The Hawaiian Honu and its Meaning
There is a petroglyph or ki’ pohaku of a turtle or honu found in the Pu’u Loa lava fields on the Big Island Hawaii – although the meaning of most of the petroglyphs have been lost through time, the turtle has always had held special meaning to the Hawaiians.
The petroglyph shows a simple sketch of a turtle with its four flippers out as if swimming in the ocean, and a vertical line down its shell. The turtle also symbolizes the navigator that is able to find its way home time and time again, just as in real life, the green Hawaiian turtle will swim hundreds of miles to its own birthing place to lay eggs.
Honu as Aumakua
The honu is also revered as an Aumakua or guardian spirits that can take the shape of any animal. It is in mythology a bearer of good luck, a frightening monster to be released among enemies, a living bridge that brings two lovers together and the foundation of some of the islands. There is even a hula honu which closely imitates the action of a turtle furiously digging through the sand for a place to lay its eggs
Ancient Hawaiians were animists and believed that their Aumakua or guardian spirits could take the shape of any animal. These guardians were also viewed as the embodiment of their ancestors. The green Hawaiian turtle is the only indigenous reptile to the Hawaiian islands, is revered as a sacred symbol of the life force and could only be consumed by the royalty or ali’i for its attributes of longevity and endurance. Members of the honu clan in old Hawaiian however refrained from eating the turtle
The ancient Hawaiians used every bit of the honu – its flesh and cartilage were made into soup or stew and even the internal organs were cooked and eaten Its shell was broken into pieces for tools, such as fish-hooks and as an instrument to scrape the bark off the paper mulberry tree or wauke. The bark was then used to make the tapas cloth. The skin of the honu was made into leather.
The honu was also presented as an offering to Kanaloa, the God of the Ocean, who was also believed to assume the shape of the honu when he needed a physical form.
Protection has seen their numbers increase again after exploitation for their shells
Legends of the Honu
There are some Hawaiian legends which said that turtles were the first to guide the Polynesians to the Hawaiian islands, while other myths attribute that to the golden plover. Nonetheless, there is a longstanding legend of a big green sea turtle, Kailua, who could turn itself into the form of a girl at will. In human form, she would look after the children playing on Punalu’u Beach
Her mother, Honu-po'o-kea, was an exceptional, magnificent and some deemed supernatural, turtle and her head was pure white like the snows on the slopes of Mauna Kea. She dug a hole to lay a brown egg which was as beautifully and smoothly polished as Kailua wood. Her mate Honu-ea, who had been bobbing in the water waiting for her, crept up to shore and together, they dug a hole from which fresh water gushed to form a little pool
The egg hatched into Kailua who lived at the bottom of the spring and she would turn herself into the form of a girl at will and in this form, would keep a careful eye on the children playing by the ocean. She became the turtle guardian of the keiki, and also brought with her the gift of fresh spring water to ancient Hawaiians.
Basking in the Sun
Dozens of green turtles can be seen swimming off the black sands of Punalu’u Beach at the southern point of the Big Island, either chewing on seaweed, or gliding around with the tide as the sea waves wash over them. Even now, fresh water bubbles through the lava sand in a continuation of Kauila’s legacy.
The green turtle is the most popular of the four species of honu found in Hawaiian waters. However, the hawksbill or ‘ea remains endangered and the leatherback turtle, which has a hard leather carapace, lives in deep waters and is rarely spotted. At one stage, the ranks of the green honu were almost completely decimated but their numbers have been restored. They can now been seen basking in the sun, a relatively new phenomenon which may have arisen because they feel now safe on Hawaiian beaches.
Honu in the Chant of Creation
The honu is mentioned in the fourth chant of the Kumilopo, the Hawaiian chant of creation as follows:
“The night gives birth to rough-backed turtles
The night produces horn-billed turtles
The night gives birth to dark-red turtles”
Further in the ode it says,
“Born is the turtle living in the sea
Guarded by the Maile seedlings living on land”
The Honu, a link to our past and future.
While they are young juveniles, the honu will hover around the coastal waters of the Hawaiian islands where they are prey to pollution, speed boats, fishing nets and plastic and trash in the water. At maturity, around 25 years, they swim more than 800 miles to the French Frigate Shoals in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian islands where they mate. Drift nets and long fishing lines are dangers to them during the migration and sharks are their main enemy during the mating ritual.
The honu is a pretty good indicator of ocean health and the restoration of the numbers of green turtles is a wonderful testimony to the efforts of preservation and conservation. The honu is a creature from a time when the earth was young and is believed to be 150 million years old. It is our link with our past and its continued existence is our link to a hopeful future.