‘Ano lani; ‘ano honua.
A heavenly nature; an earthly nature.
Said of some ʻaumākua who make themselves visible to loved ones by assuming an earthly form.
— ‘Ōlelo No‘eau #119

What is an ‘aumakua?

A traditional Hawaiian saying tells us that an ʻaumakua is “ʻAno lani; ʻano honua.” This means an ʻaumakua is a being of both a heavenly and an earthly nature. An ʻaumakua is an ancestor that has died and has come back in a different form. An ʻaumakua usually helps, inspires, guides, and communicates with members of the family.

Some traditional forms of ‘aumakua

ʻAumākua are known to take on the forms of animals, plants, and other natural phenomena. For example, a pueo, or owl, may be the ʻaumakua for a particular family. However, this does not mean that all pueo are guardians for that family. One particular pueo is an ʻaumakua for that family, providing that the ʻaumakua is properly taken care of through offerings and prayer.

What is the relationship between kanaka and ‘aumakua?

ʻAumākua link Hawaiians to Pō, which is the realm of the gods and our ancestors. Pō is the great darkness, the force that creates our Hawaiian universe. An ʻaumakua is a relative, so the connection between humans and gods is very personal and compassionate.

The relationship between humans and ʻaumakua is reciprocal. That is to say, there is an exchange between the two, where something is given, or owed, to each other. Humans are to hoʻomana and hānai, to worship and to feed the ʻaumakua, and to behave in a way that will not anger the ʻaumakua. The role of the ʻaumakua is that of a guardian. The ʻaumakua helps in times of trouble and gives inspiration or strength in times of need. ʻAumākua have their ways of supporting their relatives.

How do you care for your ‘aumakua?

Humans are responsible for feeding the ʻaumākua. This is done through prayer and offerings of sacrifices, called kaumaha ʻai. Many different things are offered to the ʻaumākua: pigs, chickens, dogs, fish, and young kalo leaves. ʻAwa is known as the best of all offerings.

In caring for an ʻaumakua, a family must not eat or harm the animal form their ʻaumakua takes. If the ʻaumakua has a manō (shark) form, the family must not eat or harm sharks. This shows respect for the ʻaumakua.

Families also must be careful not to eat or harm any related animal forms. Puhi (eels), ʻenuhe (caterpillars), and loli (sea cucumbers) have similar shapes and are considered related creatures. Families with a puhi for an ʻaumakua would not eat or harm ʻenuhe, loli, or puhi.

‘Awa, also known as kava or kavakava, is known throughout the Pacific. It is utilized by many cultures for medicinal, religious, political, cultural, and social purposes. In Hawai’i, ‘awa has a special role in the worship of ‘aumakua.

How do ‘aumākua care for us?

ʻAumākua communicate with people in different ways. They can appear in dreams. They can speak directly to their relatives. They can appear as a sign or omen to convey meaning for the family. “Ke kau mai nei ka mākole” is a saying that literally means the red-eyed one rests above. It refers to a predominantly red rainbow. For some, this is a sign that their ʻaumakua is there, watching over them.

Moʻolelo, or stories about ʻaumākua, are part of Hawaiʻi’s past and present. Here is an English version of a story involving ʻaumākua. The source is the Hawaiian language newspaper Ka Nupepa Kuokoa. The story appeared in the June 8, 1906 issue with the title “Moʻolelo ʻAu Moana” (Story of An Open Ocean Voyage). It’s a great example of how ʻaumākua help their ʻohana.

Back in 1842, a family left Niʻihau by canoe, traveling to Kauaʻi. There were eight of them. Lilimaikalani Kaonohilani was the father, Hinaaholo was the mother, and they were accompanied by six of their children, in-laws, and grandchildren, including Kaukaopuaikamakaokekai, Ululaulani, Kaopuaikamakaokekai, Hulimailani, and two whose names have been forgotten.

