The Menehune of Polynesia and other Mythical Little People of Oceania

by Sidnee on January 4, 2014

In 1951, anthropologist and folklorist Katharine Luomala (1907-1992), published The Menehune of Polynesia and Other Mythical Little People of Oceania, a study of the Hawaiian Menehune, through the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. Luomala included in her study the “stories, beliefs, and scientific theories concerning three categories of beings: (1) the Hawaiian Menehune and related types in Hawaii’ (2) groups of people in central Polynesia called Manahune or Manaune, terms which are dialectical variants of the name Menehune; the (3)dwarfs or pygmies in several Pacific island mythologies who, though not called Menehune, have certain resemblances to them.” (p.3)

In the introduction¬† she traced Menehune beliefs in Hawaii and beyond, noting: “belief in their existence appears to persist even past the age when a belief in Santa Claus has been surrendered. One encounters adults, educated and presumable sane individuals, who become quite indignant if an eyebrow is twitched about their belief in the Menehune. Few of these believing children of all ages have a drop of Hawaiian blood.” (p.3)

She noted that before the end of WWII there was little attempt to use the Menehune for commercial purpose, That ended, apparently, in the late 1940s and early 50s, when “the energetic Menehune (were) lured to the main business streets and put to work as salesmen.” This trend has continued to the present, whether by first time visitors, Hawaiian school children, kama’aina businessmen–or Hawaii State government. Creative interpretations of these “little people” are used for many purposes, in art, dance, story, video games, signage–it even occupies the dreams of otherwise clear-headed people. The Menehune is the archetypical fairy story–Hawaiian style.

Luomala hoped her research and review of the literature might give “a new perspective on the identity of the Menehune described in the collections of myths by Fornander, Rice, and Thrum; their origin’ and particularly, the reason for the existence of Menehune.” (p.3)

In the section “Description of the Hawaiian Menehune and their Culture – Physical Anthropology”, Luomala writes:

Material relating to the physical anthropology of the Menehune leaves much to be desired, because people who profess to have seen Menehune tend to be incoherent and because no Menehune skeletons have been submitted to anthropologists for study. Although Bishop Museum has thousands of ancient Hawaiian skeletons awaiting analysis, no preliminary survey by physical anthropologists has as yet spotted what might be a Menehune skeleton among the bones.

However, one may choose from a number of descriptions. One account has it that Menehune average two to three feet in height (Rice, William Hyde, Hawaiian Legends: B.P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 3, 1923, p. 136). Another makes them even shorter, below the knees of Naipualehu, a Kauai dwarf (apparently non-mythical and non-Menehune) who was about three feet tall (Kaiwi, 42; Thrum 68, p. 214). The one seen in Honolulu recently, it will be recalled, was only four or five inches tall. Perhaps the word mites should be added to such informal and unscientific classifications as dwarfs, trolls, pixies, elves, gnomes, fairies, pygmies, diminutives, and little men.

Although there are women and children among the Menehune, little is said about them. No one ever claims to have seen a female Menehune. One can only wonder why. Their height in comparison with that of the men has not been reported. Analike, one of the few Menehune females ever mentioned in stories, was a girl who lived on an island that floated about the Pacific and who is described as beautiful and very petite. This is sufficient and suitable for a story description, if not for science. She married a castaway chief Keaweahu of Kona, Hawaii, who presumably was of normal size. One cannot discuss the genetics of this miscegenation because the height of their son is not given. (see Lydgate, 46, p. 135)

The most detailed description of Menehune is that of J.H. Kaiwi (42; Thrum, 68, pp.214-219), whose grandparents claimed to have met some Menehune while gathering sandalwood in the mountain forests of Kauai. Kaiwi describes the Menehune as having short, hairy bodies, which are stout, round, muscular, and very strong. Set in a red-skinned face are big eyes hidden by long eyebrows. A low, protruding forehead is covered with hair of un-described color and texture.
The nose is short and thick. Kaiwi adds the information that the Menehune have a set expression that makes them unpleasant to look at and inspires fear, though they are neither angry or quarrelsome, but are good people who molest no one without cause.

J.A. Akina, Rice’s informant (52), confirms that they are small, broad, and muscular with tremendous energy and strength. Thrum (62, p. 144), contrary to Kaiwi, says that Menehune are smooth-skinned with little body hair (glabrous).

Only once have the Menehune been described as a large rather than a small people. This account, which Fornander states is based on the writings of Kepelino and Kamakau, native Hawaiian historians, differs in many respects from other accounts and will be discussed later. It is sufficient to note here that the Menehune therein described are called a large, numerous, and powerful people (Fornander, 27, vol. 6 pt. 2, pp. 270-271). Though Solomon K Kaulilili, in a manuscript in Bishop Museum, refers to the Menehune as “a large race of people,” the adjective is ambiguous. Is “large” used in the sense of numerous, or is it a description of the size of the people?

from: Katharine Luomala, The Menehune of Polynesia and Other Mythical Little People of Oceania. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 203. Honolulu, Hawaii. Published by the Museum (1951).

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Gary Smith April 28, 2015 at 8:42 PM

Were Menehune mostly on Kauai? We have the ditch and fish pond Alekoko attributed to them, do other islands have similar?

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