Hawaiian Folklore: Beliefs on Afterlife

A collection of Hawaiian folklore exists primarily due to the efforts of people who recognized the need to compile and preserve stories of the culture through the written word. At the end of the 19th century and into 20th century, Christianity spread to supplant traditional Hawaiian values and beliefs. As such the folklore reflected the underlying moral sense of editors and compilers to the extent of omitting the grittiness inherent in Hawaiian tales. Be that as it may, the folklore still serves to capture the values, beliefs and tradition of a past culture.

The purpose of this piece is to examine beliefs on the afterlife as represented in Hawaiian folk tales and the motif of returning from the land of the dead. First, some general comments on Hawaiian tales follow. One is that on first read, the English is, for lack of a better word, stilted. This may be attributed to translating Hawaiian into English. While the poetical nature is common in Hawaiian, when translated into English, one wonders who speaks in such a manner. Another comment relates to a disturbing tendency to what amounts to the trivializing of Hawaii customs and beliefs. Even while taking some liberty in the retelling, Buffet’s storybook, Kahala: Where the Rainbow Ends shows a sensitivity to Hawaiian customs and beliefs which can not be said of some stories. It certainly seems to help when retold stories remain close to the original. This research of Hawaiian beliefs relies primarily on original translations.

A review of stories about death and of returning from the land of the dead reveals this motif is common in many cultures. Perhaps, most well-known is the Greek myth, "Orpheus and Eurydice" in which Orpheus descends into Hades to bring Eurydice, his bride who died from a bite from a viper, back to the living. A parallel Hawaiian legend is "The Bride from the Underworld: A Legend of the Kalakaua Family." In this story, distraught by Hiku’s abandonment, Kewalu takes her own life. Upon hearing of her death, a grief-stricken Hiku journeys into Milu, the Underworld, and by trickery returns with Kewalu’s spirit.

Interestingly, in Hawaiian belief system, the way into Milu is from a jumping off point, usually from a ulu or breadfruit tree although Pukui cites a kukui tree on the island of Hawaii. In the legend of Maluae as told in Westervelt’s, Hawaiian Legends of Ghosts and Ghost Gods, the tree is a "ghostly breadfruit tree" in Moanalua. Beckwith corroborates by citing various versions with reference to the ulu or breadfruit tree: Ulu-la`i-owalu and Ulu-o-Leiwalo. While a possible connection to biblical "tree of life" is made, it is dismissed by the prevalence of the tree myth in South Sea stories.

In Hawaiian literature, there is the distinct belief in the separation of the soul or spirit from the body. This is representative of Hawaiian philosophy of life. The fate of the soul, however, is not clear. Westervelt makes reference to Hawai`iki as the ancestral home which seems to allude to heaven; but then again, this may be my own personal bias or need to have a place for soul to go to other than the underworld. Beckwith relates that stories and chants tell of the "lost islands" or "islands hidden by the gods" seen on the horizon sometimes tinged with a reddish glow. This rekindled a memory of a story told by my grandmother about the "floating red island" where the gods live and where ali`i go after death.

The importance of the aumakua (animal guardians/guides) in protecting a soul, is a key point in Polynesian folklore. Examples are numerous. Most familiar to readers is the tale of Kahalaopuna who was revived by her aumakua, the pueo (owl), time and again until circumstances prohibited pueo from reuniting her soul to body. But here again, a passing chief or in another version, the elepaio (cousin to Kahala) aids in joining Kahala’s spirit and body by alerting Kahala’s misfortune to her grandparents.

In the joining of body and soul, Kahala’s spirit is pushed back into the body "from the feet to the eyes." In the Hawaiian Orpheus tale, Hiku succeeded in reviving Kewalu in this same manner. This process was not easily done as re-entering the body met with resistance.

Returning to the tale of Kahalaopuna for another element in tradition folklore, Kauhi, the murderer of Kahala, later challenges her reincarnation that leads to a view of the tradition of ghost-testing. This test involves walking on leaves; one is confirmed to be human if the leaves are crushed, as a ghost would leave the leaves intact.

In conclusion, the motif of returning from the land of the dead is common in Hawaiian literature. While the focus of this paper has been Hawaiian folklore, it would be remiss not to add that this motif is found throughout Polynesia and indeed in every culture. Often, folk legends that ring with familiarity are variants of a tale. Differences lie in names and particulars, but basically, we are drawn by values that unite all cultures and peoples—that of doing right, caring about each other, taking responsibility for our actions and loving one another. Always, it is love for another that motivates the hero to make the journey to the land of the dead.

Annotated Bibliography

Beckwith, Martha. Hawaiian Mythology. Honolulu: University Press, 1970.

Reprint of 1940 edition. Scholarly, comprehensive work on Hawaiian mythology.

Chapter 10, "Soul After Death", gives a view of Hawaiian beliefs about death through

discussion and comparison of legends. High School and up.

