The Menehune: An Ancient Race

The Menehune: An Ancient Race

[Illustration: Menehune]

 

The modern myth of the menehune describes an ancient race of Kauaians who were very small, but very skilled, with a supernatural strength.  The menehune built many things, including heiau (sacred places of worship), roads, dams, and canals—and they did it all during the night.  The menehune population was said to have been around one half-million people.

Menehune grew many different foods and fished the sea.  Each menehune was a master of a certain craft and had one special function they accomplished with great precision and expertise. 

The menehune would set out at dark to build something completely in one night.  If they failed to complete the project in one night, it would be abandoned. 

 

Wawā ka menehune i Pu‘ukapele ma Kaua‘i, puoho

ka manu o ka loko o Kawainui ma O‘ahu.

The shouts of the menehune on Pu‘ukapele on Kaua‘i

 startled the birds of Kawainui Pond on O‘ahu.

The menehune were once so numerous on Kaua‘i that their shouting could be heard on O‘ahu.  Said of too much boisterous talking.

                                                                                    (Pukui: 2920-320)

 

There remains some mystery surrounding the exact origin of the stories about menehune. 

Early Westerners seeking information about various structures on Kaua‘i may have been told by native Hawaiians that “menehune” were responsible, possibly referring to an old meaning of the word “manahune,” which is “common people,” thought to refer to common laborers, which were likely the early Marquesan settlers of the Hawaiian Islands, who were later dominated by the Tahitian settlers and made to perform the hardest work, including stonework. 

The word menehune may have been a reference not to the Marquesan settlers’ small size but instead to their lower status in the social system after the arrival of the Tahitians.  This may have led to a myth about a small race of people, and the myth may have been compounded over the years.

One version of history recounts how the dominating Tahitians drove the Marquesan descendants north along the island chain, finally to Kaua‘i, where the “menehune” made their last stand.  A census in 1820 (Kaua‘i’s first census) stated that 65 people in Kaua‘i’s upper Wainiha Valley claimed their nationality to be menehune. 

However, no human skeletal remains of a physically small people have ever been found on Kaua‘i or on the other Hawaiian Islands.  Of course this doesn’t mean that menehune never existed, and one never knows if, when night falls, menehune may appear to ply their trades.

Māla‘e Heiau at Wailua, Kaua‘i is said to be an example of the menehune trait of forming a single line of people many miles long to pass rocks from one person to the next.  They are said to have passed rocks along a line for the length of Kaua‘i.

Another site on Kaua‘i attributed to menehune is the Alekoko Fishpond, used by ancient Hawaiians to trap and raise fish.  A 900-foot (274-m) wall was built for this purpose at a bend in the river that now flows into Nāwiliwili Harbor.  It is said the wall was built by a 25-mile (40-km) long, double row of menehune who passed rocks to each other all the way from the source of the stones, the Makaweli Quarry in Waimea.  Makaweli means, “Fearful features.”[i]

Other legends also involve the menehune, such as the origin of Kaua‘i’s famous Sleeping Giant, an outline of a giant figure on the Nounou Ridge skyline visible from near Wailua.  It is said that the menehune tried to awaken the giant by throwing stones, but so many stones landed in the giant’s mouth that it gave him an incurable case of indigestion.  This has caused the giant to remain there sleeping ever since.

[Photograph: Māla‘e Heiau, Alekoko Fishpond]

 



[i]p. 142, Pukui, Mary Kawena, Elbert, Samuel H., and Mookini, Esther T. Mookini.  Place Names of Hawaii: Revised & Expanded Edition.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1974.