Volume 69 1960 > Volume 69, No. 3 > The unheroic hero of Hawaiian tales, by Samuel H. Elbert, p 266-275
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Dr. Elbert, of the Department of Asian and Pacific Languages at the University of Hawaii, surveys the rich folk lore of Hawaii and finds in it “poetry and wit and a certain tough realism”.


IN HAWAIIAN TALES heroes are of two types: the samurai athletic type who kills hundreds with a single blow of his spear or war club and who is a dashing lover with sweethearts and wives in every port; and the artistic kind of introvert hero who gets into all manner of difficulties both marital and martial and at times seems a suitable candidate for the psychiatric couch.

The latter is the subject of this paper.

It must be noted, however, that most of the important heroes are combination samurais and Hamlets. It is as though they are really Hamlets, and then they suddenly become samurais. The narrator really wanted to tell the realistic thoughtful story of a poet with human frailities. And then he remembered his conscience, or the voice of his sponsors, and did a commercial about the hero's skill with spear, club, women, and magic, and he even makes him out a good administrator. Perhaps one should take the commercial with ‘alaea or Hawaiian salt. The storyteller's position in the chiefs’ courts demanded that the position of chief be presented in an honourable way, and the chief as invincible in love, war, and administration.

So two heroes and two stories are fused in Hawaiian tales, but the coagulation is incomplete, and there is not a single or unified impact (but neither is there in a TV symphony interrupted at 20-minute intervals by sales talks).

In each Hawaiian story one might find something to please every member of the Hawaiian audience: the child who wants spear thrusts and magic transformations, the arrived chief who expects his chiefly status to be lauded, the professional religionist who expects the kahuna to manipulate the chief while outwardly deferring to him, and the thoughtful adult who wants a hero who dreams, and errs, and suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

This is to suggest that there are several aspects to the tales. One side seems to be gilding the lily and buttering up to the status quo, almost like a propaganda film. Another aspect is one of pure adventure such as children love; if beautifully presented it may have the magic of Peter Pan. This paper concerns the thought-provoking intellectual aspects of the stories. It is meant to consider the hero in his unheroic but very human hours of misdemeanour, incompetence, and despair.

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The stories from which the material for this article is drawn are mostly in the Fornander Collection of Hawaiian Antiquities and Folklore. 1 They were collected under Judge Abraham Fornander's direction in the 1860's and 1870's. Fornander was a Swede who settled in Hawaii in 1842. He employed several Hawaiians to seek out learned Hawaiians and write down their stories exactly as they heard them. They were printed by the Bishop Museum between 1917 and 1919. They are in three large volumes, with English translations on opposite pages, and include some 1,600 pages. Polynesian students are indeed fortunate to have such a rich collection of a priceless heritage.

We should, of course, like to know more about the collecting. Who were the original informants? Where did they live? How were they induced to talk? Did they consider the stories true? Which stories did they like best and why? We do not know even who translated the stories. Such things were not thought important, nor was due acknowledgement given the informants and collectors. We know that three of the collectors were famous men, Kepelino, Kamakau, and Haleole, each of whom has left us fascinating writings.


The story of the unheroic hero begins with an account of his birth, and this is often most inauspicious if not embarrassing. The hero's birth is frequently premature, in the form of a fetus, a vomited chicken egg, 2 a bundle, a stone, 3 a piece of rope, 4 a hunk of taro, an image, 5 or a clot of blood from the mother's fontanelle. 6 Or he is so tiny as to fit in the palm of the hand. 7 Or the hero is born with fully formed teeth, long hair, and hairy buttocks after a pregnancy of five years' duration. 8 The unhappy mother throws away the object that she has borne (symbolic of infanticide?)—the less said about it the better. The wiser grandmother sees a rainbow, or has a premonition, finds the abortion, and performs magic rites. She may, for example, wrap it in tapa, take it home, rewrap it three times, and in ten days the piece of rope becomes a human being with a taste for bananas. 9


The child who is to grow up to become a hero turns out to be a problem child if not a juvenile delinquent. His mischief brings him into conflict with his father or stepfather. The trouble is often over food. Kauhi pulls up taro plants. 10 Na-maka-o-ka-pao'o destroys a sweet potato garden, 11 and Ka-ulu-la'au plucks and throws away breadfruits - 268 and then uproots breadfruit trees, the fruit of which is too high for him to reach. 12 Kamapua'a steals chickens. 13 Ka-lani-manuia gives away all the family food. 14 Ka-lele-a-Luaka urinates in the family fish and poi bowls. 15 Kawelo keeps his grandparents busy pounding poi and building ovens. At one sitting he eats 40 bowls of poi and 40 packages of pork baked in taro leaves. Still hungry, he eats 40 more of each. 16 This was after his grandparents had vainly tried to divert him with the gift of a new canoe.

