Volume 77 1968 > Volume 77, No. 1 > Traces of totemism in Polynesia: theories of embodiment of tutelary spirits in animate and inanimate forms, by E. S. Craighill Handy, p 43 - 56
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Theories of Embodiment of Tutelary Spirits in Animate and Inanimate Forms

The publication of Claude Lévi-Strauss' Le totemisme aujourd'hui, and of Rodney Needham's English translation under the title Totemism, brings into focus the erstwhile little considered phenomenon of totemic concepts in religions of nature folk like the Polynesians. There were traces of totemism in all parts of Polynesia, but nowhere rigorous or fully developed systems comparable to those that existed on the Northwest Coast of America or in Australia.

One of the more clearly defined evidences of totemic tendencies in Polynesian religion is to be seen in certain phases of the Hawaiian kino lau concept. This point was stressed by Dr. Laura Thompson. In her review of The Polynesian Family System in Ka'u Hawaii, she writes: “. . . we note that the book contains a valuable lead concerning the nature of totemism as a cultural phenomenon in native Hawaii.” 1 The “lead” to which Dr. Thompson refers lies in the relationship of kino lau, or certain animal embodiments of nature gods, to particular families or individuals. It seems worth while and timely to define clearly and to illustrate further this Hawaiian kino lau concept, and to point to related concepts in other parts of Polynesia.

In the concept of kino lau in old Hawaiian religious theory there exists what was actually a definite philosophy of Nature based on the idea that natural phenomena were visible embodiments of gods and demigods. Kino lau may be translated “multiple forms”. Kino means body or form, - 44 and lau may mean multiple, or literally “leaf”. (In referring to botanical forms kino lau means specifically the leaf forms of plants.) As will be seen, certain gods were described as having other animate (plant or animal) or inanimate (rock, for example) forms under varying circumstances.

Probably if we knew in its entirety the ancient Hawaiian teachings about Nature and creation it would be found that every natural phenomenon and form of life was thought to be an embodiment of a particular god or demigod. The Marquesan creation chants perhaps furnish us with a hint as to how, logically, this may have been conceived. There, various goddesses are named as “mothers” of trees whose wood, leaves, fibre, etc., were used in building a house. Atea, or “Bright Space” (i.e. the sky) impregnated various mother goddesses to produce the tree forms. In Hawai'i, the islands were born from the union of Wakea (= Space) with Papa, the Earth; and from these parents were also born Haloa-naka-naka (Long-stem-quivering), the ancestor of taro plants, and then Haloa, who was the ancestor of mankind.

In discussing Kino lau Mrs. Pukui has said of this concept that it arises out of a “play on words”. I infer that what she means is that if a given life-form's name includes a reference to some kino lau then the name identifies it with that kino lau. She illustrated her remark by pointing to alternate kino lau or forms of the demigod Kamapua'a—the kukae pua'a (hog's excrement) grass, the pua'a hulu 'ole (hairless hog, applied to the young leaves of the taro plant), the nuku nuku a pua'a (pigs snouts, the little box-fish which have snouts that look like miniature snouts of hogs), the mullet (pua'a kai, sea hog) whose grazing habit is perhaps suggestive of that of a hog. This “play on words”, or analogy, explains why in ritualistic practice if an actual pig or hog could not be obtained to serve as an offering then any one of these alternates might be acceptable as a substitute.

Most known kino lau were forms of the primary nature gods, Kane, Ku, Lono and Kanaloa. But other lesser nature deities and spirits such as Pele, goddess of vulcanism, and various of her brothers and sisters were seen in particular phenomena or in animate forms.

The forms or phenomena in which the great nature gods appeared were not associated with particular families or individuals and therefore are definitely not totemic. Thus thunder and lightning and fresh water as forms of Kane, clouds as bodies of Lono, the lehua trees as embodiments of Ku, and the octopus as Kanaloa cannot in any sense be characterized as totemic. And in the case of embodiments or forms of the reptilian mo'o clan it was only lizards that were identified with a particular family, whereas the many other forms of mo'o, such as guppy fish, were not related in so far as we know to families or persons.

Kino lau of Kane

In describing specific kino lau we may logically commence with Kane, who was in a wider sense pantheistic than any other deity in the old Hawaiian pantheon.

