Sacred Texts  Pacific  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

Unwritten Literature of Hawaii, by Nathaniel B. Emerson, [1909], at

p. 23


Of what nature were the gods of the old times, and how did the ancient Hawaiians conceive of them? As of beings having the form, the powers, and the passions of humanity, yet standing above and somewhat apart from men. One sees, as through a mist, darkly, a figure, standing, moving; in shape a plant, a tree or vine-clad stump, a bird, a taloned monster, a rock carved by the fire-queen, a human form, a puff of vapor--and now it has given place to vacancy. It was a goddess, perhaps of the hula. In the solitude of the wilderness one meets a youthful being of pleasing address, of godlike wit, of elusive beauty; the charm of her countenance unspoken authority, her gesture command. She seems one with nature, yet commanding it. Food placed before her remains untasted; the oven, imua in which the fascinated host has heaped his abundance, preparing for a feast, when opened is found empty; the guest of an hour has disappeared. Again it was a goddess, perhaps of the hula. Or, again, a traveler meets a creature of divine beauty, all smiles and loveliness. The infatuated mortal, smitten with hopeless passion, offers blandishments; he finds himself by the roadside embracing a rock. It was a goddess of the hula.

The gods, great and small, superior and inferior, whom the devotees and practitioners of the hula worshiped and sought to placate were many; but the goddess Laka was the one to whom they offered special prayers and sacrifices and to whom they looked as the patron, the au-makuab of that institution. It was for her benefit and in her honor that the kuahu was set up, and the wealth of flower and leaf used in its decoration was emblematic of her beauty and glory, a pledge of her bodily presence, the very forms that she, a sylvan deity, was wont to assume when she pleased to manifest herself.

As an additional crutch to the imagination and to emphasize the fact of her real presence on the altar which she had been invoked to occupy as her abode, she was symbolized by an uncarved block of wood from the sacred lama c tree. This was wrapped in a robe of choice yellow tapa, scented with turmeric, and set conspicuously upon the altar.

p. 24

Laka was invoked as the god of the maile, the ie-ie, and other wildwood growths before mentioned (pl. II). She was hailed as the "sister, wife, of god Lono," as "the one who by striving attained favor with the gods of the upper ether;" as "the kumu a hula"--head teacher of the Terpsichorean art; "the fount of joy;" "the prophet who brings health to the sick;" "the one whose presence gives life." In one of the prayers to Laka she is besought to come and take possession of the worshiper, to dwell in him as in a temple, to inspire him in all his parts and faculties--voice, hands, feet, the whole body.

Laka seems to have been a friend, but not a relative, of the numerous Pele family. So far as the author has observed, the fiery goddess is never invited to grace the altar with her presence, nor is her name so much as mentioned in any prayer met with.

To compare the gods of the Hawaiian pantheon with those of classic Greece, the sphere occupied by Laka corresponds most nearly to that filled by Terpsichore and Euterpe, the muses, respectively, of dance and of song. Lono, in one song spoken of as the husband of Laka, had features in common with Apollo.

That other gods, Kane, Ku, Kanaloa, b with Lono, Ku-pulupulu, c and the whole swarm of godlings that peopled the wildwood, were also invited to favor the performances with their presence can be satisfactorily explained on the ground, first, that all the gods were in a sense members of one family, related to each other by intermarriage, if not by the ties of kinship; and, second, by the patent fact of that great underlying cause of bitterness and strife among immortals as well as mortals, jealousy. It would have been an eruptive occasion of heart-burning and scandal if by any mischance a privileged one should have had occasion to feel slighted; and to have failed in courtesy to that countless host of wilderness imps and godlings, the Kini Akuad mischievous and irreverent as the monkeys of India, would indeed have been to tempt a disaster.

While it is true that the testimony of the various kumu-hula, teachers of the hula, and devotees of the art of the hula, so far as the author has talked with them, has been overwhelmingly to the effect that Laka was the one and only divine patron of the art known to them, there has been a small number equally ready to assert that there were those who observed the cult of the goddess Kapo and worshiped


Click to enlarge



p. 25

her as the patron of the hula. The positive testimony of these witnesses must be reckoned as of more weight than the negative testimony of a much larger number, who either have not seen or will not look at the other side of the shield. At any rate, among the prayers before the kuahu, of which there are others yet to be presented, will be found several addressed to Kapo as the divine patron of the hula.

Kapo was sister of Pele and the daughter of Haumea a. Among other rôles played by her, like Laka she was at times a sylvan deity, and it was in the garb of woodland representations that she, was worshiped by hula folk. Her forms of activity, corresponding to her different metamorphoses, were numerous, in one of which she was at times "employed by the kahuna b as a messenger in their black arts, and she is claimed by many as an aumakua," c said to be the sister of Kalai-pahoa, the poison god.

Unfortunately Kapo had an evil name on account of a propensity which led her at times to commit actions that seem worthy only of a demon of lewdness. This was, however, only the hysteria of a moment, not the settled habit of her life. On one notable occasion, by diverting the attention of the bestial pig-god Kama-pua’a, and by vividly presenting to him a temptation well adapted to his gross nature, she succeeded in enticing him away at a critical moment, and thus rescued her sister Pele at a time when the latter's life was imperiled by an unclean and violent assault from the swine-god.

Like Catherine of Russia, who in one mood was the patron of literature and of the arts and sciences and in another mood a very satyr, so the Hawaiian goddess Kapo seems to have lived a double life whose aims were at cross purposes with one another--now an angel of grace and beauty, now a demon of darkness and lust.

Do we not find in this the counterpart of nature's twofold aspect, who presents herself to dependent humanity at one time as an alma mater, the food-giver, a divinity of joy and comfort, at another time as the demon of the storm and earthquake, a plowshare of fiery destruction?

The name of Hiiaka, the sister of Pele, is one often mentioned in the prayers of the hula.


23:a Imu. The Hawaiian oven, which was a hole in the ground lined and arched over with stones.

23:b Au-makua. An ancestral god.

23:c Lama. A beautiful tree having firm, fine-grained, white wood; used in making sacred inclosures and for other tabu purposes.

24:a Kumu-hula. The teacher, a leader and priest of the hula. The modern school-master is called kumu-kula.

24:b Kanaloa. Kane, Ku, Kanaloa, and Lono were the major gods of the Hawaiian pantheon.

24:c Ku-pulupulu. A god of the canoe-makers.

24:d Kini Akua. A general expression--often used together with the ones that follow--meaning the countless swarms of brownies, elfs, kobolds, sprites, and other godlings (mischievous Imps) that peopled the wilderness. Kini means literally 40,000, lehu 400,000, and mano 4,000. See the Pule Kuahu--altar-prayer--on page 21. The Hawaiians, curiously enough, did not put the words mano, kini, and lehu in the order of their numerical value.

25:a Haumea. The ancient goddess, or ancestor, the sixth in line of descent from Wakea.

25:b Kahuna. A sorcerer; with a qualifying adjective it meant a skilled craftsman; Kahuna-kalai-wa’a was a canoe-builder; kahuna lapaau was a medicine-man, a doctor, etc.

25:c The Lesser Gods of Hawaii, a paper by Joseph S. Emerson, read before the Hawaiian Historical Society, April 7, 1892.

Next: IV.--Support and Organization of the Hula