MythBits: The Menehuneon August 16, 2011 at 12:02 pm
The first time I went to Hawai’i, I stayed on the island of Oahu and was taken on a group tour of Honolulu. Our guide brought us up Diamond Head, and after a very interesting talk about that extinct volcano asked, “Does anyone have any questions?”
I raised my hand. ”What’s the Hawai’ian equivalent of elves?”
It may seem like a totally out-of-left-field question (Um, Hawai’ian elves? Who asks about Hawai’ian elves? As a matter of fact, who asks tour guides about any kind of elves, period?) but it was a very logical inquiry, from my point of view.
For said point of view, See Elsewhere, about my long-term-and-ongoing interest in myths, legends, folklore and fairy tales of as many different cultures as I can get my hands/paws/eyes/library card on. This world is filled with countless wonder-stories and I want to hear all of them!
So, after our guide picked his chin off the ground, he said, “That would be the menehune,” and he proceeded to perform the introductions. Quite a few years have gone by between that sunny autumn day in the shadow of Diamond Head and now. I know a fair amount about the menehune, but I no longer remember how much of that knowledge came from him and how much I acquired from my own subsequent research. But–lucky you!–you get it all here in one neat package.
The menehune are the “little people” of Hawai’i, like the brownies, pixies, gremlins, and fairies of Western European lore. They’re also like elves, but strictly the type belonging to the world of The Shoemaker and the Elves rather than the tall, elegant, inhumanly beautiful creatures of The Lord of the Rings.
(Actually, their function is very Shoemaker and the Elves, as you shall learn, but their size is close to that of hobbits, according to the folklore consensus. And yes, it’s kind of funny to hear one imaginary entity’s appearance being defined by that of a different imaginary entity, yet because of the Lord of the Rings movies, we all now have a visual point of reference for how big hobbits should look that makes this easy to understand. IOW, just go along with it.)
The menehune are reputed to be excellent builders. They work quickly, efficiently, secretly and, as far as I have heard, for free. They are supposed to have been the ones who built many of the great shrines/sacred places (heiaus) of Hawai’i. They also built the fish ponds for the rulers of the islands. (When you want to have some fish for dinner, it’s very convenient to be able to send someone down to a nice, enclosed, well-stocked pond rather than depend on the luck you’ll have trying to catch fish in the sea.)
This reputation as quick (sometimes overnight!) builders is probably why many contemporary construction projects in Hawai’i show a menuhune in a hardhat, setting out to get the job done fast!
According to what our guide said, the menehune are still very much a part of contemporary Hawai’ian life. This is not a direct quote–it’s been too long–but the gist of what he said was: ”If you ask about the menehune, some people will even tell you, ‘Oh yeah, they’re around. My aunt married one.’”
Yet another reason I really, really, really love learning about mythology. [G]