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There were certain plants of utilitarian value which were kino lau of Kane: taro, sugar cane, bamboo and popolo (Solanum nigrum). Kane means male. The shoots of taro, sugar cane and bamboo, emerging from the earth, are noticeably suggestive of the form of an animal penis, and the stems of the growing and mature plants are erect. The popolo berries shine in sunlight like tiny suns, in other words are suggestive of Kane's presence.

Other plant forms of Kane were the palai fern (Microlepia setosa), 'awapuhi or wild ginger (Zingiber zerumbet), 'ie'ie (Freycinetia arborea), a woody vine growing in the forests, and the fragrant maile vine (Alyxia olivaeformis). There is some doubt as to whether maile vine was identified with Kane. There were four varieties of this fragrant vine, Maile-ha'i wale (Brittle-maile), Maile-kaluhea (Large-leaved-maile), Maile-pa-kaha (Many-branched-maile), and Maile-lau-li'i (Small-leaved-maile). These were, according to Kawena Pukui, embodiments of four Maile sisters, daughters of Lau-ka-'ie'ie (Leaf-of-the-'ie'ie vine), a legendary figure whose kino lau was the 'ie'ie vine. Where 'ie'ie grew in the forest maile was sure to be found.

Kane was also embodied in the carvers' adzes used in carving images of the god of war from logs of the 'oh'a-lehua tree (Metrosideros macropus or collina). Owls (Asio flammeus sandwichensis) were kino lau of Kane. As such they were occasionally guardians of particular families. Kane was the god of stones. Erect stones, phallic symbols, were set up beside springs and referred to as Pohaku-a-Kane (Stones-of-Kane). The spring water was known as Wai-ola-a-Kane (Water-of-life-of-Kane). As a kino lau the term Kane-ka-wai-ola meant not only spring water but rain and running freshwater, also sunlight in the sense of the life-giving rays of the sun. In other words, Kane-ka-wai-ola was the giver of life, to man and nature. Coral in the sea was also an embodiment of Kane. All these varied forms would presumably have been described as kino lau of the great pantheistic embodiment of male procreative energy.

Kane was also revered in various meteorological phenomena. Lightning was Kane-ka-uila-makeha-i-ka-lani (Kane-the-great lightning-flashes-in-the-sky). Kane the thunderer was Kane-i-ka-wawahi-lani (Kane-the-render-of-the-sky) or Kane-i-ka-pohaku-ka'a (Kane-the-roller-of-stones). With other descriptive names he was the whirlwind, the rainbow, the stars, sun, dawn, winds, mist, smoke and fire.

Of all these forms or kino lau of Kane, the owl, in its role of family guardian, is the only one that may be regarded as having totemic significance.

Kino lau of Lono

Lono, like Kane, was a cosmic deity, though not one who might be characterized as pantheistic. And, like Kane, he had various tangible and visible body forms of kino lau. In Tahiti these two deities were invoked together as Ro'o-ma-Tane. But Ro'o was specifically associated with clouds and rain: - 46

“Roo . . . the parent of clouds . . . the formation and increase of clouds . . . the blue cloud, the red cloud, and the low hungry cloud, and the horned or pointed cloud.” 2

It is interesting to find that in Hawai'i Lono was described as coming from Tahiti and, as a deity associated with agriculture, was identified with clouds and rain:

Oh Lono, gift from Tahiti
A prayer direct to you Oh Lono,
Oh Lono of the broad leaf,
Let the low-hanging cloud pour out its rain,
To make the crops flourish,
Rain to make the tapa-plant flourish,
Wring out the dark rain-clouds
Of Lono in the heavens.
O Lono shake out a net-full of food,
a net-full of rain . . . 3

We do not find, however, in Hawai'i the convention of refering to Lono and Kane as though they were one, as in Tahiti (Ro'o-ma-Tane), although they are often appealed to in the same line of a prayer, though separately, as “Oh Kane, Oh Lono of the portent-showing heavens . . .”, 4 or “Oh, Kane and Lono! Gods of the husbandmen, Give life to the land!” 5

As a sky god Lono was involved with prayers such as this:

O Lono of the blue firmament,
O Lono of the heavenly regions. . . .
. . . . .
From within the heavenly birthplace
Lono stood forth. 6

Rainclouds are referred to as “bodies of Lono”. As such they were kino lau:

Send gracious showers of rain, O Lono. . . .
O Lono in heaven, you of many shapes.
The long cloud, the short cloud,
The body of Lono. 7

