Note: This brief paper was written as part of an independent study project at my halau hula (the place where I study hula).
The footnotes, unfortunately, have not come through. E kala mai!
A Hidden Meaning of the Mo’o Goddesses?
A Personal Theory
“Hawaiians believed that all things--’animate and inanimate, objects and creatures’--are interrelated by the all pervading creative force: mana, the divine power of the gods.”
George Hu’eu Sanford Kanahele, Ku Kanaka
Mo’o are the powerful lizard (or dragon) water spirits of Hawai’i. Mo’o inhabit waterfalls, fishponds, even the ocean. In the words of Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, Ph.D., Director, Center for Hawaiian Studies, University of Hawai'i at Manoa:“Mo’o were greatly feared and revered throughout Polynesia; in Hawai’i they are almost always female.”1 As with most Hawaiian akua (gods), mo’o could appear in various forms, in this case, they were usually either reptilian or human. Some sources say Mo’oinanea is the “matriarch” of mo’o gods and goddesses, including Haumea, Kihanuilulumoku, Waka and others.2 Others give Haumea the matriarchial credit for both mo’o and human lineage: “She lives today in every Hawaiian woman...I too am Haumea and all that Haumea has done, I can do as well.”3
In the Kumulipo myth, a half-brother and sister, Wakea (sky father) and Papa (earth mother), mated and created the Hawaiian islands. Their human daughter was Ho’ohokuikalani.
“The islands’ creation and the daughter’s conception were the first instances of royal incest,
or pi’o. The pi’o mating system was further elaborated in the reproductive actions of father Wakea and daughter Ho’ohokuikalani, who mated and first gave birth to the kalo (taro) plant
and then to a son, Haloa, the founder of the line of ali’i nui and all Hawaiians.
These incestuous matings captured the power, the mana, of the earth and sky itself.
It became desirous for suceeding generations of ali’i nui to replicate this act,
keeping the mana of the creator gods concentrated within this lineage.”
P. Christiann Klieger, Moku’ula, Maui’s Sacred Island
Kihawahine is the famous mo’o goddess of Laihaina. She was born in the sixteenth century as Princess Kihawahine Mokuhinia Kalama’ula Kala’aiheana, the daughter of the great Maui chief, Pi’ilani, and his wife, La’ieloheloheikawai. Kihawahine descended from Mo’oinanea, and had a “double mo’o” lineage through both her parents. After her death she was deified.4 Mary Kawena Pukui says she was “e’epa” (born with a supernatural difference, possibly having psychic powers or a disability) and was said to have died in infancy.5 But according to P. Christiaan Klieger, Kihawahine lived long enough to mate and have a child, Nihoa Kamalama, with Kamalama. King Kalakaua and Queen Lili’uokalani were descendents of Kihawahine through her granddaughter, Maluna.
After death, Kihawahine’s power lasted for centuries. Kamehameha I went to great lengths to associate himself with her descendents, the sacred “akua women:” Keopuolani, Keku’iapoiwa Liliha, and Kalanikauiokikilokalaniakua (Keopuolani’s aunt). Kamehameha knew that any children he would have with Keopuolani would have status above either parent as they would inherit the mana of both Hawai’i and Maui’s most prestigious genealogies.6
“In obtaining these divine women, Kamehameha naturally adopted the mo’o goddess Kihawahine. She became one of his favorite deities. The conqueror had the powerful war god, Kuka’ilimoku as his “land snatcher,” but Kihawahine was one of his “land holders. She represented legitimate authority.”
P. Christiaan Klieger, Moku’ula, Mau’s Sacred Island
Kamehameha I and Keopuolani had three children who survived to adulthood, two sons: Liholiho (Kamehameha II) and Kauikeaoli (Kamehameha III), and a daughter, Nahi’ena’ena. After becoming king, Kauikeaoli ruled for many years from the little island of Moku’ula, located in a freshwater fishpond in Lahaina. This fishpond, Mokuhinia, was Kihawahine’s home. Moku’ula had been the site of Pi’ilani’s palace. Kauikeaoli was making a profound statement in ruling from Moku’ula, aligning himself (as his grandfather before him) with Kihawahine’s authority during the tumultuous, transitional period in which he lived.
