Sacred Texts  Pacific  Index  Previous  Next 



THE Bishop Museum of Honolulu has one of the best as well as one of the most scientifically arranged collections of Hawaiian curios in the world. In it are images of many of the gods of long ago. One of these is a helmeted head made of wicker-work, over which has been woven a thick covering of beautiful red feathers bordered with yellow feathers. This was the mighty war-god, Kukailimoku, of the great Kamehameha. Another is a squat rough image, crudely carved out of wood. This was Kamehameha's poison-god.

The ancient Hawaiians were acquainted with poisons of various kinds. They understood the medicinal qualities of plants and found some of these strong enough to cause sickness and even death. One of the Hawaiian writers said: "The opihi-awa is a poison shell-fish. These are bitter and deadly and can be used in putting enemies to death. Kalai-pahoa is also a tree in which there is the power to kill."

Kamehameha's poison-god was called Kalai-pahoa, because it was cut from that tree which

{p. 109}

grew in the upland forest on the island of Molokai.

A native writer says there was an antidote for the poison from Kalai-pahoa, and he thus describes it: "The war-god and the poison-god were not left standing in the temples like the images of other gods, but after being worshipped were wrapped in kapa and laid away.

"When the priest wanted Kalai-pahoa he was taken down and anointed with coconut-oil and wrapped in a fresh kapa cloth. Then he was set up above the altar and a feast prepared before him, awa to drink, and pig, fish, and poi to eat.

"Then the priest who had special care of this god would scrape off a little from the wood, and put it in an awa cup, and hold the cup before the god, chanting a prayer for the life of the king, the government, and the people. One of the priests would then take the awa cup, drink the contents, and quickly take food.

"Those who were watching would presently see a red flush creep over his cheeks, growing stronger and stronger, while the eyes would become glassy and the breath short like that of a dying man. Then the priest would touch his lips to the stick, Mai-ola, and have his life restored. Mai-ola was a god who had another tree. When Kalai-pahoa entered his tree on Molokai, Mai-ola

{p. 110}

entered another tree and became the enemy of the poison-god."

The priests of the poison-god were very powerful in the curious rite called pule-ana-ana, or praying to death. The Hawaiians said: "Perhaps the priests of Kalai-pahoa put poison in bananas or in taro, it was believed that they scraped the body of the image and put the pieces in the food of the one they wished to pray to death. There was one chief who was very skilful in waving kahilis, or feather fans, over any one and shaking the powder of death into the food from the moving feathers. Another would have scrapings in his cloak and would drop them into whatever food his enemy was eating." The spirit of death was supposed to reside in the wood of the poison-god.

A very interesting legend was told by the old people to their children to explain the coming of medicinal and poisonous properties into the various kinds of trees and plants. These stories all go back to the time when Milu died and became the king of ghosts. They say that after the death of Milu the gods left Waipio Valley or, the island of Hawaii and crossed the channel to the island Maui.

These gods had all kinds of power for evil, such as stopping the breath, chilling or burning the body, making headaches or pains in the stomach,

{p. 111}

or causing palsy or lameness or other injuries, even inflicting death.

Pua and Kapo, who from ancient times have been worshipped as goddesses having medicinal power, joined the party when they came to Maui. Then all the gods went up Mauna Loa, a place where there was a large and magnificent forest with fine trees, graceful vines and ferns, and beautiful flowers. They all loved this place, therefore they became gods of the forest.

Near this forest lived Kane-ia-kama, a high chief, who was a very great gambler. He had gambled away all his possessions. While he was sleeping, the night of his final losses, he heard some one call, "O Kane-ia-kama, begin your play again." He shouted out into the darkness: "I have bet everything. I have nothing left."

Then the voice again said, "Bet your bones, bet your bones, and see what will happen."

When he went to the gambling-place the next day the people all laughed at him, for they knew his goods were all gone. He sat down among them, however, and said: "I truly have nothing left. My treasures are all gone, but I have my bones. If you wish, I will bet my body, then I will play with you."