But Lono had humbler forms. Some of the rainclouds that were his bodies seemed to the Hawaiian “cloud gazers” to have the form of giant hogs rutting against the mountains that arrested the moisture swept in by the winds from over the ocean. The most picturesque and pervasive embodiment of Lono in the legends was Kama-pua'a (Hog-child), a gigantic man-boar who at will could assume the form of a handsome - 47 youth (as when, standing on the rim of the crater of Kilauea, he was inviting and taunting the volcano-goddess Pele), or he could take the form of a huge wild boar, as in the myth which identified him with the valley named Kaliuwa'a on the windward coast of O'ahu. In that valley there is a long rounded chute in the steep rock wall which was believed to have been formed when the giant hog pressed his back against the valley wall in order to enable his followers to escape their pursuers by climbing upward along his stomach, after one of their thieving forays into the neighbouring district.

Kama-pua'a, himself an embodiment of Lono, had many forms, on land and sea. Hapu'u (Cibotium chamissoi), the giant tree-ferns which grew in the forests surrounding Kilauea crater, were kino lau of Kamapua'a: here the analogy lies in the fact that the stalks of the tree-fern are hairy, or bristly like the legs of a hog. The kukui or candlenut tree (Aleurites moluccana) was another of his kino lau: the leaves suggest in outline the snout and ears of a pig, and wild pigs fed on its oily nuts when they fell to the ground. A wild grass (Digitaria pruriens) that grew under and around kukui trees where the ground was enriched by the droppings of hogs feeding on the nuts, was called kukae pua'a, meaning hog's excrement; and as a kino lau of Kama-pua'a, or Lono, was believed to have therapeutic value. (Lono was a god of healing in Hawai'i, as was his counterpart Rongo in New Zealand.)

Another plant form of Kama-pua'a was the sweet potato—'uala—a basic leaf form of which resembles the kukui leaf. Wild hogs were regular visitants in dry areas, rooting for tubers in the sweet potato patches, where humourously the tubers were sometimes called “hog's turds”. Planters' prayers for rain, in these dry areas where the 'uala was the chief food staple, were addressed to Lono. On Maui such prayers were often addressed to Kane-pua'a, or Hog-man, who was undoubtedly the same as Kama-pua'a. The gourd, which also flourished in dry places, was likewise regarded as a kino lau of Lono. Throughout the islands at the time of the Makahiki festival, when the offering of harvest products was made to Lono the rain god, symbols of the god were placed on the altars where offerings were laid: these symbols were made from small logs of kukui wood carved to resemble a hog's head.

Mention has been made of Kama-pua‘a’s tempting and taunting of Pele at Kilauea, and of the little box-fish, or nuku-nuku-a-pua'a (pigs'-snouts) which were the kino lau he assumed when on that occasion he fled the crater and leapt into the sea to escape her rage. Two other fish were known as “bodies” of Lono. These were the aholehole (Kuhlia sandvicensis) and the 'ama'ama or mullet (Mugil cephalus). If, in rites to Lono, the sacrifice of a pig were required but none was available either an aholeohole or 'ama'ama fish might be substituted. Cooked young taro leaves (lu'au) might also serve as a substitute. When so used, lu'au was referred to as “hairless hog”.

In notes on kino lau given me by Kawena Pukui the following more extensive list of “forms” of Kama-pua'a appears; I give it in full, although - 48 it includes those already commented on: human; hog; the following fish—humuhumu-nukunuku-a-pua'a (Rhinecanthus aculeatus or rectangulus), 'ohua palemo (young uhu or parrot fish, Sparus perspicillatus), 'ama'ama (mullet), aholehole, kūmū (Upeneus porphyreus), and puwale (a species of surgeon fish); other forms: the seaweed limu lipu'upu'u which looks like hog's turds; the grass Digitaria pruriens, called by Hawaiians kukae-pua'a; the variety of banana called hinu-pua'a (hog's grease) which has a dark shiny stem that looks greasy; the kukui or candlenut tree; the olomea tree (Perrottetia sandwicensis); the hapu'u tree-fern; the 'ama'u fern; lu'au (cooked young taro leaves); ao puapua'a (puffy clouds seen over mountains). The reasons why some of these were regarded as forms of Kamapua'a have been mentioned; but in other instances it is not clear why the particular fish, fern or tree was associated with the hog-man demigod.