Notice that the grandparents try to divert him. This very modern technique is no more successful with Kawelo than it sometimes is today.

There are a few other indications of permissive relations to children. La'ie-i-ka-wai is being raised under strict taboo. She is so beautiful that her grandmother, “lest her beauty becomes a common thing,” tries to keep her veiled with tapa. On a canoe trip she puts aside the veil. The grandmother shakes her head in disapproval. The canoe paddler is “pierced with desire” and asks that the girl's entire face be exposed. The grandmother says that the girl wants to be covered, and then La'ie takes away all the tapa, and he sees how beautiful she is. 17

Were royal children not subject to strict discipline?

To return to the enormous appetite. In another tale we have an explanation of the appetite, but it is completely lost in the translation and would not be noticed on a hasty reading of the Hawaiian. An admiring crowd watches Pikoi-a-Ka'ālalā eat a whole pig and an entire oven of sweet potatoes. One of the bystanders says: “He 'ai na ke akua.” 18 This is translated in the English version as “He eats like a god.” The translation should read: “It is food for the god.” This is a serious mistranslation and illustrates the necessity of keeping the native text. We have here in these five Hawaiian words (it is food for the god) an explanation for the huge appetite. The hero is a vehicle of the gods. He must feed the gods within him. The presence of hungry gods within his body indicates his own godlike nature. This five-word commentary is typical of the nuggets that will reward the careful reader. But they come unexpectedly and without build-up.

This godlike nature of the hero is perhaps the reason that he safely breaks the taboos that control the lives of ordinary folk. Lukia-manu-i-Kahiki picks taboo flowers and bathes in taboo pools. 19 Kauhi destroys his father's collection of bird skeletons, sits on the lap of an enemy chief invading his father's kingdom, and sets his canoe adrift. 20

Nevertheless, the child was supposed to have an education. He was supposed to be able to farm, fish, dance, surf, fight, master traditions, and debate. Our refractory heroes, however, were not always brilliant. - 269 'Umi even after his first youthful polygymous marriage refuses to fish or farm, much to the disgust of his parents-in-law. Kawelo simply fails as a hula dancer. He has, however, natural abiilty as a fighter. As a boy he throws the champion of Waikiki, who is the terror of the neighbourhood. But he never does learn how to dodge stones, and this lack of dexterity costs him his life.

Only in learning traditions do the heroes seem always to excel. Nearly all of them ('Umi is an exception) can chant beautifully, even under the most difficult circumstances, as during the heat of battle.

An outstanding debater is Kaipalaoa, who when still so young that his private parts hung loose challenges a whole council of learned men. They begin the contest by reciting a series of verses each containing the word kahuli, “turned over”.

“The fisherman's canoe is turned over, his outrigger is turned over, his boom is turned over, his bailer is turned over, his fishing lure is turned over.”

“If you don't name something better that is turned over,” the wise men say, “you will be beaten, the ridge of your nose will be twisted, your eyes will be poked by a kāhili handle so that mucus will run out and be sucked up by our god of debate.”

So the youngster says: “The forehead of the bald man is turned over, the eyeball of the one-eyed is turned over, the bone of the lame man is turned over.”

The wise men concede that the boy has made his point, and then they say: “Canoe, boom, and outrigger: these are the great wealth in a canoe house. Where else do they belong?”

The boy says: “In a calabash.”

Could a canoe, boom, and outrigger fit in a calabash?

“Yes,” says the boy. “The ‘canoe’ or wa'a is a tapa called kiwa'awa'a. The boom or 'iako is a pile of 40 tapas called 'iako. The outrigger or ama is a fish called 'ama. They all fit in a calabash.”

