Kihawahine : Lizard Woman; Red Torch
The Hawaiian island of Maui is ornamented with the ubiquitous image of a lizard understood as the island’s mascot. It’s hard to avoid this image: it appears everywhere; on t-shirts, shot glasses, key chains, bumper stickers and other tourist trinkets. For those who are unfamiliar with Kihawahine and Mo’o spirits, this lizard may be understood as a cute little island gecko but in fact this is not so. Kihawahine is a grand, tremendous, potentially dangerous Mo’o lizard goddess, once Maui’s most revered spirit.
Kihawahine was not always a spirit. Originally human, she is believed to have been born with something, some mark or sign, indicating her affiliation with the spirits. (This may have been a physical mark or a Demonstration of psychic powers.) (
Maui’s royal family, the Pi’ilani, had long, close associations with Mo’o spirits. That’s the family into which Kihawahine was born at the royal residence of Moku’ula. Her birth namewas Kihawahine Mokuhinia Kala’aiheana. She lived in the latter part of the 16th century and was the daughter of High Chief Pi’ilani. Her brother became King of Maui.
After she died, Kihawahine was transformed into a goddess. Following death, esoteric rites of deification were performed so that the woman was transformed into the Mo’o Akua known as Kihawahine, guardian of the royal family, the sacred Mokuhinia ponds and Moku’ula Island. It is unclear how old she was when she died but she is believed to have borne at least three daughters and possibly other children and so she also serves as an Aumakua, a family guardian spirit, to their descendents.
When King Kamehameha sought to unify the Hawaiian Islands, he married into the Pi’ilani royal family as part of his consolidation plan. His wife, Keopuolani, among the highest ranking women in Hawaii, was considered a living goddess. (She outranked her husband.) Kamehameha inherited and adopted veneration of Kihawahine from his wife, carrying her image with him during his conquest of the Hawaiian Islands.
Kihawahine is an unusual Mo’o spirit. She is not localized but traveled widely (with or without Kamehameha). Surviving legends describe her travels through the Hawaiian Islands. She was venerated by royalty, nobility and commoners alike. Kihawahine was venerated on the Hawaiian islands of Hawaii, Kauai, Lanai, Molokai and Nihau as well as Maui. She lives in ponds and rivers and mediates between realms of Earth and water.
Kihawahine’s primary home is Mokuhinia, a pond in Lahaina. Moku’ula, an island in this fresh-water, spring-fed pond whose elevation was only about one meter above sea level, was considered capital of the Hawaiian kingdom.
As an Aumakua spirit, veneration of Kihawahine remained active, if secret, after the 1819 abolition of traditional Hawaiian religion. Numerous sightings of Kihawahine were reported. (When manifesting as a large aquatic lizard, she’s hard to miss.) Dowager Queen Keka’ulohi, a devout Christian and supporter of Protestant missionaries, encouraged suppression of traditional Hawaiian religion. In 1837, Kihawahine almost overturned her canoe as she was heading for church. Whether or not this was a factor, in 1845, the royal court moved to Oahu and in 1914, island and fish pond were filled in and converted to recreational use. The sacred precinct now lies beneath a baseball park. In 1993, archaeologists rediscovered Moku’ula and plans for an environmental restoration are in the works. More information may be found in P. Christiaan Klieger’s book, Moku‘ula: Maui’s Sacred Island or at www.mokuula.com
Kihawahine manifests as a woman; a giant black monitor lizard or a dragon. She may be missing an eye, lost in a battle with Haumea. She is described as having red or auburn hair.
Carved wooden statues of Kihawahine depict her as a woman whose hair is bleached with lime.
Coconut; noni; turmeric
Moku’ula is her primary residence but she had others on other islands, too.
Her veneration incorporated many taboos. She must be approached with caution.
Yellow tapa cloth dyed with turmeric or noni root; lots of kava; restoration of her sacred precinct
- Ka’ahu Pahau
Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses – Written by Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.