Hawaiian tradition is filled with a diverse pantheon of gods, spirits, and supernatural creatures. Some have a clear basis in reality, while others are fantastic and could only come from imagination. A visible form of a dead person’s soul that remains on Earth is called lapu. Read on to learn more about Hawaiian ghosts and their folklore.
In Hawaiian tradition, the belief is that although the soul (‘uhane) dwells within the body (kino) in life, the soul has an independent existence of its own. The soul may even wander away from the body in sleep and visit others’ dreams or appear to them as an apparition vision (hihi’o). The spirit leaves the body via the inner corner of the eye, called the lua ‘uhane. This is a dangerous time for the body, as the soul can be caught and prevented from returning. The soul is resistant to returning to the body and must be enticed or forced back in via the feet. Fragrant plants, cleansing, bathing, and chanting may all be used to call the spirit back into its host. This ritual of resuscitation is called kāpuku.
Upon death, the soul is believed to exit the body and may meet one of three fates. Most souls proceed to the afterlife or underworld. The Hawaiian term for the afterlife is ʻAoʻao mau o ka honua, literally “everlasting side of the earth.” Many Hawaiian myths describe the afterlife as similar to life on Earth, and proceeding to the afterlife is a desirable outcome for the spirit. A soul with exceptional mana (spiritual power) and worthy morality could become an ‘aumakua (ancestral guardian spirit). Oftentimes, the family ‘aumakua would escort the recently deceased to the afterlife. At the death of a prominent individual such as an ali’i, an entire spirit procession called an ‘Oi’o would escort the soul to the afterlife.
Lapu that remain amongst the living are “wandering ghosts,” generally regarded as potentially harmful and to be avoided. Wandering ghosts aimlessly roam desolate and barren places. The lapu has the same appearance and voice as in life, but lacks corporeal mass and can enlarge or contract in size. Lapu have the same human shape and voice as they did in life, so it is important to perform ghost tests. One test involved laying out the leaves of the ape plant and having the individual walk over them. A living human would crush the fragile leaves, whereas a lapu would not disturb them. Another way to distinguish lapu from the living is to look for a reflection, which lapu are incapable of producing. Lapu may enter and possess objects, especially bones, and this is one of the many reasons why Hawaiians treat human bones so carefully.
Many popular Hawaiian ghost stories feature the Huaka’i Pō, or “Night Marchers.” The Night Marchers are a band of sacred warriors who travel at night and enforce kapu, the Hawaiian religious law system. Huaka’i Pō are associated with traveling alongside bodies of fresh water, most often appearing near sacred sites and heiau. Huaka’i Pō are said to appear during the Mahealani moon phase, or the fourth night of Full Moon. Night Marchers are often heard before they are seen, with drumbeats and chanting echoing in the night. It is forbidden to gaze upon the Night Marchers, and those who encounter the Night Marchers should avert their eyes and prostrate themselves upon the ground. A persons ‘aumakua would sometimes intercede on their behalf and protect their descendent if they came upon a Night Marcher. In modernity, many urban legends abound of people hearing or seeing Night Marchers in the distance and experiencing bad luck thereafter.
Many Hawaiian myths regarding the afterlife involve returning the soul to the body, sometimes with living humans journeying to the afterlife in the way of Orpheus in Greek mythology. The following are ghost myths that take place on the Big Island.
Milu, Chief of Waipio, becomes King of the Underworld
Milu was a chief of Waipio Valley. The god Kalae wanted to kill Milu, and attempted to poison him and make him sick many times. One of these times, Lono warned Milu of the intentional harm being done to him, and advised Milu to shelter in a structure coated with leaves of the ti plant. He cautioned Milu to not leave the house until he was recovered, stating that if he looked outside he would die. Milu peacefully dwelled in the hut until one day the people of his village made a great commotion because a large, resplendent bird had appeared above. Milu left the hut, and the bird swooped down and tore out his liver. The bird fled into a cave, now named “Ke ake o Milu” (“the liver of Milu”). Milu miraculously survives the encounter with the healing powers of Lono, and he is warned once again to dwell in the ti leaf hut. He does so for a long while, until one day he is tempted to bathe in the surf. When he does so, large waves are sent to batter and drown him. Upon his death, Milu becomes High Chief of the underworld. Sometimes, the afterlife underworld is referred to as ‘Ao o Milu (“the realm of Milu”) or simply “Milu.”
Hiku and Kewalu - Hawaii’s Orpheus and Eurydice
Hiku was a handsome chief who resided in the forest mountainside of North Kona. Kewalu was a beautiful chiefess who lived in a seaside village of Kona. The two meet, fall in love, and settle in Kewalu’s village. Hiku yearns for the forest, and decides to return there against Kewalu’s wishes. Kewalu, believing she has been abandoned, hangs herself with the ieie vine. Hiku returns to the village and discovers Kewalu dead. He journeys to the underworld with the help of Ku, using the entrance located within Waipio Valley, climbing down with the ieie vine. Hiku disguises himself by using rotten crushed kukui so spirits will not approach him as a “decaying ghost.” Hiku eventually finds Kewalu in the spirit world by hearing her ancestral chant, responding to her with the next verse. Kewalu, being extremely beautiful, has become a favorite of the King of the Underworld, Milu. Hiku devises a way to sneak Kewalu out of the underworld by pretending the ieie vine is a swinging game. He swings high enough to be out of reach of the ghosts, and Ku pulls them out. Hiku brings Kewalu’s soul back to her body and she is brought back to life with his chanting incantations. It is said that the Kalakaua family of Hawaiian ali’i is descended from Hiku and Kewalu.