Beyond the shape-shifting trickster Māui (of Disney’s Moana fame), many people know very little about the fascinating Hawaiian mythology. Among the thousands of Hawaiian gods and goddesses there is huge variety, from the powerful and terrifying to the peaceful and beneficent. Some gods and goddesses reigned over extensive realms of utmost importance to native Hawaiian culture, from their relationship with nature to warfare, while others were responsible for parts of everyday life, from farming to the family.
As well as introducing some of the thousands of Hawaiian gods and goddesses, we will answer many of the big questions about the native Hawaiian religion:
Amongst the thousands of ancient Hawaiian gods, which were the most important?
How did the unique natural conditions of the Hawaiian islands inspire Hawaiian mythology?
How do Englishmen Charles Darwin and Captain Cook fit into the story?
What did the Hawaiian gods fall out about and what were the consequences of these cosmic bickerings for mankind?
What is the ancient Hawaiian religion?
The ancient Hawaiian religion is polytheistic, with four major gods – Kāne, Kū, Lono, and Kanaloa – and thousands of lesser deities.
For Hawaiians, all aspects of nature, from animals and objects to natural elements like the waves, volcanoes, and the sky, were associated with a god or goddess (a type of spiritual belief which is called animism).
Mankind, myth, and nature are intertwined in the ancient Hawaiian mythology – something which is very fitting given the ecological diversity of the Hawaiian islands. The crystal ocean, lush forests, snow-topped summits, and patches of desert in Hawaii have been protected for thousands of years by these spiritual beliefs.
The Hawaiian religion is still practiced by many inhabitants of Hawaii today.
Where did the ancient Hawaiian religion come from?
These religious beliefs spread across Polynesia with the conquering and settling of new islands – something which was important in the Polynesian tradition of wayfinding.
Although the date that the four major gods reached Hawaii is disputed, many sources agree that it was Tahitian settlers that brought these ideas to Hawaii sometime between 500 and 1,300 AD. More specifically, the conqueror and priest Pa’ao, a Samoan from Tahiti, may have brought these beliefs to Hawaiian shores between 1,100 and 1,200 AD. The religion was well-embedded when the influx of Polynesian settlers arrived in Hawaii around the 4th century.
Who are the Hawaiian gods and goddesses?
Kāne: Creator God
Kāne is the chief among the gods and is worshiped as the creator and the god of the sky and of light.
As the patron of creators, Kāne’s blessing was sought when new buildings or canoes were constructed, and sometimes even as new life entered the world during childbirth. Offerings to Kāne were usually in the form of prayers, kapa cloth (a patterned textile made from the fibers of certain plants) and mild intoxicants.
According to the myth of creation, before life there was only dark, endless chaos – Po – until Kāne pulled himself free of Po, inspiring his brothers – Kū and Lono – to free themselves too. Kāne then created light to push back the darkness, Lono brought sound, and Kū brought substance to the universe. Between them, they went on to create the lesser gods, then the Menehune – the lesser spirits who operated as their servants and messengers. The three brothers next created the Earth to be their home. Finally, red clay was gathered from the four corners of the Earth, from which they created man in their own likeness. It was Kāne who added white clay to form the head of man.
Well before Charles Darwin had written his The Origin of Species in 1859, the Hawaiian religion promoted the idea that life came from nothing and that evolution had brought the world to the present.
Lono – brother of Kāne and Kū – is the Hawaiian god of agriculture and healing and is associated with fertility, peace, music and the weather. Life is sacred to the god Lono, who provided humanity with the fertile soil necessary for survival.
As the opposite of his war-like brother Kū, Lono rules over the four rainy months of the year and the remaining months belong to Kū. The rainy season of October to February was a time when war was forbidden – the Makahiki season, as this time was called, is a joyous time of feasting, dancing, and games and for giving thanks for abundant crops and life-giving rain fall. It is still celebrated in Hawaii today.
When British explorer Captain James Cook arrived on Hawaii’s shores during the Makahiki festival, he was mistaken for Lono himself and was honored accordingly, until it was discovered that he was actually a mortal and a battle broke out, during which Cook was killed.
Kū: War God
Kū – which means stability or standing tall – is the Hawaiian god of war, in a similar way in which Ares was the Greek god of war. As war was an important part of tribal life, Kū was held in high esteem within the pantheon of gods. He also had the ability to heal wounds with just a look. He was particularly revered by King Kamehameha I, who always took a wooden idol representing Kū with him into battle.
