Volume 50 1941 > Volume 50, No. 199 > The Hawaiian cult of Io, by E. S. Craighill Handy, p 134-159
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THIS article on Io in Hawaii does not represent the exhaustive investigation which the subject deserves. Why a partial exposition of so important a subject is now presented, should be explained. Two instances of the existence of Io as a name invoked in important ritual in Hawaii were noted in my study of Polynesian Religion (p. 97) published by the Bishop Museum in 1927. In 1931 Mrs. Emma Ahuena Taylor published in the Paradise of the Pacific in Honolulu an article on Io-lani as a divinity of great sanctity, mentioning prayers handed down from a priestly ancestor who was tutor of the great Kamehameha in Kohala on the island of Hawaii. In 1932 Ahuena (Mrs. Taylor) and her mother, through whom the prayers were inherited, permitted Miss Stella M. Jones, then working at the Bishop Museum as my field assistant, to copy from their private manuscript book three prayers referred to but not printed in Ahuena's article. These I carefully studied with Ahuena at the Bishop Museum that same year and shortly thereafter practically the same invocations were presented to Dr. Buck at the Museum by a student of native lore who received them from a local Hawaiian scholar belonging to the same royal line of descent as Ahuena. This scholar stipulated that the prayers should not be published during his life time. Ahuena, on the other hand, felt the time had come to reveal this Hawaiian cult, which she believed to be akin to the Io worship of the Maori.

At the time I was so profoundly engrossed in the investigation of native therapeutics, and a survey of native agriculture, that I let this important study lie dormant until such time as I might give full attention to it. At my request, my colleague Kawena (Mrs. Pukui) discussed the place of - 135 Io in Hawaii with her learned mother, Paahana, and her aunt Pu'uheana, and in the course of reading through the files of old Hawaiian newspapers, she gleaned two invocations to Io. From an eminent Hawaiian born on Kauai came another interesting revelation of the cult as a very private family heritage. It is the results of this fragmentary investigation that are presented in the article that follows, supplemented by gleanings from literary sources, which themselves have not been given an exhaustive review as yet. When in 1936 work called me away from the islands, I still had in mind making a thorough investigation when I returned. But that return has been prevented by various circumstances, and there is no prospect, for me, of a thorough investigation in Hawaii in the near future. Therefore it seems right to summarize what I have at the present time, rather than to continue to keep it buried indefinitely. There is sufficient evidence contained in this article to justify far more detailed analysis, comparison, and speculation. But it seems wise at this juncture to compress the evidence into the compass of a single article, to state it with the utmost brevity, and to avoid any sort of speculation arising out of comparisons with other Polynesian cults.

To the question, why has the cult of Io not been revealed before, I have only to say that my own studies in spirit-lore, mediumship, hula, therapy, planting, etc., in recent years, have left me amazed at the superficiality of our earlier knowledge of Hawaiian religions. The names Io and Uli were already in print, but had never been examined, nor particular inquiry made respecting them, and they were not names on which knowing Hawaiians would volunteer information for reasons shown below. Fornander's comparative approach was not one that would elicit information on this cult, as Io was not known in New Zealand in his time, and Uli is not a figure in other cults. His efforts to erect a cult of the Supreme around Kane and the expression Oi-e meaning superiority obviously is a rationalization. Emerson was content to leave it that Uli was a “sorceror's god.” Malo and Kepelino were both commoners, writing under the inspiration of missionaries. Kamakau plainly was not of a family that venerated the Hawk and the Owl. The Owl was - 136 known to be a “family god,” but the cult had never been investigated: it was assumed that Owl was one of many Aumakua, or family guardians appearing in animal form: and so it is, but on a superior plane.


The worship of Io in Hawaii is specifically the veneration of Buteo solitarius, the Hawaiian hawk. This bird is called the io (o), because “it makes a chirping sound, , like a little chick” (10) 1. It will be well to describe the hawk as bird before considering it as a god. When we come to the prayers addressed to Io, and to alternative names for the god, it will be evident that terms, phrases, and names refer to the bird. Certain mythic and religious abstractions are implicit in the words, names, or prayers, and others may reasonably be inferred from them in the light of mythic and religious meanings given to the same words in general in Hawaiian lore, or specifically in Hawaiian texts. But the essential point that needs to be stressed at the outset of this article is that the cult of Io in Hawaii is not the veneration of an abstract concept but specifically the worship of the hawk. Hawaiian Io-worship is a bird-cult.

Although “Brown Hawks and Kites” were seen by Captain Cook, the first scientific description of Buteo solitarius from observation in the field was that of T. R. Peale, the ornithologist on the Wilkes' expedition (15, p. 63). Peale's detailed scientific description need not be quoted, since it refers to only one phase of the colouring of the hawk, whereas Wilson and Evans, quoted below, describe and picture the three typical phases. Peale's general remarks about the bird are, however, of interest in relation to native lore and concepts hereinafter referred to:

“The Buzzard was seen at the island of Hawaii and from what we could learn from the natives, does not inhabit any other island of the group. It appears to have all the characteristic habits of the genus; sits solitary on dead trees, patiently watching small birds, which constitute its principal food.”

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THE HAWAIIAN HAWK (Buteo solitarius)
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The three colour phases typical of the io, as shown in Wilson and Evans' (17, plates 61, 62, 63) beautiful colour plates, are briefly as follows:

  • 1. Back, wings and tail brown barred with blackish brown, breast whitish with brown flecking, head dark brown with darker flecking.
  • 2. Back, wings and tail dark brown barred with blackish brown, breast brown with blackish flecking, head blackish brown.
  • 3. Back, wings and tail brown with yellow tinge with dark brown flecking, breast light-yellow, head yellow with brown fleckings.

In all three phases the beak is black and the legs and feet are yellow.

While all specimens studied by Wilson and Evans came from the island of Hawaii, and it was observed only there by Peale, the hawk was not confined to that island. Wilson and Evans quote an article by Judge Sanford B. Dole as authority for the statement that the bird had been observed on Niihau, Molokai and Kauai. One of my own informants, quoted below, gave a Kauai prayer to Io. An incident on Kauai, quoted by Wilson and Evans from the aforementioned article by Judge Dole (Proceedings Boston Society for 1869) describes behaviour of a hawk which, if characteristic of the bird, would certainly justify the old Hawaiians in their belief that this creature was more than bird. The story may be received with scepticism by some. I accept it both because I do not believe Mr. G. H. Dole, or his brother, Judge Dole, would have put the story into circulation in print if it were not true to the best of their knowledge, and because I have myself observed the prehensile habits with one claw of eagles, hawks, buzzards, and owls. This is the story (17, p. 180).

