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

Since her emergence in the 1500s, Kihawahine has enjoyed a greater following than any other lizard goddess. Unlike other moʻo, she reportedly traveled throughout the Islands, frequenting a tiny lake at the summit of the West Maui Mountains, a fishpond on the Waiheʻe coast, and pools on Kauaʻi, Molokaʻi, and Hawaiʻi Island. Her primary dwelling was the royal compound at Mokuʻula in Lahaina – Hawaiʻi’s spiritual and cultural epicenter for at least three centuries. Kihawahine’s presence in the fishpond surrounding Mokuʻula 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 Kalaʻaiheana was the daughter of the great Maui chief Piʻilani. At death, she was transformed through a sacred ritual into Kihawahine, the ʻaumakua (ancestral guardian spirit) of the royal Piʻilani line.

Daughters of Haumea, a book illuminating the role of women in ancient Hawaiʻi, describes the kakuʻai (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 moʻo, 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 moʻo magnificence and reveal her new sacred name, by which her descendants could petition her.

Over many generations, this ritualized consecration of souls imbued the moʻo 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 moʻo 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 Kailiʻone Kameʻekua, 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 Hawaiʻi’s most tumultuous history. Both she and her hanai (adoptive) mother might have been transformed into moʻo — if the curtain hadn’t come crashing down on ancient Hawaiʻi first.

In 1819, the kapu system was officially overthrown and the old ways abandoned. As new laws dominated the land, Mokuʻula surrendered its role as the seat of Hawaiian power. Eventually, Kihawahine’s fishpond was buried.

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1 COMMENT

  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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