Kama-pua'a, originally seen as rain-clouds that seemed to have the form of giant hogs (which were known as “bodies” of Lono the rain god), came to be a demigod in his own right and to have a great many kino lau of his own. This appears to be the only instance in Hawai'i in which an embodiment of a god came to be regarded as a deity in his own right. In the Kumulipo creation chant, which was identified with the cult of Lono, Kama'pua'a is described as a “big foreigner (haole) with sparkling eyes, with bristles down his back.” 8 The explorer Captain Cook, a foreigner with blue eyes, was believed by the Hawaiians who welcomed him when his vessel anchored in Keala-kekua Bay off the island of Hawai'i at the time of “discovery”, to be Lono. It was the Kumulipo that was chanted in his honour when he was proffered pork from a ritually sacrificed hog in the temple of Lono by the shore of the bay. 9

So far as we know there was no form of Lono that was totemic. Neither Lono nor Kama-pua'a has specific relationship to particular families.

Kino Lau of Ku

Ku's most notable role was that of god of war for the ruling chiefs of Hawai'i. In every war temple he was represented by an image notable for its skilful carving depicting fear-inspiring ferocity. These images of the war god were carved out of the extremely hard wood of the 'ohi'a tree (Metrosideros macropus, M. collina). This tree was a kino lau of Ku. The following lines are from a chant used in the dedication of the war temple (luakini):

O god Ku, of the sacred altar!
O Ku of the scaffolding of ohia-timber!
O Ku carved of the ohia-lehua!
O Ku of the flourishing ohia-ha! . . . 10

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The 'ohi'a-lehua is the tree with flaming red blossoms which flourishes in mountain areas and is especially noticeable in the forests surrounding the volcano homes of Pele. The 'ohi'a-ha (Eugenia [Syzygium] Sandwicensis) called “mountain apple” because of its edible tender red fruit, is another forest tree and kino lau of Ku.

The noni (Morinda citrifolia), a small bush whose leaves and malodorous fruit had medicinal value, was another embodiment of Ku, as was also the coconut. These were the chief plant forms of Ku. A husked coconut has three holes at its smaller end where the sprout emerges, one large and two small. These are suggestive of the mouth and two eyes of an eel, and the eel was also a kino lau of Ku. The hawk, 'io (Buteo solitarius), was a kino lau of Ku, invoked for protection against witchcraft. This bird was particularly sacred to the chiefs of the line from which Kamehameha the Great came, in the district of Kohala, Hawai'i.

The hawk, in its role as a family protector, is the only kino lau of Ku that may be considered totemic.

Kino Lau of Kanaloa

In the Society Islands, the Tuamotus, Marquesas and New Zealand, the god Tangaroa was identified with the ocean. Tana'oa in the Marquesas was called Te Fatu Moana, which means Lord of the Ocean. In Tahiti, where Ta'aroa was creator of the world, Te Fatu is a primordial genealogical figure. In Samoa and Tonga, Tangaloa was creator but had no particular connection with the ocean.

The Lord of the Ocean naturally was embodied in creatures of the sea. Ta'aroa was patron of fishing in the Society Islands (Tahiti and neighbouring isles), and here he was also identified with the octopus and with the reigning chief, for whom the octopus had symbolic significance.

In Hawai'i Kanaloa was Lord of the Ocean, according to Mrs. Pukui. It is logical therefore to find his name invoked in behalf of a voyaging canoe. 11 In a chant for the consecration of a new canoe we find these lines:

. . . What Kanaloa art thou?
Kanaloa the awa drinker. . . .

The octopus was in Hawai'i the primary kino lau of Kanaloa as it was in Tahiti:

O Kanaloa, god of the squid! . . . [he'e, “squid” or “octopus”]
O squid of the deep blue sea,
Squid that burrows in the sand,
Squid that inhabits the coral reef,
Squid that squirts water from its sack, . . .
Rise up, O Kanaloa!
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. . . let the squid awake!
. . . the squid that lies spread out [he'e-mahola.] 12

In the Kumulipo creation chant the octopus is identified as Kanaloa. 13

In the creation accounts from the Society Islands also the octopus had a notable place in the creation of the world by Ta'aroa:

When the land became land and it was firm, the great octopus, Tumu-ra'i-fenua (Foundation-of-the-earthly-heaven) held on; one arm was south, one arm was north, one arm was east, and one arm was west; they held the sky down against the earth. 14

In Hawai'i there was also a form of sea shell (Phasianellidae) which was called Kanaloa; and according to Kawena Pukui, Kanaloa was likewise embodied in a medicinal plant known by various names: 'ala'ala puloa, 'uhaloa or hi'aloa (Waltheria americana L.). This plant was also called kanakaloa (= Kanaloa) which meant “long man” or “tall man”. The plant is a tall long-stemmed weed.

