Hawaiian Myths & Legends

Native Hawaiian cultural and religious beliefs are deeply rooted in a spiritual relationship with nature and the environment. Like their ancestors before them, Native Hawaiians today recognize and honor animal and plant life that occupy the realms of land, sky and sea as relatives and not as resources. Their legends and folklore acknowledge thousands of spiritual beings and deities and their stories of creation, love, mischief, family turmoil and redemption.  

Pele - Creator and Destroyer of Lands

One of the most famous and revered deity that continues to capture the attention of local residents and visitors alike is Pele, revered and recognized by native Hawaiians as the goddess of fire, wind and lightning. Respected and feared as both a creator and destroyer she is known by many names. Madame Pele. Tutu (grandmother) Pele. Pelehonuamea (Pele of the sacred lands) and Ka Wahine ‘ai honua or the woman who devours land.

Generations of children have learned that Pele can take on many forms. Most often she is said to appear either as a beautiful young girl or as a frightful old woman, often accompanied by a white dog. Her face and form are often seen in the lava fountains and flows she is responsible for creating. Regardless of what her appearance may be, legend says that how she is treated by those to whom she appears will determine how they shall be treated when she returns in the form of fire and lava.   To some this is a lesson about the merits of giving and receiving or the Spirit of Aloha. While acts of kindness, cooperation, pleasantness, humility and patience will be rewarded, those who are unkind, unpleasant, difficult to work with, arrogant and impatient are often punished.

Other mo‘olelo (Hawaiian stories/histories) speak about Pele’s origins and her expulsion and escape from the lands of her birth aboard her brother’s wa’a (canoe) Honuaikea while being pursued by the goddess of the sea her sister, Namakaokaha‘i. Guided by her brother Kamohoali’i (shark god), Pele and her siblings arrive in the northern most islands of the Hawaiian island chain and steadily worked her way south. Island by island Pele’s fires pits and efforts to establish a new home were extinguished by her sister Namaka.   Over time, Pele matures and the sibling rivalry only succeeds in helping her grow stronger and more powerful. Eventually she defeats Namaka and settles in Halema‘uma‘u crater (house of ferns) at the summit of Kīlauea on the island of Hawai’i, the youngest and largest of the eight major Hawaiian islands.

Menehune – Engineers & Mischief Makers

They have been known to come out at night and do miraculous things, leaving little trace of themselves other than their footprints and their engineering wonders. Credited with building megalithic structures, fishponds, water diversions, walls and highways, the Menehune of Hawaiian myth and legend are said to be gifted with magical abilities, including the ability to appear and disappear. These fun loving, hardworking and sometimes mischievous forest dwellers are most often described as dwarflike, little people similar to the mysterious Leprechauns of Irish folklore. Though they have been described historically as mythical creatures being small in stature measuring between six inches and two feet tall, census reports dating back to 1820 on the island of Kaua‘i listed as many as 65 individuals who claimed to be of the Menehune clan. So contrary to the myths, some believe that like the works they are credited to have built and created, the descendants of Menehune survive and exist today and are likely to be hiding in plain sight among us.

Over the years, there have been many theories of where the Menehune may have originated including the possibility that they are descended from the “original Hawaiians” who were displaced by later Polynesian migrations from Tahiti and the Marquesas.   The Tahitian term for ‘commoner’ for instance, “manahune” , is referenced in stories of the “menahune” who retreated into the mountains when Tahitians first arrived in Hawai’i. Linguistically, the reference of “mana” in “manahune” and a related term “manahuna” may also hint at the source of their acclaimed “hidden” powers (mana) and the secrecy (huna) of their work.


Generations of pig hunters and hikers caught in the Hawaiian forests and valleys after dark, tell stories of hearing pū (conch shells), beating pahu (drums) and seeing a procession of strange lights making their way from the mountains to the sea. Native Hawaiian elders have been known to warn their grandchildren to stay out of forests and valleys and off certain beaches on particular nights of the month acknowledging these are the times when the spirits of ancient ancestors, make their way from their eternal resting places in the mountains to the beach to conduct ceremony, bathe in the ocean or retrieve and escort souls of recently deceased loved ones into the world of the ancestors. These spectral events are respectfully called huakaʻi pō, the parade of the spirits, or more commonly the Nightmarchers.

Legends say the Nightmarchers come out after sunset and march between sacred sites or the mountains and sea until sunrise when they return to their mauka (mountain side) burials.   Those who live along their paths report of hearing the call of the pū or the beating of drums. Others report seeing unexplained lights that look light torches.   Hawaiian oral tradition says these groups often include spirits of ancestors, warriors, chiefs and sometimes gods and that mortal beings should avoid them or risk death.

There are strict protocols to be followed by anyone unfortunate enough to cross paths with the Nightmarchers. If they wish to survive and be spared punishment at the hands of spiritual warriors and guards assigned to protect the procession, they should disrobe and lay face down on the ground, remain motionless, silent and avoid any eye contact with any member of the entourage.   Oral tradition also dictates that the best hope of surviving an encounter with the Nightmarchers is to be recognized by a member of the procession as ‘ohana and ask that they be spared.

Ultimately, the Hawaiian Nightmarchers tradition and lore provide lessons into the importance of knowing one’s place, respecting one’s elders and ancestors, and being mindful of one’s behavior and conduct especially in the “after hours” and in the presence of “sprits”.