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Tiki Gods Explained

Although Tiki culture was introduced to American consciousness in the 1930s, it was in 1959 when Hawaii was made the last state of the US that interest in Hawaiian and Polynesian culture became widespread. Tiki-themed restaurants, hut bars, artwork, music as well as every day things such as poles, mugs, masks, torches and knick-knacks surged in popularity. Tiki was thus integrated into the American way of life.

These days, we are seeing a rebirth of interest in Tiki as younger generations come to know about the exotic culture of the South Pacific that are symbolized by the eye-catching artifacts associated with Tiki traditions. This is a good opportunity to revisit the Tiki gods and myths surrounding them which ultimately are the basis of all things Tiki, to give a better understanding of Hawaiian and Polynesian culture.

The Four Tiki Gods in Hawaiian mythology

All over the South Pacific, ancient traditions woven into songs and stories speak of gods who had the strengths and weaknesses of men and controlled nature’s forces. The natives of Polynesian islands worship and fear these deities, for the good and bad things that the gods may inflict on them. In Hawaii, ancient creation myths usually highlight four great gods: Ku, Kanaloa, Kane and Lono.

Tiki God KaneKane Milohai was the first god who came into being and is responsible for the creation of the universe. It is for this reason that Kane symbolizes life itself, as he is the progenitor of life in nature. Kane distributed to the other gods the domains in which they would rule: Kanaloa was assigned the seas, Ku was the guardian of the forests, and Lono was responsible for food plants. He created all the things found on earth and later created the Great Chief, the first man who was to rule the universe he created. Interestingly, the way the Great Chief was created had an uncanny resemblance to biblical accounts of the creation of Adam: the god fashioning a figure of a man from clay and afterwards breathing life into his creation.

Tiki God KuThe name Ku means "to stand" and "to strike", which is why the deity named Ku was the god of war in Hawaii. His name was usually combined with descriptive native words that give specific attributes, as in Ku-ka-ili-moku meaning "Ku-the-seizer-of-land". He can be Ku-of-the-deep-forest, Ku-of-the-undergrowth, Ku-adzing-out-the-canoe, and many more. But it is his attribute as Ku-with-the-maggot-dropping-mouth that makes ancient natives tremble in fear at the mention of his name – as Ku is the only major deity for which human sacrifices were made during rituals.

Lono is identified with rain and plants as the god of fertility. He is also a deity for music, and peace, and it is in his honor that the great annual Makahiki festival was held. During the festival period from October through February, excessive work and war was taboo. It is a season for merry-making, games, paying taxes and ironically, planning the next war.

Tiki God LonoHawaiian traditions suggest that Lono sometimes manifests into a human form and returns to the islands by canoe, which is why the coming of Captain James Cook in the 18th century was associated by some as a return of the god.

Tiki God KanaloaIn many chants, Kane is paired with the god Kanaloa, the god of the sea who is symbolized with the squid. The two deities were seen as complementary powers, representing wild (Kanaloa) and taming (Kane) powers in nature. Erroneous interpretations of Kanaloa being an evil force and Kane the good one were most likely the handiwork of European missionaries trying to refashion the four major deities into the Christian mold of Trinity plus Satan. The paired invocation and devotion to both deities simply don’t fit the typecasting of Kanaloa as an evil force. In fact, in some Polynesian islands, the god Tangaroa (the equivalent of the Hawaiian Kanaloa) was considered as the sole creator of the universe.

There are many more minor deities and supernatural heroes in Hawaii and elsewhere in Polynesia for which legends and myths abound: Hina, the goddess wife of Ku, was seen to represent the universal woman; Pele, the main figure in stories on the creation of the Hawaiian islands; Haumea, the mother of Pele who was regarded the patroness of childbirth; and even Kamehameha, the historical figure who was instrumental in putting the islands of Hawaii under one rule.

Ezine Articles Expert Author
Rene Thompson,
Friday, May 30th