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Pa ao is either a figure from a Hawaiianmarker legend or a historical character. He is said to have been a high priest from Kahikimarker – later identified with Tahitimarker – who introduced certain customs, such as human sacrifice, to Hawaii. He is also said to have brought a "pure" chief to rule over the Hawaiians.

Documented history of the story of Pa ao

The Pa ao story makes its first documented historical appearance in 1835–1836, in a collection of Hawaiian traditions called Moolelo Hawaii assembled by Hawaiian students of Lahainaluna Schoolmarker, on the Hawaiian island of Mauimarker. This collection was the basis of Sheldon Dibble's 1838 history of Hawaii. David Malo was one of the Lahainaluna students active in collecting oral traditions. He continued collecting legends and when he died in 1854, he had completed an unpublished manuscript that was finally translated to English and published in 1898.

Martha Beckwith, in her Hawaiian Mythology (1940, as republished in 1970), notes these historical sources:

  • Emerson, Nathaniel – "The Long Voyages of the Ancient Hawaiians," Hawaiian Historical Society Papers Vol. 5, 1893, pp. 5-13
  • Malo, David – Hawaiian Antiquities, as translated by Emerson, 1951 edition, pp. 6-7
  • Green, Laura – Folktales from Hawaii, Honolulu, 1928, pp. 120-124
  • Kamakau, Samuel M. – article in the Hawaiian newspaper Kuokoa, December 29, 1866
  • Thrum, Thomas G. – More Hawaiian Folk Tales, Chicago, 1923, pp. 46-52
  • Remy, Jules M. as translated by Brigham – Contributions of a Venerable Savage to the Ancient History of the Hawaiian Islands, Boston, 1868, pp. 10-11
  • Westervelt, William D. – Hawaiian Historical Legends, New York, 1923, pp. 65-78
  • Kalakaua, David – The Legends and Myths of Hawai'i, New York, 1888, pp. 47-48
  • Stokes, John – "Whence Paao?" Hawaiian Historical Society Papers Vol. 15, Honolulu 1928, pp. 40-45

The Pa ao story also survives in various oral traditions passed down through Native Hawaiian families. Some Hawaiians insist on the purity and reliability of these traditions, but academic scholars believe that much from these traditions has been shaped by easily-available published versions of the narrative.

However, there is no reason to doubt that the Pa ao story was widespread in pre-contact times. A lineage of Hawaiian high priests claimed descent from Pa ao, and Hawaiian high chiefs traced their genealogies to Pili-kaaiea (Pili), the "pure" chief brought by Pa ao. Pa ao is said to have introduced human sacrifice, the walled heiau, the red feather girdle, the pulo ulo u kapu sign, the prostrating kapu, and the feather god Tairi. The Pa ao narrative justified and sanctioned the social order as it then existed.

Narrative as found in Malo

We are informed (by historical tradition) that two men named Paao and Makua-kaumana, with a company of others, voyaged hither, observing the stars as a compass; and that Paao remained in Kohala, while Makua-Kaumana returned to Tahiti. Paao arrived at Hawaii during the reign of Lono-ka-wai, the king of Hawaii. He (Lono-ka-wai) was the sixteenth in that line of kings, succeeding Kapawa. Paao continued to live in Kohala until the kings of Hawaii became degraded and corrupted (hewa); then he sailed away to Tahiti to fetch a king from thence. Pili (Kaaiea) was that king and he became one in Hawaii's line of kings (papa alii).
–David Malo, Hawaiian Antiquities, 1951 edition, p. 6.

Narrative in greater detail

The main outlines of the story follow. Many details vary from version to version. In one version told by British missionary William Ellis in 1826 Pa ao was a Caucasian chief.

Pa ao is said to have been a priest and a master navigator. He lived on a distant island called Kahiki in the oldest versions, and identified as either Tahiti or Samoamarker by believers in the historicity of the narrative.

His older brother, Lonopele, was the chief priest in some versions of the story, or the ruler of the island in others. Lonopele accused Pa ao's son of removing some kapu fish from the royal fishpond, or with stealing fruit. Pa ao was angry at his brother's persecution and in his anger, he killed his own son and ripped open the corpse's stomach, showing that there were no remnants of kapu fish – or of fruit, in another version – to be found.

