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Hawaii Island Sharks: Stories of Gods and Guardians

For Native Hawaiians, sharks (manō) connect us to our ancestors and nature. From creationism legends to familial connections, sharks are found in many aspects of Hawaiian culture, with many stories of Hawaii Island sharks. Sharks are one of the first fish mentioned in The Kumulipo, the creationism chant. Sharks are accorded high regard as powerful apex predators and vessels of mana (spiritual power). “He manō holo ‘āina ke ali’i – The chief is a shark that travels on land” is one of the most well-known Hawaiian proverbs about sharks, according to Olelo No’eau by Mary Kawena Pukui.

As a chief was the ultimate authority on the land, so was the shark in its domain. When Princess Kekuiapoiwa II was pregnant with King Kamehameha the Great, she craved to eat the eye of the tiger shark, an auspicious sign to the presiding kahuna (priests). Kamehameha the Great by Julie Stewart Williams reveals that the kahuna told the King that Kamehameha would “cause blood to flow over the land and he would eat the other chiefs even as the man-eating shark does.” Native Hawaiian people are spiritually connected to sharks via mythology (gods and demigods) and ancestral ties (‘aumākua).

a painting of Pele, a canoe, and a Hawaii Island shark
The Journey of Pele, Painted by Herb Kawainui Kane

Hawaii Island Sharks: Kāmohoaliʻi and Nanaue

Ancestral shark gods (manō kumupa’a) were worshipped by many Hawaiians. These gods were able to take on many physical forms, including human. Some gods were benevolent, while others were dangerous and evil. The man-eating shark god Kuhaimoana was said to have the form of a giant shark, 30 fathoms long and with a home cave so large a schooner could sail through it. Ka’ahupāhau the “queen of sharks” was the benevolent shark goddess of Pu‘uloa (now known as Pearl Harbor). Some Hawaiians believe that Ka’ahupāhau and her brother Kahi’ukā are responsible for the tremors in the earth responsible for destroying the dry dock the US Navy attempted to build in 1914 (they now employ a floating dock).

Perhaps the most famous Hawaiian shark god is Kāmohoaliʻi, the brother of Pele and Hi’iaka. Kāmohoaliʻi resides at Ka pali kapu o Kāmohoaliʻi (the sacred cliff of Kāmohoaliʻi) on the Northern edge of Kilauea caldera. “So awful and sacred was this spot that Pele, though his own sister, dared not allow the smoke from her fires to rest upon it.” Kāmohoaliʻi was a skilled navigator, assisting Polynesian voyagers in their journey to Hawai’i. He was called upon for safe passage during storms and rough seas. Kāmohoaliʻi is the father of many shark demigods, including Nanaue the man-eater from Waipi’o Valley.

Nanaue didn’t start off as a man-eating shark. Nanaue was a manō kupua, or shapeshifting shark. Born of Kāmohoaliʻi and a beautiful human mother named Kalei, Nanaue was born fully human, except for a full shark mouth between his shoulder blades. Kāmohoaliʻi knew that the ferocious, predatory nature of a shark may arise in his offspring. He instructed Kalei that Nanaue should not be fed animal meat of any kind, lest his appetite for flesh become ravenous. Despite the warnings, Nanaue’s grandfather fed him dog and pig meat. As Nanaue got older, his appetite for flesh became insatiable, and he was unable to subside on the meat rations provided in the village. His appetite gave rise to the nickname “manōhae,” or ravenous shark, for a gluttonous man.

The villagers were unaware of Nanaue’s status as a demigod.  Nanaue always wore a kihei, a garment that covered his back and hid his shark mouth. He also did not bathe with the other villagers, only using the pools near his mother’s house. Despite being so antisocial, Nanaue was well-liked as a hard worker and a fine physical specimen. As his appetite for flesh had become voracious, he began to seek out humans as prey. When people would go to fish or swim alone, he would call out “Take care, or you may disappear head and tail.” Nanaue would follow his victims as a man and attack them as a shark when he got close enough in the water. This went on with many people disappearing until Nanaue’s shark demigod nature was revealed when his kihei was removed, baring the shark mouth on his back. At this insulting betrayal, the shark mouth on his back snapped angrily ad Nanaue bit several of the villagers.  Despite their efforts at capturing him, Nanaue escaped to the sea. 

