Kupua
He kino pāpālua
A dual-formed person.
Said of a supernatural being having two or more forms.
— ‘Ōlelo No‘eau #694

Have you ever witnessed something in nature that totally amazed you? Maybe it’s the speed and power of a shark. Or the strength and size of a really old koa tree. Imagine being able to turn into the shark or the koa tree. Hawaiian moʻolelo, or stories, tell about amazing transformations related to kupua.

Mo‘o

You may already know the word moʻo means lizard, like the small geckos and skinks we see in our gardens and homes. But did you know that moʻo also means creatures that are like giant lizards or dragons?

[Māui and moʻo] Artwork by Robin Burningham. From Tales of the Menehune, compiled by Mary Kawena Pukui (Kamehameha Publishing, 2013).Because moʻo usually live near freshwater springs or pools, they are sometimes depicted as having an alligator or crocodile appearance. Moʻo are huge and terrifying. They could be over thirty feet in length, and their skin is said to be the deepest, darkest black.

In Hawaiʻi, you can recognize the ponds and streams where moʻo dwell by the yellow color of the plants growing around them. The water will be a yellow-greenish color too. The color yellow is associated with moʻo.

There are other signs that moʻo are near. The great moʻo, Kihawahine, is said to live on Maui, in the fishpond at Haneoʻo in the Hāna district. When she is there, a foam covers the pond. Any fish caught when the foam is present will be bitter in taste.

Many bodies

Moʻo can change into another form, usually a human body. Moʻo sometimes appear in their human form to trick people traveling through their area.

[ʻOʻopu nakea] Photo by Keoni Kelekolio. Used with permission.Some female moʻo are known to entice men by sunning themselves in their human form near a body of water. The moʻo may be brushing their hair, which is half black and half white. Kihawahine’s fishpond at Haneoʻo has a rock near the center of the pond. The rock is called Lauoho, or hair, and that is where the moʻo sits to comb her hair.

Some animals are said to be relatives of moʻo. They are:
• ʻOʻopu, five different species of
   freshwater fish
• ʻĪlio moʻo, brindled dogs or “lizard dogs”
• Moa, yellow chickens
• Nananana and kuʻukuʻu (spiders)

What role do mo‘o play?

Moʻo are guardians. They protect freshwater resources such as a swimming hole in a river, a waterfall, or even a loko iʻa (fishpond), where a river meets the sea. They can be kind and nurturing or they can be mean and punishing. Stories about moʻo remind us it is always best to ask first before taking or entering someone else’s place. They also remind us to care for our water resources and the creatures that live there.

[Rainbow falls] Photo by Ruben Carillo. © Kamehameha Schools.Moʻo stories can also explain certain phenomena or tell the origin of a certain animal or landform. The moʻolelo of Māui and the moʻo Kuna reveals the origin of certain rocks along the Wailuku River. Near the mouth of the river is Kawaʻaomāui, a canoe-shaped rock which is said to be Māui’s waʻa. Further up, you can see the remains of Kuna, great stones in the river, the evidence of his defeat at the hands of Māui.

[Mokoliʻi] Photo by Forest & Kim Starr, available under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.During Hiʻiaka’s journey, she passes through the Koʻolau side of Oʻahu, where she battles the moʻo named Mokoliʻi. His tail is all that is left of him, floating in the ocean off of Kualoa as Mokoliʻi Island.


One way to check if there’s a moʻo in the water is to get lāʻī, a ti leaf, and throw it into the water. If the leaf is sucked down and doesn’t come back up, a moʻo may be there! Don’t go in!


Kamapua‘a

Kamapuaʻa is one of the best-known kupua. There are many colorful stories told about him. Kamapuaʻa was born on Maui but has adventures on all the main Hawaiian Islands.

[Kamapuaʻa] Artwork by Solomon Enos. Used with permission.

Many bodies

Kamapuaʻa has kinolau, or many body forms. He can be a man or a pig. He has other forms such as fish (the humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa), or various plant bodies such as ʻuala (sweet potato), kukui (candlenut tree), and the ʻamaʻu tree fern.


What role does Kamapua‘a play?

Kamapuaʻa is a reminder that nature has a wild side. Sometimes he acts like a wild pig, destructive and rooting up the land. Other times, he can be thoughtful, productive, and loving. In his stories, we can see strengths and faults in Kamapuaʻa. As people, we have similar strengths and faults.