Lizards (Mo'o)

In Hawai'i, so far as we can discover in the folklore, there is no identification of lizards with Kanaloa. There was this identification in other groups. The most dramatic episode in Maori mythology in New Zealand was the war of the gods which resulted from the rending apart of the Sky Father (Rangi) and Earth Mother (Papa) by Tane, the lord of the forests. During this cataclysm, when Tawhiri, lord of the tempest, was lashing the land, Tangaroa took refuge in the ocean. Some of his offspring, the lizards, deserted him and fled inland, hiding in the forests of Tane. But they remained the children of Tangaroa. 15 In Samoa lizards are said to have been embodiments of Tangaloa and were venerated as patrons of fishing. 16 This account identifies Tangaloa the Creator with the ocean, as in New Zealand, the Marquesas, Tuamotus and Hawai'i. In Tahiti we know only of a vague association of lizards with Ta'aroa through the high chiefs, who regarded Ta'aroa as their ancestor and who venerated lizards in certain ways. Here, however, it is said that different varieties of lizards were embodiments of different gods.

In Hawai'i, as we have said, there is no evidence of identification of the lizards with Kanaloa. According to legend all lizards (mo'o) were “bodies (kino lau) of Kiha-wahine”, whose name means Lizard-woman. 17 Kiha was the term for supernatural lizard and occurs in other legendary names, such as Kiha-lani-nui (Lizard-of-the-great-sky) and Kiha-nui-lulu-moku - 51 (Great lizard-sheltering-the-island). The first named, Kiha-wahine, was an ancestress of certain lineages of high chiefs on the Island of Maui and was venerated as an ancestress by Kamehameha, whose father was Kahekili, High Chief of Maui.

According to another legend 18 there was anciently a migration of lizards from Tahiti to Hawai'i. This migration was led by the chiefess Mo'o-i-nanea (Lizard-that-enjoys-itself). In this migration came male and female lizards, some beneficent and malevolent. These lizards came first to O'ahu and thence spread to pools in all the other islands.

In addition to the native Hawai'ian lizards, the skinks and the geckos, there were other animal forms that were kino lau of mo'o (that is, reptilian embodiments). These were the 'o'opu (Gobiidae) or guppy fish of various species living in streams, in freshwater pools, brackish pools and inlets, and salt water. Brindled dogs, called “lizard dogs” ('ilio mo'o), and yellow chickens were also kino lau of mo'o. Yellow, in fact, was the colour associated with mo'o and with the ponds and streams where they dwelt, recognized by the yellowish foliage of verdure growing about them and by a yellow-greenish tint in the water.

Lizards, 'o'opu fish, brindled dogs and yellow chickens were kapu to Kiha-wahine, the Maui chiefess who died in youth and became a mo'o. For this reason they could not be eaten by her kin, as was true for the Pi'ilani family of Maui who were descended from Kiha-wahine. Large spiders (nananana) and small spiders (ku'uku'u) were also regarded as kino lau of mo'o. Some human beings have patches of skin believed to look like lizard skin, and these persons are consequently regarded as “members of the mo'o clan”. There are legends of women who mated with lizards that came to them in human form. These women came gradually to have fish-like skin which was slimy when wet. 19

In Kawena Pukui's notes there are listed a large number of kino lau of mo'o: chicken, turtle, several kinds of birds, spiders, freshwater guppy fish ('o'opu), the pao'o-puhi (a kind of 'o'opu living in saltwater pools), the hilu (reef fish of the genus Coris) and hapu'upu'u (the young of Grouper fish, Epinephelus quernus), certain kinds of dogs, and all forms of lizards. Sometimes a mo'o would take the form of two kinds of fish simultaneously, for instance the body of a mullet having the head of a weke; or a “hunchbacked fish”, part guppy and part something else. When such were caught in a net with other fish they were thrown back in the water.

Neither of the two forms of lizard found in Hawai'i, the geckos and the skinks, were ever harmed. If this tabu was broken the offender might be stricken with temporary insanity that caused him to leap off a cliff; or perhaps a mo'o in the form of a log might roll him over a precipice to his death. Other punishments came in the form of a mottled appearance of the skin, and the swelling of the glands of the neck. Gecko lizards have mottled skin, and when they make their characteristic clicking sound the skin on either side of the neck may be seen to swell and contract.

