I’m kind of getting mesmerized by the idea of the Menehune. I’ve been doing some content writing for a client recently and one of the titles that she wanted had to do with Legends of Kauai. I hadn’t done much research until that time on Hawaiian Legends, and to be honest, didn’t do much research for the client, either. (She only wanted 400 words and it’s a big subject, so I stayed basic)
For some reason, though, the legend of the Menehune stayed with me the way some things tend to do. There are many legends in Hawaii and once you start to mix in the tales of the gods and goddesses you could really write an entire book on the subject.
There was something about the Menehune that I couldn’t shake, though.
The Menehune are said to have been the original inhabitants of Hawaii, before the Polynesian migration happened and they came and started to populate the Islands.
I’ve seen the words “mischievous” used often in relation the Menehune but I no longer think that.
They were supposed to be very strong and excellent at building and fishing. There are more than a few landmarks around the State of Hawaii that the Menehune are credited with.
Two of the most popular are the Menehune Ditch and the Alekoko Fishpond (Menehune Fish Pond, in some circles.) These structures have been dated by archeologists as being more than 1,000 years old. That is waaaay before the Polynesian migration and settlers arrived.
There’s a popular story that goes something like this:
The Alekoko Fish Pond was supposedly built for a Princess and her brother. The Menehune loved to work in secret and at night. They were promised that no one could watch them work. If they were discovered then they would abandon their work and that would be that.
The Royal spawn (said Princess and her brother), though, snuck away at night and crept to watch the Menehune at work. They both fell asleep watching. Since the work on the fish pond was not finished during the night, and Menehune had been seen working, the Alekoko Fish Pond was never completed…by the Menehune. Centuries later, Chinese immigrants would finish the Alekoko Fish pond but they work that they did was of far less quality than that of what Menehune supposedly did.
Incidentally, the story of the logistics and how the Menehune built the Alekoko Fish Pond is sort of interesting. They formed a sort of bucket brigade. Standing shoulder to shoulder, in two rows facing that faced each other, the Menehune lined up for 25 miles (40 km) and passed each other stones all the way from Makaweli.
Some Details that I have been gathering about the Menehune:
- Magically powered little dwarf like people.
- 6 inches to 2 feet tall (15cm to 60cm)
- Master builders
- Very Strong
- Fun loving and enjoyed dancing, archery, singing.
- Favorite foods were bananas and fish
Evidently, the Menehune also liked cliff diving. There are also some very Cupid-like stories about the Menehune who would use magic arrows to cut through the cold and anger of a person’s heart and cause feelings of love instead.
The Menehune were rarely seen by human eyes. Or were they…
What are the Menehune? I’m confused.
Then I found a passage online that referenced a Harriet Ne….who had, on two occasions, met some of the Menehune. Or, so the story went.
From the book Tales of Molokai: The Voice of Harriet Necollected by Gloria Cronin
“As with many Hawaiians of older generations, Ne thought of the Menehune not as mythical, night-working little people, given to disappearing before sunrise, but as people of small stature who had to Hawaii before the Hawaiians and who were often friends with local families. According to her, once, while visiting Kauai, she went to a cave where the Menehune were said to live. After waiting for a time, she met with a group of Menehunes returning to their home. She described them as being short and quite fair. Both men and women wore long hair made into pugs with sticks through them.”
Okay, hold the phone. Screeech… Time out. Let’s not get crazy. I mean…she met some Menehune? In a cave? And they were people? Like…short people? No magic. No super strength and no magical arrows to thaw my cold heart?
Wow… Buzz kill… Thanks, Ms. Ne. You just ruined a lot of people’s magical beliefs.
That’s not the ONLY meeting that Ne claims to have had with the Menehune, either. Check this out:
“On another occasion, while visiting a Mrs. Johnson in Puna, Hawaii, Ne met two Menehunes who came to visit her friend. As a favor, they caught a special kind of fish for their hostess. Ne relates that when the Menehune were talking together, they spoke in a strange language that she had heard before.”
And according to this webpage and the University of Hawaii, sightings of little people and their villages in valleys around the Na’Pali Coast all too often.
After reading all of that I wanted a drink. So, I had one. Then came back to writing this:
No. Seriously! What the hell are the Menehune!
You see, this is the problem with legend that is possibly wrapped up into little bit of truth. It sucks. Why does it suck? Because it ruins the legend and makes the truth just more sucky truth.
