The Hawaiian concept of gods and goddesses is very different from that of Western and Near Eastern traditions, from African and Australian traditions, and from North and South American traditions. Although still different, it bears a closer resemblance to the more eclectic traditions of India, China, and Japan than with any others.
The word for god or goddess in Hawaiian is akua, whose meaning is very indeterminate. It was applied to the spirit, i.e., the invisible motive or creative essence, of anything and everything. Therefore, the Creator, the wind, the first aspect of the full moon, a high-ranking chief, a slave, a ghost, and that which causes a motor to work might all be called akua in certain contexts. For the most part, though, the word was commonly applied to forces, persons, and things which had a lot of mana, i.e., power or influence. What this means is that, when we hear or read stories of an entity such as Pele, the volcano goddess, we can never be certain whether the story is about the spirit of a natural phenomenon, the human ancestor of a particular family line, or both, or neither.
Another important feature of Hawaiian gods and goddesses is that they are often completely unrelated. To people familiar with the Greek Olympians as a family opposing the Titans as a family, or the Norse Aesir against the Vanir, relations between Hawaiian gods and goddesses seem incomprehensible. As Martha Beckwith says in Hawaiian Mythology, "It seems to me therefore probable that different immigrant families brought with them the gods and ritual familiar to them." Unlike the Hindu system, which at least tries to form the gods and goddesses of many different peoples, times, and places into an integrated whole, the Hawaiians seldom bothered to do so, allowing vastly different traditions to exist side by side in happy chaos. And in the few instances where some integration was attempted, it was always very limited in scope.
One more feature to be mentioned about Hawaiian gods and goddesses is that the more power they were assumed to have, the more different forms they were thought to take at will. The most powerful could take forms that were either human, animal, vegetable, mineral, or other. The god Kamapua'a, for example, could turn into a human, a pig, a fish, a type of grass, or even the rain. In Hawaiian these forms are called kino lau (many bodies).
In this article we are putting our focus on Hawaiian goddesses, and since there are so many of them, we will only look at seven of the most important ones. Even then, only a small amount of information will be given for each one. In addition to information available from various written sources, such as Beckwith's Hawaiian Mythology, I will add information given me by members of the Kahili family who taught me their traditions personally.
Hina seems to be the oldest goddess, for she is known all over the Pacific as Hina, Sina, or 'Ina. Essentially, she represents female energy, and a variant of her name, hine, is used as a word ending to mean female or feminine (cf. wahine). In many stories she is closely associated with the moon, the ocean, and female activities like tapa making, as well as healing. She has many, many different aspects and epithets covering a wide range of human activities. In the oldest stories she is variously the wife, sister, mother, or grandmother of Maui, and she has also been incorporated into newer religions as the wife of Kane or Ku. She does not, however appear anywhere in the Pele pantheon. The word hina means "to fall down," "gray," and "to blow in a straight course." Some of her forms include the 'elepaio bird, coral, a type of banana, and the gourd.
Haumea is the great earth goddess, sometimes equated to Papa the creatrice, and sometimes to La'iLa'i, the first woman. Her children are said to have been born from different parts of her body, which befits an earth goddess. That she is a very old goddess is evidenced by the fact that she was incorporated into several different Hawaiian religions, including that of Pele, for whom she plays the role of mother. She is usually associated with food supply, marriage, birth, and rebirth. In chants she is called Haumea "of mysterious forms, of eightfold forms, of four hundred thousand forms." One of her commonly known forms, however, is the breadfruit tree. There is no single word haumea in Hawaiian, but hau can mean "a ruler" and mea can mean "reddish (like red earth)." Because of her position as an earth goddess, and because Hawaiians consider stones as the bones of the earth, the Kahilis say that she represents the element of stone.
Pele is the most well known today. Although scholars consider her as a purely local development, the stories of Pele say that she came to these islands from somewhere else, sometimes as a human from Tahiti, and sometimes as a natural force that formed the Hawaiian chain of volcanic islands. In the most popular stories, however, she found the islands already here when she came, landing first at Ni'ihau, then Kauai, and moving onward until reaching her current home at Kilauea Crater on the Big Island. As a word in the Hawaiian language her name, pele, means molten lava. She is not, therefore, a spirit who lives in the molten lava, she is the spirit of molten lava itself. However, she is not the cooled-off lava rock, and the legend that she will curse anyone who takes rocks from her islands is a modern myth and not part of old Hawaiian tradition. Her various forms, expressed by herself or through aspects of her spirit "family," are those of an old, mature, or young woman; a white dog; fire; lava; wind; clouds; thunder; and lightning. She is also associated with the 'ohelo plant that grows on the slopes of the volcanoes.
