Koa-trees, out of which the finest and most enduring calabashes of the old Hawaiians were made, grew near the ocean’s sandy shore, but the koa-trees from which canoes were carved and burned were, according to some wise plan of Providence, placed on rough precipitous mountain-sides or on the ridges above.
The fierce winds of the mountains and the habit of bracing themselves against difficulties made the koa-trees cross-grained and slow in growth. The koa was the best tree of the Hawaiian Islands for the curled, twisted, and hard-grained wood needed in canoes which were beaten by overwhelming surf waves, rolled over sandy beaches, or smashed against coral or lava reefs.
From the time the canoe was cut in the mountains and was dragged and rolled over lava beds or sent crashing down steep mountain-sides to the time it lay worn out and conquered by the decay of old age it was always ready to meet the roughest kind of life into which its maker and owner could force it to go.
The calabash used in the plains and in the mountains came from a tree grown in beautiful lines by the sea. The canoe came from the hard mountain-koa far from its final workshop. There were gods, sacrifices, ceremonies, priests and even birds in the rites and superstitions of the canoe-makers. Kupulupulu was the god of the koa forest. Any wanderer in the woods was in the domain of that god. It was supposed that every rustling footstep was heard by most acute ears, and every motion of the hand was watched by the sharpest eyes. Dread of the unseen and unheard made every forest rover tremble until he had made some proper offering and uttered some effective incantation.
The ceremony and the wages of the priest who went up the mountain to select a koa-tree for canoe-cutting were like this: First he found a fine-appearing tree which he thought would make the kind of canoe desired. Then he took out his fire-sticks and rubbed rapidly until he had sparks of fire in the wood-dust of his lower stick. He caught the fire and made a burning oven (imu), heated some stones, cooked a black pig and a chicken, and prepared food for a feast, and then prayed:
“O Kupulupulu—the god!
Here is the pig,
Here is the chicken,
Here is food.
O Kulana wao!
O Ku-ohia laka!
O Ku waha ilo!
Here is food for the gods.”
The aumakuas, or spirits of ancestors, were supposed to join with the gods of the prayer in partaking of the shadow of the feast, leaving the substance for the canoe-makers.
After the offering and prayer the priests ate and then lay down to sleep until the next day. In the morning after another feast they began to cut the tree.
David Malo, in his “Hawaiian Antiquities,” said that the priest took his stone axe and called upon the female deities of the canoe-cutters thus:
“O Lea and Ka-pua-o-alakai!
Listen now to the axe.
This is the axe which is to cut the tree for the canoe.”
Another account says that when the canoe priest began to cut the tree and also as long as they were chopping it down they were talking to the gods thus:
“O Ku Akua! O Paapaaina!
Take care while the tree is falling,
Do not break our boat,
Do not let the tree smash and crack.”
When the tree began to tremble and its leaves and branches rustle, a tabu of silence was enjoined upon the workmen, that the tree itself might be the only one heard by the watching gods.
When the tree had fallen a careful watch was made for Lea, the wife of Moku-halii, the chief god of the canoe-carvers—those who hollowed out the canoe.
It was supposed that Lea had a double body—sometimes she was a human being and sometimes she appeared as a bird.
Her bird body was that of the Elepaio, a little bird covered with speckled feathers, red and black on the wings, the woodpecker of the Hawaiians.
“When she calls she gives her name ‘E-le-pai-o, E-le-pai-o, E-le-pai-o!’ very sweetly.”
If she calls while the tree is being cut down and then flies gently down to the fallen tree and runs up and down from end to end, and does not touch the tree, nor bend the head over, striking the wood, then that tree is sound and good for a canoe.
But if the goddess strikes the tree here and there it is rotten and of no use, and is left lying on the ground.
David Malo, as translated by Dr. Emerson, says:
“When the tree had fallen the head priest mounted the trunk, axe in hand, and called out in a loud voice, ‘Smite with the axe, and hollow the canoe! Give me my malo!’
