Eons before the missionaries introduced their concept of one God to
Hawai`i in 1820, Polynesians had an intricate nature-oriented belief
system. A host of deities called `aumakua could be called upon for
protection, comfort and spiritual support. The first `aumakua were
thought to be the offspring of mortals who had mated with the akua
(primary gods). Among the most important of the primary gods were Ku,
Kane, Lono and Kanaloa, but it was the `aumakua that commoners could
call on in an easy, less ritualistic way.
`Aumakua were often ancestors whose bones had been specially stripped of
flesh upon death, wrapped in kapa and ceremonially prepared before the
bones were placed in the custody of another descendant.
When an individual died, it was thought the spirit of that person jumped
from a rocky precipice, a leina or soul's leap, designated on each
island, to begin its journey to the ancestral homeland. In a shadowy
place called Po, the ancestor spirits lived with the supreme gods and
were transfigured into god-spirits, whose mana, or power, was almost as
awesome as that of the akua.
The spirit of a deceased ancestor first might serve as an `unihipili, a
deity who granted requests for mercy and gave warnings of pending
disasters or destruction. The earthly individual who safeguarded the
bones of the `unihipili could summon him for guidance. If the `unihipili
was especially deserving, he became an `aumakua, an ancestral god
honored by his descendants and easily approachable in times of need.
Mary Kawena Pukui, a revered scholar of Hawaiian culture, who died in
1986 at age 91, explained: "As gods and relatives in one, they give us
strength when we are weak, warning when danger threatens, guidance in
our bewilderment, inspiration in our arts. They are equally our judges,
hearing our words and watching our actions, reprimanding us for error
and punishing us for blatant offense."
`aumakua could manifest itself in varying forms such as a shark, a sea
turtle, a hawk, a lizard, a pueo (owl) or any other animal, plant or
mineral. Members of the family were said to recognize their 'aumakua, no
matter what form it chose, whether it be an insect on land or a crab in
the ocean the following day. The ancestral god might appear in a dream
to furnish guidance or spiritual strength in difficult times. When a
fisherman or craftsman was especially successful, credit was often given
to his `aumakua for intervening with the principal gods to impart the
mana, or power, that enabled an earthly being to develop such skill.
Many a canoe paddler has told of being lost or in danger between the
islands, only to be guided by his `aumakua in the form of a dolphin or
shark to a safe landing.
Pukui explained in her book "Nana I Ke Kumu," that three types of
strength were sometimes imparted when an `aumakua took possession of a
human being. Temporary energy, `uhane kihei pua or "flower mantle
energy," would allow a woman sick in bed to get up and do necessary
chores, but the moment the `aumakua would leave, the woman would be weak
and sick again. Complete possession by an `aumakua, called noho, would
provide supernatural strength in times of emergency, or in another case,
might cause a reversal of one's character. For example, a quiet,
retiring person might suddenly be loud and boisterous. The third type of
possession was ho'oulu, which could enable a mediocre dancer to achieve
a measure of greatness, perhaps during the performance of hula, or in
competition during games.
ancient times, families were careful not to eat certain forms of animal
life if their `aumakua was thought to appear in that form, for if they
did, they knew the punishment could be as severe as death. Offerings of
taro leaves with sincere prayers could abate the anger of an offended `aumakua.
Until today, families still claim certain animals or birds as their
personal `aumakua, and the more powerful `aumakua, such as the goddess
Pele, continue to be honored, though in increasingly modern ways. Long
ago, Hawaiians showed their respect to Pele by never eating 'ohelo
berries until some had been offered to the goddess at the crater's edge.
Today, more often than not, offerings to Pele involve a bottle of gin
tossed into Halema`uma`u Crater at the outset of an eruption. Few people
question the existence of this capricious goddess, preferring instead to
quietly respect her domain in the hopes that she will treat those who
live on her mountain slopes with respect in return. People still insist
she appears on the roads around Volcanoes National Park, sometimes as an
old crone with a little white dog, sometimes as a tempestuous young
woman with flowing black hair.
In any case, long after
the principal gods lost their notoriety once the state religion had been
replaced by Christianity, the `aumakua have continued to be remembered
with fondness and reverence by many a Hawaiian family.