The other chiefs scornfully placed some property on one side and said, "That will be of the same value as your bones."

{p. 112}

They gambled and he won. The chiefs were angry at their loss and bet again and again. He always won until he had more wealth than any one on the island.

After the gambling days were over he heard again the same voice saying: "O Kane-ia-kama, you have done all that I told you and have become very rich in property and servants. Will you obey once more? "

The chief gratefully thanked the god for the aid that he had received, and said he would obey. The voice then said: "Perhaps we can help you to one thing. You are now wealthy, but there is a last gift for you. You must listen carefully and note all I show you."

Then this god of the night pointed out the trees into which the gods had entered when they decided to remain for a time in the forest, and explained to him all their different characteristics. He showed him where gods and goddesses dwelt and gave their names. Then he ordered Kane-ia-kama to take offerings of pigs, fish, coconuts, bananas, chickens, kapas, and all other things used for sacrifice, and place them at the roots of these trees into which the gods had entered, the proper offerings for each.

The next morning he went into the forest and saw that be had received a very careful description of each tree. He observed attentively the tree

{p. 113}}

shown as the home of the spirit who had become his strange helper.

Before night fell he placed offerings as commanded. As a worshipper he took each one of these trees for his god, so he had many gods of plants and trees.

For some reason not mentioned in the legends he sent woodcutters to cut down these trees, or at least to cut gods out of them with their stone axes.

They began to cut. The koko (blood) of the trees, as the natives termed the flowing sap, and the chips flying out struck some of the woodcutters and they fell dead.

Kane-ia-kama made cloaks of the long leaves of the ieie vine and tied them around his men, so that their bodies could not be touched, then the work was easily accomplished.

The chief kept these images of gods cut from the medicinal trees and could use them as he desired. The most powerful of all these gods was that one whose voice he had heard in the night. To this god he gave the name Kalai-pahoa (The-one-cut-by-the-pahoa-or-stone-axe).

One account relates that the pahoa (stone) from which the axe was made came from Kalakoi, a celebrated place for finding a very hard lava of fine grain, the very best for making stone implements.

{p. 114}

The god who had spoken to the chief in his dream was sometimes called Kane-kulana-ula (noted red Kane).

The gods were caught by the sacrifices of the chief while they were in their tree bodies before they could change back into their spirit bodies, therefore their power was supposed to remain in the trees.

It was said that when Kane-kulana-ula changed into his tree form he leaped into it with a tremendous flash of lightning, thus the great mana, or miraculous power, went into that tree.

The strange death which came from the god Kalai-pahoa made that god and his priest greatly feared. One of the pieces of this tree fell into a spring at Kaakee near the maika, or disc-rolling field, on Molokai. All the people who drank at that spring died. They filled it up and the chiefs ruled that the people should not keep branches or pieces of the tree for the injury of others. If such pieces were found in the possession of any one he should die. Only the carved goods were to be preserved.

Kahekili, king of Maui at the time of the accession of Kamehameha to the sovereignty of the island Hawaii, had these images in his possession as a part of his household gods.

Kamehameha sent a prophet to ask him for one of these gods. Kahekili refused to send

{p. 115}

one, but told him to wait and he should have the poison-god and the government over all the islands.

One account records that a small part from the poison one was then given.

So, after the death of Kahekili, Kamehameha did conquer all the islands with their hosts of gods, and Kalai-pahoa, the poison-god, came into his possession.

The overthrow of idolatry and the destruction of the system of tabus came in 1819, when most of the wooden gods were burned or thrown into ponds and rivers, but a few were concealed by their caretakers. Among these were the two gods now to be seen in the Bishop Museum[1] in Honolulu.

[1. See Appendix.]

{p. 116}

Next: XV. Ke-ao-mele-mele, The Maid of the Golden Cloud