a depiction of Nanaue, a ma with a shark mouth on his back
Nanaue, depiction provided by unknown artist

Kāmohoaliʻi communicated to the villagers through a haka (oracle vessel) and proclaimed that Nanaue’s family should not suffer harm due to his misdeeds. Rather, Nanaue would be banished from returning to Hawaii Island. Nanaue went on to repeat his predation on humans, first on Maui and then on Moloka’i. On Moloka’i, Nanaue met his demise when he was ambushed at Poniohua by villagers and Unauna, a local mountain demigod. Unauna dragged Nanaue’s large shark body up the slope of Kainalu Hill to the top of a tall rock. This area became known as “Pu’u manō,” or Shark Hill.

Hawaii Island Sharks: Myths of Kohala

There are many shark myths originating at the Northern tip of Hawaii Island. Another man-eater from this region was Kai’ale’ale, a chief shark with a band of ten shark followers. Their attacks effectively ended sea fishing in Kohala until the clever Pūnia came up with a way to defeat them. Pūnia longed to eat lobsters, which were plentiful in the sea cave within the bay that Kai’ale’ale’s band of sharks had made their home. Pūnia called out as though to a friend, expressing his desire to dive for lobsters. He threw a large rock far out to sea, distracting the sharks while he dove in and grabbed two lobsters.  When Pūnia climbed out, he taunted Kai’ale’ale and blamed one of his sharks as an accomplice. The band turned on the accused shark, reducing their number. 

Pūnia repeated variations of this ruse until only Kai’ale’ale remained. Pūnia prepared a mat and sticks and goaded Kai’ale’ale into swallowing him. Using the sticks to prop the shark’s mouth open, and the mat to keep water out, Pūnia attacked Kai’ale’ale from the inside. The battle waged for several days, with Kai’ale’ale swimming a great distance. When Pūnia heard the sound of breaking waves on a reef, he bargained with Kai’ale’ale to let him out. Kai’ale’ale, wanting to be free of the man in his stomach, complied and became stranded on the shallow reef. Villagers on the shore rushed to Kai’ale’ale and killed him. When they began to cut into the shark, Pūnia shouted out “Be careful, lest you cut the man inside!” Startled, the villagers fled and Pūnia was able to exit Kai’ale’ale’s body. Uncertain of where he was, as Kai’ale’ale had been swimming for many days, Pūnia was relieved when he spotted the moonlit slopes of Mauna Kea.  

Illustrations sourced from Hawai’i Island Legends, Illustrated by Don Robinson

 

Though the stories of man-eaters are certainly exciting and compelling, not all of North Hawaii’s sharks were man-eaters. In one myth, men are paddling their canoe full of pa’i ai (dry pounded taro, pre-diluted poi) from Kohala to Kona when they realize they are being followed by a shark. A curious man named ‘Aukai threw a bundle of pa’i ai to the shark as an offering. The shark pushed the bundle to the beach, where an elderly man walked down and picked up the bundle. ‘Aukai visited the old man, where he discovered that the old man had no one to care for him and that the shark had been providing him with food. ‘Aukai is moved by the story, and shares it with the Kohala villagers. They come together to ensure that they have an extra bundle of pa’i ai to provide to the shark to deliver to the old man. This routine continued until one day they did not sight the shark on their journey. They discovered upon their arrival in Kona that the old man had passed away, thus the shark no longer needed to deliver the food.

Hawaii Island Sharks: Myths of Ka’u

Ka’u at the Southern tip of the Big Island is another shark legend hot spot. According to legend, another shark demigod with a shark mouth on his back like Nanaue lived in the Kaalualu district of Ka’ū. Keali’ikaua o Ka’ū, a cousin of Pele and Kāmohoali’i was born in Ninole, Ka’ū. Keali’ikaua o Ka’ū is a major player of the Great Shark War at Pu’uloa. He traveled with a company of other shark gods from the Ka’ū district, including Kalani of Waiohinu, Kaholeakane, and Kua. Keali’ikaua o Ka’ū fathered a shark guardian of Ka’ū, known as the “little green shark of Ka’ū. This guardian shark lives off the shore near Honu’apo, now commonly known as Whittington Beach Park.