“Mr. G. H. Dole [Judge Dole's brother] while riding one day in Koloa, Island of Kauai, accompanied by a Scotch terrier, noticed one of these birds and was led by his peculiar movements to watch him carefully. The bird appeared much disturbed by the presence of the dog, and after circling about him a few times flew to a pile of stones and took one in his claws and flew back with it to his old position over the dog and balanced himself in the air as if intending to drop it on the - 138 dog's back, but after some apparent hesitation he gave up whatever he was intending to accomplish with the stone, and carrying it back, he placed it on the pile whence he had taken it.”

There are in Judd's collection (9, pp. 22, 26) two Hawaiian “proverbs” that have reference to the hawk. The first appears on the surface to refer only to the hawk as bird in its habit of alighting on the branches of trees to watch for its prey.

He io au, aole lala kau ole. Kau o ka lala maka, kau o ka lala maloo: I am a hawk-owl and light on all branches. I light on the green branch, I light on the dry branch. Meaning: I am here, I am there, I am everywhere.

The literal translation states a simple fact of natural history. Yet a native “proverb” never means only what the words state. The explanation given to Mr. Judd, whose informant evidently took the word io not to refer to a deity but to the bird, since he did not capitalize it, obviously implies that the bird connotes some sort of omnipresence.

In the second of the “proverbs,” the word io is again not capitalized. In other words, Judd took the word to refer only to the hawk and not to a deity.

E io e, ua pa wau i ka pohaku a ke kanaka.” Nawai ka hala? “Na'u ka hala i ka pao ana i ka huewai a ke kanaka”: “Oh hawk! I have been hit by the man's stone.” Whose fault is it? “It is my fault, for making a hole in the man's watergourd.”

Clearly, when the hawk is made the object of direct address in relation to a situation having to do with “fault” (hala, sin) of this sort, the bird is addressed as a deity of some kind. On the evidence of these two native sayings alone, the inference would be justified: the hawk must be the embodiment of a deity having to do with sin, who has some quality of omnipresence attributed to it.

To turn now to direct evidence with respect to the hawk from informants of unquestionable authority and trustworthiness. Kawena (10) relates the following incident in her childhood remembered by her mother, in which her grandmother, an initiate in various phases of sacred lore and ritual, showed especial respect for the hawk.

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Once an io bird pounced on one of Grandmother's chicks. She never threw a stone or grumbled, but sat for a while and then said: “Forgive, Io, the hasty speech spoken by my mouth. You have never hurt except when we bring it upon ourselves. I have long ago said that the chickens belonged to the little granddaughter, but others have belied that speech, have come in my absence and taken a few for themselves. These belong to a new batch of chickens, but still the words have been of long standing so I beg your pardon, Io.” The hawk never came back again.

The following is the record of a conversation between my colleague Kawena (10) and her late aunt Pu'uheana (16), a woman noted for her acquaintanceship with sacred lore, one, in fact, who suffered no end of persecution by some who believed (or wished others to believe) that she was a witch. I can vouch for the fact that she was not acquainted with the lore of Io elsewhere than in Hawaii, and that questions were no more “leading” than the simple conversation recorded. She was, as a matter of fact, a grand old lady with a jaw like a battle axe, who would have spurned any “lead” in questioning.

K. What do you know about Io?
P. Very little.
K. Well, what little do you know?
P. He akua nui o Io, he akua kapu loa aohe hoopukapuka wale ia o ka inoa. O ke kino io ke kino nana hewa, a nana pono. O kona kino kaulike ia, he hoopa'i ka hewa a he apono i ka pono. O ke kino pueo oia ke kino hoopakele i ke kanaka mai na po ino mai. No ke kapu o kona inoa ua kapa ko kakou, kupuna iaia o Kane-ku-pahu'a no ke ku o kona kino manu i ka hu'a o ka laau. O Kane-pueo kekahi inoa, o Ku'emanu kekahi a he nui wale aku no na inoa.
Translation. Io is a great akua, an akua of great sanctity whose name is not to be revealed carelessly. The hawk-body is the body that sees evil and sees the right. It is this body of his that executes justice, punishing sin and approving righteousness. The owl-body is the body that gives a person protection from any impending harm. Because of the sacredness of his name, our forbears named him Kane-ku-pahu'a [Man-standing-at-the-forest-border] because his bird-body had its place at the edge of the forest. Owl-man (Kane-pueo) is another name, Ku'emanu is another amongst many more names.
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This statement left no doubt in my mind that the hawk is the embodiment of a deity of prime sanctity. As given, the statement may or may not mean that the name Io is the true name of the deity: Pu'uheana simply says the god is extremely sacred, and his name is not to be revealed carelessly. She says definitely that the other names, such as Kane-pahu'a, are convenient descriptive pseudonyms, exoteric if you will. But the fact that the prayers that follow invoke the deity as Io indicates that this is at least a name with power, and as such esoteric, since these prayers were secret, sacred possessions of certain families. The widespread knowledge of the sanctity of the owl, and the ignorance (or concealment) of that of the hawk, may indicate that the Io cult was esoteric: or it may be due to the fact that the owl is common around the haunts of men, while the hawk is little known, and very rarely seen by foreigners.


Before passing on to further direct evidence relating to Io as hawk, the interesting statement that the owl is also an embodiment of the same god deserves study.

This identification undoubtedly explains why, in one of the “proverbs” quoted above, Judd translates io as hawk-owl. It will be observed below that Ahuena also associates the owl with Io.

Pu'uheana's statement that the owl is protective is confirmed by incidents frequently related in which an owl gives warning of imminent danger. Ahuena (1) relates that at the Battle of Nuuanu, during the conquest of Oahu by Kamehameha, Kahuku'i-i-ka-waia was saved from being dashed off the pali (cliff) by an owl's striking its wings across his face. I remember some years ago being told by a Kauai man of his life being saved once, when he was drowsily riding too close to a cliff along Waimea Canyon at dusk, by an owl's wing slapping across his eyes. Whether this actually happened, or was imagined to have happened, it indicates the belief in the owl as protector, a point that need not be argued, for it is well known in Hawaii.

