The Menehune are a race of dwarfs in Hawaiian folklore.
Hawaiian traditions refer to them as small- or short-statured people in remote mountainous forests. They live in isolation because they prefer to keep out of sight and avoid contact with other people.
According to folklore, they lived on the islands for centuries before modern-day Hawaiians arrived from Tahiti. The legends refer to the Menehune as the Kamaaina or “child of the land” because they were the first to arrive on the islands.
In his book Hawaiian Folk Tales (1907), the folklorist Thomas George Thrum (1842-1932) described the Menehune as short-statured and stocky, with prominent foreheads and eyebrows. They were frisky and mischievous dwarfs standing about 2-3 feet tall, but some were as small as six inches.
Some accounts ascribed magical powers to the Menehune and portrayed them as semi-supernatural beings.
Despite being small-statured, they were intelligent and adaptable. They had a thriving civilization with a unique system of beliefs.
The Menehune were also skilled in crafts, agriculture, and engineering. They were great builders and stonemasons who constructed roads, temples, and canals and engaged in farming, fishing, and maritime navigation.
The little people produced bananas, taro, breadfruit, sweet potatoes, and fish and engaged in various cultural activities, including singing, dancing, and sports, such as archery.
The Menehume were also warlike. They had special arrows with magical powers that could affect people’s emotions. When the arrows pierced the heart, they caused angry or hateful people to love.
The Kikiaola Ditch
Hawaiian folklore ascribes several impressive building and engineering feats uncovered at multiple archeological sites to the Menehune.
One such structure was the Kikiaola or Menehune Ditch, an impressive 24-foot high irrigation channel uncovered in Waimea, Kauai.
Historians believe the ditch predated the arrival of the Tahitian ancestors of modern-day Hawaiians.
Hawaiian oral tradition claims that Chief Ola, son of Kualunuipaukumokumoku, hired the Menehune to build the ditch and paid them one shrimp per laborer.
Folklore claims the dwarfs built the ditch in one night from stones obtained from a quarry miles away. The ditch channeled and filtered water from the Waimea River to the Taro fields.
Despite their industrious nature, the little people maintained a strict policy of isolation. They were nocturnal beings who engaged in economic and professional activities only at night, presumably to reduce the risk of accidental contact with outsiders.
They come out at night to trade and engage in engineering or construction work. The people worked overnight and retired before dawn. Thus, people rarely sighted them. They would abandon work and return to their cave and tunnel hideouts if they thought an outsider was approaching or watching them.
The Alekoko Fishpond
Folklore also credits the Menehune with constructing the famous Alekoko Fishpond in Kauai. Archeologists estimated the pond along the Huleia River as more than 6 to 10 centuries old.
Thousands of Menehune laborers worked overnight to build the pond. They lined up in rows more than 25 miles long and passed the stones used in the construction from hand to hand.
According to legend, a Hawaiian chief hired them to build the pond for his prince and princess.
The little people agreed to build the fishpond on the terms that they would be allowed to work unobserved. But the prince and princess violated the agreement by sneaking up to an overlooking mountain to watch. When the dwarfs spotted the royals, they used their magic to transform them into stone pillars.
Due to the interruption, the Menehune did not complete the work overnight. They left it unfinished and never returned.
The Necker Island structures
Hawaiian legends claim the Menehune were also responsible for multiple constructions at archeological sites on Necker Island. One of the sites features upright stones similar to Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, England.
Some believe the upright stones at Necker Island align with astronomical bodies.
The legend of Ha’alulu, Molawa, and Eleu
Hawaiians tell the story of three Menehune heroes.
The three Menehune, Ha’alulu, Molawa, and Eleu were known all over Hawaii for their magical powers.
Each had a special gift:
Ha’alulu, whose name means “shiver” or “tremble,” always felt cold. However, shivering made him invisible. His invisibility empowered him to go to any place and get past security.
Molawa means “lazy” or “slothful.” People called him slothful because he appeared to spend much of the time resting. However, Molawa could project out of his body and travel to distant places while resting.
The third was Eleu, meaning “quick and nimble.” He was called Eleu became he moved so quickly that he appeared to teleport from one spot to the other, and no one could catch up with him.
