What Are the Major Elements of Hawaiian Mythology?

Alan Rankin

Hawaiian mythology refers to the traditional beliefs of the native Hawaiian people. These beliefs resemble those of other South Pacific cultures, as Polynesian and Tahitian explorers were the first settlers of Hawaii. Hawaiian mythology includes animism, the belief that inanimate objects and places contain spirits, and polytheism, reverence for a wide pantheon of gods. Among these deities are Lono, a fertility god, and Pele, the famed spirit of the volcanoes. Although discouraged by the ruling classes during the era of colonization, some elements of this native religion, such as the hula dance, have survived to the present day.

The hula dance was originally a prayer to spirits and gods.
The hula dance was originally a prayer to spirits and gods.

Precise dates are not known, but it is thought the Hawaiian Islands were first settled between 400 and 1000 AD. These settlers, from other Polynesian islands, brought their religions with them and established new local traditions in the following centuries. Shortly after the arrival of European explorers in the late 1700s, the warring tribes of Hawaii were united into a single kingdom. Under pressure from business interests and Christian missionaries, the traditional religions were discouraged or outlawed until the 20th century. As with many native traditions around the world, however, some aspects of the faith were kept alive in secret until they could be openly practiced in more progressive times.

In Hawaiian mythology, the deity Lono descended to Earth on a rainbow.
In Hawaiian mythology, the deity Lono descended to Earth on a rainbow.

A primary concept in Hawaiian mythology is mana, a spiritual force that inhabits most people, inanimate objects, and even some revered words. The Hawaiian creation myth is codified in the Kumulipo, a sacred text that describes how the creatures of the Earth, humanity, and even the gods were born out of a primeval darkness. The Kumulipo contains a genealogy that relates the gods to early Hawaiian chieftains, conferring a kind of divinity to humanity. Spiritual leaders called kahuna supervised the religious practices. These included harvest festivals, severe punishments for violations of tradition, and the occasional human sacrifice.

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An important deity was Lono, a peaceful fertility god who descended to Earth on a rainbow. One of the most well-known figures in Hawaiian mythology is Pele, the volcano goddess. The hula dance, a famous Hawaiian tradition, was originally a prayer to spirits and gods such as Pele. Volcanic eruptions were considered signs of Pele’s displeasure. In the early 1800s, a Hawaiian queen offered a Christian prayer on the rim of a volcano; when Pele did not punish her by erupting, many islanders lost faith in the old ways.

The first European explorer to arrive at Hawaii, Captain James Cook, was initially believed to be the god Lono. In the 20th century, notorious journalist Hunter S. Thompson declared himself a reincarnation of Lono during a visit to Hawaii, but the natives were not amused. Other concepts of Hawaiian mythology, such as mana, have influenced world culture. The Force, a spiritual concept in the Star Wars film saga, strongly resembles the idea; role-playing games and fantasy fiction also use the name and concept of mana. The hula dance has become a popular representation of Hawaiian culture to the tourist trade, and for some dancers, it retains its original spiritual meaning.

Volcanoes play a large role in Hawaiian mythology.
Volcanoes play a large role in Hawaiian mythology.

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