The point that is of importance in the identification of Io with the owl is the fact that the owl is definitely known to be sacred, not to all Hawaiians but to particular families. - 141 Kawena, who has translated much of the Hawaiian historian S. M. Kamakau, reports the following conversation with Pu'uheana.

K. Kamakau says the owl was a worthless old bird, eaten by those of Kau. [Kamakau's section on guardian spirits (aumakua)].
P. The owl was never eaten by our people. Perhaps his ancestors never knew of Io, or he wouldn't have talked as he did.

This conversation clearly indicates that owl-veneration was familiar.

That the veneration of the owl was not limited to a few families is indicated by a statement of Mr. J. S. Emerson (5, p. 8) in 1892 to the effect that Pueo-nui-o-Kona (Great-owl-of-Kona) was “looked upon by a great portion of Kona people as their family god.” This remark is useful in showing the cult to be limited to some families: but the phrase “great portion of Kona people” is somewhat vague and probably not very accurate. We ask to-day, what people, and which Kona? In an Oahu legend in the Fornander collection (8, vol. IV, pp. 464 ff.) Pueonui is chief of the south-eastern or Kona districts of Oahu when Kahuhihewa was chief of Ewa. In another legend, “Kaipalaoa,” Pueonui-of-Kona is “king of Kauai” (p. 574). Hawaii, Oahu and Kauai had their Kona districts.

Malo (13, p. 62) wrote that “The pueo [owl] is regarded as a deity and worshipped by many.” He makes no mention of veneration of the hawk, described in the same paragraph, hence he must have been ignorant of it. But from the point of view of physical resemblance he identifies hawk and owl.

“The pueo, or owl, and the io resemble each other; but the pueo has the larger head . . . Their plumage is variegated (striped), eyes large (and staring), claws sharp like those of a cat. They prey upon mice and small fowl. Their feathers are worked into kahilis [chiefs' staves surmounted by a great cylindrical ornament of feathers] of the choicest descriptions . . . These birds are caught by means of the bird-pole [with bird lime to which their feet stick], by the use of a covert, or by means of the net.”
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Be it noted that the catching of hawk and owl for making kahili does not necessarily imply killing them, for, at least in the case of the birds whose feathers were used for feather capes, it was the practice for the bird-catchers, who were good conservationists in perpetuating the species that gave them a living, to pluck the feathers desired and release the bird. It may seem unlikely that the hawk and owl would have been so treated by the families that worshipped them. On the other hand, it would be logical for the chiefs, whose protectors the hawk and owl were, to use their feathers on the staves that accompanied them into battle.

The following translation of a prayer to the Owl was given us by Ahuena (1). This, like the prayers to Io that follow, was a protective prayer (or spell) “for vengeance,” i.e., against witchcraft.

Bring woe, oh bird that lazily sits.
Oh Owl! that is hooting
Yonder in his temple.
Hasten, oh chiefly child!
Suddenly stricken is the family.
Fulfill! Fulfill, oh Pillar!
Finish. Oh hearken! and this life ascend upon it.

In oral discussion of this, Ahuena said that the Owl is the symbol of Io because it can see at night, because it is all-seeing. The cry of the Owl is the call of Io. This invocation to the Owl is a prayer to Io.

The text of the owl prayer, whose English version as translated by Ahuena has just been quoted, is as follows. I venture to translate it literally.

A'ai manu i none Gnawing bird lazily poised
O ka pueo kani mai ana 'Tis the owl crying near by
O kona luakini From his sacrificial pit
Ina e ke kamali'i Here is the boy-child [stricken]
Hiki lele na ohana e Suddenly agitated are the relatives
E ko, e ko, e ke kia Let it come to pass, let [that sorcerer] be done to death
Pau, e Lono e, ua ola e Finished, oh Lono [god of healing], he lives!

Particularly interesting in this chant are the lines, “'Tis the owl crying near by, from his sacrificial pit” because it confirms an impression formed in my mind when I first - 143 began to study the Hawk and Owl, that a leading motive that led chiefs and priests to attribute especial sanctity and power to these birds, which are carnivorous scavengers (to use the zoological description) was their habit (presumably) of frequenting the altars and sacrifice pits of temples where animal and human sacrifices were exposed. This habit would also logically lead to the association of Hawk and Owl with vengeance upon malefactors (human sacrifices on the altars were kapu breakers), and with the death-rites having to do with corpses and the conducting of spirits of the dead to the sky, as revealed in invocations quoted below.

In an account of a temple-consecration we read that the populace was cautioned against breaking the kapu by having a spear thrust towards them by a priest, accompanied by the admonition (8, vol. 6, p. 8): “Take care, take care or you will be struck by the spear of Pueo.”

In the earlier part of a creation chant to Wakea, having to do with the lineages of ali'i, we read these lines (8, vol. 4, p. 14):

. . . settled by the royal owl,
The owl of the still eyes [indicative of royal dignity]
That sails on the beach and to windward
As a kite of the sacred chief (lani kapu).

These quotations depict the owl in the role not of mere family guardian, but as associated with priests and temple, and with high chiefs.


The outright statement of Pu'uheana quoted above, being from a source that is to me of unquestionable veracity and authority, left no doubt in my mind of the correctness of the view as to the sanctity of Io which had in 1931 been expressed by Ahuena in an article in the Paradise of the Pacific and subsequently to Miss Jones and myself in discussing the prayers given below. The prayers were first copied by Miss Jones, with Mrs. Montano's permission, from a manuscript book belonging to Ahuena's mother, Mrs. Mary Jane Fayerweather Montano. Subsequently Ahuena graciously consented to go over them very carefully - 144 in the Bishop Museum with me alone, giving me permission to use them as and when seemed fitting, with due respect for their sacredness.

It is my privilege first to present Ahuena's own translations of the two prayers to Io, which, as I understand it, she originally planned to include with her article on Iolani but ere going to print decided to withhold.


