Sunday, November 25, 2018

Mo'o- Hawai'i

A note before I proceed with today’s entry.

Throughout this blog, I have been admittedly rather loose with my definition of what a “cryptid” is. Technically this term refers only to natural animals unknown to science- lake monsters, giant mystery primates, out of place big cats, prehistoric relics, etc. However, my blog has included other things such as aliens, supernatural entities and outright hoaxes. It might be more accurate to call it “Beasts of Legend, State-by-State”, but that name isn’t quite as catchy. Though, to be fair, popular cryptozoology itself also tends to include potentially supernatural creatures like the Mothman or likely hoaxes such as the Fresno Nightcrawlers. Regardless of whether cryptids and other unknown beings are real or not, they form a significant part of our modern day collective folklore and exploring that mythology is the main drive behind my blog.

I bring this up because today’s cryptid, the mo’o, also does not precisely fit the stricter definition of a cryptid, being a type of supernatural being rather than a species of unknown animal.  Additionally, mo’o are an important component in the beliefs of many Hawai’ian people, so I have tried to remain respectful while discussing them.  


In Hawai’ian folklore, giant reptilian beings called mo’o (pronounced “moh-oh”, with the apostrophe forming a glottal stop between the two “o”) are believed to haunt the islands. These entities can shapeshift at will and may help or harm mortals depending on their mercurial moods. In their natural shape mo’o are described as jet black lizards, large as a small whale. They are rarely seen in this form, though, since they usually appear as mortal women, beautiful and seductive but also fierce and dangerous. 

Mo’o inhabit rivers, waterfalls and other bodies of water. They are particularly associated with loko i’a (fish ponds)- large, artificial coves create by building up walls of lava rock to form a partially-enclosed bay in which aquatic vegetation is cultivated to attract herbivorous fish. In addition to being a major source of protein, many loko i’a are also sacred sites and are thus protected by the fearsome “lizard goddesses”.

Where, one has to wonder, did the reptilian image of the mo’o come from? The only reptiles found in Hawai’i (other than sea turtles) are four small species of gecko brought by the original Polynesian settlers. Today these tiny lizards have become associated with mo’o in popular culture of the islands, but it’s unlikely that they were the inspiration for the legendary shape-shifters.

Some researchers believe mo’o legends developed from stories of the crocodiles and giant monitor lizards of Southeast Asia, the ancestral homelands of the Polynesian peoples. It’s also possible that these stories were based on Mekosuchus, a genus of small crocodile relatives that lived on New Caledonia and Vanuatu- and possibly other islands of the South Pacific- until they were driven to extinction by the arrival of humans a few thousand years ago. 

Many families of native Hawaiian descent have ancestral guardians or ‘aumakua (the apostrophe at the beginning signals a glottal stop like the pause in the Cockney English pronunciation of bottle as “bo’le). ‘Aumakua often take the forms of animals such as sharks, owls, birds and, for some families, mo’o.

The most well-known of these mo’o ‘aumakua- and one especially important to Hawaiian history- is Kihawahine. She is said to live in the loko i’a of Moku’ula, a sacred site on the island of Maui. In times past the chiefs of Maui ruled from this site with the mo’o acting as intermediary between the mortal and spirit worlds. When King Kamehameha the Great united all the Hawaiian islands under his rule in 1810, he made Moku’ula the seat of his kingdom and married a woman, Keōpūolani, whose ‘aumakua was Kihawahine. This union put him under the reptile goddess’ protection and granted him good fortune as he fought to maintain his kingdom. Today Moku’ula is buried under a baseball field in the town of Lahaina, but plans are underway to restore the ancient site.

Like many supernatural beings, mo’o can be malevolent as well as helpful, and there are numerous stories in Hawai’ian mythology of these creatures antagonizing humans. In one legend the volcano goddess Pele sends her sister Hi’iaka on a mission to rescue Pele’s mortal lover who has been captured by a trio of mo’o.  In addition to these three, Hi’iaka must contend with Kikipua, a mo’o woman who tries to devour the goddess by casting an illusion that makes her long, reptilian tongue look like a wooden bridge.


Hawaiian Mythology by Martha Beckwith