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You are here: /main/research/NOWRAMP 2002/journals/kanehunamoku/


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Where Kane Hides the Islands
Posted by Scott Kikiloi, graduate researcher, Center for Hawaiian Studies, U.H.M.
September 30, 2002

Kanehunamoku, the "hidden islands" of Hawai'i.Kanehunamoku is one of twelve mythical islands under the control of Kane, believed to lie somewhere off the main Hawaiian chain (Beckwith 1970). In certain popularized Hawaiian literature (Rice 1923; Westervelt 1915), these islands have been labeled the "hidden islands" or "lost islands" of the Hawaiian Archipelago. It is believed that these twelve islands only appear during certain phases of the moon, specifically on the night of Mohalu (the twelfth night of the moon phase as it begins to round the first of the Kane nights). They also make periodical appearances on the moon phase of Akua (a full moon). The islands themselves may lie under the sea or upon the surface, and can be seen near the horizon when the sun is setting. These "hidden islands" are also said to be capable of disappearing into the clouds.

While romanticizing adds mystery and suspense to these mo`olelo, it is important to understand what these traditions actually represent in the natural world. Kanehunamoku and the twelve sacred islands represent a concept that is tied to real processes that have been observed for generations by our ancestors. Over time the concept has become layered, and embellished with color and flavor, but the meaning behind it still holds true today. In Hawaiian thought, each akua, or god manifests himself/herself in a number of elements in the natural world ranging from coral types, marine life, clouds, atmospheric strata, winds, mountains, plants, and even natural processes. These manifestations are called kinolau, or body forms. The god Kane has numerous body forms, so many that I cannot list them all here. Kanehunamoku is just one manifestation of this god, and it is a natural phenomenon seen here in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Pearl and Hermes Atoll from space.Most of the islands in the Northwest region are very low atolls, islets, seamounts, and shoals that are highly susceptible to erosion from the ocean tides. A good example of this is the atoll Pearl and Hermes. Pearl and Hermes was surveyed in 1857 by the ship Manuokawai, as it reported seeing six islets that make up the atoll. In 1859, the atoll was surveyed again by the ship Gambia, who reported seeing twelve small islands. Today there are only five islets that make up Pearl and Hermes. These islets undoubtedly shift, disappear over time, only to reappear later. Another example is Mokupapapa, and flat-reef island that was recorded to exist by Captain Cook on his expedition to these island, but has never been verified to exist since. Oral traditions tell us that its location is right next to Ka`ula island, however there is nothing present there today.

Kanehunamoku is a phenomenon that captures this. What this process directly translates to is the relationship between tidal changes and moon phases, and the disappearance and reappearance of low lying landforms. As the moon reaches different phases with the Earth, it changes the gravitational pull of the planet, and thus creates changes in currents, and the level of our oceans. Islands that are sensitive to these changes can disappear, and become "hidden" by the god Kane. These traditions and ancient stories of Hawai`i have many levels of meaning to them. They teach us important lessons in life, based on thousands of years of observation and learning. It is important to maintain the integrity of these stories, so that these fundamental lessons don't get "hidden" or "lost" themselves.

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Kupuna Article

Asked by Kau'i from personal on Jan 17, 2007.
Aloha kaua,

Mahalo for the article and for providing wonderful insight into the customs, traditions, and mo'olelo of our kupuna that can be supported by today's scientists.

Answered by Paulo from University of Hawaii on Jan 17, 2007.
Dear Kau`i,

Thank you for your comment. We are glad that you enjoyed the article.



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