I’m not here to say that the Polynesians who first migrated and settled in Hawaii didn’t me a race of indigenous people who were the first, original, actual Hawaiian people. Actually, I’m supporting it.
I’m not even here to say that those people were not the Menehune; short, magical people with excellent skills at building. Hell, they may even have been dwarf-like and pulled a disappearing act night.
Here’s my theory on the Menehune that I’ve actually formulated recently.
Warning: This theory sucks. If you want the Menehune to stay magical, little fairy creatures that go around stealing your keys at night and being all cute and mysterious…then STOP READING NOW: End Warning
The original Polynesian settlers came here. They migrated by canoe and landed on the Islands. The Menehune were already here and they were just chilling. They were a peaceful people that did all the stuff that you would think of Island people: they built stuff together, they fished and lived off the land, the dove of cliffs and swam for fun, and they may have been stronger than the Polynesians.
But it seems they were pushovers.
Pushed from Island to Island?
Probably, they welcome the Polynesian settlers. The Menehune were a small group and they knew of all the Islands already and knew that there was plenty to go around. As more migration took place and the Polynesian civilization started to take hold and grow, I think the Menehune just decided to move. Either to get out of the way or they were just of the thinking “Ah well, we’ll just go over here”.
They probably lost control of their civilization and the islands in a peaceful way. Choosing not to war or battle with the Polynesians. Heck, they may not have even realized it was happening.
So, where did the Legends Come from?
My theory is that the Menehune were peacefully conquered by the Polynesians. Their way of life and attitude made them the workers and the Polynesians were happy to take advantage of that.
Maybe they were asked or told by the Polynesians to build stuff because they truly were admired for their team work and craftsmanship. Maybe the Menehune worked at night because the wanted to impress and get things done quickly…it was cooler during the night, after all. Then they disappeared during the day to rest and do their thing.
And why had Harriet Ne been familiar with the strange language that the Menehunes were speaking? Was it because, perhaps, that the Menehune language had some kind of direct impact on the Polynesian (Hawaiian) language now being spoke? I would venture a “yes”. I think Ms. Ne heard a certain familiarity in the Menehune language that “she had heard before” because it was a large influencer on the Hawaiian that she herself knew.
How small were they? Maybe they were a little smaller than the Polynesians. Ms. Ne’s account of meeting the Menehune indicated that to be true. And, remember, her initial meeting was with them in a cave that they called home. Again, staying out of the way and just wanting to live their life in a chill atmosphere.
Most likely, too, they were small in social status, or, that’s how the ancient Polynesians who migrated here saw them. They may have looked down slightly on the Menehune and that’s how the legends were born of “small people”.
Were they workers and peasants? Probably not. Not in a direct way, anyways. Most likely, they just worked and did some heavy lifting for to live and to the advantage of everyone once the Islands received the first Polynesian immigrants.
Lastly, were they really mischievous like the legends say or did they simply not take themselves or life as seriously as the Polynesians? It’s more than possible that they were more playful and seen as mischievous. While the Polynesians wanted things built and fish caught, the Menehunes may have been more like “oooh, squirrel!” (But some other creature because there aren’t squirrels around the Islands that I have seen and the mongoose didn’t get here until later to kill the rats which got here later as well.)
The Magic of the Menehune is Real, Though
I’m not that cynical. I think that the magic of the Menehune is real. My theory is that they were a race of people, the original Hawaiians that truly lived the “Hawaiian way”. They were eventually pushed out of their homes. Maybe bred out, too, because of their passive ways, the legends woven in a positive, playful way because, well, how do you talk badly of such a peace loving people?
Today, the feeling of “Aloha” and the relaxed way of life is a testament to what the Menehune really were. I think their way of life rubbed off on the original Polynesian settlers in a big way and it is a way of life that still resides and encompasses the Island living which makes Hawaii the preferred place to vacation in and live: It’s chill. Of course, there were plenty of warring and tribal battles that took place on the Hawaiian Islands later on. However, King Kamehameha did so in an effort to unite the Islands…after that everyone lived happily ever after. There wasn’t “a conquered tribe” or “conquered Island,” there was just the Hawaiian people.
I think the Menehune civilization was what made Hawaii the relaxed way of life that it is today, though to an extreme degree. So much so that it cost the Menehune the Islands and their true identity.
Note: Two days after having the idea for this blog post, I saw a menehune at the Disney Aulani Resort in Ko’Olina on Oahu. Below is the picture. I thought it was nice to add it here at the bottom of the article.