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Fishing Legends

Many legends grew from Hawaiians’ long tradition as fishermen. Talented fishermen took on mythical stature as their exploits were passed from generation to generation. Some tales from ancient times, like the stories of Maui, are known throughout Polynesia. The stories reflect skill and knowledge of the sea as well as the intertwined nature of Hawaiians’ physical and spiritual worlds.
Ho`opau maunu i ka i`a li`ili`i; e ki`i no ma ka i`a nunui.
A waste of bait to go for the small fish; go for the big ones.
-Hawaiian proverb

Ku`ula, a very skilled fisherman, appears in many tales. Ku`ula fished with a large 10-fathom canoe, filling it to overflowing every time he went out. The secret of his success was his pearl fishhook named Kahuoi. Kahuoi had come to him one day when he wasn't catching much; a shiny object dropped in his boat by a bird turned out to be a delicate pearl shell hook. When Ku`ula used the hook, aku began throwing themselves in the boat. Every day Ku`ula fished, a bird named Kamanuwai perched on the boat and ate until he was full, but still there was a big catch left for Ku`ula.

One day the local chief noticed Ku`ula and the fish jumping around his boat and commanded the hook be brought to him. With Kahuoi lost, Ku`ula no longer caught fish and the bird Kamanuwai grew weak and flew away. Ku`ula and his wife grew poor and hungry. They gave birth to a son, `Ai`ai, but because of their poverty, they put him in a basket and abandoned him to his fate. The chief's small daughter found the basket and brought it to her father. The two children were raised together and later married.

The chief's daughter fell ill one day and asked to eat some fish. `Ai`ai agreed to go fishing but asked first for the chief's pearl fishhook. He caught a few fish but soon his wife grew sick again. `Ai`ai, suspecting the pearl fishhook he'd used was not Kahuoi, asked the chief to search through his nets and line for another pearl fishhook. Reunited then with Kahuoi, `Ai`ai returned to the old fishing grounds in his father's boat, and aku again leaped into the canoe. The bird Kamanuwai returned, feasted on fish again, but took the pearl hook and flew away. The hook was never allowed to fall again into a stranger's hands.

Another tale shows what can happen when man grows over-confident and forgets to thank the gods for their help. A fisherman called Punihe`e (Squid-lover) went fishing daily for his favorite food. His neighbor saw him coming home one day and warned Punihe`e that the gods might be angry because he caught his squid alone without the god's assistance. Punihe`e replied he needed no help from the gods when he fished for squid.

Punihe`e brought his squid home and cut it in portions. He salted some, put some broiling over charcoal, and hung some by his door to dry. Punhe`e left for his vegetable patch and came home at day's end when he was hungry. He got out his poi bowl and dish of salted raw squid - but the pieces of squid were squirming toward each other and joining again into whole tentacles. The dish of cooked squid was doing the same. Punihe`e ran to tell his neighbor. Both of them came back to the house and saw the dried squid by the door frame moving. The cooked pieces from the house joined it and the squid was whole again. It climbed on top of the house with its tentacles hanging over the doorway, its head nodding toward the fisherman. At this, Punihe`e fled to the home of his friend and never went fishing for squid again. Today, dried squid still squirms when placed over hot coals.

Maui, powerful and mischievous, plays a leading role in many tales. His heroic feats include raising the sky from the earth and snaring the sun. At least one tale takes him fishing. Maui's brothers went fishing often but they always left Maui behind. Maui decided he wanted to fish for something unusual. He went first to the underworld to find a hook. From an old woman there who was half alive and half dead, he took the jawbone from her dead half and fashioned a fishhook. For magic bait, he caught a sacred alae bird.

Finally coaxing them into taking him along, Maui took his hook and bait and joined his brothers in the fishing canoe. They paddled far out into deep waters where Maui set his alae bait on the jawbone hook and let it sink to the bottom of the sea. The bait drifted down to Kaunihokahi whose duty it was to hold the land securely to the sea bottom. Kaunihokahi took the bait and hook and Maui, feeling the pull on the line, fastened his line to the canoe. He told his brothers to paddle as hard as they could toward home. As they worked against a great weight, one brother looked back and, astonished, saw a huge land mass rising behind the canoe. Another brother, too tired to continue, dropped his paddle on the fish line and snapped it. The land they were hauling up broke away and fell back to the sea bottom. Instead of a continent, Maui fished up only an island.

 Related Web Site

Kuulakai: Builder of Ponds, God of Fish
(Fishpond `Ohana Restoration – Maui)


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