When Kamapuaʻa was very young, when he was just a pig and before he had a human form, he proved to be very helpful to his family. His brother Kekeleiʻaikū was bundling his huli (taro tops for replanting), thinking he would carry them himself. His grandmother, Kamauluaniho, suggested, “Why don’t you have your pig carry it?” Kekeleiʻaikū felt bad at first and declined. Kamauluaniho told him he shouldn’t feel bad about it. So he loaded up the huli all over the puaʻa, tied up the bundle well, and the two of them set off for his garden. When they got there, he unloaded all the huli and went to check on his parents and the others who were farming their own gardens. When Kekeleiʻaikū returned, he was surprised to see that all of the huli had been planted! Who do you think planted the huli?


Not only do these moʻolelo reveal similarities between man and kupua, they can also hold the histories of people and places. The next excerpt tells us about one of Kamapuaʻa’s fantastic deeds and its connection to a place name.

[Kamapuaʻa statue] Kamapuaʻa statue at Bailey House Museum. Photo by Oscar O Oscar, available under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.When Kamapuaʻa returned from Kahiki, he arrived at Kaluaʻōlohe, in Pālolo, Oʻahu. There were a lot of maiʻa (bananas) there. He had found the maiʻa patch of the aliʻi of Oʻahu. He felt a great craving to eat all these maiʻa, so he called all his pig bodies. They came and ate and ate until there was nothing left. The pigs disappeared back into the forest. Kama’s body had become big and bloated from eating so much, so he transformed his body, making it skinny again, and went over to the door of the house of the guards of the maiʻa patch.

When the guards woke up, they saw all the maiʻa were gone. They were terribly upset and went to find out what happened. They could tell that pigs had eaten the maiʻa, but all they could find was a small, skinny puaʻa. One guard said, “This puaʻa did it.” The other guard replied, “It couldn’t be. The pig that ate all these maiʻa would have a huge belly. This pig is skinny. He didn’t do it.” One guard thrust his stick into the back of Kama. The other guard said, “You’re hurting that pig for no reason.” The first guard didn’t listen and thrust his stick again into the back of Kama. It is because of this incident that the place became known as Pahupahuapuaʻa (prodding the pig), and the name remains until this very day.


Kamapuaʻa is one of the forms of Lono. They are both connected to agriculture. They are the dark, stormy clouds that bring much-needed rain. Sometimes these clouds are called “ao puaʻa,” or pig clouds.


Māui, a Hawaiian superman

Māui is a third type of kupua. He has a human form only and does not have any kinolau. Māui can do things other men cannot. He is able to outsmart his opponents. He is like a superhero. His deeds benefit himself, his family, and the greater population.

What role does Māui play?

[Māui lassoing sun] Artwork by R. Y. Racoma. © Kamehameha Schools.Stories of Māui can be found in all the cultures of Polynesia. Hawaiian stories about Māui give us insight into natural phenomena. For example, in one moʻolelo Māui lassoes the sun, making the days longer and allowing more time for people to work. This moʻolelo can help to explain the two seasons in Hawaiʻi: Kau, the dry season, when the days are longer, and hoʻoilo, the wet season, when the days are shorter.

Some ‘ōlelo no‘eau concerning Māui

Moʻa aʻela nō kā ka ʻalae huapī.
The red-headed mudhen has finished cooking her own.
Said of a selfish person who does only for himself with no regard for others. From the legend of Māui. (ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #2159)

Ua moʻa ka maiʻa, he keiki māmā kā Hina.
[Māui making fire] Artwork by R. Y. Racoma. © Kamehameha Schools.The bananas are cooked, [and remember that] Hina has a swift son.
Let’s finish this before we get caught. This saying comes from the legend of Māui and the mudhens.

These two ʻōlelo noʻeau are from the story of Māui and the ʻalae birds and the secret of fire. The ʻalae birds knew how to make fire. They would wait until Māui was fishing out at sea and then start a cooking fire. The birds would quickly cook and eat their food. Māui would see the smoke from their fire and return to shore, but he would be too late. The birds had already extinguished the fire and disappeared. The ‘alae would not share the cooked food or the secret of making fire. (ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #2830)


We honor this traditional story by using the name Māui in the Hawaiian words for equinox (māuiili,when the length of night and day is approximately equal) and solstice (māuikiʻikiʻi, the longest or shortest days).


So, what do kupua teach us?

Many cultures around the world have their own kupua. Some kupua stories are fairytale-like legends and some are like documentaries that explain something in the natural world. Kupua stories are fantastic and stretch one’s imagination. They inspire people to attempt heroic and seemingly impossible deeds. They can teach important lessons. They remind us that ka poʻe kahiko, the people of old, were keen observers of nature.

Kupua help us better understand the connection of kānaka and nature. They remind us of the need for guarding natural resources. Kupua are examples of the strengths and weaknesses of kānaka. Moʻolelo about kupua are evidence of Hawaiian ways of understanding and improving the world we live in.