humpback whale in hawaiian culture

The Circle of Life

Native Hawaiians have a powerful spiritual connection to all forms of life. According to their traditions, the islands, the skies above, the vast oceans, plants, and animals were created by their gods, forming a bond of life between the people and their environment.

According to Hawaiian cosmology, Native Hawaiians have a unique kinship relationship with the natural world. The Kumulipo, a Hawaiian creation chant, depicts the power of the cosmos erupting into motion and heat that causes natural elements to inspire creativity as evolving out of the night by the gradual accumulation of life forms. Beginning with the coral polyp in the first or era, the Kumulipo announces the whale’s existence in the second “Hānau ka palaoa noho I kai” – born is the whale living in the ocean. Eventually, humans are born from this common origin.

Humpback Whales are known as Hawaiian ancestor

Humpback Whales in the Hawaiian Language

The Hawaiian language is very descriptive and gave birth to many names for different rain, ocean conditions, environments, and even animals. The word kohola refers to reef flats and the humpbacked whale, perhaps linking the spray of the waves on the reef with the spray from a whale’s blow. Palaoa refers to sperm whales or the ivory from whale tusks that were highly prized as fishhooks and pendants reserved for alii (royalty). Hawaiian is also evolving; more recently, the term kuapio (humpback or arched back) has given rise to the name kuapio kohola, or, literally, the humpback whale.

Humpback Whales in the Hawaiian Language
Bishop Museum has several lei niho palaoa in its collection. These are incredibly sacred lei (necklaces) made with niho palaoa (whale tooth) pendants and numerous strands of woven human hair. Although there is no record of Hawaiians killing whales, sperm whales that washed ashore were considered highly sacred to the alii (royalty), and the necklaces made from their teeth and bones represented the strength of the gods and their mana (spirit) and symbolized the chief’s rank and his authority.

Humpback Whales and Legends

Humpback Whales and Legends

Whales are also evident in Hawaiian legends, including a story of creation. Although they are too numerous and lengthy to share here, a few of the most well known is “The Mystery of the Kohola,” “Makua’s Prayer—A Legend of the Chosen One,” and “Hanau Ka Palaoa Noho I Kai (The Paloa Was Born and Lived in the Sea).”

Read more about Hawaiian Culture: Art of Hula Dance in Hawaiian Culture.


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