Buffet, Guy. Kahala: Where the Rainbow Ends. Norfolk Island, Australia: Island Heritage Limited, 1973.

Retelling of Kahalaopuna legend with few discrepancies. Incorporates some Hawaiian language. Beautiful watercolor drawings. Satisfying ending, however, tacked on to original tale. Appropriate for younger readers, primary or elementary.

Campbell, Alistair. Maori Legends: Some myths and legends of the Maori people. Wellington, New Zealand: Seven Seas Publishing Pty Limited, 1978.

Collection of Maori legends including story of how Maui succumbed to the goddess of death, "Maui and the Goddess of Death." 25-29. Intermediate level.

Fornander, Abraham. Fornander Collection of Hawaiian Antiquities and Folklore: Memoirs of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum of Polynesian Ethnology and Natural History, Vol. 5 and 6. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press; Millwood, New York, 1986.

Reprinted from Fornander Collection of Hawaiian Antiquities and Folk-Lore published in 1917, 1918, 1919 by Bernice P. Bishop Museum. Text in English and Hawaiian. Intermediate Hawaiian language/English level.

Fornander, Abraham. Selections from Fornander’s Hawaiian Antiquities and Folk-lore: Memoirs of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum of Polynesian Ethnology and Natural History. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1959.

Reprinted from volumes IV and V of Fornander Collection. Text in English and Hawaiian. Introduction by Samuel H. Elbert includes consise historical background of compilers of folkore. Notable illustrations by Jean Charlot. Intermediate Hawaiian language/English level.

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. New York: The New American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1963.

Reprint. Classic and comprehensive work on Greek and Roman mythology. Upper elementary and up.

Haley, Mrs. E. N. "A Visit to the Spirit Land; or, The Strange Experience of a Woman in Kona, Hawaii." In Hawaiian Folk Tales: A Collection of Native Legends, ed. Thrum, Thos. G., 58-62. Pennsylvania: Folcroft Library Editions, 1976.

Reprinted from 1907. Account of an out-of-body experience (OBE) of woman in Kona. Report similar to current day OBE of leaving one’s body and standing beside and looking down on it. Intermediate level and up.

Hoyt, Helen P. The Night Marchers: A Tale of the Huaka`I po. Norfolk Island, Australia: Island Heritage Limited, 1976.

A tale of marchers of the night (ancient warrior spirits) brought into contemporary times. Second section of book noteworthy as it includes selection of tales and descriptions of Hawaiian beliefs on death and the afterlife by respected authors such as J. S. Emerson, Martha Beckwith, Mary Kawena Pukui, Abraham Fornander, etc. Intermediate level.

Kalakaua, David. The Legends and Myths of Hawaii: The Fables and Folk-Lore of a Strange People. Tokyo, Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc., 1972.

Reprint of 1888 original. Authored by Hawaiian monarch combining historical events with traditional tales. Introduction to new edition seeks to put work in perspective of the time it was written and acknowledges that "His [Kalakaua] sources of knowledge was direct indeed. Adult level.

Ne, Harriet. Tales of Molokai: The Voice of Harriet Ne. La‘ie, Hawaii: The Institute for Polynesian Studies, 1992.

A collection of narrated stories of Molokai collected and prepared by Cronin. Includes biographical interview of author as well as tales of creation, naming of places, and personal stories of author. Elementary level.

Pukui, Mary Kawena. The Water of Kane, and other Legends of the Hawaiian Islands. Honolulu: Kamehameha Schools Press, 1994.

Reprint of the 1951 edition. Compilation of legends as retold by Caroline Curtis, a storyteller of Hawaiian legends to 7th and 8th grades at Kamehameha Schools during 50s and 60s. Upper elementary and intermediate levels.

Westervelt, William D. Hawaiian Historical Legends. Australia: Mutual Publishing, 1998.

Reprint with insightful introduction by Glen Grant. Introduction surveys literature of Hawaiian folklore appreciating past efforts of preserving stories in spite of moral biases. "Legendary Home of the Polynesians." 41-46. Chapter explains similarities among Polynesians in language, ancestral myths and origins. Intermediate level.

Westervelt, William D. Hawaiian Legends of Ghosts and Ghost Gods. Australia: Mutual Publishing, 1998.

Reprint of 1916 Hawaiian ghost stories. Introduction by Glen Grant to Hawaiian Historical Legends with additional material at beginning of Papakala, guardian to heiau in Waianae in late 80s. Upper elementary to intermediate level.

Wichman, Frederick B. Kauai Tales. Honolulu: Bamboo Ridge Press, 1985.

Compilation of tales from Kauai. "Ka ‘Opele." 105-111. Story of a man, Ka`opele, who periodically falls into death-life sleep. His wife, Kahala, is entrusted to guard his body until his awakening, not without interference from his ill-wishing in-laws. Elementary level.