Kū is also responsible for fishermen, canoe makers, the forests, and male fertility (as the husband of Hina the creator) and is known as the “eater of islands” – because, after all, conquering is his greatest love.
Unlike many of the other Hawaiian gods, Kū was honored through human sacrifices. He carried a flaming mace which contained – rather fear-inducingly- the souls of those he had slain.
Due to his affinity for bloodshed and death, Kū is seen as the opposite of his brother Lono, and Kū reigned for the remaining eight months of the year when his brother’s domain of agriculture faded – it was a time when rulers would fight each other for land and status.
Kanaloa: Master of Oceans and Darkness
Created by Kāne, Kanaloa (also known as Tangaroa) was designed to be Kāne’s opposite. While Kāne rules over light and creation, Kanaloa guards the ocean and personifies the darkness of its depths.
As the ruler of the oceans and winds (and the darkness awaiting drowned sailors), Kanaloa was given offerings by sailors before they set sail. If the gifts pleased him, he would grant the sailors a smooth passage and a helpful breeze. Although opposites, Kanaloa and Kāne worked together to protect intrepid sailors, with Kanaloa controlling the waves and wind and Kāne ensuring the strength of their canoes.
He is the last of the four major Hawaiian gods, but became less important when the Hawaiian trinity of deities – Kāne, Lono, and Kū – was formed. This reduction from four to three was perhaps inspired by Christianity and the Holy Trinity.
Christiantity came to Hawaii in 1820 with the arrival of Protestant missionaries from New England. Queen Ka’ahumanu had publicly overthrown kapu (the traditional taboos that had governed all elements of Native Hawaiian life) in 1819 and had welcomed these Christian missionaries. After being converted, Queen Ka’ahumanu banned all other religious practices and promoted conversion to Christianity.
Even before the Hawaiian trinity was established, Kanaloa had rarely had his own temple (a heiau). But Kanaloa did receive prayers and his role changed from island to island – some Polynesians even worshiped Kanaloa as the creator god.
Hina: Ancestral Moon Goddess
Hina – the goddess most widely recognised across Polynesia – features in several mythologies across the region. She was given many different identities and powers and it can be difficult to identify a single Hina in Hawaiian mythology. But she is most commonly associated with the moon and is recognised as the opposite of her husband (and brother) Kū.
The name Hina is sometimes associated with a downward momentum or fall – the opposite of her husband’s name which meant rising or standing tall. Hina has been associated with the moon and her husband with the rising sun. Other Polynesian translations suggest that Hina means silver-gray and in the Hawaiian language Mahina means moon.
As goddess of the moon, Hina protects travelers at night – a responsibility which gave her the additional name Hina-nui-te-araara (Great Hina the Watchwoman).
She is also the patroness of tapa cloth beaters – a cloth made from tree bark – as she created the first tapa cloth. Invocations were made to Hina before work began and she would watch over the beaters who worked their tapa cloths under the light of the moon.
Her final major association (though she had many) is linked directly with her husband Kū – Hina is associated with female fertility and Kū with male fertility.
Hina, like Kāne, Lono, and Kū, was said to be a primordial deity who had existed for eternity and had changed form many times – she had been there when Kāne, Lono, and Kū had brought light to shine on the world. She was said to have been the first to arrive on the Hawaiian islands, even before Kāne and Lono.
Pele: Fire Goddess
Beautiful and volatile – just like the Hawaiian landscape – Pele is the goddess of volcanoes and fire.
It is said that she lives in an active volcano in the Kilauea crater – a sacred place – and that it is her strong, volatile emotions that cause volcanoes to erupt.
A goddess deeply rooted in the geography of the Hawaiian islands, Pele is not recognised in the rest of Polynesia (except in Tahiti as Pere, goddess of fire). Living in a region affected by volcanoes and fire, Hawaiians appeased Pele with offerings. In 1868 King Kamehameha V threw diamonds, dresses and precious items into a volcanic crater as offerings to convince Pele to cease the volcanic eruption.
