Akua, the 14th night of the moon when it separated from Earth and became a god, is when Hawaiians are on alert for the Ka Hauka‘i a ka Po, the Marchers of the Night. They are the spirits of dead chiefs and warriors, ‘aumakua (guardian gods of the living) and the gods themselves.
The marching of the gods is distinguished by a strong wind blowing through the forest, snapping large tree branches to make way for the gods. The gods are led by a row of six — three women and three men — carrying bright torches, which allows the march to be seen from far away. There is thunder, lightning, downpour and heavy surf.
Kane is the night when the Marchers of the Night are dead chiefs, chiefesses, priests and their close attendants. A dead chief may be carried in a mānele, or string hammock, as he was carried while alive. Their processions are also lighted by torches, but not as bright as in the gods’ marches. A war-like chief may march between two warriors.
In all marches, a man who held similar position in life marches at the head of the column calling kapu, warning the living to get out of the way. His job is to execute any person caught in the march’s path. A Hawaiian caught in the path may tear off his clothes and lie face down hoping this will spare his life.
Often, the chiefs marching are accompanied by the ‘aumakua of the living, to protect the children who may be caught in the path of the march. Hawaiians who have seen the marchers believe their lives were saved by their ‘aumakua.
The marches are more apt to be seen near ancient heiau, or temples. Though many Hawaiians have never seen the Marchers of the Night, they may have heard the sound of flutes, drums and chanting that goes on in a heiau at the end of the march.
Menehunes are mythical little people, measuring two-to-three-feet tall. In Hawaiian mythology, Menehunes possessed magical powers that let them carry heavy rocks as if they were weightless. They would finish large stone structures in one night.
Traditionally, Menehunes were seen as gentle and having a good nature if treated with respect. But somehow, by the 1940s, many plantation grade-school children feared Menehunes, goats and tidal waves more than anything else. In the mid 20th century, a teacher in Waimea, Kaua‘i, once joined a group of children in a hunt for a Menehune who had supposedly been lurking near the school; until the school’s principal halted the fun.
On Kaua‘i, the Menehune Fishpond in Niumalu and the Menehune Ditch in Waimea are believed to be the work of Menehunes. The type of stonework of the Menehune Ditch is only found there and in another site on the Big Island. The rectangular stones are fitted together so the top of the stonewall is level.
During the reign of King Kaumuali‘i, a census taker for the king travelled to the head of Wainiha Valley, within 10 miles of Mount Waialeale. There he found a community called La‘au, or Forest, where he counted 65 Menehunes.
Besides Menehunes, Hawaiian mythology has other types of small people, among them the Mus, the Was, the Waos and the Eepas. They all have supernatural attributes in different degrees. These little spirits can be helpful, but also evil and vindictive. A Hawaiian who angered a high-ranking god would have a better chance of survival than if he had offended one of those little imps.
Homeless and Desolate Ghosts
In old Hawai‘i, the spirits of the dead were divided into three classes: the Ao-Kuewa, the Ao-‘aumakua and the Ao-o-Milu.
The Ao-Kuewa were desolate and homeless spirits of those who died without friends and property. The Ao-‘aumakua were ghost-gods or spirit-ancestors of Hawaiians. The Ao-o-Milu were souls of the departed of both preceding classes who had performed tasks and passed barriers, and found their resting place in the Land of Milu, the King of Ghosts.
The Ao-Kuewa had no right to call any place home. They had no one who could provide food for them, so they went into dark places to search for butterflies, spiders and insects. These were the usual food for ghosts, unless worshippers placed offerings in secret altars dedicated to gain special powers or to pray people to death. Desolate ghosts wandered until they could find their way down to the Underworld, the Land of Milu.
The paths to the Underworld led westward, and were called Leina-a-ka-uhane, or paths for leaping by the spirit. These paths were on bold bluffs overlooking the ocean to the west, were the spirits could leap down into the land of the dead. Connected with these paths, there was usually a breadfruit tree where the ghosts gathered. This tree was called Ulu-o-lei-walo, or the quietly calling breadfruit tree. At these places, there were friendly ghosts who would help and sometimes return the spirit to the body or send it to join the Ao-‘aumakua.
At the Ulu-o-lei-walo, the Ao-Kuewa would look for an ‘aumakua who had been one of their ancestors to receive some help. If the desolate ghost could not find anyone to help him, he would leap into the tree’s branches. Rotten branches belonged to the spirits, and if the branch broke and fell, the spirits on that branch would drop into the Land of Milu.
Sometimes, the wind would blow desolate spirits back and forth, and they could not find a place of rest. So the spirits would leap into the sea hoping to find a sea cave to take them to the Land of Milu. The ocean could also carry the spirits to a different island, where they may find an ‘aumakua to help them. Perhaps a spirit would find its way back to the home of the dead, and at least it would have a place to live.