Translated by Ahuena

“Oh Io! Oh Io!
A proclamation to the house-top by thy man-servant.
No other god can ascend
Thy mountainous tabu,
Thou art Iolani, the eyes of graceful eternity—
Eternity who watches the unrighteous,
Eternity who watches the righteous.
Have pity on thy offspring,
Guard him from all misfortunes that might befall him,
Look thou upon
The one who is doing evil to me,
Forever and ever
Amen.—The prayer is free.”

By Kahaikawaiea alias Kahaku'i

Translated by Ahuena

“Oh Io! Oh Io!
O beak of the bird (with the power of death) that feeds on ‘lehua’!
Earnestly united is the prayer to the multiple eyes who see
The chosen heaven (chief) throughout eternity,
At the time of unintelligible understanding,
At the time of the first pant of life,
Of the rustling sound above
Of the rustling sound below
Rolling to right, rolling to left.
Wind that strikes and declares the heavens,
Thunder that rumbles in the heavens,
Great lightning with death breathes from heaven.
Speak to Heaven (god) to give life to his man-servant,
Bring skillfulness, wisdom and power
So that on earth can ascend
A mouth like multiple chieftains,
The place where words are kept,
Forever and ever
Amen.—The prayer is free.”
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Later I studied the texts and their meanings carefully with Ahuena, who will understand I am sure that my venturing here to present more literal translations is by no means a criticism of her own more philosophic and poetic rendering.

E Io e, E Io e O Hawk, O Hawk
He kukala hale ke kanaka A man stands and calls in his house
Aohe akua nana e ae There is no god that sees beyond
Ke kapu kuahiwi The tabu of the mountains
O Iolani oe o ka maka o iwa uli Thou art Sky-Hawk with eye like the dark frigate-bird
O Uli nana hewa Dark [One] that sees the wrong
O Uli nana pono Dark [One] that sees the right
E aloha mai oe i kau pulapula Cherish thou this thy child
E hoopakele mai Oh deliver
I na poino e hikilele mai ana From the evil that affrights
E nana iho oe Look thou down [and see]
I ka mea nana wau i hana ino mai The person I see working evil hither
Elieli kau mai Amama ua noa [The last two lines are a conventional closure for solemn prayers.]
E Io e, e Io e, O Hawk, O Hawk
E ku, e manu e Rise, oh bird
Ke alu aku nei ka pule ia Hakalau United is the prayer at Hakalau
Kulia ka lani ia Uli The sky is the portion of [the] Dark [One]
Ia namu ia nawe Like murmuring, like panting [is the prayer]
Ka nehe i luna, ka nehe i lalo The rumbling above, the rumbling below
Kaa akau, kaa hema Turning to right, turning to left
Ku makani hai ka lani Winds rise, break the sky
Hekili kaakaa i ka lani Thunder rolls in the sky
Kauila nui Makeha i ka lani Great-Lightning Makeha [god of lightning] in the sky
Pane i ka lani e ola ke kanaka Utterance in the sky that man shall live
Ho mai ka loea, ka ike, ka mana Give proficiency, knowledge, power
I ae la honua la Hither on earth
O waha lau ali'i 'Tis the chiefly utterance
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O kahi i waiho ai ka hua olelo 'Tis one who bestows the fruits of speech
Elieli kau mai  
Amama ua noa.  

In the article already referred to on “The Cult of Iolani,” Ahuena 2 describes a “priesthood of Io,” quoting directly from her mother's note book as follows:

“The Priesthood of Iolani was the highest priesthood of the islands of Hawaii. Neither chieftains nor priests dared utter the word Io for fear that Po and Uli would bite or punish them.
"Io is the Holy Spirit, the invisible someone; its only symbol on earth is the young owl with eyes that see at night. There was no human sacrifice on this altar. The priests killed or saved life with prayers by calling to Io to adjust all wrong.
"The people by this religious order did believe, however, in stoning a wrong-doer to death.
"The priests of Io were feared and respected and were called the order of Wahamana and Ha-mana (powerful lips and breath of power).
Kealiimaikai was an Alii Kapu Akua of Io.
Io to us is Jehovah to other peoples."

Ahuena writes that “some of the older generation have a tradition that Io left Hawaii when the chieftain Hema departed for New Zealand to live after his feudal warfare with his brother Puna.” In view of the fact that pre-Kame-hameha Hawaiians could not have known that Hema went to New Zealand, since they were ignorant of the existence of that country, I infer that this “tradition” is a recent rationalization of modern Hawaiian scholars in which is involved also knowledge of the place of Io in Maori esoteric lore. Evident also is the influence of the Bible in references by Ahuena and others to-day to Io in Hawaii as the Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost, and likening Io to Jehovah. In this - 147 article we are concerned exclusively with defining the old Io worship in and of Hawaii: we must therefore be wary of any and all inferences suggested by other cults.

Kamehameha, whose tutor was, according to Ahuena, Kahaku'i, alone had the audacity overtly to use the name Io-lani. He gave it to his son Liholiho Iolani. Again it was given by Liholiho's son Kauikaouli to his nephew Alexander Liholiho Iolani after the first Liholiho died in London. The palace built in Honolulu and occupied by Alexander Liholiho as Kamehameha IV was also given the name Iolani. To this sacrilege Ahuena attributes the extinction of the royal family and of the monarchy. The name now graces the boys' school attached to the Protestant Episcopal mission, and is borne by one living Hawaiian of whom we shall speak later.

According to Ahuena (and likewise Pu'uheana) the name of Io or Iolani was purposely camouflaged by means of pseudonyms. Io was referred to as Ili-o-mea-lani (the reflection of that chiefly someone), Ku'e-manu-ai-lehua (the beak that feeds on lehuas or the power of death), and Uli (eternity, chaos, beyond vision).


With respect to Ili-o-mea-lani, Ahuena made the following observations in discussing the prayers with me in 1932. The epithet may be translated Reflection-of-someone-of-Heaven, ili having the sense of aka (shadow, similitude). Others have maintained, incorrectly according to Ahuena, that the spelling should be Ilio-mea-lani.

Paahana (14), on her own independent authority, states that Ili-o-mea-lani is Io, whereas Ilio-mea-lani is the dog (ilio) embodiment of the god Ku. In her family, I am told, two prayers have been passed down in which Ku is thus addressed.