The priest’s wife would hand him a white ceremonial malo with which he girded himself—then walked along the tree a few steps and called out in a loud voice, ‘Strike with the axe, and hollow it! Grant us a canoe!’
Then he struck a blow on the tree with the axe. This was repeated until he reached the point where the head of the tree was to be cut off. Here he wreathed the tree with the ieie vine, repeated a prayer, commanded silence, and cut off the top of the tree.
This done, the priest declared the ceremony performed and the tabu lifted.
Then the priests took their stone adzes, hollowed out the canoe on the inside, and shaped it on the outside until in its rough shape it was ready to be dragged by the people down to the beach and finished and polished for its work in the sea.”
Ka-hanai-a-ke-Akua was a chief residing near Kou. He lived in the time when gods and men mingled freely with each other and every tabu chief was more or less of a god because of his high birth.
His priests went up Nuuanu Valley to a place on the side where forests covered a small valley running into the side hills of the larger and more open valley. Great koa-trees fit for canoe-making were found in this forest. However, this part of the valley belonged to the eepa people—the deformed or ill-shaped gnomes of woodland or plain. Sometimes they seemed to be crippled and warped in mind as well as in body. They could be kind and helpful, but they were often vindictive and quarrelsome. There were also ferocious mo-o, or dragon-gods, watching for prey. Travellers were destroyed by them. They sometimes appeared as human beings, but were always ready to become mo-os.
One of these gods came down to the place where the priests were cutting the koa canoe for the high chief. He watched the ceremonies and listened to the incantations while the tree was being cut down. He tried to throw obstacles in the way of the men who were steadily breaking chips from the tree-trunk. He directed the force of the wind sweeping down the valley against them. He sent black clouds burdened with heavy driving rain. He made discouraging omens and sent signs of failure, but the priests persevered.
At last the tree fell and was accepted. It was speedily trimmed of its branches, cut roughly to the required shape and partly hollowed out. Then coconut ropes and vines were fastened around it, and the people began to pull it down the valley to the harbor of Kou.
As they started to drag the log over rough lava ridges outcropping along the valley-side they found their first effort checked. The log did not move down into the valley. Rather, it seemed to go up the hillside. The god caught one end and pulled back. Another mighty effort was put forth and the canoe and the god slipped over the stones and partly down the hillside. But the dragon-god braced himself again and made the canoe very heavy. He could not hold it fast and it came down to the men. It was very difficult to drag it through the forest of the valley-side or the thickets of the valley, so the men pulled it down into the rough, rocky bed of the little stream known as Nuuanu. It was thought that the flowing water would help the men and the slippery stones would hinder the god.
Down they went pulling against each other. The god seemed to feel that the struggle under such conditions was hopeless, so he let go of the canoe and turned to the flowing water.
Beautiful waterfalls and cascades abound all along the course of this mountain stream. It is fed by springs and feathery waterfalls which throw the rainfall from the tops of the mountains far down into the valley.
The god hastened along this water course, stopped up the springs, and turned aside the tributary streams, leaving the bed of the river dry. Then he went down once more, caught the canoe, and pulled back. It was weary, discouraging work, and the chief’s people became very tired of their struggle. The night fell when they were still some distance from the sea.
They had come to a place known as Ka-ho-o-kane.1 In this place there were sharp turns, steep banks and great stones. Here the dragon-god fought most earnestly and wedged the log fast in the rocks.
The task had become so difficult and it was so dark that the high chief allowed his priests to call the people away, leaving the log in the place where the last struggle was made. It was a gift to the mo-o, the dragon, and was known as “The canoe of the dragon-god.” It is said that it lies there still, changed into a stone, stuck fast among the other huge stones among which the water from the mountains finds its way laughing at the defeat of the canoe-makers.
1 This place is in the heart of modern Honolulu back of the old Kaumakapili church site.