Pa ao brooded over his misfortunes and decided to migrate to a distant land, far from his brother. He readied three large canoes for the voyage. He placed a kapu over the boats; no one was to touch the canoes without his permission. One evening, Pa ao discovered his nephew, the son of Lonopele, touching one of the sacred canoes. Pa ao killed his nephew and buried him in the sand under one of the canoes, which was elevated on blocks. Flies buzzed around the decomposing corpse, so the canoe was named Ka-nalo-a-muia, "the buzzing of flies."

Pa ao hurriedly assembled his retainers, launched the voyaging canoes, and departed. He left in such a hurry that one of his followers, an aged priest or prophet named Makuakaumana, was left behind. Makuakaumana climbed a cliff and called out to Pa ao; Pa ao refused to stop, saying that the canoes were full, all save the projection of the stern. Makuakaumana leapt from the cliff and gained his position in the canoe.

Pa ao sailed by the stars until they reached the Big Island of Hawaiimarker. They landed in Punamarker, where Pa ao built the stone temple platform, or heiau, of Aha-ula, or Red Mouth. This was the first luakini heiau in Hawaii, the first heiau where human sacrifices were offered. He is also said to have landed in Kohala, on the opposite side of the island, and built the famous heiau of Mo'okinimarker.

Pa ao believed that the chiefs of Hawai i had become hewa, or degraded, by indiscriminate intermarriage with lesser chiefs and commoners. He is said to have returned to his home island to fetch a chief of impeccable ancestry. He asked Lono-ka-eho, or Lono, who refused, and then recruited Pili-kaaiea, or Pili. Pa ao and Pili, along with Pili's chiefs and warriors, and their families, returned to Hawai i, where Pili became the new high chief.

Lineages of Pa ao and Pili

All the succeeding chiefs of the island claimed descent from the legendary Pili. Pa ao's descendants became priests, and their line or order, called Hola e, continued into historical times. The last high priest, Hewahewa, who acquiesced to Christianity and the breaking of the kapus or Ai Noa in 1819, claimed descent from Pa ao.


Until fairly recently, Hawaiian historians relied primarily on recorded oral history and comparative linguistics and ethnology. The "two migrations" theory was widely accepted. That is, in a first migration, Polynesians (specifically, Marquesansmarker) settled the Hawaiian islands. In the second migration, Tahitians came north, conquered the original settlers, and established stratified chiefdoms.

Hawaiian archaeology then came into its own and sought material evidence for two migrations. If the two migrations theory were correct, one would expect a sharp discontinuity in some features of material culture, such as heiau plans, house and settlement patterns, fishhook styles, etc. But archaeologists found no evidence whatsoever for a second migration. Rather, they found evidence for a gradual but relentless increase in settlement size and stratification. The Hawaiian polity seems to have evolved without any discernible outside stimulus.

Academic historians and archaeologists have now abandoned the two migrations theory. The Pa ao story is considered a myth, albeit an important and influential one. The Kahiki from which Pa ao was said to have sailed was not the real world Tahiti, or Samoa, but the divine realm, past the horizon (see Hawaiki). The Pa ao story claims a divine origin for the high chiefs and the practices with which they were associated (such as human sacrifice, prostrating kapus, and the like). There are many other Hawaiian and Polynesian myths with the same elements as the Pa ao narrative, which is thus seen as assembled from "stock parts."

However, some Native Hawaiians and others believe the Pa ao narrative is real history, and reflects an actual second migration from the south. The Polynesian Voyaging Society's undertakings, such as Hawaiiloa canoe's voyages, indicate the feasibility of long voyages in ancient Polynesian canoes and the reliability of celestial navigation; Pa ao's believers think this lends credibility to the oral traditions.

Hawaiian attitudes towards the high chiefs have changed; the ancient high chiefs are often seen today as oppressors, invaders who descended upon a peaceful and egalitarian Hawaiian population. Activists praise these pre-Pa ao days as the real Hawaiian past, to be revived and reenacted in the present, and vilify Pa ao as a source of Hawaiian problems. In this version, all the problems faced by Native Hawaiians can be traced to foreign interference.

See also


  • Malo, David, Hawaiian Antiquities, as translated by Emerson, 1951 edition, Bishop Museum Press
  • Beckwith, Martha; Hawaiian Mythology, 1940, as republished in 1970, University of Hawaii Press

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