And so on for hours! And finally the wise men are killed and baked in the oven. The triumph of the saucy youth! 21


After outgrowing his mischievous adolescence, the hero is susceptible to female charms. He usually speaks of beautiful women in clichés. Pali ke kua, mahina ke alo, he says, 'a'ohe pu'u, 'a'ohe ke'e, kīnā 'ole: “back a cliff, front a moon, no pimples, no crooks, without blemish”. He is, however, able to give more precise physical details. Halemano, for example, meets a girl in a dream and becomes so hopelessly enamoured that he refuses all food and wastes away in death. His sister brings him back to life and offers to find the girl if he will describe her. So Halemano says: “She has pretty eyes and body and wavy black hair. She is a tall, dignified woman with chiefly bearing. (She wears) . . . fragrant tapa of the pele and mahuna kinds, and a scarlet sarong of soft texture, with pandanus and lehua leis on her head and about her neck.” 22

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The sister's magic is successful, and finally Halemano manages to abduct the girl while she is surfing. (Women on surf boards are easily abducted; they are ardent surfers.) The girl is anything but faithful and carries on a series of love affairs. Halemano, our unheroic hero, again grows despondent, refuses food, wastes away, and dies. After a second resuscitation, Halemano sings poetic love songs urging her to come back. One of these songs has been translated by a modern poet, Jean Charlot of Honolulu, who is also known as an artist, critic, and playwright. (In the song the town of Hilo, famous for rain, is a symbol of hardship, and the hala or pandanus is a symbol of misfortune, because hala also means failure.)

For our very own, this house in Hilo,
This house set in Panaewa;
A bitter home, borrowed, not owned.
My only ownership, your body.
The streams of Hilo are many, are legion.
Hardships ringed that cliff house wherein I faced love.
Sorrows, o woman all mine, flowered with the lehuas of Mokupane!
Lehuas were braided with hala, sorrows alternating with joys.
The last echo of the loving phrases fades out.
Come, from Leleiwi, the slanting rain
Inches its way over the halas of Pomaikai.
A matchless thing the suffering that love brings.
O sorrows! O woman of mine!
Mine when poised over the steep edge of Piikea;
And mine by the swift waters that engulf men, in Wailuku.
We shared dangers upon the many cliffs of Hilo.
Solitary cliffs, so deserted
That a lone woman sufficed to fill them with life.
O wife, come back. 23

In some stories the man seems a weakling and at the mercy of the women in his life. In fact the women have high positions. The notorious and beautiful Kamalalawalu, a gold digger, takes the wealth of Kulukulu'a and Hua'a, the chiefs of Puna, and gives nothing in return. 24

The women win the men they want by various, rather transparent ruses. Kikeka'alā makes a bargain with Halemano in a kilu game. Kilu was a kind of quoits game deplored by the missionaries. Kikeka'alā makes this wager with Halemano: “If I defeat you in kilu, your body is forfeit to me. But if you defeat me, my body is forfeit to you.”

Keaka appeals to her man's longing for fish. Seeing him go by her house she calls and holds out a fish. “Come and get the fish,” she says, beckoning. “Give me the fish,” he says. “Fish don't have feet,” she says. “You've got feet.” He steps into the yard and she darts into the house, swinging the fish. He tries to grab the fish and she pulls him in.

Kawelu entices her lover by using a motif found in many other parts of the world, the guided missile. 25 The man hurls an arrow that whizzes over a bald-headed man, a red-eyed man, a lame man, and three - 271 'ahupua'a land sections. The girl, Kawelu, magically guides the arrow to her house, and when the man comes for it she grabs him and pulls him into the house, and in the words of the storyteller “they struggle with the threads and wisps of desire and find consummation.”

When these aggressive women get their men they imprison them. Kawelu keeps her love for five days and five nights without giving him any food. On the sixth day he escapes. 26

Halemano is similarly imprisoned by Kikeka'alā after the kilu game. She keeps him in the house night and day and it is stifling hot. Finally he becomes angry and says that aku fish are running in the bay and he wants to go and get some. She wants to go along but he says she is too slow. He escapes and takes a canoe to the next island, Maui. 27

In American folklore the man has trouble with his mother-in-law, but in Hawaii he has father-in-law trouble. Kawelo's father-in-law is particularly hostile. Kawelo sends his wife, Kāne-wahine-iki (little feminine man), to ask her father for three things to help in a coming war, a club stroke, a rat-shooting bow, and an adze. The father-in-law replies in three blistering chants. (The comparison to a banana stalk is especially insulting; banana stalks are soft.)

Your husband doesn't rate my war stroke
Your husband is a plover with skinny legs
Your husband is a tattler bird running on the beach
Hit by the sea, he just falls down
Your husband has the size and strength of a banana stalk
Your husband is a pandanus tree with rickety aerial roots
Your father rates the war stroke
He is big from top to bottom
The Kona wind blows, he does not fall
The tradewind blows, he does not fall
He is like the 'a'ali'i shrub that resists the wind

The daughter asks for the rat-shooting bow and he chants:

My daughter's pudenda are wasted
On a rat-shooting husband
He shoots rats for food
For me, the father-in-law
For you, the wife
For his favourite younger brother
And even for the chief
She asks for an adze and he sings:
My daughter's pudenda are wasted
On a canoe-chipping husband
He chips a canoe and leaves it in the bush
He steals a pig of an innocent one
And bakes it
Long-haired pudenda!

