Hawaiian History

Hawaiian Legends:
How Maui Formed the Hawaiian Islands

By  M. Keala Milles, Jr.

As a native people, early Hawaiians composed legends to describe how the world around them came to be. One of the most popular Hawaiian legends, particularly these days (thanks to the song from one of Hawaii’s most prolific singers—Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, aka “Bruddah Iz”—aptly titled “Hawaiian Superman”) is that of the Hawaiian Islands history and formation. This legend describes how the islands were “fished” out of the ground by a demi-god who also snared the sun.

The Hawaiian legends surrounding the feats of Maui are plentiful. Known as a trickster and a hero in myth, the demi-god is often also attributed as a chief, though most of his stories tell of a precocious young man and master fisherman whose magical hook created the beloved land of Hawaii.

One versions of the Maui legend describes how his behavior had upset his brothers while they were out on ocean in their canoe one afternoon. He was bragging that his magical hook and his superior skills could catch all of the best fish, but the day had proven difficult with catches of only sharks. As his brothers ridiculed him, Maui cast his hook out into the water declaring that he need only call upon divine power and he will be able to catch the biggest and best fish.

Regardless of which version you read, Hawaiian legends attest that this moment began a furious battle between Maui and what appeared to be a very large fish. The waters rose, waves thrashed, and the fish seemed to carry the canoe away for days. He commanded his brothers to not look back towards where the line broke through the surface of the water, not to look upon what Maui might be catching. While they maintained their forward gaze and focused on paddling the canoe, Maui’s magical hook emerged, pulling land out of the water.

But Maui’s brothers, unable to control their curiosity, looked back. They tried to hack off parts of the “fish,” but it only injured it. As they continued to try to kill the fish, the line slacked and the land mass separated into several pieces. These pieces came to be the islands of Hawaii, and the injuries the “fish” sustained became the mountains and valleys.

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