For many people, sharks are fascinating, awe-inspiring creatures. For others, they can conjure up images of dangerous man-eaters. However, in Hawaiian mythology, some sharks are regarded as gods who are worshiped.
We’re going to investigate the many stories of the shark gods of Hawaii, starting with the story of Kāmohoaliʻi, who is the chief or king of all the shark gods.
We’ll also take a look at many of the other Hawaiian shark gods and see that while most are benevolent, some can be unkind.
Hawaiians have a deep spiritual connection to sharks, and we will look at what the shark gods mean to Hawaiian culture.
So, get ready for a journey of discovery into the fascinating world of the shark god Hawaii.
‘Aumākua – An Ancestor God
Before we begin the story of the ancient deity Kāmohoaliʻi, we need to understand the concept of ʻaumakua.
Kānaka maoli (Native Hawaiians) believe that ʻaumakua are personal or family gods originating from their venerated dead ancestors.
These gods watch over them and their families and give guidance and protection from danger. They will also judge a family member and may punish them for evil deeds.
ʻAumakua ancestor gods manifest themselves in spirit vehicles. They can be animals, including sharks and owls, or inanimate objects such as plants or even rocks.
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Families living next to and working in the ocean often have shark ’aumākua. They will offer their ‘aumākua affection, prayers, and food.
Many ancestral gods have a shark form (manō kumupa’a), but none are more famous than the ‘aumakua Kāmohoaliʻi.
Kāmohoaliʻi – The Shark God of Hawaii
Of all the mythical sharks, the Kāmohoaliʻi shark god is the most well known. This Polynesian god was the son of Haumea, the goddess of fertility and childbirth.
Kāmohoaliʻi is the brother of the terrestrial deity Kāne Milohai, Pele, the goddess of volcanoes and fire, Kapo, the goddess of fertility, sorcery, and dark powers, Nāmaka, the sea goddess, and Hiiaka, the owl goddess of chant, witchcraft, and medicine.
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Mythology says that when Kāmohoaliʻi found a lost vessel, he would shake his tail above the surface in front of them to signal he was there to help.
It is also thought that Kāmohoaliʻi guided the original Polynesian voyagers to Hawaii from the mainland.
Seafaring followers of the god of sharks vowed not to harm any sharks in return for his protection and navigational assistance.
Although he is best known for appearing as a shark, Kāmohoaliʻi could transform himself into any kind of hilu fish. He could also take a human form, and using this form, he wooed and married a woman named Kalei.
The king eventually returned to the sea, and Kalei gave birth to a male child, the demi-god named Nanaue. Before he left, Kāmohoaliʻi instructed Kalei should keep the boy out of sight and never allow him to eat meat of any kind.
The child was born with a deformity on his back. He has an opening similar to a fish’s mouth, which Kalei kept covered.
As he grew older, Nanaue became evil after eating meat with the village men. His opening became a shark mouth with teeth, and although he did not have a shark body, Nanaue became known as the shark man and a man-eater after attacking humans while they were swimming.
Nanaue escaped to the sea and eventually, the shark man lived alone in a cave near Kāneana, where he would capture unfortunate villagers and eat them with the shark mouth between his shoulder blades.
The shark man Nanaue was hunted and eventually killed by the people of Molokai island.
How Many Gods of Sharks Are There in Hawaii?
As well as the famous Hawaiian shark god Kāmohoaliʻi there are many other shark deities.
There is at least one shark king or queen for each of the eight Hawaiian islands, and the native people worship these gods or goddesses.
As individual families can have their personal shark ʻaumaku, it’s difficult to say precisely how many there are in total. However, here’s an overview of the most famous other shark gods in Hawaiian culture.
Kaʻahupahau (The Queen of the Sharks) & Her Brother Kahi’uka (Smiting Tail)
Kaʻahupahau is the queen of the sharks of O’ahu and the island’s sacred guardian spirit. In the shark god Hawaii importance line, Kaʻahupahau is second only to king Kāmohoaliʻi.
Both Kaʻahupahau and her brother Kahi’uka were born as humans but were transformed into sharks.
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Some mythological stories suggest their mother miscarried and dumped their fetuses into the ocean, where the gods rebirthed them as sharks.
Kaʻahupahau and Kahi’uka are said to have lived in Pearl Harbor. Their ocean home was once lined with dense oyster beds, thought to follow the shark goddess.
Once human activity, specifically that of the US Navy, polluted the waters, it is believed that Kaʻahupahau took herself and the oysters away.
The siblings protected the people of Pearl Harbor from man-eating sharks and enforced good behavior. Anyone in fear of sharks at sea could invoke their name for protection.
Kaʻahupahau would transform herself into a net to capture unwanted sharks, and then Kahi’uka would use his giant tail to injure or even kill them. This gave him the famous name of ‘Smiting Tail”.
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As a reward for the protection, the islanders would make food offerings and scrape barnacles from the shark’s bodies.
The US Navy attempted to build an ocean dry-dock over the underwater cave in Pearl Harbor in 1913 that legend said was the home to Kaʻahupahau and Kahi’uka. After the construction was complete, the dock mysteriously collapsed and was destroyed.
Locals believed that the smiting tail of Kahi’uka had destroyed the dock after it destroyed his cave home. Instead of attempting to rebuild, the Navy decided to build a floating dock so that the shark gods were not further disturbed.
Kane’apua (The Trickster Shark God Hawaii)
Kane’apua was the youngest child in the family and the brother of the gods Kane and Kanaloa who took on bird forms.