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The reference to the pig is a deadly insult, as the implication is that Kawelo himself will become a human sacrifice, not the pig! After considerable exchange of derogatory badinage Kawelo faces the father-in-law and brother-in-law, and with an undercut thrust of his war club, knocks the older man unconscious. When the father-in-law is revived he changes his tune: “That was a good stroke. You know everything.” 28

In the stories there are many of what the French call crimes passionnels; this is said sometimes to mean justifiable homicide. The motive in Hawaii is usually jealousy. Of nine crimes passionnels noted in the stories, five are by women, who imprison, 29 drown, 30 turn to stone, 31 and burn up 32 their erring spouses or female rivals. The most sadistic acts of passion, however, were by a man, Kauhi, who in one version kills his Manoa Valley sweetheart no less than seven times, she being brought back to life between murders. This savage series of murders was used recently as a Christmas card by a prominent Honoluluan, and I wonder at his selection.

It is to my mind significant that one of the few references in Hawaiian tales to a happy marriage is in the long story of Aukele-nui-a-iku. 33 Aukele-nui-a-iku is a hodgepodge of the Bible, Europe, and Polynesia. The story takes Joseph and his brothers into the Pacific Ocean. There is not the erratic unpredictability that we find in true Hawaiian stories. Here we have a description of an idyllic marriage which is quoted in full because it sounds so un-Hawaiian.

“. . . /the couple/ are always together, in dry weather and in wet weather, in sunshine and in rain, in times of hunger and in time of plenty, at night and day, for every day. So Na-maka-o-ka-hai gives her husband all her possessions, above and below, from the mountains to the sea, little things and big, things within and things without.” 34

Note that here is a combination of the Hawaiian literary device of antithesis, grafted on to Euro-American sentimentality. Dry and wet, sun and rain, night and day, above and below, big and little: the antithesis is Hawaiian, but a sentimental view of life and marriage is not Hawaiian. This is not to imply that idyllic marriages do not happen in the stories. They do, but they are not the warp and woof of narrative art. Even in Euro-American art we do not tolerate an excess of happiness, except perhaps in books like Little Women or Little Lord Fauntleroy.

The unheroic Hawaiian hero is not bathed in a bath of sentiment, but hardened in a shower of spears.

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Hardened? As a warrior he proves diffident and difficult, perhaps first a poet and secondly a warrior. When Kawelo's army and especially his favourite younger brother, Kamalama, are engaged in a life and death struggle, what does Kawelo do? He lies under a mat and peeks through a slit in the mat to watch the battle. To encourage his favourite younger brother he offers—not fisticuffs—but a beautiful chant. (The lehuas are flowers, but the reference here is to warriors.)

My lehuas are consumed by the birds
Eaten by the birds
Lehua flowers eaten by the birds
Only a few survive . . .
Day of bravery, day of flight
Day of peace . . .
Spears shift in hands
Spears strike cliff where lehuas stand
Little chicks with downy feathers
Cock feathers bristling, puffed out
O Kamalama, you are a coral reef that wrecks canoes . . .
Chase the chicks apeeping into the bush . . .
War is refreshing as a bath
Go back to battle, Kamalama

Kamalama says he would rather have real aid instead of chants.

Finally Kawelo decides to get into the battle. The enemy chief is 'Aikanaka, Man Eater. 'Aikanaka is worried. His priests tell him not to worry because he, Man Eater, is a chief, whereas Kawelo is a slave descended from a man named Chicken Feeder who was actually a counter of cockroaches. 35

Kawelo is disgraced at hearing himself called a slave and attempts to commit suicide by rolling over a precipice. His wife lassoes him and saves his life.

This suggests a comment made by my Hawaiian teacher and collaborator, Mary Kawena Pukui, when I told her I was writing about the unheroic hero.

“When the hero is unheroic,” she said, “this gives the woman a chance to be heroic.”

She is right.

I could never write a paper with the title “The unheroic heroine of Hawaiian tales.” I wouldn't have any material.

The women seem cleverer than the men.

Kawelo's wife, Kāne-wahine, is disgusted by her husband's attempted suicide. This is their conversation:

Wife: “What's the matter with you?”

Kawelo: “I was ashamed at being called a slave.”

Wife: “How foolish can you get? Why not think for yourself? Are you really a slave? If it hadn't been for me, you'd have died.”

