Maui No Ka 'Oi Magazine September-October 2014 - September-October 2014
Subscribe Today!
Get the latest Maui events and deals!

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.

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.


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.


Revered Hawaiian artist and cultural leader Sam Ka‘ai gave a discourse about the mo‘o 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 ‘opio (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.

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

Since her emergence in the 1500s, Kihawahine has enjoyed a greater following than any other lizard goddess. Unlike other mo‘o, she reportedly traveled throughout the Islands, frequenting a tiny lake at the summit of the West Maui Mountains, a fishpond on the Waihe‘e coast, and pools on Kaua‘i, Moloka‘i, and Hawai‘i Island. Her primary dwelling was the royal compound at Moku‘ula in Lahaina – Hawai‘i’s spiritual and cultural epicenter for at least three centuries. Kihawahine’s presence in the fishpond surrounding Moku‘ula 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 Kala‘aiheana was the daughter of the great Maui chief Pi‘ilani. At death, she was transformed through a sacred ritual into Kihawahine, the ‘aumakua (ancestral guardian spirit) of the royal Pi‘ilani line.


Daughters of Haumea, a book illuminating the role of women in ancient Hawai‘i, describes the kaku‘ai (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 mo‘o, 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 mo‘o magnificence and reveal her new sacred name, by which her descendants could petition her.

Over many generations, this ritualized consecration of souls imbued the mo‘o 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 mo‘o 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 Kaili‘one Kame‘ekua, 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 Hawai‘i’s most tumultuous history. Both she and her hanai (adoptive) mother might have been transformed into mo‘o — if the curtain hadn’t come crashing down on ancient Hawai‘i first.

In 1819, the kapu system was officially overthrown and the old ways abandoned. As new laws dominated the land, Moku‘ula 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 mo‘o vanish forever?  

Shirley Ann Kaha‘i believes that Kihawahine still exists. Soft spoken yet passionate, Kaha‘i is the director of Friends of Moku‘ula, the nonprofit responsible for breathing life back into Moku‘ula. 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, Kaha‘i’s office is decorated with relics that hint of Moku‘ula’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 mo‘o 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 Kaha‘i took the job at Moku‘ula 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, Kaha‘i found her father’s name. As it happens, she is related to the book’s author, which means. . . .

“Kihawahine is my family ‘aumakua 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 Kaha‘i were sitting in the living room, discussing Kaha‘i’s work at Moku‘ula, when they heard a thumping sound down the hall. “Do you know what that is?” Colorado asked. Kaha‘i 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.