There are three celebrated “owl” localities in the suburbs of Honolulu, one in Manoa Valley, the second near the foot of Punchbowl Hill, and one at Waikiki.
In Manoa the owl-god lived, and at Waikiki the famous “battle of the owls” was fought.
Manoa Valley is one of the most beautiful rainbow valleys in the world. The highest peaks of the island of Oahu are near the head of the valley. The winds which blow down the Pacific Ocean from the northeast strike these mountain-tops. Each cool breeze leaves its burden of moisture in a fleecy cloud to fall down the mountain-side into the valley. So cloud follows cloud, descending the slopes of the foothills in gentle rain.
Almost all day long the valley is open to the sun, which, looking on the luxuriant verdure and clinging mist, sends its abundant blessing of penetrating light. Rainbows upon rainbows are painted on the steep precipices at the head of the valley. There are arches and double arches of exquisite beauty, smashed fragments of scattered color, broad pillars of glorious fire blazing around green branches of ghost-like trees, great bands of opal hues lying in magnificent masses on the hillside, and lunar rainbows almost circular outlined in soft prismatic shades in the time of the full moon.
When showers creep down the valley one by one, rainbows also chase each other in matchless symmetry of quiet, graceful motion. Sometimes the mist in the doorway of the valley has become so ethereal that splendid arches hang in the apparently clear sky without cloud support.
It is no wonder that from time immemorial the Hawaiians have made the valley the home of royal chiefs, with the rainbow-maiden as their daughter. The story of this child of the skies is told in the legend Ka-hala-o-Puna (The sweet-scented hala-flower of Puna). Woven into this legend is also the legend of the owl-god of the family to which this maiden belonged, for his home as well as hers was in Manoa Valley.
Almost in the middle of the valley is a hill on which many years ago a temple was built and dedicated as the home of the owl-god Pueo. The hill now bears the name “Pu-u” (hill), “Pueo” (owl)—“Puu-pueo,” or “The hill of the owl.”
It was from this temple that the owl-god rescued the rainbow-maiden three times when she had been thrice killed and buried by her faithless suitor, a chief of Waikiki.
Ka-hala (the hala flower) had followed this chief almost to the lower end of the valley, but she became weary. The angry chief struck her with a bunch of hala nuts, killed her, and buried her under a mass of leaves and dirt near the spot called Aihualama. Pueo, the owl-god, had carefully watched the journey of this one of his people. When he saw her struck down he hastened to the spot swiftly, dashed aside the dirt, pulled out the body, and carried it in his claws back to the head of the valley, where by charms and incantations he healed her wounded head and restored her to life. Soon her beauty came back to her and surrounded her so that she walked as if encompassed with rainbows. Again the Waikiki chief, to whom she had been affianced by her parents, came after her. Again he became angry because she grew weary in the new way by which he led over a high ridge dividing Manoa from a neighboring valley.
A second time he seized a bunch of hala nuts swinging on their long stems, and with this as a club struck her on the head, killing her. He covered the body with ferns and vines and went away. The watching owl-god took the body tenderly, cared for it, and restored it to life. Once more the radiance of a divine chiefess rested in rainbows around the girl and her Manoa Valley home.
The third time the chief called for her she obeyed with trembling, and followed him up the almost precipitous sides of Manoa Valley, over ridges, across valleys and turbulent streams until they came to the ridge by the Waolani Temple in Nuuanu Valley. There he killed her and buried her. But Pueo scratched away the leaves and dirt, and again gave her life.
At the head of Manoa Valley are many waterfalls pouring down the precipices. The longer and most feathery of these falls are said to be the tears of Ka-hala as she suffered from the attacks of the faithless chief of Waikiki.
Pueo, the owl-god, was also Pueo-alii, or “king of owls.” He had kahunas (priests) who consulted him by signs, and the aumakuas, or ghost gods, sometimes in oracles. He was thought to be a chief leading his army of ghosts along the hillside below the Puuhonua Temple.1
From his own residence on Owl’s Hill he governed all the valley, apparently with much wisdom. It was said that one of the natives in the valley displeased him. He captured the man and at once ordered the death penalty, calling him a rebel. The man secured the attention of the owl-god for a moment, and presented the plea that he ought to be permitted to say something for himself before he was punished. This seemed reasonable. The execution was delayed; the man proved that he was innocent of the charge against him. The owl-god established a law that a person must be proved guilty before he could be condemned and punished. This came to be a custom among the Hawaiians as the years passed by.
The legends say that the fairy people, the Menehunes, built a temple and a fort a little farther up the valley above Puu-pueo, at a place called Kukaoo, where even now a spreading hau-tree shelters under its branches the remaining walls and scattered stones of the Kukaoo Temple. It is a very ancient and very noted temple site. Some people say that the owl-god and the fairies became enemies and waged bitter war against each other. At last the owl-god beat the drum of the owl clan and called the owl-gods from Kauai to give him aid.
They flew across the channel in a great cloud and reinforced the owl-god. Then came a fierce struggle between the owls and the little people. The fort and the temple were captured and the Menehunes driven out of the valley.2
The second legendary owl locality is found near the foot of Punchbowl Hill.3
Honolulu as the name of even a village was not known. Apparently there were very few people living along the watercourse coming down Nuuanu Valley. It may have been that even Kou, (the ancient name for Honolulu,) had not been heard. At any rate, the seacoast was a place of growing rushes and nesting birds. A dry heated plain almost entirely destitute of trees extended up to the foothills. Taro patches and little groves of various kinds of trees bordered each watercourse. The population was small and widely scattered. There was a legend of a band of robbers which infested this region. It was almost a “desolate place.”