Sightings and Tales
There are very few claimed sightings of the Menehune. The elves keep out of sight, so people rarely see them.
But the myths suggest that people used to have contact with them and that ancient kings hired them to do construction work.
In 1862, Hawaiian census figures compiled under Kauai’s King Kaumualii included 65 “Menehune” who allegedly lived in a remote valley. But it wasn’t clear who these “Menehune” were. Regardless, scholars don’t believe they were magical elves.
A report also claimed a Menehune sighting at a school in Waimea in 1929.
In the 1940s, a group of school children allegedly reported sighting several Menehune, described as hairy dwarfs frolicking among the trees.
Who were the Menehune?
Scholars have looked for clues to explain who the Menehune were.
In his book Hawaiian Folk Tales (1907), the folklorist Thomas George Thrum (1842-1932) suggested they were people who arrived on the Hawaiian Islands before other Polynesian groups.
In Hawaiian Mythology (1982), Warren Beckwith noted that the Menehune were only one of many cryptid races mentioned in Hawaiian traditions. Others include a race of hunters known as the Nawaao.
Many researchers believe the legends indicate that modern-day Hawaiians were not the first to arrive on the islands. The first Polynesian settlers came by canoe from Marquesas Island (about 2,000 miles distance) around 1000-1200 CE.
Thus, when the ancestors of modern-day Hawaiians came from Tahiti in the 1400s, they found previous settlers but proceeded to conquer and oppress them.
Researchers back up this theory by noting that the word “Menehune” might have been derived from the Hawaiian meaning “low-class” or “commoner.”
Thus, Menehune were probably not dwarfs but people considered socially or culturally inferior. However, transmitting oral traditions over several generations led people to misunderstand the word as referring to physical stature.
Origins of Menehune folklore
Writers such as the anthropologist Katharine Luomala (1907-1992) have noted that references to the Menehune did not appear in the records until the 1860s, suggesting the legends originated after Europeans arrived in Hawaii.
Experts also noted that early explorers, such as Captain James Cook (1728-1779) and Captain George Vancouver (1757-1798), did not mention the little people in their records of the culture and history of Hawaii.
The observation led some to suggest that European folklore, such as Hans Christian Andersen’s (1805-1875) tales, influenced the Hawaiians.
Similarly, early researchers, such as Reverend Hiram Bingham (1789-1869), who studied Hawaiian history and culture, did not mention the little people.
Others, such as William Ellis (1794-1872), understood the term “Manahune” as referring to people of the lowest social and economic classes, including laborers and servants.
Menehume tales first appeared in the early 1860s in Hawaiian language newspapers.
Thrum was one of the first European scholars to mention the little people. In his Hawaiian Almanac and Annual, first published in 1875, the writer described the Menehune as dwarfs about three feet tall.
In A Brief History of the Hawaiian People (1891), William DeWitt Alexander (1833-1913) described them as elves with magical powers.
Were they Homo floresiensis?
A final proposal is that the Menehune might be short-statured people who arrived on the Hawaiian islands earlier than the first Polynesians.
The discovery in 2003 of the stone-tool-using, short-statured Flores Man (Homo floresiensis) at a cave site on the Indonesian island of Flores reignited speculation about the little people of Hawaii.
Homo floresiensis was about 3.5 feet tall and lived 50,000-100,000 years ago.
|Menehune, Manahune, Kamaaina, child of the land
|Countryside, Farmland, Forest, Mountains
More Hawaiian Folk Tales: A Collection of Native Legends and Traditions, Thomas George Thrum, 1923.
Hawaiian Almanac and Annual, Thomas George Thrum, 1913.
A Brief History of the Hawaiian People, William DeWitt Alexander, 1891.
Hawaiian Mythology, Martha Warren Beckwith, 1982.
Hawaiian Antiquities: Moolelo Hawaii, David Malo, 1838.
https://www.worldhistory.org/Menehune/, “World History Encyclopedia: Menehune,” accessed on January 31, 2023.
https://www.hawaiimagazine.com/the-mystery-of-waimeas-menehune-ditch/, “The mystery of Waimea’s Menehune Ditch,” accessed on January 31, 2023