A detailed description of the spiritual and political influence wielded by Kihawahine is beyond the scope of this small paper. It is best to read Klieger’s book, which gives a full account of the matter. And it is horrifying to discover that this sacred island and fishpond have been covered over to make a baseball park.
In other myths and legends, mo’o impeded Hi’iaka in her journey to bring prince Lohi’au to her sister Pele. And there are numerous stories of mo’o relationships with human beings, including the inevitable romances: “Mo’o women were dangerous to men because they had an undeniable power of seduction, and after they seduced their human lovers, they often drowned them rather than share them with another woman.”7
The time dragon legend is another meaningful way to view mo’o. In Ho’opono-A Night Rainbow Book, by Pali J. Lee and John K. Willis, this legend describes the mo’o as representing a genealogy: head and eyes are future generations, the front feet are ‘opio, the children. Then the makua (parents) and kupuna (grandparents and elders). Then, ka iwi, the bones of the ancestors, followed (at the end of the tail) by ‘aumakua, the “spirit of the family, the source of all things.”
Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa also writes, “Mo’o could take the body form of a small lizard common to most Pacific islands, or in their divine form could have a lizard body thirty feet long. Since this larger lizard form had no physical or animal representation in Polynesia, the image of the Chinese dragon, or the Papua New Guinea ocean-going alligator might have inspired this image.” 8
But I find it difficult to believe that the significance of Kihawahine and the other mo’o stems from ancient memories of large lizards in remote lands (or, for that matter, from the tiny lizards found on the islands!). I believe that these supposed ancient memories are far too removed from the immediate concerns of Hawaiian life to account for the reverence and tremendous power associated with the mo’o. After all, ancient Hawaiians had a keen appreciation of “mana” and great care was taken to preserve and cultivate the mana of mo’o goddesses through pi’o marriages among the ali’i who were their descendents. I think the origin of the mo’o can be found closer to home.
I respectfully submit this view: that the mo’o actually represent the powers of the secret energy sources of the human body and its relationship to heaven and earth. I believe the Mo’o goddesses are the Hawaiian equivalent of the coiled Kundalini serpent said to reside in the base of the human spine. This is the kaona of the mo’o, who can take either reptillian or human form.
In other words, there is a similarity between the mo’o as progeny of the “marriage of heaven and earth” (Wakea and Papa) and the Tantric and Taoist traditions which describe a bodily “marriage” of heaven and earth (Shiva and Shakti). When the energies of heaven and earth are joined, the powerful Kundalini energy or qi (chi) is aroused and summoned. When achieved through certain spiritual practices, such as breathing and visualization, this “marriage”generated tremendous energy and spiritual insight within the human being. This seems quite similar to powerful mo’o “offspring” resulting from the union of Wakea and Papa.9
In Hawai’i, this primordial energy represented by the mo’o was cultivated and preserved by the kapu system and through brother-sister (pi’o) marriages and other closely related alliances “in imitation of the creative passions of Papa and Wakea.10 ” The descendents of Pi’ilani were particularly careful to cultivate and enhance their inherited mana. But while the cultivation of mana in Hawai’i is most obviously emphasized in matters of mating and lineage, it may be that other cultural practices, such as hula and lua, also had a role in activating and cultivating mana within an individual, and that what remains of “ho’omana” traditions, which also involved the breath, are the tiniest fragments of a spiritual heritage which may once have equaled Hindu and Buddhist Tantra and Chinese Taoism in antiquity and complexity.
It is possible that Tantric and Taoist traditions may have been “picked up” as the Lapita and other pre-Polynesian voyagers moved through Asia and Indonesia. These traditions are very ancient and widespread. It is also possible that the secrets of the human body and spirit, and their relationship to heaven and earth, will always yield a similar “roadmap,” and that the Hawaiians made their discoveries of mana--and how to create and manage it-- independently, based on their legendary powers of observation and spiritual insight.
Finally, on a personal note, three years ago a lucid dream triggered my fascination with the mystery of the mo’o. In this dream I’d just given birth to a tiny, “premature” mo’o. I held it in my hand. It was translucent and I could see its beating heart and vertebrae. As I wondered (in the dream) how I would ever care for such a fragile thing and keep it alive, it suddenly grew in size and enormous power. Startled, I woke up.
But the dream stays with me.