcoffee.com. We would be happy to attach your comments and feedback to anything we publish online. Thank you for your interest."

Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.

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