The Sacred Spine

The dragons of Hawaiian lore inhabit island waters — sometimes as protective deities, sometimes as shapeshifting threats. To those who understand the culture, these mo‘o are more than myth.

Story by Shannon Wianecki | Illustration by Ana Karla Gherman

Do mo’o exist? On Moloka’i, reminders of them do. At left, etched into Kamalo Ridge, the great lizard Kapulei keeps its promise to watch over the area even in death. Right, a mo’o lifts its head above a Halawa Valley waterfall.

In one of the most famous legends of ancient Hawaiʻi, Pele, the volcano goddess, sends her youngest sister, Hiʻiaka, to rescue a mortal lover. Three moʻo (supernatural lizards) have captured Pele’s sweetheart and hold him hostage in a cave on Kauaʻi. Thus, Hiʻiaka’s mission involves a second errand: dragon slaying.

As Hiʻiaka travels island to island, she encounters many moʻo. On the windward cliffs of Molokaʻi, the young goddess and her attendant Wahineʻomaʻo come to an impassable ravine. As they ponder how to proceed, a slender plank appears. Wahineʻomaʻo starts across, but Hiʻiaka recognizes the bewitched bridge for what it is: the tongue of the man-eating moʻo Kikipua. Spanning the gorge with her magical paʻu (skirt), Hiʻiaka chases the lizard to its lair and kills it.

Moo Hawaiian DragonDragons. Lizards. Deities. Whatever word used to invoke them, moʻo rank among Hawaiʻi’s most mysterious mythic creatures. They figure into the oldest Hawaiian stories and are a key to a deep, nearly forgotten magic.

Most moʻo of legend are female, shapeshifters capable of appearing as beautiful maidens or water dragons. They dwell in caves, pools, and fishponds and are fierce guardians of freshwater sources. According to nineteenth-century Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau, when fires were lit on altars near their homes, the moʻo would appear: twelve- to thirty-foot-long reptiles, black as night, glistening in the water. “If given a drink of awa,” he writes, “they would turn from side to side like the keel of a canoe.”

Moʻo are said to possess profound powers: They are omniscient. They can manipulate weather. Even their disembodied tongues and tails have potency. The more vicious among their tribe have been known to summon giant waves to sweep trespassers from trails, or drown victims in pits of poisonous phlegm. But not all moʻo are malevolent; many are beloved protectors who lend aid to their devotees.

At one time, fishponds and pools throughout Hawaiʻi had stone markers signifying their resident moʻo. Ancient Hawaiians believed that if a moʻo guardian received proper nurture, she would respond in like manner, ensuring fat harvests and healthy stream flow. But if she were neglected, she would wreak havoc. The underlying philosophy was respect for the land — a basic tenet of Hawaiian culture.

To this day, fishermen hoping to catch hinalea (wrasse) in Waialua, Oʻahu, call upon the spirit of Kalamainuʻu. This moʻo, according to storytellers, fell in love with a young chief while surfing. After she married him, her cousins Hinalea and Aikilolo disclosed her true identity, then turned into fish and disappeared down a crack in the seafloor. Kalamainuʻu cleverly snared her betrayers with a woven trap — and she’ll supposedly fill the fish traps of those who ask.

In many stories, when a moʻo is slain, its body becomes part of the landscape. Viewed through this lens, Hawaiʻi is littered with the remains of giant lizards. On Maui’s southern coast, the cinder cone Puʻu Olaʻi and Molokini crater, the curved islet offshore, are reputedly severed pieces of an unlucky moʻo who crossed Pele. On Molokaʻi, the grey outline of a massive lizard can be seen sunning itself on Kamalo Ridge. This is Kapulei, a male moʻo who pledged to watch over the area even in death.

That Hawaiʻi should have such a rich folklore concerning lizards is perplexing. Lizards are not native to these islands. The gecko, that ubiquitous mascot of most island households, is a transplant from Asia. It hitched a ride in the Polynesians’ seafaring canoes. Some Hawaiian scholars believe the same is true for the moʻo. Over several millennia, as the Polynesians’ forebears migrated from the Asian continent across the Pacific Islands, they likely carried with them the memory of giant lizards — water monitors and crocodiles — and their attendant mythology.

But for some, moʻo are more than myth.

Hawaiian-language authority Mary Kawena Pukui defines moʻo not only as a dragon or lizard god, but also as a spine, succession, and lineage. A moʻolelo, or story, is a progression of words strung like vertebrae along a cord of meaning. Likewise moʻokūʻauhau, the word for genealogy, suggests that Hawaiians viewed the lizard’s interlocking bones as symbolic of their own sacred lineage.

Genealogy — the litany of where people come from — is of supreme importance in the Hawaiian culture. As its emblem, the moʻo is indisputably significant.

Revered Hawaiian artist and cultural leader Sam Kaʻai gave a discourse about the moʻo before an international audience in 1987. The dragon is a major force of life, he said. Its head peers into the future, the white dawn yet to come. Its front feet are the ʻopio (youth), reaching, touching, examining. Next come the makua (parents), the stable hind legs of the dragon, and beyond them, the kupuna (elders). The kupuna form the spine, the collective song of all that came before. They tell how other dawns were and how this dawn will be.