Around noontime, their waʻa overturned somewhere between Niʻihau and Kauaʻi. The winds were strong and large waves were breaking on them, so they could not right the canoe. After trying in vain to right the canoe, and realizing that they were being pulled out to sea, they decided to swim for Kauaʻi. The father and mother floated patiently next to the waʻa, thinking about the next step. As for the rest of the family, they were terribly scared and had begun to panic. They all started to swim, each one swimming off to save their own life and not listening to the parents’ directions.

Lilimaikalani and Hinaaholo believed in their ʻaumākua. Despite the tough situation they were in, they began to pray. Out of nowhere, an owl appeared and hovered directly above the two of them. Lilimaikalani told Hinaaholo, “That’s our path to get us back to land. Let’s go.”

It was already dusk when the pueo showed up. So they swam, following the pueo to return to land. They continued swimming until they got tired, then rested a bit. The owl would descend and flap its wings on Lilimaikalani’s forehead, and then fly up again. That’s how this pueo led them through the dark of night. As the light of day broke, they had reached Nuʻalolo, on the Nāpali coast of Kauaʻi.

As for the children, they had been swimming together and were floating in the ocean not knowing what to do. They decided to connect themselves together with a rope so they would not get separated, come what may.

They kept swimming as dusk fell and continued swimming into the late night hours. They didn’t see land at all as they fought off hunger, thirst, and exhaustion. One of the children, Kaopuaikamakaokekai, said to the others, “I have heard that our kūpuna had a shark ʻaumakua. It wouldn’t hurt for us to try to find out if it were true.” The others refused, because they were afraid the shark might eat them. However, after a while, they changed their minds, for their fear of the manō gave way to fear of drowning at sea, and so they agreed to what Kaopua suggested.

Kaopua made his appeal to the ʻaumakua in prayer, twice. All of a sudden the ocean surged and subsided. The water turned warm, and the tail fin of the manō touched Kaopua. The great fish rose up to the surface of the water right in front of them. Kaopua turned to the others and said, “This is our way to safety. I’ll hold on here, you guys hold on to the dorsal fin.”

They grabbed hold of the manō, and off it swam. It was dawn when they had met up with the shark. It continued to pull them to safety through the daylight hours.

In the early afternoon, they arrived at Kalalau after being in the ocean for twenty-seven hours. They were left there, shivering from the cold. Two of them were taken by the manō to Hanalei. For them the trip lasted over two days, and they were the most exhausted of the family. All in all, there were no lives lost. The works of the ʻaumākua are wondrous indeed!


What else do ‘aumākua do?

ʻAumākua do more than provide help. Sometimes they discipline their family members if there is wrongdoing. Illness is sometimes believed to be a form of punishment sent by an ʻaumakua. If a person took something he shouldn’t have, his ʻaumakua could cause swelling and pain in his hand. The pain would continue until he returned the object.

Breaking kapu by eating the physical form of the ʻaumakua would bring about punishment. There are accounts of people who have done so. They became violently ill or died shortly afterward.

If some sort of misbehavior offended the ʻaumakua, it was up to the family to make amends. Things like greed, jealousy, and dishonesty could strain family relationships and bring about punishment from the ʻaumākua.

When these problems occur, it is said that there is only one remedy—Hoʻokahi nō lāʻau lapaʻau, ʻo ka mihi—to repent and ask forgiveness. To be in the good graces of our ʻaumākua is important.

It is through our ‘aumākua, that we sustain a practical connection with our ancestors.

A quick note about ‘aumākua

What can we say?
Families may have mixed feelings about discussing ʻaumakua. For some, it is okay to speak openly about ʻaumakua with family members. Information about a family’s ʻaumakua can be very personal, so it is shared only with the family. On the other hand, some people are fine with talking about ʻaumakua to just about anyone. It is their choice to discuss and share in this way. Other families may be uncomfortable with the subject. They may prefer not to talk about it at all.

When asking about topics such as ʻaumakua, one must remember not to be mahaʻoi. That is, do not be rude or disrespectful. Do not ask too much about things that don’t concern you. There is a right time and place for questions. If a kupuna feels the time is right, he may answer your questions. If the time is not right, there will be no answer.