In The Beginning
by Betty Fullard-Leo
In the beginning in Hawaiian mythology, Po was a vast,
empty land, a dark abyss where only one life form dwelled.
This was the spirit of Keawe. A single light shown through
the darkness of Po-a flame holding the energy of creation.
In this chaotic vortex, Keawe evolved order. He opened
his great calabash and flung the lid into the air. As
it unfolded, it became the huge canopy of blue sky.
From his calabash, Keawe drew an orange disk, hanging
it from the sky to become the sun.
Next Keawe manifested himself as Na Wahine, a female
divinity considered his daughter. In addition, he became
Kane, his own son, also known as Eli or Eli-Eli, who
was the male generative force of creation. In the Kumulipo,
the best known of the Hawaiian creation chants, the
feats of Eli-Eli are detailed in rhythmic litany.
Na Wahine and Kane mated spiritually to produce a royal
family, who became additional primary gods worshipped
by the Hawaiian people. In ancient chants and rituals,
three sons: Ku, Lono, and Kanaloa, along with Kane are
the four major Hawaiian gods. Keawe made Kane the ruler
of natural phenomena, such as the earth, stones, fresh
water. Most importantly, Ku as Kukailimoku was god of
war, but he also reigned over woodlands and crops, and
in various forms was worshipped by craftsmen. Bird catchers
and feather workers appealed to Kuhuluhulumanu, fishermen
to Ku'ula, sorcerers to Kukoae, for example.
Kanaloa was responsible for the southern Pacific Ocean
and as such was god of seamen and lord of fishermen.
Lono, as lord of the sun and of wisdom, caused the earth
to grow green. As a god of medicine, he had a particular
interest in keeping herbs and medicinal plants flourishing.
Lono was the god who presided over the makahiki season
when war ceased and taxes were paid to the ali'i.
Kane and Na Wahine also had daughters. Among them,
Laka was the goddess of hula; Hina was the mother of
Maui who pulled the Hawaiian Islands from the ocean;
and Kapo was the goddess of the South Pacific and was
largely worshipped on Maui. Among the major divinities
was the goddess Papa, queen of nature, and the man she
married, called Wakea. In legend, Papa and Wakea's first
child was born deformed like a taro root. From the child's
grave, the first taro plant grew to furnish sustenance
to the rest of the human race, which had its origins
in this first couple.
The twelfth deity was Milu, lord of the spirit world
and lord of Ka-pa'a-he'o, where souls who had departed
their sleeping or unconscious mortal body might end
up if they were not pardoned by their 'aumakua (personal
gods) during their wanderings. One of several entrances
to the barren, arid land of Milu was thought to be through
a pit situated in the mouth of Waipi'o Valley on the
Each man worshipped a deity, or akua, that represented
his profession. Gods existed for bird snarers, canoe
makers, robbers, kapa makers, fishermen, etc. Most farmers
revered Lono, who was considered a benign god. When
crops ripened, farmers performed religious services
to the gods by building a fire to honor whichever god
they worshipped, be it Ku, Kane, Lono, or Kanaloa. During
the ceremony, food was cooked and portioned out to each
man who sat in a circle around an idol of that particular
god. A kahuna offered the food to heaven. After the
ceremony was completed, the people could eat freely
of the cooked food, but each time new food was cooked
in the imu (underground oven), a bit of it had to be
offered to the god again before the common man could
Interestingly, kanaka maoli, commoners, could freely
worship their personal gods, voicing their own prayers.
For the ali'i (royalty), however, a kahu-akua, who was
a priest or keeper of the idol, uttered the prayer.
The king was the only one allowed to command the construction
of a luakini (sacrificial) heiau to honor Kukailimoku,
the war god, which required sacrificial offerings of
human life during its construction. Lesser chiefs could
build mapele, stone temples, to invoke the blessing
of gods like Lono who could insure abundant crops. These
temples were surrounded with posts carved with images,
while inside idols carved of wood, stone or sea urchin
spines, or fashioned of feathers attached to woven i'e
i'e netting represented various gods. Oracle towers
that jutted 20 feet into the sky held offerings made
to the gods on wooden platforms far above the ground.
The old gods were disavowed just prior to the coming
of Christian missionaries in 1820. Temple idols were
pushed over and destroyed, but often commoners were
faced with the problem of what to do with stone images
that represented various gods, since neglect of the
idols might cause unknown disasters. One stone god literally
re-surfaced in 1885. An old man who lived with his son
and a brother and sister near a fish pond in Kawaihae
on the Big Island, woke them all one night, commanding
his son to catch three fish from the pond. The girl
was told to chew a mouthful of awa and her brother was
told to climb a tree for coconuts. The old man directed
them to dig in a certain place, where they uncovered
a stone idol. The old man circled the idol's neck with
coconuts, laid the fish in front of it and poured the
awa over its mouth. He told the three young people the
god's name was Kane; then he predicted his own death.
In three days he was gone.
The stone idol is now displayed at Bishop Museum on
O'ahu, an intriguing reminder of the mana, the power,
the Hawaiian gods once embodied. Today, though the gods
may have disappeared from every day life, in many Hawaiian
households, they will never be completely forgotten.
Note: Varying legends and oral histories exist regarding
Hawaiian gods and religions. Informatin for this article
was gathered from: Children of the Rainbow by Leinani
Melville, Hawaiian Antiquities by David Malo, The Works
of the People of Old by Samual Kamakau, and Arts and
Crafts of Hawai'i (Religion) by Peter H. Buck.
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