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So Kawelo thinks about his ancestor Chicken Feeder and remembers this reassuring verse:

“The chicken is king
He roosts at the top of the house
His droppings fall on Man Eater's head
The chicken wakes him up
The chicken is king.”

Man Eater overhears the song.

Man Eater: “The chicken's a slave!”

Kawelo: “Chicken feathers are feather standards paraded before and above the king. Chicken are kings, not slaves!”

Man Eater is frightened and runs away and leaves Kawelo king of all Kauai. The enemy has given up without a fight, hardly what one expects in samurai movies. Instead, a realistic, sophisticated lack of heroism, and perhaps tongue-in-cheek satire on persons (even heroes) who believe everything they hear.

Nor did the hero refrain from deception and trickery. When Kawelo first takes his war canoe to Kauai he hides under a mat in the bottom of the canoe. The Kauai scouts come out to the canoe and ask the purpose of the trip.

“We are a war canoe,” they are told. “You Kauai folk please carry our canoe ashore. We'll have some baths and food and put on our malos and then we'll fight.” 36 The chivalrous Kauai people agree, but while they carry the heavy canoe ashore, Kawelo suddenly rises up from under the mat. The people cry out: “This is death!” They drop the canoe, many are crushed to death, and others are too frightened to run. Kawelo chants gloriously comparing the battered people to a wave from a giant sea crashing headlong on a beach and receding in torrents that leave behind grooves and bared rocks. Kawelo runs his war club down one side of the canoe killing everyone. The canoe heals over and Kawelo runs his club down the other side killing everyone.

Has he at last become a samurai?


We have seen that Hawaiian stories contain much poetry and wit and a certain tough realism.

This is admittedly but one side. The literature is rich and subtle. Every reading reveals new insights and new invitations to psychological interpretations. Hawaiians developed their literature to a high degree of sophistication and beauty apparent to those who know something of the old culture, who are willing to gloss over the dullish places, and to read in Hawaiian and ponder over what lies beneath the words now sparkling, now suggesting commercials.

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  • BECKWITH, Martha Warren, 1919. The Hawaiian Romance of Laieikawai (by S. N. Haleole, 1862) with introduction and translation. Washington, D.C., Annual Report 1911-1912, Vol. XXXIII, Bureau of American Ethnology.
  • ELBERT, Samuel H., ed., 1959. Selections from Fornander's Hawaiian Antiquities and Folk-lore, with illustrations by Jean Charlot. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press.
  • EMERSON, Nathaniel B., 1915. Pele and Hiiaka, a Myth from Hawaii. Honolulu, Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
  • FORNANDER, Abraham, 1916-1919. Fornander Collection of Hawaiian Antiquities and Folk-lore. Three volumes. Honolulu, Bishop Museum. Memoir vols. 4, 5 and 6.
  • GREEN, Laura C. S. & PUKUI, Mary Kawena, 1936. The Legend of Kawelo and Other Hawaiian Folk Tales. Honolulu.
1   Fornander 1916-1919.
2   Fornander 1916-1919, IV:501.
3   Fornander 1916-1919, IV:99.
4   Fornander 1916-1919, V:137.
5   Fornander 1916-1919, IV:539.
6   Emerson 1915:x.
7   Green and Pukui 1936:4.
8   Fornander 1916-1919, IV:523.
9   Fornander 1916-1919, V:137.
10   Fornander 1916-1919, IV:427.
11   Fornander 1916-1919, V:275.
12   Fornander 1916-1919, IV:487.
13   Elbert 1959:197.
14   Fornander 1916-1919, IV:549.
15   Fornander 1916-1919, V:171.
16   Elbert 1959:41.
17   Beckwith 1919:359.
18   Fornander 1916-1919, IV:457.
19   Fornander 1916-1919, IV:599.
20   Fornander 1916-1919, IV:427.
21   Fornander 1916-1919, IV:595.
22   Elbert 1959:253.
23   Elbert 1959:3.
24   Elbert 1959:251.
25   Fornander 1916-1919, V:183.
26   Fornander 1916-1919, V:183. A similar motif is in Green and Pukui 1936:182.
27   Elbert 1959:287.
28   Elbert 1959:63.
29   Fornander 1916-1919, V:183; Elbert 1959:287.
30   Green and Pukui 1936:162.
31   Green and Pukui 1936:124.
32   Fornander 1916-1919, IV:609.
33   Fornander 1916-1919, IV:32-111.
34   Fornander 1916-1919, IV:75.
35   Elbert 1959:99.
36   Elbert 1959:71.