Maui No Ka 'Oi Magazine September-October 2014 - September-October 2014
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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.

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In one of the most famous legends of ancient Hawai‘i, Pele, the volcano goddess, sends her youngest sister, Hi‘iaka, to rescue a mortal lover. Three mo‘o (supernatural lizards) have captured Pele’s sweetheart and hold him hostage in a cave on Kaua‘i. Thus, Hi‘iaka’s mission involves a second errand: dragon slaying.

As Hi‘iaka travels island to island, she encounters many mo‘o. On the windward cliffs of Moloka‘i, the young goddess and her attendant Wahine‘oma‘o come to an impassable ravine. As they ponder how to proceed, a slender plank appears. Wahine‘oma‘o starts across, but Hi‘iaka recognizes the bewitched bridge for what it is: the tongue of the man-eating mo‘o Kikipua. Spanning the gorge with her magical pa‘u (skirt), Hi‘iaka chases the lizard to its lair and kills it.

Dragons. Lizards. Deities. Whatever word used to invoke them, mo‘o rank among Hawai‘i’s most mysterious mythic creatures. They figure into the oldest Hawaiian stories and are a key to a deep, nearly forgotten magic.

Most mo‘o 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 mo‘o 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.”

Mo‘o 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 mo‘o are malevolent; many are beloved protectors who lend aid to their devotees.

At one time, fishponds and pools throughout Hawai‘i had stone markers signifying their resident mo‘o. Ancient Hawaiians believed that if a mo‘o 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.