As a shark deity of Molokai and Lanai, Kane’apua would protect fishing grounds and so was worshiped by the fishermen. However, he was also known as a trickster spirit who eventually angered his brothers so much that they left him alone to fend for himself.
Kane’apua was able to conjure up amazing magical feats and protect boats from violent ocean storms. However, his tendency for comic mischief and tricks often led him to, perhaps accidentally, cause far more harm than fun.
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Kane’i’kokala (The Rescuer)
Kane’i’kokala was the god of fishing and was known to herd fish into the fisherman’s canoes. He would also rescue the victims of shipwrecks and carry them safely back to shore.
This shark deity is said to have come from the east, and for this reason, many Hawaiians face their front door eastward and make their morning prayers facing the sun as a sign of respect for Kane’i’kokala.
Kane’i’kokala decreed that the Hawaiian porcupine fish, the kokala, was sacred. To this day, followers of Kane’i’kokala will not eat the meat of the porcupine fish or anything that has touched it.
They even believe that breathing in the smoke when a porcupine fish is cooked will cause them bad luck when at sea.
Keali’ikau ‘o Ka’u (Great Shark War Hero)
The good shark gods fought many vicious wars to protect the Hawaiian people from man-eating sharks,
Keali’ikau ‘o Ka’u was a great hero of the great shark war, and he defeated many vicious tiger sharks from the Big Island in the fiercest and largest ocean battle as he protected the Ka’u people.
Keali’ikau ‘o Ka’u was the cousin of the great god Kāmohoaliʻi and the volcano god Pele.
He eventually fell in love with a human and had a green shark child with her, who also gained a widespread reputation for helping people.
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Kūhaimoana (The Giant Shark)
Kūhaimoana was born near Waikīkī on O’ahu, able to transform between a man, a god, and a shark form. He traveled around the Hawaiian islands until he met a woman with the head and body of a shark named Kaluaikaikona.
The pair married and lived on Lehua and Kauaʻi, where they had three children. Kūhaimoana wanted to see if his children had inherited his powers and devised a test of endurance.
Kūhaimoana extended his form to make his head reach Kaʻula island while his tail was at Kuihealani. He tasked each son, in turn, to swim around the length of his body and back.
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The now giant Kūhaimoana became known as a great leader from this time. His body was recorded as being 55 meters (180 feet) long, or almost ten times as big as the legendary Megalodon.
Kūhaimoana commanded the guardian sharks in the wars against the evil sharks at Puʻuloa. At a shallow part of the sea, Kūhaimoana could not move further as his body rested on the bottom. He sent Kūkaiʻaiki as his general, and he was able to lead the good sharks to victory.
Kepanilā and Mikalolou (The Evil Shark Gods of the Hawaiian Islands)
Finally, we have the man-eating predator sharks who fought against the good shark deities in the great shark wars.
Kepanilā’s name meant Sun Blocker. He was said to be large enough to envelop you in darkness if he swam above you in the waters of the Big Island.
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Kepanilā and Mikalolou were shark brothers who always hunted and fought together. While they were proficient warriors, and Kepanilā himself was pretty big, they were no match for the giant Kūhaimoana when they came up against him, and they were eventually defeated.
What Does the Shark Mean in Hawaiian Culture?
Sharks have an essential cultural significance in Hawaii’s past and present. Shark ’aumakua are common through many people’s family history and are still recognized and revered today.
Ancient Hawaiian poems and songs tell how the shark gods guided the first people to the islands and protected them from harm. Many legends feature sharks and talk of their mystical powers.
Many modern Hawaiians consider sharks as sacred and to be respected and protected as their ancestors did. The cultural meaning of the spiritual connection to sharks promotes kinship and the protection of others.
Additionally, shark conservation has been held up as a perfect demonstration of respecting the balance in nature to keep ecosystems staying healthy.
Historically, islanders did not eat sharks except for the island chief. Man-eating sharks, predominantly tiger sharks, called niuhi, were caught in nets where they were fed flesh and intoxicating awa root.
Once the tiger shark was powerless, they were taken out of the water and killed. The niuhi tiger shark skin and bones were prized possessions for the chief.
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The islanders used shark teeth for knives and a club-like weapon called a leiomano. Shark teeth were also depicted in family members tattoos to portray strength, power, guidance, and protection.
The skin was used by the islanders to make the sacred pahu ceremonial drum used for religious ceremonies and hula.
During Princess Kekuiapoiwa II’s pregnancy, she famously asked for the eyes of the niuhi tiger shark from the sea as she believed that they would cause her unborn child to have courage and incredible leadership qualities.
The kahuna priests took this as a positive sign, and her son became King Kamehameha I, who was eventually responsible for uniting the islands after a long war.
As we’ve looked at the shark god Hawaii, we’ve heard amazing tails of ʻaumakua, the ancestor deities who watch over families and provide guidance and protection.
We’ve heard about Kāmohoaliʻi, the most famous of all the gods with a shark form. He guided lost ships back to safety and may have even brought the original settlers to the islands across the ocean.
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We’ve also considered some of the other famous Hawaiian shark gods and heard stories of both good and evil.
Which is your favorite of all these Hawaiian deities? Let us know what you think in the comment, and don’t forget to share the article with anyone you know who might find it interesting.
British-born Dan has been a scuba instructor and guide in Egypt's Red Sea since 2010.
Dan loves inspiring safe, fun, and environmentally responsible diving and particularly enjoys the opportunity to dive with sharks or investigate local shipwrecks.
When not spending time underwater, Dan can usually be found biking and hiking in Sharm's desert surroundings.