Certainly, Keali’ikaua o Ka’ū’s associate shark Mikololou is confirmed in all accounts to be an evil man-eater. Mikololou, Keali’ikaua o Ka’ū and several other sharks left Hawai’i Island and traveled to Pu’uloa (Pearl Harbor). At Pu’uloa, Mikololou and other man-eaters got into an altercation with resident shark goddess Ka’ahupāhau and her brother Kahi’ukā. Ka’ahupāhau defeats Mikololou in battle by turning into a strong net, ensnaring Mikololou and his compatriots. The villagers burned his body, but his tongue was taken by a dog and dropped in the water, where he was able to partially recover. From this account comes the phrase “I ola a Mikololou i ka olelo” (Mikololou lived by his tongue), meaning that there is a way of escape out of every difficulty. In another (directly conflicting) account, Keali’ikaua o Ka’ū travels with Mikololou and kills Ka’ahupāhau. Her body becomes a coral formation near Papio.  From this account comes the phrase “Mehameha Pu‘uloa, ua make o Ka‘ahupāhau” (Pu‘uloa is alone, for Ka‘ahupāhau is dead). It’s important to note that kupuna from the Pu’uloa area (including Nana Veary, the one who gave me my Hawaiian name) claim that Ka‘ahupāhau was seen and cared for during their lifetime, so many are partial to believe the account in which Ka’ahupāhau was victorious.

Hawaii Island Sharks: Myths of Puna

Finally, there are the shark gods of the Puna district of the Big Island. Shark gods from this area appear to be largely considered benevolent. Keali’iholoikamoana (“the chief sailing over the ocean”) from Puna started out as a low ranking human chief. As a human, he was an expert fisherman and navigator.  Upon his death, his body was cast into the sea and he became a shark god. He watched over canoe fishermen and warned the people of Puna of the approach of hostile sharks. Kapanilā (the shutting out of the sun) was named for his enormous size. His range extended from Kapoho to Kapele. Though large, Kapanilā was friendly towards humans. He traveled towards Pu’uloa, but got stranded in shallow water near Lēʻahi (Diamond Head) and could not participate in the battle.

Hikaweloula of Kalapana was born of a human mother swaddled in red kapa fabric and became a red-colored shark, capable of shapeshifting between a human and shark form. Kaehuikimanō o Puʻuloa (the little brown shark of Pu’uloa) was born in Panau, Puna. The diminutive shark is named for its red hair in human form, similar to the red hair of Ka’ahupāhau. Kaehuikimanō o Puʻuloa is a charming and benevolent shark, who journeyed throughout Hawaii and won over the shark chiefs with his deference.  After traveling within the Hawaiian Islands, Kaehuikimanō o Puʻuloa journeys throughout the South Pacific before returning home. 

‘Aumākua, The Deified Ancestor 

Most Hawai’i residents have heard the term ‘aumākua. According to the Hawaiian-English Dictionary, ‘aumākua are “family or personal gods, deified ancestors who might assume the shape of sharks or other creatures, rocks, clouds or plants.” Though the term is colloquially translated as a “spirit animal,” this description is not culturally accurate in the Western perception of the term. ‘Aumākua are typically connected to an entire family, not to an individual. Also, ‘aumākua are not necessarily animals. Some ‘aumākua take the form of inanimate objects such as rocks or weather phenomena such as rain or wind.  Unlike spirit animals, ’aumākua are not typically worshiped in a totemic style. Rather, a family is given the responsibility of caring for and attending their ‘aumākua by offering food, prayers, and affection.  ‘Aumākua are primarily a helpful and protective entity, for example saving a family member from drowning or chasing away evil sharks. In some cases, an ‘aumākua may go after an enemy that intends to harm their family, as in times of war. ’Aumākua are also capable of punishing, coming to their family members in dreams with warnings, or cursing them with a physical affliction for misdeeds they have committed. The role of an ‘aumākua is one of guidance, in whatever form is needed.