Kaʻai likely drew his analogy from Tales of the Night Rainbow. This little-known oral history is a definitive source of moʻo lore. It relates the story of the Dragon Clan, a Molokaʻi family that traces its lineage to 800 B.C.E., and claims special kinship with a mo’o. And not just any moʻo. The most powerful: Kihawahine.

Since her emergence in the 1500s, Kihawahine has enjoyed a greater following than any other lizard goddess. Unlike other moʻo, she reportedly traveled throughout the Islands, frequenting a tiny lake at the summit of the West Maui Mountains, a fishpond on the Waiheʻe coast, and pools on Kauaʻi, Molokaʻi, and Hawaiʻi Island. Her primary dwelling was the royal compound at Mokuʻula in Lahaina – Hawaiʻi’s spiritual and cultural epicenter for at least three centuries. Kihawahine’s presence in the fishpond surrounding Mokuʻula assured the resident royals of prosperity, and gave them authority over the waters that flowed down the West Maui Mountains and bubbled up in the pond’s natural springs.

So great was Kihawahine’s influence that Kamehameha the Great married Keopuolani, a ten-year-old princess, primarily to inherit the girl’s sacred lineage, which included the lizard goddess. In Kihawahine’s name, he conquered the islands. He carried her carved image to war and on the annual Makahiki procession — the only female deity afforded that honor.

So what does the Dragon Clan have to do with Kihawahine? She was one of the family’s ancestors — an actual person. Born in the sixteenth century, Princess Kalaʻaiheana was the daughter of the great Maui chief Piʻilani. At death, she was transformed through a sacred ritual into Kihawahine, the ʻaumakua (ancestral guardian spirit) of the royal Piʻilani line.

Daughters of Haumea, a book illuminating the role of women in ancient Hawaiʻi, describes the kakuʻai (transfiguration) process in detail. When a sacred chiefess died, attendants built a small sanctuary festooned with yellow flowers — yellow being the color of royalty. Inside they piled golden-hued offerings: ripe bananas, yellowed awa root, turmeric-tinted kapa (barkcloth), saffron feather lei and royal standards. A female retinue kept vigil for days, chanting to the moʻo, while the kahuna (priest) retreated into a deep trance on the banks of a nearby stream. If the ceremony were successful, he would receive visions of a dragon emerging from the water and snatching the prepared body. Later, the spirit of the departed chiefess would return in full moʻo magnificence and reveal her new sacred name, by which her descendants could petition her.

Over many generations, this ritualized consecration of souls imbued the moʻo image with great power. Ancestral identities merged with that of the metaphysical reptile, creating a sentient relationship, one that could easily be engaged through a physical totem. Those seeking to access the moʻo could do so through a familiar go-between — a departed relative. In this respect, deified Hawaiian ancestors are similar to Catholic saints. Both serve as personal intermediaries to an awesome and intangible spiritual power.

The most recent candidate for deification was likely Kailiʻone Kameʻekua, the voice of Tales of the Night Rainbow. Born in 1816, she was named after Kihawahine because of certain auspicious circumstances surrounding her birth. Her parents then gave her to Maka Weliweli, the most powerful kaula (prophet) of their day, to be educated in the ancient rites. She lived for 115 years, through some of Hawaiʻi’s most tumultuous history. Both she and her hanai (adoptive) mother might have been transformed into moʻo — if the curtain hadn’t come crashing down on ancient Hawaiʻi first.

In 1819, the kapu system was officially overthrown and the old ways abandoned. As new laws dominated the land, Mokuʻula surrendered its role as the seat of Hawaiian power. Eventually, Kihawahine’s fishpond was buried.

Did the mighty lizard goddess merely retreat to another one of her haunts, or did she and the other moʻo vanish forever?

Shirley Ann Kahaʻi believes that Kihawahine still exists. Soft spoken yet passionate, Kahaʻi is the director of Friends of Mokuʻula, the nonprofit responsible for breathing life back into Mokuʻula. Archaeological assessments confirm that the once-magnificent royal residence lies largely intact underground. The Friends hope to rewind 100-plus years of neglect, restoring the site’s original structures, fishponds, and natural springs.

Across the street from this hallowed spot, Kahaʻi’s office is decorated with relics that hint of Mokuʻula’s former glory: stone carvings, lizard images, yellow kapa. “You know,” she says with a smile, “according to the Chinese calendar, 2012 is the year of the water dragon.”

Perhaps it is time for the moʻo to resurface, to once again defend precious sources of fresh water and to symbolize the unbroken line from the genesis of Hawaiian history to the present. The ancestors remain, even if they’ve been forgotten. When Kahaʻi took the job at Mokuʻula several years ago, she was surprised to discover she had intimate ties to its resident water dragon. Flipping through the pages of Tales of the Night Rainbow, Kahaʻi found her father’s name. As it happens, she is related to the book’s author, which means. . . .

“Kihawahine is my family ʻaumakua as well,” she says.

She experienced a magical confirmation of this connection while visiting her friend Apela Colorado. Colorado is married to master carver Keola Sequeira, and their home is filled with sacred images — including statues and drums dedicated to Kihawahine. Colorado and Kahaʻi were sitting in the living room, discussing Kahaʻi’s work at Mokuʻula, when they heard a thumping sound down the hall. “Do you know what that is?” Colorado asked. Kahaʻi shrugged. Colorado led her friend into her husband’s statuary. On a wood cabinet sat Kihawahine’s large drum.

It was beating on its own.