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.


Moʻo 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 moʻo are malevolent; many are beloved protectors who lend aid to their devotees.

At one time, fishponds and pools throughout Hawaiʻi had stone markers signifying their resident moʻo. Ancient Hawaiians believed that if a moʻo 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.

To this day, fishermen hoping to catch hinalea (wrasse) in Waialua, Oʻahu, call upon the spirit of Kalamainuʻu. This moʻo, 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. Kalamainuʻu 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 moʻo is slain, its body becomes part of the landscape. Viewed through this lens, Hawaiʻi is littered with the remains of giant lizards. On Maui’s southern coast, the cinder cone Puʻu Olaʻi and Molokini crater, the curved islet offshore, are reputedly severed pieces of an unlucky moʻo who crossed Pele. On Molokaʻi, the grey outline of a massive lizard can be seen sunning itself on Kamalo Ridge. This is Kapulei, a male moʻo who pledged to watch over the area even in death.

That Hawaiʻi 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 moʻo. 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, moʻo are more than myth.

Hawaiian-language authority Mary Kawena Pukui defines moʻo not only as a dragon or lizard god, but also as a spine, succession, and lineage. A moʻolelo, or story, is a progression of words strung like vertebrae along a cord of meaning. Likewise moʻokūʻauhau, 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 moʻo is indisputably significant.

Revered Hawaiian artist and cultural leader Sam Kaʻai gave a discourse about the moʻo 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 ʻopio (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.



  1. Hello, many years ago I dreamt of a lizard/dog creature swimming in clear light blue water near a light sandy beach. I’ve been looking for a resource that describes the creature for a while. So glad you wrote this article. Thanks for sharing.


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