a painting of an elderly man in a canoe with a Hawaii Island shark swimming below
Shark ‘Aumakua, Painted by Herb Kawainui Kane

The recognition of ‘aumākua as deified ancestors is an important distinction. Not all sharks are ‘aumākua. Rather than observing all sharks as guardian spirits, specific sharks in particular areas were considered ‘aumākua. (This differs from ‘aumākua like owls, in which all owls were seen as ‘aumākua over large geographic areas as in Kona). According to ancient custom, upon death families would enlist a kahuna to help offer up the prepared corpse and their relatives ‘unihipili (spirit) to become a shark ‘aumākua. The kahuna would recognize corresponding clothing or bodily marks on a shark observed in the area, and that shark would become the family ‘aumākua. The worship, prayer, or invocation of a families ‘aumākua is an expression of kinship to that ancestor.

My Grandmother recounted the memory of her Great Grandfather, Tutu Kekai. Tutu Kekai would go to the waters off of Keokea Beach in Kapa’au and feed our shark ‘aumākua. Apparently, our shark ‘aumākua had a name, but it is no longer known to us. The shark would follow him, but did not harm him or take the fish he caught while diving. Our ‘aumākua would bring him luck during fishing at Keokea, swimming back and forth driving fish into his casting area.

Hawaii Island Sharks: Historical Sites and Places

Historical sites relating to Hawaii Island sharks can be found along the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail. This trail’s name translates to mean “along the shoreline,” and it stretches 175 miles from the Northern tip of Hawai’i Island at Pu’u Kohola Heiau around the Southern point and East to the Puna district. At the Northernmost part of the trail one finds Pu’ukoholā Heiau. Submerged offshore is the Hale o Kapuni, a structure dedicated to the worship of resident shark gods. Uukanipo (“the Uu that sounds at night”) was the collective name given to two twin shark gods who lived at Kamani. The Uukanipo sharks were routinely offered ‘awa by the resident kahuna, each drinking from their own bowl. Kaapai was another shark of Kawaihae, known for capsizing boats and taking their food to his cave. He would notify his family of where he hid the food by communicating with them in their dreams. Today, there are many small reef sharks that can easily be seen from shore at Kawaihae.

South of Hale o Kapuni is Kalaemanō (“shark point”) within the Ka’ūpūlehu district.  Kalaemanō is named for the numerous tiger sharks found just offshore. Historic sites at Kalaemanō include petroglyphs, sea salt collection pools, and a hiking trail with detailed interpretive signs. Kalaemanō provides excellent views of the 1801 lava flow, the last lava flow originating from Hualālai volcano. It was this same lava flow in which King Kamehameha the Great offered up his hair to Pele to appease her as her lava flow filled in his prized fishpond.

Even further South is Napuu a Pele, a small hill within the coastal part of Manukā Natural Area Reserve. Directly offshore from this hill is where King Kamehameha the Great’s warrior Kekūhaupi’o completed his rite of passage to become a fully trained warrior. In this rite called ‘ailolo, Kekūhaupi’o had to defeat a niuhi (man-eater, tiger shark) in battle.  According to historical accounts, Kekūhaupi’o waited for the 20-foot tiger shark to become lethargic feeding on the light scraps from their bundles of pig flesh. He jumped onto the shark’s back and stabbed it behind the gills. Kekūhaupi’o wrestled and rode on the back of the thrashing shark until it became exhausted and could be pulled into the canoe.  When he reached the shore, Kekūhaupi’o offered up the right eye of the shark at a feast dedicated to the god Lono. He offered an additional prayer before consuming the left eye. After the offering was complete, Kekūhaupi’o engaged in combat with his mentor Koaia, overcoming him and proving his skill as a warrior.