In this statement Paahana is supported by the following lines from a prayer in the epic of Hiiaka (6, pp. 37, 40), in which clouds are likened to great dog-forms in the heavens (as in other prayers they are likened to hog-forms, Kamapua'a):

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Kuli'a, e Uli, ka pule kala ma ola; Stand in the breach, O Uli;
O wai kupua o luna nei, e? And who are these beings of might?
O Ilio-uli o ka lani; Ye sombre Clouds [dark dog] that rampart the sky;
O Ilio-ehu, o Ilio-mea o ka lani; Ye warm Clouds [ruddy dog], and ye that gleam ruddy;
O Ku-ke-ao-iki, o Ku-ke-ao-poko . . Ye Clouds [Ku-ke-ao] that guard heaven's border . .

The translation given is Emerson's. More literally translated, the verse may be read:

Stand forth, oh Dark [One], [this is] the prayer of release and life . . .
Who is the guardian spirit here above?
'Tis Dark-dog of the sky
'Tis Ruddy-dog, 'tis Nameless-dog of the sky
'Tis Little-Upright-Cloud, 'tis Short-Upright-Cloud . . .

But in the version of the same prayer used in the family of Paahana for healing and for recalling forgotten knowledge or skill, these names written by Emerson Ilio-uli, Ilio-mea, have always been recited: lo-ehu (Io-the-ruddy), Io-uli (Io-the-dark) and Io-mea (Io-the-nameless).

Io-uli is said by Kawena to be a shortening for Io-i-ke-ao-uli (Io-in-the-obscure-heavens).


Ku'e-manu-ai-lehua is considered by Ahuena to be another of Io's pseudonyms (as also by Pu'uheana). This she translated to me as “The-bird's-beak-that-eats-the-lehua (crimson blossom),” explaining that lehua was a figurative expression applied to the first slain in battle, hence the figure refers to the Supreme, the Chief God. Be it noted that the first victim slain in battle was offered to Ku. It is my belief, therefore, that Ku'e-manu-ai-lehua originated as a pseudonym from the line in the prayer reading, E ku, e manu, “Arise, oh bird,” in other contexts presumably to be read E Ku, e Manu ai lehua, “O Ku, O bird that feeds on the sacrificial first-slain,” e.g., Hawk or Owl frequenting the altar of sacrifice in the temple or pit where remains were thrown.

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The prayers quoted from Ahuena refer to Io and Uli as synonymous. This identification clears up for me a long-pondered problem as to the real nature of Uli. Uli now must be considered carefully for the light this name may throw on the Io cult.

One single reference to Io in Hawaiian lore has been known to me since my earliest study of Malo's Hawaiian Antiquities, occurring in a line in a prayer recorded by N. B. Emerson in that volume:

Honua-ku-kapu ka malo o Io-uli
Decorated at its end is the malo of the bird-god Io-uli.

The prayer from which this is quoted was used when the image of the war-god Ku was girt with a consecrated loin-cloth by women-chiefs as part of the ritual dedicating the new war-temple (Luakini) to Ku (13, p. 247). At the commencement of the prayer, the loin-cloth is referred to as:

Ke malo o ke akua, o Uli The loin cloth of the god Uli

and subsequently as the malo of Hina, Ku, Lono, Lono-kaiolohia, Lono-honua, Kane-auhaka.

Until this study of Io was undertaken, the name Uli was, functionally, somewhat obscure, as is the meaning of the word, which literally refers to deep obscure colour like night-sky, ocean-depths, or vegetable or animal colouration that is dark and indefinable. For the word as a noun, the Andrews-Parker Dictionary gives the meanings: 1.—Any dark hue; 2.—The firmament; the blue sky.

Substantially all that could be learned from texts and informants was that Uli was the most potent protector against black magic. One of my best informants on Maui used to describe to me graphically the vehemence with which a kahuna known in her youth used to invoke Uli to cast into the underworld a witch causing illness by black magic.

Emerson (13, p. 139) says of Uli, in the role of the god to whom a pig is offered in the counter-witchcraft ritual of kuni described by Malo:

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Uli may be described as the judicial spirit, as well as the detective one, fitted therefore to discover the one whose incantations had anaanaed [caused death by witchcraft] and brought death to the deceased. Uli was addressed in prayer:

E Uli nana pono, O Uli that discerns the right,
E Uli nana hewa . . . O Uli that discerns the wrong . . .

The prayer to undo the evil-doer, as given by Malo, invokes Uli i ka hoolewa, which Emerson translates “Uli in the heavens,” inferring that Malo intended to write Uli ke aolewa.

Elsewhere (6, p. 37, 114) Emerson calls Uli “The chief aumakua [tutelary god] of sorcery, but at the same time having power as a healer . . .” He speaks of Uli as female, “an elder sister of Pele.”

Malo, in his chapter on the treatment of dead bodies (13, pp. 131 ff.) gives the following prayer as that employed to remove defilement:

Lele Uli e! Lele wai e! Hasten, O Uli; hasten, O water.
He Uli, he Uli, he wai, he wai! Here is Uli, Uli; here is water, water.
Lele au i ke ahua e Kane me 'hani I fly to thy shrine, O Kane, the approachable one.
O Nehelani, nehe ia pika 'na ka lani A rustling in heaven—it rustles with the sprinkling.
A lama. He mu oia. Light appears. The deity is silent.

This invocation in the funeral-ritual definitely correlates Uli with another figure, Lolupe, in the ritual of deification of the body of a high chief. Malo wrote (13, p. 141):

The ceremony was performed by the kahuna nui [high priest] working under the rite of Lolupe, who was the god of the kahuna nui [printed Kahuna hui]. It was believed that Lolupe was the deity who took charge of those who spoke ill of the king [Uli, in other words], consigning them to death, while the souls of those who were not guilty of such defamation he conducted to a place of safety [Uli nana pono, Uli nana hewa].

Lolupe, according to Emerson (13, p. 143)

“was represented by a kite made in the shape of a fish, with wings, tail, etc.; when made the figure was sent up the same - 151 as any kite. Its special function was to go in search of the spirits of the dead and bring them before the kahunas for identification, interrogation and judgment.”