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In the role of family protector of the Pi'ilani lineage on Maui, and in view of the tabu on harming or eating lizards of their kino lau, for members of the “mo'o clan”, mo'o may be considered totemic.

Kino Lau of Minor Deities

We now come to the question of kino lau, or visible embodiments, of non-terrestrial beings which had no relationship to the major gods of the Hawaiian pantheon. Mrs. Pukui's definition of the term kino lau in the new Hawaiian dictionary is as follows:

Kino lau. Many forms taken by a supernatural body, as Pele, who could at will become a flame of fire, a young girl or an old hag. 20

We may add that Pele often appeared as a ball of fire traversing the mountain. And in dreams she has been described as appearing in the form of a woman in the prime of life, dressed in white.

Pele's brother Ka-moho-ali'i had the body of a shark, and all sharks were regarded as his kino lau. 21 But Ka-moho-ali'i might also appear as a dark-skinned man wearing a red loin cloth. A sister of Pele, Kapo, is said to have migrated to Hawai'i from Tahiti before Pele. Kapo had several forms: as Kapo-ula-kina'u (Kapo-the-red-spotted) she was a vengeful woman who was invoked by healers to counteract the evil work of a witch. But Kapo was also revered as the founder of the sacred hula dance, and in this capacity she was called also Laka, a gentle and beneficent spirit of the wildwood embodied in various types of woodland verdure that always decorated her altar in the hula halau, or training house. One of the plants, the 'ohe (Tetra plasandra hawaiiensis) was also associated with sorcery, of which Kapo was patroness. The restrictions (kapu) enforced upon the young girls in the hula school were severe. If these were disobeyed Kapo was believed to punish with death.

Kino Lau of other Nature Spirits (Kupua)

There was a class of nature spirits that were localized and inferior in status to the primary gods whom we have characterized as comprising the major pantheon. These demigods were termed kupua. In the Pukui-Elbert dictionary this word is defined as follows: “Kupua, Demigod, especially a supernatural being possessing several forms, as Kama-pua'a (man, pig, fish), Lae-nihi (a woman, a fish).” Lae-nihi was the sister of the legendary hero Halemano. In natural life she was a woman, but was capable of assuming the shape of a fish named lae-nihi (Hemipteronotus and Iniistius), of which there were several kinds, all having a high sharp forehead.

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There was an interesting traditional kupua, in the southern District of Ka-'u in the Island of Hawai'i, named Kumuhea. 22 This creature or person was said to have come up from the bottom of the sea. He had two forms (kino lau): in the sea he was the loli (Holothuria spp.), the sea-slug or beche-de-mer; and on land he was the caterpillar that fed on the vines and young leaves of sweet potatoes. He was also capable of appearing in human form. As a man he took to him a woman, whom he carried to his home on the top of the small mountain named Pu'u Enuhe (Caterpillar Hill) in western Ka-'u. There he gave her only sweet potato leaves to eat, and naturally she became very thin. The woman's father saw this, and he prayed to the god Ku who was the father of Kumuhea, and in response to this prayer Ku deprived Kumuhea of the power to assume physical human form. Thereafter he could not appear as a physical man (though still able to appear in human guise as a spirit), and being now only a kino aka, or shadow-form, he was not again able to cohabit with a human being. The use of this term kino aka as distinct from kino lau indicates that the latter term refers to physical body rather than shadow (aka).

There are families in Ka-'u who regard themselves as being descended from Kumuhea, and for members of these families the eating of loli, the sea-slug, was strictly forbidden. If this kapu were disobeyed by a descendant of Kumuhea, the person swelled up and died. Eels also were kapu to Kumuhea's descendants. It is said that baby eels were to be found in the stomachs of loli, which is doubtless the reason for this kapu.

Many localized kupua were known throughout the Hawaiian islands, and these were believed to be capable of assuming various forms. Probably if the record of Hawaiian mythology were complete we should find that every natural form was a kino lau or physical body of one of the greater nature gods or of a kupua or demigod. We infer that the kino lau concept is truly the key to the Hawaiian theory of the origin of natural forms in the botanical and zoological worlds.

Did Totemism Exist in Hawai'i?