Hi'iaka is the sister of Pele, born in the shape of an egg. Her name is often given as Hi'iaka i ka poli o Pele, translated literally as "Hi'iaka in the armpit of Pele," and figuratively (by the missionaries) as "Hi'iaka in the bosom of Pele," which has turned into the idea that Hi'iaka was the youngest and favorite sister of Pele among a group of eight sisters. However, the earliest accounts indicate that Hi'iaka was the only sister of Pele who came with her to Hawaii. The other Hi'iaka "sisters" are actually just aspects of the original Hi'iaka. "Armpit," by the way, was a euphemism for another part of the body, so Hi'iaka may actually have been the daughter of Pele. All of the Hi'iaka "sisters" had cloud forms, but their names really refer to the "holding" of clouds, according to the translations of William Ellis, not to the clouds themselves. So there is Hi'iaka-wawahi-lani (Heaven-rending cloud holder); Hi'iaka-kapu-enaena (red-hot mountain-holding cloud); Hi'iaka noho-lani (Heaven-dwelling cloud holder); and so on. The word hi'iaka is not found in Hawaiian dictionaries with a separate meaning, but hi'i means "to carry something," and ka'a means "to move along like a cloud." Another kino lau of Hi'iaka is the pala'a or lace fern, and she is also associated with the 'ohi'a lehua tree. Since the wind can be said to "hold" clouds, and since she went on many journeys, for the Kahilis she represents the element of wind.
Laka is most well known as the goddess of the hula and the forest. Even today, in very traditional hula halaus, an altar or offering is prepared in honor of Laka with a very specific succession of plants. In some traditions of Hawaii the hula was brought to the islands by a brother and sister, both named Laka. Although prayers are addressed to Laka in many hula performances, few, if any, hulas are ever dedicated to her. Because of many stories connecting Laka to impregnation and fruitfulness, Beckwith calls her "the goddess of love." The name laka means "gentle, docile, attracted to, to attract," and there are old chants asking Laka to attract not only love, but wealth. Of very different origin, she was nevertheless incorporated into the Pele religion. Due to her associations with the forest she represents the element of plants.
Kapo is strongly associated with several Pele stories, but a Moloka'i story says that she was part of a family of sorcerers on Moloka'i long before Pele arrived in the islands. Her full name is Kapo-'ula-kina'u, which can mean "the sacred night streaked with dark,"or "red eel woman." Kapo is most famous for being able to detach her vagina, and in one Pele story she used this ability to protect Pele from rape by sending her vagina across the sea so Kamapua'a would chase after it. She is also associated with reproductive energy, herbal medicine, and what today is called channeling. She is said to be able to take many forms at will, but is mostly associated with eels, birds, and the halapepe tree. Because she has more animal associations than other goddesses, she represents the element of animals.
Uli is primarily known as a goddess of magic or sorcery. At the same time she is associated with a knowledge of healing. She is sometimes related as a wife or sister of the underworld god Manua, or of the upper world god Wakea, and sometimes of the more intellectual god Lono. She was prayed to by Hi'iaka in the latter's efforts to bring her lover, the Kauai chief Lohiau, back to life. Her name, uli, means "any dark color," "to steer," and "omen." Though the 'ulili or tattler bird is her most common kino lau, she also takes the form of the tropic bird and the plover.
The Kahili family did not worship any of the goddesses, but called upon them as friends to evoke certain qualities, aspects, or powers of healing. Since I was used to Greek and Roman mythology where gods and goddesses had their own special tasks or areas of influence, the Kahili approach of using the powers of the goddesses intuitively, rather than intellectually, caused me a lot of confusion at first. Thus Pele, of the element of fire, might be called on to help increase circulation because of her heat, energy and the movement of lava, but she might also be called upon to radically change or transform a situation or condition, the way an erupting volcano transforms the land and the lives of the people around it. Hi'iaka, as the wind, might be called on to "clear the air," to find something (because wind has direction), to bring something into one's life (as the wind brings clouds and rain), or to change something (because the wind changes direction). Each of the goddesses, then, has multiple powers and abilities and they can help in whatever way you feel is right in a specific situation, for there is always a way to use any of them for the same purpose.
Another confusing thing was color attribution. There are seven colors in the rainbow (including white, which contains all of them), and it's very tempting to associate each goddess with a particular color. I was told that of course I could do that if it were useful, but I was also told not to forget that all of the elements can produce all of the colors.
In a similar way, I had a strong desire to associate a particular goddess with each of the Seven Principles of Huna. Again, I was told to go ahead and do this if I wanted to, but to not forget that the powers of each goddess can be interpreted in terms of any of the principles.
At various times, then, I have taught about the goddesses in different ways, and that has led to some confusion on the part of students. So, for healing purposes only at a beginner level for understanding and using the concept of Hawaiian goddesses, here is the Ola 'Ana Papakahi o Na Akua Wahine Hawai'i, "The First Level Organization of Hawaiian Goddesses" in order of attributions and associations of name, principle, color, element, and primary function.
If this is different from what you've already learned, I apologize. If it helps you, I'm happy.
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Copyright by Aloha International 2005