Note that the last-named function is specifically that attributed to Uli. Obviously the kite flown in the air represented a bird, not a fish. In the light of the identity of Uli and Io, Lolupe is no other than the Hawk. (Rupe is pigeon in the southern Polynesian dialects and lore. There was no pigeon in Hawaii. Lupe means in Hawaiian, kite.)

Two other invocations to Uli, given by Emerson, need be quoted only in part. The first (13, p. 47), an ancient chant, obviously has reference to the death rites discussed above.

O Mai-eli, lani o Uli Mai-eli, king [sky] of Uli
O Uli ku huihui lau, lau o Iku o, Uli, the active, the multiform, offshoot of Iku,
O Iku-lani naha Iku, king of kings in heaven, broken for others
A Uli! a make! Burn, Uli! Burn to death!

Uli is revealed in a different role in an invocation belonging to the ceremony of shaking a great net filled with food during the harvest festival (Makahiki) to symbolise the showering of abundance upon earth from the heavens. The prayer begins (13, p. 205):

E uliuli kai, e Uli ke akua e! Oh deep-blue sea, Oh god Uli!
E uli kai hakoko! Oh blue of the wild, tossing sea!
Koko lani e Uli! Net of heaven, oh Uli.
Uli lau ka ai a ke akua Green are the leaves of God's harvest fields.
Piha lani koko; e lu—! The net fills the heavens—shake it!

Later in this prayer, as in those to Io which follow, Kane and Kanaloa are appealed to. In other words, in this harvest-prayer, as in others, Uli takes precedence over these major deities.

Kawena reports an interesting old saying, which may be given many religious and philosophic interpretations.

E uli ka lani [When] the sky is clear
E uli ka honua The earth thrives.
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In the counter-witchcraft prayer quoted above, given by Malo and translated by Emerson, is the phrase Uli i ka hoolewa, which Emerson takes to be Uli ke aolewa. Probably these epithets identify Uli with the sorcery god Keoloewa described by Beckwith (4, p. 114). According to Beckwith (referring to W. Ellis Tour of Hawaii, 1827, pp. 66-7):

Ellis describes a Keoloewa image as of wood dressed in native tapa with head and neck of wickerwork covered with red feathers to look like a birdskin, and wearing a native helmet hung with human hair, the mouth large and distended.

The “head and neck of wickerwork covered with red feathers to look like a birdskin” suggests that this type of so-called Keoloewa image of a “sorcerer's god” was a crude symbol of Io-uli the Hawk god.

Beckwith (4, p. 122) quotes from J. S. Emerson in a reference unavailable to me at this writing another counter witchcraft prayer commencing:

E Uli e! O Uli,
E Uli nana pono, O Uli, look upon the right,
E Uli nana hewa, O Uli, look upon the wrong,
E Uli uka, O Uli, towards the mountains,
E Uli kai . . . O Uli, towards the sea . . .

Beckwith follows Emerson in terming Uli a goddess of sorcery. Ahuena objected to this fashion of characterizing Uli as a female patron of anaana (“praying to death”). Uli embodied both sexes. As protector, Uli killed the worker of evil but was never invoked in malicious black magic. The prayers to Uli sustain Ahuena's contention that his was a protective role. She characterizes Uli as a primordial deity. That this is true is borne out by Uli's correlation with Ku, Kane, Lono, and Kanaloa in prayers other than those of Ahuena, and by Uli's mythical correlation with Milu and Manua, Kane, and Wakea as reported by Beckwith (4, pp. 114, 155).

S. M. Kamakau, according to Beckwith (4, p. 115) who edited his writings (still in manuscript), “cites two Uli goddesses . . .: Uli of the uplands . . . and Uli of the seashore,” both associated with sorcery. This is supported by the Uli prayer last quoted: E Uli uka, E Uli kai.

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Kawena has reported in a personal communication that there is Uli kane (male) and Uli wahine (female), keepers of death and life, conductors of the spirits of the dead to life eternal and death eternal (ka make loa).

In introducing the Ahuena prayers above, their direct inheritance from Kekulani, kahuna nui (High Priest) of Pu'u o Mane'o temple in Kohala, and tutor of Kamehameha was mentioned. In the Hawaiian newspaper Kuokoa for March 7, 1919, Kawena has discovered an article which serves as a connecting link in our chain of evidence in two ways: it explains the relationship of the forbears of Ahuena to Kamehameha and gives us quite independent confirmatory evidence of the place Io-worship had in the chiefly-priestly clan of which Kamehameha made himself the head. According to this article (translated by Kawena):

Captain Beckley was a white man who was made a chief by Kamehameha, and he was made a “hookane” husband for his [Kamehameha's] daughter, Nahienaena, and thus became a son to Kamehameha and Keopuolani.

The following invocation to Io is included in the story of the priest who was summoned from Maui to attend Kamehameha and tell him of his approaching end. The translation is Kawena's.