Down Pauoa Valley dashes a stream of beautiful clear water. This passes along the eastern edge of a small extinct crater known as Punchbowl Hill, whose ancient name was Puu-o-wai-na. The water from this stream was easily diverted into choice taro patch land. Here not far from the upper end of Fort Street at Kahehuna lived a man by the name of Kapoi.
His grass house was decaying. The thatch was falling to pieces. It was becoming a poor shelter from the storms which so frequently swept down the valley. Kapoi went to the Kewalo marsh near the beach, where tall pili grass was growing, to get a bundle of the grass to use for thatching. He found a nest of owl’s eggs. He took up his bundle of grass and nest of eggs and returned home.
In the evening he prepared to cook the eggs. With his fire-sticks he had made a fire in his small imu, or oven. An owl flew down and sat on the wall by the gate. Kapoi had almost finished wrapping the eggs in ti leaves and was about to lay them on the hot stones when the owl called to him: “O Kapoi! Give me my eggs.”
Kapoi said, “How many eggs belong to you?”
The owl replied, “I have seven eggs.”
Then Kapoi said, “I am cooking these eggs for I have no fish.”
The owl pleaded once more: “O Kapoi! Give me back my eggs.”
“But,” said Kapoi, “I am already wrapping them for cooking.”
Then the owl said: “O Kapoi! You are heartless, and you have no sorrow for me if you do not give back my eggs.”
Kapoi was touched, and said, “Come and get your eggs.”
Because of this kindness the owl became Kapoi’s god, and commanded him to build a heiau (temple) and make a raised place and an altar for sacrifice. The name of the place where he was to build his temple was Manoa. Here he built his temple. He laid a sacrifice and some bananas on the altar, established the day for the tabu to begin and the day also when the tabu should be lifted.
This was talked about by the people. By and by the high chief heard that a man had built a temple for his god, had made it tabu and had lifted the tabu.
Kakuhihewa was living at Waikiki. He was the king after whom the island Oahu was named Oahu-a-Kakuhihewa (The Oahu of Kakuhihewa). This was the especial name of Oahu for centuries. Kakuhihewa encouraged sports and games, and agriculture and fishing. His house was so large that its dimensions have come down in the legends, about 250 x 100 feet. Kakuhihewa was kind, and yet this offence of Kapoi was serious in the eyes of the people in view of their ancient customs and ideas. Kakuhihewa had made a law for his temple which he was building at Waikiki. He had established his tabu over all the people and had made the decree that, if any chief or man should build a temple with a tabu on it and should lift that tabu before the tabu on the king’s temple should be over, that chief or man should pay the penalty of death as a rebel.
This king sent out his servants and captured Kapoi. They brought him to Waikiki and placed him in the king’s heiau Kapalaha. He was to be killed and offered in sacrifice to the offended god of the king’s temple.
The third legendary locality for the owl-gods was the scene of the “battle of the owls.” This was at Waikiki. Kapoi was held prisoner in the Waikiki heiau. Usually there was a small, four-square, stone-walled enclosure in which sacrifices were kept until the time came when they should be killed and placed on the altar. In some such place Kapoi was placed and guarded.
His owl-god was grateful for the return of the eggs and determined to reward him for his kindness and protect him as a worshipper. In some way there must be a rescue. This owl-god was a “family god,” belonging only to this man and his immediate household. According to the Hawaiian custom, any individual could select anything he wished as the god for himself and family. Kapoi’s owl-god secured the aid of the king of owls, who lived in Manoa Valley on Owl’s Hill. The king of owls sent out a call for the owls of all the islands to come and make war against the king of Oahu and his warriors.
Kauai legends say that the sound of the drum of the owl-king was so penetrating that it could be heard across all the channels by the owls on the different islands. In one day the owls of Hawaii, Lanai, Maui and Molokai had gathered at Kalapueo.4 The owls of Koolau and Kahikiku, Oahu, gathered together in Kanoniakapueo.5 The owls of Kauani and Niihau gathered in the place toward the sunset—Pueo-hulu-nui (near Moanalua).
Kakuhihewa had set apart the day of Ka-ne—the day dedicated to the god Ka-ne and given his name—as the day when Kapoi should be sacrificed. This day was the twenty-seventh of the lunar month. In the morning of that day the priests were to slay Kapoi and place him on the altar of the temple in the presence of the king and his warriors.
At daybreak the owls rallied around that temple. As the sun rose, its light was obscured. The owls were clouds covering the heavens. Warriors and chiefs and priests tried to drive the birds away. The owls flew down and tore the eyes and faces of the men of Kakuhihewa. They scratched dirt over them and befouled them. Such an attack was irresistible—Kakuhihewa’s men fled, and Kapoi was set free.
Kakuhihewa said to Kapoi: “Your god has mana (miraculous power) greater than my god. Your god is a true god.”
Kapoi was saved. The owl was worshipped as a god. The place of that battle was Kukaeunahio-ka-pueo (The-confused-noise-of-owls-rising-in-masses).