No doubt many local demigods or nature spirits, in one or another of their kino lau or body forms which identified them with particular creatures of land or sea, were regarded as progenitors of particular families in various localities, the members of which families were in consequence forbidden to kill or eat them. We know that in Ka-'u, Hawai'i, and on Kuai at Waimea, the owl (which was a kino lau of the god Kane) was the protector of certain families or individuals; but whether this was the case elsewhere we do not know. In Kohala, on Hawai'i, the hawk was the protector of a royal lineage; but we have no record of such relationship anywhere else, although we know that the hawk was venerated on Kauai. Lizards were kapu to one chiefly family on the Island of Maui, but only there, so far as we know. And we have seen that in Ka-'u on Hawai'i - 54 sea-slugs and eels were kapu to members of certain families descended from the human form of the loli, which was a kino lau of the demigod Kumuhea. But we have no record of this particular kapu occurring anywhere else. We may, then, say, that in these recorded instances there existed in Hawai'i a rudimentary totemism operating in the relationship of certain families to particular kino lau; but we do not know that such relationship was general.

Actually the prevalent cult of ancestors in which the spirits of the dead were venerated as 'aumakua or family guardians dwelling in the realm of spirits, and who had no kino lau or animal forms, was incompatible with totemic concepts. When and where special relationships such as those recorded were believed to exist between some family and some animal form, such relationship was the exception rather than the rule. When 'aumakua appeared in dreams, to warn of danger or to reveal a remedy for some sickness, they were always seen in human form.

Similar Concepts Elsewhere in Polynesia

The Hawaiian kino lau concept, as a precise and systematic theory of the relation of animal and vegetable forms to nature gods or spirits, has no exact counterpart in other parts of Polynesia. But there are related ideas in other island areas which were definitely symptomatic of latent or rudimentary totemic tendencies.

In the Society Islands animals that were embodiments of nature gods were termed ata, which means “reflection”. In Hawai'i, too, ata (aka in Hawaiian) means reflection, also image, likeness, and shadow. According to Teuira Henry, 23 in Tahiti each individual (person) had a secret patron spirit represented by something within or close by the marae (family ancestral shrine), such as a tree, snail, lizard, or stone, to which invocations were made at any time. It is difficult to comprehend how an individual snail or lizard could have been the object of veneration: Miss Henry must refer to species of snail or lizard that were regarded as ata (reflections) of particular oromatua (ancestral gods). Elsewhere Miss Henry writes that particular animal types or species were referred to as ata. Thus the boar was the ata of 'Oro (as the hog was of Lono in Hawai'i), and the dog of a nature spirit named Toahiti. A species of sea bird was the ata of Tane. Different kinds of lizards were the ata of various gods. Ta'aroa, the Lord of the ocean, had many ata in or over the ocean: whales (embodiments of Tana'oa in the Marquesas), parrot fish, tropic birds and albatross. The broad flat ray fish, which slowly moves into squarish body with wide “wings” over sandy bottom or surface of the sea was spoken of as “the swimming temple of Ta'aroa”. The use of the word ata for such creatures as visible forms of the nature gods, suggests that they were believed to be physical materializations of archetypal spirits.

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If, as Teuira Henry states, each individual had a secret patron spirit . . . such as a tree, snail, lizard or stone, then this would mean that totemic concepts were universal in Tahiti, and not exceptional as in Hawai'i.

In Samoa the term ata was applied to animal embodiments of guardian spirits, as it was in Tahiti. Such animals were, in Samoa, sacred to families and villages. 24 Likewise in Tonga, village, family and individual tutelary deities were believed to be incarnate in various species on land, in the sea or air. These might be dog, heron, rail, owl, cuttlefish, eel. Omens were taken from their movements, and killing and eating all such creatures were tabu for the group or individual to whom they were sacred. 25 There were similar beliefs and tabus in the Cook Islands. 26 In these islands, then, totemic relationships may be said to have been universal, as in Tahiti.

The Maori in New Zealand similarly believed that various natural phenomena were embodiments of nature spirits. To quote Elsden Best:

. . . the animal or other object that is the visible form of an atua [god] is known as its aria. . . . These aria, or forms of incarnation . . . are usually material entities, such as animals—i.e., dogs, birds, lizards, and insects—also stars. . . .
The lizard was a favoured form of aria in former times. We have seen that it was the form of incarnation of the atua kahu [tutelary god] known as Te-Rehu-o-Tainui. Among the same tribe (Tuhoe) one Tamarau (apparently a deified ancestor) was also represented by a lizard. . . .
The aria of Tama-i-waho is a star; that of Te Ihi-o-te-ra is a whe (mantis); that of Te Iho-o-te-rangi, a lock of hair; that of Te Rewhao-te-rangi, a star; those of Pare-houhou and Te Pu-tapu are gourds; that of Kaka, a lizard; that of Reko, an owl. 27

Other aria mentioned by Best were certain streams, trees, a pond, a rock in a river, mist, or light rain. In some instances aria were individual creatures, things, or natural phenomena, while in other cases they were species.

