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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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.
To this day, fishermen hoping to catch hinalea (wrasse) in Waialua, O‘ahu, call upon the spirit of Kalamainu‘u. This mo‘o, 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. Kalamainu‘u 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 mo‘o is slain, its body becomes part of the landscape. Viewed through this lens, Hawai‘i is littered with the remains of giant lizards. On Maui’s southern coast, the cinder cone Pu‘u Ola‘i and Molokini crater, the curved islet offshore, are reputedly severed pieces of an unlucky mo‘o who crossed Pele. On Moloka‘i, the grey outline of a massive lizard can be seen sunning itself on Kamalo Ridge. This is Kapulei, a male mo‘o who pledged to watch over the area even in death.
That Hawai‘i 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 mo‘o. 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, mo‘o are more than myth.
Hawaiian-language authority Mary Kawena Pukui defines mo‘o not only as a dragon or lizard god, but also as a spine, succession, and lineage. A mo‘olelo, or story, is a progression of words strung like vertebrae along a cord of meaning. Likewise mo‘okū‘auhau, 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 mo‘o is indisputably significant.