String Figures and Shamanism
by Lois Stokes
It has been said that the spirit of the string figures was a guardian spirit of
shamans. It is now the time for me to tell the story of how I met this
ancestral spirit and how my husband and I became caretakers of a knowledge so
ancient that it appeared to have been lost and forever forgotten. We have been
given a gift from the ancestors and we want to acknowledge it as a living
treasure and share its mystery with you.
I do not really know what the ancient ones did with the string. I was not
there. But what I do know is that the string seemed to speak to me and I
listened. I was compelled to find out about string figures and how they were
once used. My research took on a life of its own as I sat silently weaving
ancient patterns with my fingers and a simple loop of string.
String figures are found in almost all of the cultures of the world: Africa,
The Arctic, Australia, Japan, The Pacific Islands of Micronesia, Melanesia,
Polynesia, Among the indigenous cultures of North America, Central and South
America and throughout Europe, Asia, the United States and the Middle East.
They are very ancient. You may know a version from your childhood called Cat's
In Hawaii they are called "Hei," which on one level means to snare. Chants and
stories often accompany the making of the string figures. It is difficult to
know how much of the knowledge of the ancient ones has been forgotten, adapted
or concealed in the process of coming to us today.
Therefore the meanings of these chants and figures remain open to
interpretation. Each stanza might contain as many as five or more different
meanings. A literal meaning, a figurative meaning, a historical or a legendary
reference, a sexual meaning and a hidden meaning. It is with great enjoyment
when one can understand the depth of these subtle and multiple meanings. We
must remember that the word holds power, especially the spoken word. Names were
not just given but carefully selected. Words seem to have a power beyond mere
communication. So in attempting to understand the Hawaiian string figures one
must pay attention to the words as well as the patterns.
I have become aware of over 115 Hawaiian figures. Each pattern has its own
energy. They not only sound and look different but they feel different. It was
with this feeling sense that I stepped into a different realm.
In my search to understand the meaning of the string figures I had been
studying physics, astronomy, mathematics, architecture, philosophy, ethnology,
anthropology, archeology, comparative religions, healing and shamanism. I
looked into the meaning of symbols and ritual, the influence of energy, colors,
number, geomancy, sound, shapes and patterns. I've studied cosmology and myths
and in particular the culture, language and beliefs of Hawaii. People and books
would come my way to teach me. I tried to remain open to the knowledge that
came to me and yet leave open the book for the many stories yet to be heard.
There came a day when I put the books aside and stepped out into the energy of
this sacred Island of Kauai. I would weave patterns with the string as I sat by
the ocean or by a mountain stream. I played string games with the children and
with the adults who took great delight in remembering what was once forgotten.
That is when the magic started to happen and I knew without a doubt that the
gift I was given was significant. String figures were not just a child's game
but the tool of a shaman. A tool for influencing relationships within the self,
with others and with the environment. A tool for restoring harmony. They had
been placed in the hands of the children so they would not be forgotten. The
spirit of the string figures had come to me so that I could retell a story;
perhaps a story about children and shamans in a playful conspiracy.
The story as it was told to me by the string started off as children's stories
so often do, with questions, which, as so often happens, lead to even more
questions. Here are some things for you to wonder about:
What if string figures are more than just a children's game?
What if they were used to snare? And if so, what did they snare?
What if string figures connect ancient wisdom with modern times?
What if string figures were used by ancient navigators?
What if they had meanings related to the sun, moon and the stars, to
eclipses, zeniths and nadirs and to other natural phenomena of the skies?
What if they had meanings related to the teachings of the land and of the
people who made them?
What if they were a map. A means of giving and noting directions? Could they
be used to help locate yourself in space?
What if they retained numerical codes?
What if they were used like the abacus or the quipos of Peru as a recording
device, to determine time, to tally and to add?
What if they were used to measure star distances, wave motion, navigation
distances and other forms of measurement?
What if they had meanings related to the heiaus (Hawaiian temples),
alignments and to sacred space and sacred time?
What if they were used as mnemonic devices to aid the remembering of
genealogies and important teachings?
What if they were an early form of secret written language?
What if they were used for communication?
What if they were used to teach and to tell the myths and legends?
What if they were used as an entertainment event for storytelling and
What if they were given to the children as a game and the children were
watched as they played and their particular skills and talents were noted for
What if the elders used string figures to test and train the memory along
with the other senses, so that the history and traditions of the people could
be preserved and passed on?
What if they were used to generate mana, influence, power?
What if the erotic chants and moving string figures were used to increase the
sexual power? Could they have been used to teach about sex?
What if string figures are alive, could they be fields of energy and
information? Instead of seeing the string as an object could we see it as a
package of information? Could you think of the string as a bundle of
consciousness rather than as a material object?
What if they were used as an energy device, employing the harmonic
frequencies of color, shape, movement and sound?
What if they are thought structures. When people looked at a certain figure,
without knowing what they mean, images would come and they would understand it?
What if they help people think in a different way?
What if they were used for divination?
What if you could find a picture in the string, something that is meaningful?
What memories and experiences have passed into this object and are reflected
back to you? Can you see how your consciousness transforms a lump of matter
into a symbol of life experience?
What if you could ask the string through its position and its vibration for
any oracular guidance that may be needed?
What if you could Grok the string pattern for answers to your questions?
What if they could be used to illustrate shape shifting? Indigenous cultures
recognize that storytelling can reshape an individuals experience or life
story. Many shamans are gifted storytellers and shape-shifters.
What if they were used as a tool for manifestation?
What if they were used for healing? Could the knots symbolize the
constriction, the illness and the removal of the knots as a release from that
What if they can restructure the neurons in the brain? As the environment
changes our mental state, our way of thinking changes and so too does the brain.
What if changing patterns of string affect change in your vibrations and in
your physical reality?
What if string patterns affect your energy and then you affect the energy of
what is being observed, healed or created?
What if you could place a healing intent into the patterns of the string?
Could they be used to create sacred art?
What if they function as a meditation, relaxation device? Could they help
people free their thoughts and themselves from time and space?
What if the manipulation of string accompanied by chants facilitates imagery
that is ritualistic and ceremonial in content?
What if they were used in ritual?
What if journeywork combined with the manipulation of string can access the
psychomythology, or imagery and memory work, within each person which can
support healing and help transform pathology?
What if the journey and string figure technique may be an ancient form of
what we know today as a stress reduction technique as well as a way of inducing
a natural altered state?
What if they were used as a pathway for the spirits and in communication with
the spirits, for soul retrieval, to make a journey?
What if they were used in ritual for the passing on of the dead to the
What if string figures were portals?
What if they were used to trap and snare spirits?
What if they were symbolic of life's mysteries, the cosmic egg, the world
tree, a labyrinthine path, grandmother spider's web? Could they help us focus
on the center and the journey to the sky and on the earth and to the
underworld? Could they symbolize our interconnectedness?
What if they contained the knowledge and power which lies beyond man through
What if they can be used to remember the ancestors, to benefit from their
powers, because that was the genetic past?
What if they could be used to access the mind of the ancients?
What if they were a prayer?
The story continues. When you want to know more, the spirit of the string
figures has become our guardian spirit and the string continues to speak to
My name is Lois and with my husband Earl, we teach, heal, and create. We are
shamans and artists of the spirit and are soon to become Alaka'i of Huna
International. You can reach us at