Without success, the Ao-Kuewa would continue to wander, sometimes through rocky places and through the wilderness, again and again, until it could finally leap from a bluff or fall from a rotten breadfruit tree branch.
The ‘aumakua were the ghosts who did not go down into the land of King Milu. They remained among the living, hovering around and guarding the families they left behind.
When someone died, Hawaiians used many devices to dispose the body. Sometimes the flesh was stripped from the bones and cast into the ocean or open fires of the volcanoes, so the ghosts may be a part of the family who lived in those places. The bones were buried in a secret place known only to two or three men. Many of the deceased’s possessions were burned or placed near the burial.
Those who cared for the body would bathe in saltwater, and sprinkle everything inside the house with salt. The body would be shoved inside the house through a side-hole rather than the door. The hole would be closed so when the spirit came out of the body — through the eyes — it would not be able to find its way out of the house.
Sometimes, bodies were thrown into the sea, for the ghost to become a shark or an eel, or even a mo‘o (lizard god), to be worshipped with ancestors of the same class. Bodies or bones could be cast into the Kilauea Volcano crater so the spirit would become fire like the goddess Pele, or go up into the sky, perhaps in the clouds.
An ‘aumakua in the clouds could mean fog or mist, rain for farming, or even thundering clouds bringing devastating floods for the enemies.
The ‘aumakua would make their homes near their families, and could help them in all kinds of affairs, including kapa-making, house- and canoe-building, farming, calabash-making, fishing, bird-hunting and others.
They were also thought to occupy some living bodies, making people shake or sneeze. Sometimes, it was thought that an ‘aumakua could be seen sitting on the head or shoulder of the person to whom it belonged.
Kupua were the demons of ghost-land, very powerful and destructive. No humans could withstand their attacks, unless endowed with power from the gods. Kupua had animal and human bodies, and could shape-shift to whichever body that seemed to be the most available. The dragons, or mo‘o, were the most terrible kupua in the Islands.
The Brindled Dog
A large brindled dog named Pa‘e lived in the Ko‘olau Mountains on O‘ahu. She was once caught by two men, who roasted her as gift to a chief. The men put the cooked dog in a large calabash, and as they were heading down the mountain, they came across a beautiful woman with reddish brown hair sitting beside a pool.
As the woman called for her dog Pa‘e, a voice came from inside the calabash, “Here I am!” The dog said she was going to the land of the chief with the two men. But the woman called Pa‘e again and told her to go home. Showing no signs of being roasted, Pa‘e jumped out of the calabash, ran happily toward the woman, and they both dived into the pool.
The two men realized the dog was the pet of one of the lizard women of Ko‘olau Mountains. Terrified, they ran away without ever looking back. Since then, brindled dogs were looked upon with superstition and considered to be under the protection of the spirits of the lizard goddess. Thus a brindled dog is called ‘īlio moʻo, or lizard dog.
The Flying Spirits of Ni‘ihau
Back when man-eating spirits roamed the Islands, five Kaua‘i fishermen went to Ni‘ihau. Fish was abundant on Ni‘ihau, and for a dreadful reason.
Their catch was good. In the first two nights, however, Elima and then Eha vanished. On the third day, aware something strange was happening but with their families depending on their catch for survival, the remaining fishermen, Elua, Ekahi and Ekolu decided to sleep offshore in the canoe and split in night watches.
Just before daybreak, Elua and Ekahi woke up to the muffled cries of Ekolu being attacked by a bat-like creature with pale, staring eyes. The fishermen leaped to save their friend, but it was too late for Ekolu, eaten by the creature in one gulp. The creature then flew away.
The two remaining fishermen went ashore, and built a house. Inside, they placed two man-sized wooden images they had carved, with gleaming eyes made of mussel shells. Then Elua and Ekahi hid outside the house and watched as the night dragged by. Late in the night, the two men dozed, and were woken up by the voices of two spirits peeking into the house.
The spirits thought the images were men were sleeping in stand-up position. The gleaming eyes confused the creatures, who first thought the men were awake. But after waiting for a while, they concluded the men must’ve been sleeping with their eyes open. So they attacked the images and started munching on the hard wood. The fishermen came out of their hiding place, tossed a flaming torch into the house and ran away.
The flying spirits of Ni‘ihau died, and the island’s rich fishing grounds became safe for Kaua‘i fishermen.
- All tales were compiled and summarized from these publications: Kepelino’s Traditions of Hawai‘i, Martha Beckwith with Mary Kawena Pukui (Marchers of the Night); Voices on the Wind, Katharine Luomala (Menehunes); Hawaiian Legends of Ghosts and Ghost Gods, William D. Westervelt (Homeless and Desolate Ghosts, ‘Aumakua, and Kupua); Folktales of Hawai‘i, Mary Kawena Pukui and Laura S. C. Green (The Brindled Dog); and Hawaiian Legends of Tricksters and Riddlers, Vivian L. Thompson (The Flying Spirits of Ni‘ihau).