The Owl Itself is Not a God


arago Kealakekua french naval officers.1822jpg
French naval officers visiting a heiau at Kealakekua Bay, Jacques Arago, 1822


For the Hawaiians, hundreds of lesser gods represent temporal objects as well as abstractions and states of being — gods of fish, reptiles, birds, mountains, revenge, music, strange noises, trees, hills, rain, pigs, empty houses, the sick, peace and war, stones, the insane, the dance, canoes, and darkness and light. The very trees in the forests are spirits. The ʻō’hiʻa tree is thought to have a human voice and to cry in pain when cut, and wood used by a man to make an image of a god is thereafter kapu to him (in this usage, kapu does not mean forbidden, but special or unique, or exclusive). The enticing calls and songs of the woodland spirits fill the forests with incessant sound. O. A. Bushnell writes: The forty thousand little gods…who moved so easily in and out of the all-embracing spirit world. These lived in mountains and hills, in valleys, caves, and stones; in trees, herbs, ferns, and grasses; in fishes, birds, and beasts of every kind; in springs, streams, swamps, and drops of dew; in mists, clouds, thunder, lightning, winds; and in the wandering planets, the glittering far-off stars.



heiau 1
Heiau site
Heiau at Honaunau, William Ellis, 1822


Like the original voyagers of the ninth century, the later settlers from Tahiti venerated the spirits, or ‘aumakua, who served as intermediaries between humankind and the great gods. An ‘aumakua, which is mortal as well as divine, can be, among other things, a shark, eel, hawk, limpet, a red-haired woman (symbolizing a volcano), lizard, wild goose, mouse, caterpillar, or owl. An ʻaumakua, which is particular to individuals and to families to this day, represents both fertility and a deified ancestor, the two becoming indistinguishable with time.

The historian Samuel Kamakau, who converted to Christianity before writing his history of ruling chiefs, is careful, even impatient, to distinguish between the actual object or living creature, and a god: The owl itself is a worthless thing; it is eaten by the people of Kula, Maui, and Na’alehu in Ka’u, Hawaii, and thrown about on the road. The owl itself is not a god — it has no mana. The god is separate. Kukauakahi is the main god…who is consecrated in the body of the owl and who shows his mana in the worthless body of the owl…Is the owl a god? The writer of this history says that the owl is not a god — it is the form…taken by a god.

For the Hawaiian people, there were enough gods and godlings to keep a man busy, and very frightened should he fail to honor them in accord with the rigid and seemingly arbitrary, although in practice often efficient and purposeful, rituals that each required.

For perhaps one hundred years after the arrival of the second group, there was sporadic warfare between the original settlers and the aggressive newcomers. The Tahitians prevailed, and those earlier settlers who did not become assimilated through marriage were transformed over generations into the elusive nocturnal elves known as menehune. Whimsically and perhaps guiltily described as our memories of the past, the menehune found refuge in the mountains, where some people still claim to hear their plaintive sighs and murmurs, although the ability to see them is denied to all but their own kind. They are said to creep after dark from the caves and hollow trees where they live, summoned to build in one night a ditch, or a heiau, or a house constructed of the bones of birds.

As the number of new settlers from Polynesia grew, the original inhabitants slipped into servitude. The historian Mary Kawena Pukui believed that the outcast slaves known as kauwā, who were used for human sacrifice, may have been the descendants of the earliest people. Kauwā, who were known as corpses or foul-smelling things, were tattooed on their foreheads and made to hide their heads under pieces of kapa. Like the Untouchables of India, kauwā were scapegoats born into and imprisoned within an abhorred class. Confined to certain districts such as Makeanehu in Kohala, and Kalaemamo in Kona on the Big Island, they were forbidden to marry outside their caste, or even to enter the house or yard of a man who was not kauwā. If a child was born of a union between a commoner or chief and a kauwā, the child would be dashed to death against a rock, and the disgrace felt for generations. Kauwā were buried alive next to their dead masters, and often served as proxies for chiefs who had been sentenced to death for infractions of kapu, their heads held under water until drowned. If it was discovered that a kauwā was among a man’s ancestors, the man’s eyes would be gouged from his head.

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Heiau site

2 thoughts on “The Owl Itself is Not a God

  1. Fiona Lewis July 20, 2016 / 10:20 pm

    As always Susanna creates a magical world with her writing.


  2. porterstoddard July 21, 2016 / 12:49 am


    Sent on the new Sprint Network from my Samsung Galaxy S®4.


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