Pele often appears in Hawaiian myths as a beautiful woman. She is remembered as both destroyer and creator of land – one of her pseudonyms, Pelehonuamea, means “She who shapes the sacred land”. The fertile soil provided by active volcanoes, as well as the fiery destruction they can cause, has influenced this view of Pele as dual-natured.
Many Hawaiians – especially those living in that shadow of the Kilauea volcano, Pele’s home – still revere her and accept her will as creator and destroyer on the main Hawaiian island.
As equally volatile as the volcanoes she creates, Pele was said to be to blame for many of the quarrels between the gods. It was said that she had been born in Tahiti to the fertility goddess Haumea and that she was banished for attempting to seduce the husband of her older sister, Nāmaka, the sea goddess. The argument ended when Nāmaka put out Pele’s fires by calling forth huge waves – just one example of the changeable temperaments of the goddesses being used to explain the clashing of natural elements in Hawaii.
Pele fled and, like generations of wayfinders, came to Hawaii from across the sea in a great canoe. Every island in Polynesia with a volcano is believed to have been a stopping point on Pele’s journey as the fires she built turned into volcano craters.
Kamohoali’i: Shark God
Kamohoali’i is one of many Hawaiian gods who appears in the form of an animal. His favorite form was that of a shark, but he could transform into any type of fish. He sometimes chose to appear in human form, as a high chief, when he wanted to walk on land.
It is said that Kamohoali’i lives in underwater caves in the seas around Maui and Kaho’olawe. In his shark form, Kamohoali’i would swim between these islands in search of sailors who were lost at sea. Unlike the shark he appeared to be, Kamohoali’i would shake his tail in front of the fleet and, if they fed him awa (a narcotic drink), he would guide the sailors home.
Some legends have said that Kamohoali’i led the original settlers of Hawaii to the islands.
Although he had several siblings, the relationship between Kamohoali’i and his sister Pele, the volcano goddess, is the most interesting. It is said that only Pele dared to surf the oceans with Kamohoali’i – a scene which inspires Hawaiian art. It is sometimes said that it was Kamohoali’i who guided Pele away from Tahiti when she was banished.
But, despite her bravery, Pele was not completely immune to her brother’s terrifying nature. Her volcano home – the crater of Kilauea – lies next to a large cliff which is sacred to Kamohoali’i. It is said that the ash and smoke spewed from the crater by Pele never reach this cliff because Pele secretly fears her brother.
Laka: The Goddess Honored With Hula
Laka, goddess of dance, beauty, love and fertility, is associated with all things light. She is also the goddess of the forest and would enrich the plants with her light. Her name is often translated to mean gentle.
She is honored through hula – the traditional Hawaiian dance that tells the stories of the gods and goddesses. Hula is more than a dance – each step helps to tell a story and represents a chant or prayer. Hula was important as a way for stories to be passed down the generations before writing arrived on the islands.
Laka is believed to be the inspiration that a hula dancer thinks of when they dance and causes the beautiful movements of dance.
As a goddess of the forest, she is associated with wild flowers and plants. Respect for nature is an important part of worship to Laka, who could appear in the form of a flower. Laka shares her care for vegetation with her husband, Lono, god of agriculture.
One of her symbols is the red lehua flowers which grow near volcanoes – a reminder that gentle Laka is the sister of the volcano goddess Pele.
Haumea: Mother of Hawaii
Haumea is one of the oldest gods worshiped in Hawaii and is sometimes referred to as Mother of Hawaii.
Credited with creating the wildlife on Hawaii, Haumea drew her power from the wild plants of the islands and would often walk there in human form. She could also choose to withdraw her energy, leaving the people she often lived among to starve if she was angry.
It was said that Haumea was not ageless, but ever-renewing, sometimes appearing as an old woman and sometimes as a beautiful young girl – a transformation which she enacted with a magical stick called Makalei.
She is credited with helping women in childbirth and steering ancient childbirth procedures away from caesarians to natural birth. She is invoked during pregnancy, birth and childcare.
Haumea herself had many children, including Pele, the volcano goddess.
Some legends include Haumea in a Hawaiian goddess trinity which also included the creator Hina and the fiery Pele.
In some legends it is said that Haumea was killed by trickster god Kaulu.
Haumea is still worshiped in Hawaii during the Aloha Festival – a weeklong celebration of history, culture, food and crafts – due to her role as Mother of Hawaii and her association with renewal, history, tradition and the cycle of energy and life.