ʻIo and the Hawaiian Monotheism

‘Io and the Christian God are not the same. Hawaiians and Māori both had a deity named ‘Io and in both cases they were tied with forest deities. The first written account by the Maori of Io was only published in 1907 and mostly came from H. T. Whatahoro, who was a former tohunga and Mormon missionary. Sir Apirana Ngata, Sir Peter Buck and John Te Herekiekie Grace all said that Io was a late innovation that came from the Tainui and Te Arawa tribes and were unique to Aotearoa.  Both Sir Peter Buck and Sir Apirana Ngata actually believed that Io was a misinterpretation from a bird creation myth by a European writer, Prytz Johansen, who promoted the idea in order to show that the Maori were “civilized” and were Aryans.  Outside of Māori Mormons, most Māori from the Tainui do not associate Io with Jehovah.  The very first time anything about Io was published from the Hawaiian perspective was in 1931 in a magazine by Mrs. Emma Ahuena Taylor, also a Mormon and from the Kamehameha line. Then in the 1980s came one of the most hate filled books on the Hawaiian religion called “Perpetuated in Righteousness” by Daniel Kikawa, a born again Christian, who picked up on the Taylor myth.  But Kamakau, Kepelino, and Malo never mentioned anything about a deity named Io even though all of them having such a myth would have made their work to propagate the Christian faith easier. Kamakau actually says that the hawk was actually eaten.  In fact, King Kalākaua, Kepelino, Poepoe, Nawahi and Malo tried to associate the Christian god with the akua, Kane, in their writings. The name “Io” and “Iolani” appear as titles to many Hawaiian ali’i including Kamehameha II and IV. If a name and history was so sacred, why was it an openly used title? 
From my own family traditions, the ‘Io was an ‘aumakua of Hawai’i island chiefs and the white or yellowish hawk was associated with Kane but the dark brown one was associated with ‘Uli.  In one of the creation stories that I was told, the special red bird called the manu’ulakina’u or the kai’iwikina’u kept appearing in dreams to Maui urging him to keep “fishing” for islands and would tell him where to “fish”. Eventually the bird led him to the islands of Hawai’i. Unlike the Papa-Wakea cycle and like the Pele cycles, Maui fished out the islands clockwise beginning with Nihoa until Hawai’i island–much like the procession of the Makahiki. One will notice that the names manu’ulakina’u and ka’iwakina’u also appear among sacred names in Kaua’i and O’ahu lines of rulers, including in my own middle name. Similar Maui stories with birds leading him are also found among Tahitian, Marquesan, Tongan, and Māori sources. When Kamehameha came to rule over the archipelago, he changed the ‘iwi bird to the ‘io bird in order to highlight his personal ‘aumakua. When the Kalākaua dynasty came to power, ‘io was replaced by the ‘i’iwi who were ‘aumakua of Queen Kapi’olani’s family line. One will find that in many hula performances at ‘Iolani Palace, there was usually one or two dances with ‘i’iwi bird references.  I was told by my own family traditions that the ‘io was a powerful deity who was a messenger from the lewalani and guardian of the hidden islands of Kāne, but not a supreme deity. The dark ‘io was associated though with not such great things like Uli and ‘ana’ana, but again not a supreme deity. A personal supreme god was unnecessary in the Hawaiian concept of religion in the first place because Hawaiians thought in more circular and in more abstract forms. In addition to that, the ideas of salvation and sin–usually tied with monotheistic religions–are alien concepts.

Before going into that, it might be helpful if we look at the word akua in the first place, as there is life and death in words. Hawaiian is a Polynesian language closely related to Marquesan. All Polynesian languages are part of the Austronesian family of languages which includes other related languages like Ami (Taiwan), Malagasy (Madagascar), Iluko or Ilocano (Philippines), Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesia), Javanese (Indonesia), etc. At some point in our history, some 4,000 or more years ago, all these Austronesian languages came from one very ancient mother language that emerged in the Pacific. As people spread over the Pacific, the language became separated and dialects from. As time went on, dialects became full languages. But many of the ancient concepts were still embedded within certain customs and certain words. So much so that one can actually follow the evolution of a single word from one side of the Pacific to the other side in a pretty logical path. The word “akua” has a cognate or close relationship in the Pacific with the words makua, atua, matua, tua, tuan, and tuhan. Akua and makua, most Hawaiians already know. The two ideas are linked together because according to genealogical ties, all of the akua are ancestors.  Matua and tua in different Indonesian languages means parent, elder, major pole of a house, or founder of a ruling house. Tuan and tuhan in Malaysian and Indonesian languages means elder, chief, or lord. In some languages in Borneo  tuhan also means both the head chief of the tribe and the patron akua of the tribe. So we can see that to our ancient ancestors, they associate their akua with their founding parents and their ancestors. So when thinks of akua, they should be thinking not of some outside force, but of ancestors who became venerated after their death and would took up different kuleana or aspects for us, their descendants. They became the personification of aspects of traditions, natural laws, and of the people themselves. In many cases, to paraphrase Sir Peter Buck wrote that great navigators became chiefs, great chiefs became akua. As akua, they would then became the the mind images for the people to understand Pō to uphold ideas of traditions, nature, and morality. 

The Polynesian concept of Pō is integral to understanding Polynesian monotheism and polytheism. Were Hawaiians polytheistic? Yes. Were Hawaiian monotheistic? Yes. Were Hawaiians animists? Yes. All of these answers are yes but Polynesian ideas of religion can not be understood in Western linear ways, in the same way that Hinduism and aspects of Buddhism require a totally different frame of mind and world view. The body of akua, ke kini akua,  the 40,000 or 400,000 gods, were all part of an ocean. An ocean that flowed the manifestation of the hanu akua, the breath of the akua or divine essence, which was a reflection of the vastness of Pō, which existed and always existed. Kane is but a drop of the ocean. Kāne is the ocean because Kāne is part of the ocean. Every drop of the ocean contains the ocean. At the same time, since it has become separated from the ocean, it has acquired a form. If the drop is in the palm of your hand, it acquires the shape of your palm. If its in a bowl, this drop acquires the shape of the bowl. But when you place the drop back into the ocean, it returns to the ocean not as a individual drop but as it were before. All of the akua were like these. Kāne, ‘Uli, Ku, Hina, Lono, and the other akua were drops of the hanu akua that were made to take forms in remembrance of our ancient parents. That is why the multitude of gods are referred to as Ke kini akua with the singular indefinite marker, ke, not the indefinite plural marker, nā. The 40,000 were one, yet could be separated into 40,000. That is why Hawaiians of the 19th century did not have an issue with praying to Jehovah and then making offerings to Laka, Ku or Pele. Their world view did not object to this because whether one believed in Jehovah, Ku, or Buddha, all of these were drops from the same ocean of the hanu akua, the divine essence of that which came our ancestors and akua were part of and to which in Hawaiian religious thought, our wailua or souls merge from and would return to.  That’s also very similar to the beliefs that Māori, Tahitians, Marquesans, Tongans, Micronesians and even Javanese once held. So it is a concept that came from our very early ancestors. There simply was no need to have an almighty powerful deity in the Polynesian world view because the many were one out of the one emerged the many. This world view of course of the early Christian missionaries objected to this but that’s something else.

Some references:

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