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Sharks in Hawaiian mythology

By BY DONNELL TATE/Harbor Report - | Aug 13, 2021

There are Gods in Hawaiian waters, and every fisherman is eventually forced to make his sacrifices to them. Whether he believes in them or not, they extract their pounds of flesh.

In the Hawaii of legends, sharks spawned humans; chosen maidens gave birth to sharks; priests who knew the proper prayers changed the ghosts of the dead into sharks; and sorcerers appeared as men to entice others into the ocean, where they were eaten by other sorcerers in their assumed form as sharks.

A man could watch the sharks near his village and know that they were his ancestors, his ‘aumakua, who would protect him and guide his destiny.

He could tell which shark was the reincarnation of each relative and always made sure they were well provided for with sacrifices, some human.

When Pacific islanders wanted to rid their waters of certain sharks that did not have desirable magical powers, they caught them and killed them by first trolling them in with special rattles.

These were made from coconut half-shells, each having a hole bored through the center. The shells were then strung on a flexible stick bent into a hoop and tied together at the ends to look something like a tennis racket with bells on it.

Modern fishermen don’t make their sacrifices intentionally. It is when you have paid the price in time, money, effort and vigilance to get a prized tuna, marlin or wahoo on the end of your line that the ‘aumakua of the ocean brings you to your knees. They’ve come to take your offering.

They appear as formless blurs that destroy your catch just at the moment you’ve felt your marlin break from its exertion — just when you’ve begun to feel you really do have the strength to land your trophy. Sometimes you can outwit these evil spirits, and it doesn’t take chants or the intervention of a Kahuna (priest). Few fishermen intentionally set out to battle a shark. Shark fishing is an accident, because the live baits that the toothed monsters prefer are the same ones chosen for their effectiveness in catching marlin and ahi.

For many of us though, the shark has a horrible attraction. It’s perhaps spawned by the same kind of dreaded thrill that takes us one step closer to the edge of a cliff for a more frightening look into the terrors hidden in our soul.

A shark is an adversary as formidable as any we might conjure up in a nightmare.

The fact that we can actually conquer these monsters makes it easier, perhaps, for us to drive other evils back into the shadows of our mind.

That’s why some of us don’t curse the traditional gods when a shark engulfs the live bait we’ve lovingly set out to entice a magnificent marlin or titanic tuna.

The history of the shark in Hawaii is a tale of the long fall from the heights of reverence to the depths of disdain.