Hawaiian mythology is an outgrowth of the greater Polynesian framework of belief and legend, and shares many similar deities and myths with those Polynesian descendents who migrated to New Zealand, Tahiti, the Marquesas and other Pacific islands. Creation myth varies from a fruitful marriage of Sky and Earth, to islands being formed by specific actions of gods and goddesses. Common themes such as battles, infidelity, trickery and vanity were present in all permutations of the original myths, and largely correspond to myths from cultures across the world in terms of addressing universal human emotions.
Westervelt (1910) offered a compelling sketch of how the names and identities of deities cross cultural boarders It is interesting to trace the connection of these four names with Polynesian mythology. Mauike is the same as the demi-god of New Zealand, Mafuike. On other islands the name is spelled Mauika, Mafuika, Mafuia, Mafuie, and Mahuika. Ra, the sun god of Egypt, is the same as Ra in New Zealand and La (sun) in Hawaii.
Ru, the supporter of the heavens, is probably the Ku of Hawaii, and the Tu of New Zealand and other islands, one of the greatest of the gods worshiped by the ancient Hawaiians.
The fourth mighty one from Ava-ika was a woman, Bua-taranga, who guarded the path to the underworld. Talanga in Samoa, and Akalana in Hawaii were the same as Taranga. Pua-kalana (the Kalana flower) would probably be the same in Hawaiian as Bua-taranga in the language of the Society Islands. However, each culture of the Polynesian expansion elaborated upon and integrated new legends and deities, particularly to include local heroes and explain specific geographical/environmental phenomena.
It is vital to note that Hawaiian (and Polynesian) mythology was almost exclusively an oral tradition; this accounts in large measure for the infinite discrepancies found among the variations on any given theme. “Tradition is fluid; its content is redefined by each generation and its timelessness may be situationally constructed” (Linnekin, 1983, p. 242). Although oral histories are fraught with fragility, depending solely upon succeeding generations for sustainability, they also allow for a greater measure of individuality to be expressed by each cultural storyteller.
For example, examining legends from Hawaii as opposed to legends from New Zealand yields not only that what is similar, but may also reveal important differences regarding what gets changed in the similar narrative. When a culture privileges certain values, those ideas may be more emphasized in their versions of myths. Thus, cultural anthropologists can divine clues into the social-religious mindset of an antiquated civilization. The beginning of time for Hawaiians includes several eras.
“Hawaiian mythology recognizes a prehuman period before mankind was born when spirits alone peopled first the sea and then the land, which was born of the gods and thrust up out of the sea” (Beckwith, 1940). One of Hawaii’s creation myth involved the god Maui, who figures as both the impetus for the island’s establishment an also a resident “trickster” figure. This lack of supernatural reverence can be noted even in the Sky-Earth union myth.
Even Wakea and Papa, whose figures play a dominating part in Hawaiian myth and story, are represented as parents upon the genealogical line, not as the Sky and Earth deities their names imply. Thus the imagination, which in Polynesian groups in the South Seas plays with cosmic forces, in Hawaii is limited to human action on earth, magnified by incarnations out of a divine ancestry. (Beckwith, 1940) Maui even employs this devious nature to raise the group of islands; this lack of a noble or divine origin suggests a privileging of that with is clever and resourceful over that which is omnipotent and inherently superior.
The essential legend has Maui convincing his brothers to accompany him on a fishing expedition. While out floating in the ocean, Maui casts his fishing hook, and snares the land beneath the boat. He tells is brothers that he has caught a giant fish, and urges them to paddle aggressively back to shore. Instead of raising a fish, Maui raises the ocean floor, thus creating the first Hawaiian island. Maui repeatedly dupes his brothers into repeating this action until he has raised all the islands.
Interestingly, there is no greater need being served by the creation of the islands. Maui is largely characterized as impulsive and capricious. He is as motivated by trickery than by any desire to establish a new land. This type of myth, where an island is spontaneously created, is less common than myths of instantaneous destruction. This is most likely due to the fact that cataclysmic natural disasters such as tidal waves and earthquakes were far more likely to obliterate an island and a people rather than give birth to them.
However, history records the rapid development of land in certain instances, suggesting the conflation of myth and reality (Nunn, 2001). Nunn offered one example of this reality: the island of Niue. Niue was mythologized as a spontaneously “rising” island, yet Nunn (2001) stated that “it has been rising for around 2. 3 million years and it is possible that manifestations of the uplift process were witnessed and their memory preserved in myth by the island’s early human inhabitants” (p. 129).