Kuli'a, e Uli, ka pule kalanaola,
Kuli'a imua, kuli'a i Kealohilani, e kulia,
E ui aku ana i ke kupuna o luna nei,
O wai kupuna? O wai ka eu o luna nei?
5. O Io-uli o ka lani, o Io-ehu, o Io-mea,
O Ku-ke-ao-loa, o Ku-ke-ao-poko,
O Ku-i-ka-awihiwihi-ula-o-ka-lani,
O kanaka loloa o ka mauna la,
O Ku-pulupulu i ka nahele e,
10. O na akua mai ka waokele,
O Kuli-pee-nui-ahua, o Kike-ka-lana, a o Kauhi-noe-lehua,
O ke kahuna i ka puoko uahi,
O iimi o loaa hoi e, ua loaa ae nei hoi e,
Ka mohai alana e mohai aku ai,
15. Ia oukou e ka poe manu a Kane e,
Ia Kane-hoa-lani, huli mai ka lani,
Ia Kane-huli-honua, huli mai ka honua,
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Ia Kane-huli-ko'a, huli mai ko ke ko'a,
Ia Kane-i-wai-ola, huli mai ka wai me ke kai,
20. Ia Lono makua, huli mai na aumakua,
Mai kukulu o Kahiki a ka pe'a kapu o Hiilei,
E molia i ke kapu o keia mau alana,
I na poe niho o na hoa akua,
O kukulu ka pahu kapu o ka leo,
25. Hoohiki kanawai e, ke 'kua, he kai okia la,
He alana na Kane me Kanaloa,
He kai hoihoi kanawai, ua noa,
Noa honua a noa lani e.
Lift up, O Uli, the life-giving prayer,
Lift it in front, lift it to Kealohilani (the shining-heavens), lift,
[We] are appealing to the ancestors up here,
Who are the ancestors? Who are the lively ones up here?
5. Io-uli of heaven, Io the red-headed, Io the sacred one,
Ku of the long clouds, Ku of the short clouds,
Ku of the red fringed clouds of heaven,
The tall men of the mountains,
Ku-pulupulu of the forest,
10. The gods in the damp woodlands,
Kuli-pee-nui-ahua, Kike-kalana,
Ka-uhi-noe lehua (The great deaf one who hides in the hillocks,
Kike the strainer, The-mists-that-cover the lehua trees)
The kahuna in the cloud of smoke,
Seek and find; lo! it is found,
The offering that [we] are to offer to thee,
15. To you, the birds of Kane,
To Kane-hoa-lani (Kane-turner-of-heaven), turn those of heaven hither,
To Kane-huli-honua (Kane-turner-of-earth), turn those of earth hither,
To Kane-huli-ko'a (Kane-turner-of-coral beds), turn those of the coral beds hither,
To Kane-i-ka-wai-ola, turn those of the waters and the seas hither,
20. To Lonomakua, turn the aumakuas hither,
From the pillars of Kahiki to the sacred border of Hiilei,
Accept the kapu of these gifts,
For those who have teeth among your godly companions,
Erect the kapu drum of the voice,
25. [We have] trespassed against the law, [and] the gods, [this] is the water for the cutting loose [from our sins]
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An offering to Kane and to Kanaloa,
Salt water to restore us to the law,
it has freed [us],
Freed earth, freed heaven [for us].

Another mention of Io was found by Kawena in the story of Kamiki in the Hawaiian newspaper Hoku-o-Hawaii of March 9, 1916. “Makaiole heard the words of Kaumana and he called out to use the club stroke called Io.” Makaiole chanted:

Io e, Io e,
Io i'o ka manu,
Ka manu o kuu kupuna wahine,
Na Io nui hoanoano,
5. Nana e popo 'i ka aiwa o ka lani,
He lani ka manu, he aewa,
Aohe lala kau ole,
Kau i ka lala maloo,
I ka lala maka.
10. He la ua keia o Hilo,
Ke ku ululu nei ka manu,
Ke lolelua nei ka pili.
O Io, O Io,
Io who is truly the bird,
My grandmother's bird,
It is the great, holy Io,
5. Who pounces on the supernatural ones of heaven,
The bird is a heavenly one, he flies in space,
There is no branch upon which he does not perch,
He perches on dry branches,
[And] on living branches.
10. This is a rainy day for Hilo,
The bird shivers with the cold,
The pili grass is flattened down.
(Some leaves turn up, some down—lolelua.)

The following story relates to the family of a recently-deceased Hawaiian, known well to all lovers of things Hawaiian in Honolulu as one of the most learned of her time in sacred lore, and a person of complete integrity. Since there appear in the story the names of a number of living Hawaiians, some of whom will perhaps consider these matters private, it seems proper to use initials only. The story is of peculiar importance in this first presentation of facts relating to Io in Hawaii, for it evidences the existence - 156 of the cult in a family line quite distinct from those of Ahuena or Kawena, who are unrelated. The story came direct from K.L., whose English was very imperfect, through a mutual Hawaiian friend.

The story that K.L. told us about her grandchild goes like this: Before the baby was born K.L.'s nephew, M. and his wife promised to let her adopt it. They went to Kona to Mrs. M.'s folks and when the baby arrived they named it themselves. When they brought the baby to K.L. the eyes were sore and sticky and it was desperately ill. K.L. did her best but the babe still suffered. Then one day M.R. and P.B. went to call on K.L. and they spoke of the baby. Just then Mrs. B. said, “Hush! someone is speaking to me. The person is saying that you (turning to the parents) are the parents, yes, but she is not your baby but hers (pointing to K.). The voice is chanting a chant I have never heard before. It goes thus:
E Io oe, e Io e,
E kukala hale kanaka,
Aohe akua nana e a'e i ko kapu kuahiwi,
O Io oe, o ka maka o Iwa uli,
O Uli nana hewa, o Uli nana pono,
Hoolau pa'ii, hanai ai.
I ola, amama ua noa.
The baby must be named Io-lani.” Turning to the baby she said, “You are named Io-lani.” Just then two thick yellow substances came out of the baby's eyes. From that time on the baby recovered.
Years before, K.L.'s uncle, K. in Kauai, had taught her the Io prayer and said, “Use it when your heart is heavy, when in need or in trouble. This prayer will lift the weight from your heart, will take want from you and bless you in every way. Come here and let me expel my breath into your mouth.” When he had expelled his breath, he said, “Here is the mana.” K., the uncle, was just an ordinary looking person who never spoke much of the things he knew but he was well versed in many of the ancient arts.

As far as line 14, “O umi . . .,” the Kamehameha chant is a variant of the Hiiaka chant recorded by Emerson, quoted on page 148, with but one striking major difference:

Hiiaka Chant Kamehameha Chant
O Ilio-uli o ka lani O Io-uli o ka lani
O Ilio-ehu, o Ilio-mea, o ka lani; O Io-ehu, o Io mea
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The use of Io in place of Ilio confirms Paahana's statement that she was taught to say Io-ehu, Io-uli, and Io-mea instead of Ilio-ehu, etc.

The last half of the Kamehameha chant differs entirely from the Emerson Hiiaka invocation.

The chant of Kaumana, commencing “Io e, Io e, Io i'o ka manu” brings us back to our original and most important thesis, that Io worship in Hawaii is specifically a bird-cult, primarily veneration of the Hawaiian Hawk (io), secondarily of the Owl (pueo).