At the Southernmost point of the Big Island, Ka Lae, you find Kalalae Heiau. Kalalae was a heiau ko’a, a temple dedicated to fishing and fishermen. Kalalae was described by Mary Kawena Pukui: “One must not wear red on the beaches at Kalae where Kalalea Heiau is located. Women never went inside the heiau. The Kū‘ula of this heiau is a shark. It is a heiau ho‘oulu (to increase) opelu (mackerel), malolo (flying fish), and ahi (tuna).” The fishing diety Kū’ula was a god of many forms, one of which was a shark. If you were to follow the outer border walls of this heiau and draw straight lines out to sea, they would point like a compass towards French Polynesia and Rapanui (Easter Island). The heiau platform structure itself aligns with the cardinal directions.

Sharks and their cultural uses

Although we have established that Hawaiians held sharks in high regard and sacredness, they did utilize them for various cultural uses. Sharks as food were a privilege reserved for chiefs. Hammerhead sharks (manō kihikihi) and Whitetip Reef Sharks (lālākea) were considered edible. In historical accounts, Hawaiians make a clear distinction of usage between these sharks and sharks that predate on humans, niuhi. Niuhi is the same given to any large man-eating shark, and is commonly applied to Tiger Sharks and Great White Sharks. Given the rarity of Great Whites in Hawai’i’s waters, it is safe to assume that most accounts referring to niuhi are talking about Tiger Sharks. Edible sharks were caught in nets. Niuhi, being large and dangerous, were caught using a specialized method. The shark would first be fed on pungent bundles of cooked flesh and liver. After several of these bundles were consumed, special bundles containing the intoxicating ‘awa root would be fed to the shark. The shark would become sedated, and a noose was thrown around its head.  The stupefied shark could easily be led to shore. The skin and bones from the niuhi were prized as sources of mana. 

Replica Hawaiian Shark Tooth Weapons – Royal Order of Kamehameha, handmade by Ski Kwiatkowski

The most common use of sharks today is for their teeth. Shark teeth were prized by Hawaiians for their sharpness and cutting ability, used for knives and the war weapon leiomano (a shark tooth lined club-like weapon). Though marketed as lucky totems today, there is little historical evidence to suggest that shark tooth jewelry was commonly worn by commoners as a protective element. Symbolically, shark teeth are depicted in tattoos and kapa designs meaning strength, power, protection, and guidance.  Shark bones are cartilaginous, so they do not preserve well. Shark skin was used to sand sacred wood and to create the membrane for ceremonial pahu drums.

Pahu shark skin drum – Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Hawaiians have historically maintained a close spiritual connection to sharks. This relationship transcends simple ecology and delves deeply into the philosophical ideals of kinship, rebirth, and the role of the powerful to guide and protect others. ‘Aumakua who have guided their families for many generations are still recognized and acknowledged to this day. The Hawaiian relationship with sharks has helped to influence the conservation practices used in Hawaii today to keep sharks and their ecosystems healthy. Maintaining the balance of nature helps Hawaii to ensure the well being of sharks and humans alike.

 

This article was created using a variety of resources. To learn more about Hawaii Island sharks, Hawaiian history, and more, read further with these resources. And remember to shop local at places like Basically Books!

Olelo No’eau – Mary Kawena Pukui
Hawaiian Mythology – Martha Warren Beckwith
Hawaiian Shark Aumakua, Journal Article, American Anthropologist Oct-Dec 1917
Hawaiian Folk Tales – Thomas G. Thrum, 1998 Edition
Hawai’i Island Legends – Mary Kawena Pukui, Retold by Caroline Curtis
He Moolelo Kaao Hawaii no Keliikau o Kau,” Home Rula Repubalika, January 6, 1902
More Hawaiian folk tales – Thomas G. Thrum 1923
Kamehameha the Great, Revised Edition – Julie Stewart Williams 1993 Kamehameha Schools Press
Kamehameha and his warrior Kekūhaupi’o – Stephen L Desha, 2000, Kamehameha Schools Press
Sharks of Hawai’i, Their Biology and Cultural Significance – Dr. Leighton Taylor, University of Hawai’i Press, 1993
Hawaiian Fishing Traditions – Make Manu & Others, Revised Edition 2006
Fishhooks – Kenneth P. Emory, 1959, Bishop Museum Special Publication

 

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