These aria had particular relationship to tribes and to individuals.

In reviewing the concepts of kino lau, ata, and aria which have been described it is evident that we are dealing with what may better be termed symptoms of totemic belief rather than examples of full-fledged totemism. These symptomatic concepts and relationships were essentially a part of and in harmony with the natural philosophy of the Polynesian islanders who lived intimately with the creatures and phenomena about them. They were not fragmentary notions borrowed or absorbed from neighboring Melanesian folk having more definite totemic beliefs. The idea of - 56 incarnation was often a part of the ancestral cult, and with it the idea that spirits of those formerly having human form were reincarnated in some natural creature, object or phenomenon. With the Polynesians these notions were always rather fluid, not rigidly defined or expressed, as they were in the religious concepts of true totemists such as the tribes of the Northwest Coast of America, or the Australian aborigines.

  • BECKWITH, Martha Warren, 1951. The Kumulipo: a Hawaiian Creation Chant. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
  • BEST, Elsdon, 1924. Maori Religion and Mythology. Bulletin No. 10 of the Dominion Museum, Wellington.
  • COLLOCOTT, E. E. V., 1921. “Notes on Tongan Religion”. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 30:152-163; 227-240.
  • ELLIS, William, 1853. Polynesian Researches. Vol. 1. London, Henry G. Bohn.
  • FORNANDER, Abraham, 1916-1917. Fornander Collection of Hawaiian Antiquities and Folk-lore. Memoirs of the B.P. Bishop Museum, Vol. IV. Honolulu, Bishop Museum Press.
  • GILL, W. W., 1876. Myths and Songs from the South Pacific. London, Henry S. King & Co.
  • GREY, George, 1855. Polynesian Mythology. London, Willis.
  • HANDY, E. S. C., n.d. Notes from Mary Kawena Pukui.
  • ——and Mary Kawena PUKUI, 1958. The Polynesian Family System in Ka-'u, Hawai'i. Reprint No. 8 of The Polynesian Society, Wellington.
  • HENRY, Teuira, 1928. Ancient Tahiti. Bulletin 48, B.P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu.
  • LILIUOKALANI, Queen, 1897. An Account of the Creation of the World According to Hawaiian Tradition. Boston.
  • MALO, David, 1903. Hawaiian Antiquities. Honolulu, Hawaiian Gazette.
  • PUKUI, Mary Kawena and Samuel H. ELBERT, 1957. Hawaiian-English Dictionary. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press.
  • THOMPSON, Laura, 1963. Review of Handy, E. S. C. and M. K. Pukui: “The Polynesian Family System in Ka-'u, Hawai'i”. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 72:160-163.
  • TURNER, George, 1884. Samoa: A Hundred Years and Long Before. London, Macmillan.
  • Von BÜLOW, W., 1898. “Die Eidechse im Volksglauben der Samoaner”. Globus, 74:257.
  • WESTERVELT, W. D., 1915. Legends of Gods and Ghosts. Boston, Ellis Press.
1   Thompson 1963:162.
2   Ellis 1853:344.
3   Malo 1903:233.
4   Malo 1903:244.
5   Malo 1903:210.
6   Fornander 1916-17:504.
7   Fornander 1916-17:44.
8   Liliuokalani 1897.
9   Beckwith 1951:9.
10   Malo 1903:232.
11   Malo 1903:173.
12   Malo 1903:149-150.
13   Liliuokalani 1897.
14   Henry 1928:338.
15   Grey 1855:5-6.
16   Von Bülow 1898:257.
17   Westervelt 1915:258.
18   Handy n.d.
19   Handy n.d.
20   Pukui and Elbert 1957:141.
21   see Westervelt 1915:255-258.
22   Handy and Pukui 1958:126.
23   Henry 1928:382 ff.
24   Turner 1884:23.
25   Collott 1912:152-163.
26   Gill 1876:33.
27   Best 1924:137.