I will remind the reader of the ornithologist's description of the three colour phases of the Hawaiian hawk (p. 137), which, if considered along with the Wilson and Evan's colour plates, may briefly be summarized as: 1.—Intermediate; 2.—Dark (blackish); 3.—Light (yellowish brown). In the Io-prayers the oft-repeated Io-mea, Io-uli, Io-ehu are the equivalents of the ornithologist's descriptions. The Hawaiians of course knew the three colour phases of the Hawk in their uplands. They were, as described in the prayers:

1. 2. 3.
Io-mea Io-uli Io-ehu
Hawk-indefinite Hawk-dark Hawk-reddish brown

Now it happens that in the case of all animate things that served as cult-objects, it was the ones with blackish coloration that were the more likely to be venerated, e.g., black pig, black chicken, dark awa, coconut, sugar-cane, taro. Hence it was, I presume, that the Dark Hawk was the more sacred. To me it would appear that the substitution of epithets for the name Io, which is attested by the evidence, accounts for the origin and use of Uli as the name invoked in place of Io. Once this substitution was made, the word uli, meaning “dark, obscure, like the deep blue-black of a serene night-sky or ocean-depths,” was a verbal window opening unending vistas for mystical speculation, which undoubtedly strengthened the sense of the sanctity of the Hawk.

Io-lani (Sky-hawk) also undoubtedly described the bird in its soaring flight in the heavens. The word lani in Hawaii is associated always with high-born chiefs: hence the literal - 158 meaning again allied the bird to the ali'i or chiefly caste. The habits of the Hawk, its solitary life in the uplands, its watchfulness, the slow grace of its flight, all strengthened this association. I take the line in the Ahuena prayer, “Ke kapu kuahiwi” to refer literally to the fact that the mountains, its habitat, were sacred to this denizen of the uplands.

The prayer and chants quoted definitely put Uli (=Io) in the category of primordial gods. In one of the Emerson prayers Uli is correlated with Iku:

Uli, the active, the multiform, offshoot of Iku,
Iku, king of kings in heaven, broken for others . . .”

Of the word Iku Emerson wrote (13, p. 48), “The term Iku is used by the Nauwa Society [a secret society formed by King Kalakaua late in the 19th Century] in the modern word Iku-hai. Iku-lani, the ancient word, means highest, head of all.” According to Kawena ikuwai or ukuwai meant “the inner circle of the family (ohana) where all problems were taken for consultation.” In a chant (8, vol. 6, p. 397) the line Ka hainana a Iku is translated “the assembly of worshippers of Iku.”

Important also in estimating the status of Io is the fact that all the sources of evidence that we have relate Io and Uli to descendants of chiefly or priestly lines, and to ritual having to do with the ali'i and kahuna classes: death-rites, war-rites, harvest-festival.

Be it noted, further, that in several prayers or chants having to do with these major rituals, Io and Uli are first invoked, and the names of Kane, Ku, Lono, and Kanaloa, the “major deties” of Hawaiian worship, follow. This alone evidences the status of Io to be of the first magnitude. The enthusiast for a “cult of the Supreme” will see in this, as in other evidence, proof that Io is the “Supreme Being” in Hawaii. But let us be cautious about making this rationalization. My own conclusion on the basis of evidence at hand is that Io-Uli, the most sacred name invoked by priests and certain ali'i families in Hawaii, was a superior divinity for the ali'i and priests who venerated him, but this does not imply all ali'i or all kahuna. It is plain now that in Hawaii and throughout Polynesia there was family, clan, tribal, and - 159 national sectarianism in which the ancestor or patron of the particular social or ethnic group was elevated to a station of superiority, while the names of other widespread Polynesian deities were retained in secondary roles. This process is well known in other polytheistic religions, in India for example, where Vishnu outranks Siva for the Vaishnava sects, Siva outranks all others for the Saivite priests and kings, and Brahma is supreme in the Brahmanical philosophy. Let us not rush to enthrone Io as the Supreme Being in Hawaii: the evidence proves only that he was the superior protective deity in certain rituals of certain ali'i and kahuna lines.

  • 1. Ahuena, Mrs. Emma Ahuena Taylor, Honolulu.
  • 2. Ahuena, The Cult of Iolani, in Paradise of the Pacific, December, 1931.
  • 3. Andrews, Lorrin, and Parker, H. H., A Dictionary of the Hawaiian Language, Honolulu, 1922.
  • 4. Beckwith, Martha W., Hawaiian Mythology, New Haven, 1940.
  • 5. Emerson, J. S., The Lesser Hawaiian Gods, Hawaiian Historical Society, Paper No. 2, Honolulu, 1892.
  • 6. Emerson, N. B., Pele and Hiiaka, Honolulu, 1915.
  • 7. Emerson, N. B., Unwritten Literature of Hawaii, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bull. 38, Washington, 1909.
  • 8. Fornander Collection of Hawaiian Antiquities and Folklore, edited by Thos. G. Thrum, Mem. B. P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu, 1916.
  • 9. Judd, Henry P., Hawaiian Proverbs and Riddles, Bishop Museum, Bull. 77, Honolulu, 1930.
  • 10. Kawena, Mary Kawena Wiggin Pukui, Kau, Hawaii and Honolulu.
  • 11. Kepelino's Traditions of Hawaii, Edited by Martha Warren Beckwith, Bishop Museum, Bull. 95, 1932.
  • 12. L., Mrs. K.L., The Island of Kauai.
  • 13. Malo, David, Hawaiian Antiquities, Translated by Dr. N. B. Emerson, Honolulu, 1903.
  • 14. Pa'ahana, Pa'ahana Wiggin, from Kau, Hawaii.
  • 15. Peale, Titian R., Mamalia and Ornithology, U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842, vol. 3, Philadelphia, 1848.
  • 16. Pu'uheana, Pu'uheana Jensen, Hilo, Hawaii.
  • 17. Wilson, Scott B., and Evans, A. N., Aves Hawaiienses: The Birds of the Sandwich Islands, London, 1890-1899.
1   Numbers in parentheses refer to the list of references at the end of the article.
2   By direct inheritance the Io prayers were transmitted to Ahuena from a priestly ancestor of Kohala district in the island of Hawaii. The mother of Ahuena (Mrs. A. P. Taylor) was the late Kekulani (Mrs. Mary Jane Fayerweather Montano) whose mother was Ahia (Mrs. George Beckley), whose father Kahaku'i-i-ka-waiea was high priest of the temple named Pu'u-o-Mane'o at Honokane, Kohala, in the time of Kamehameha. The same prayers are known to be in the possession of another descendant of Kahaku'i, who regards them as too sacred to publish.