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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Wise folks don't mess with mo'o

By Bob Krauss
Advertiser Columnist

Today we will discuss a mo'o sighting.

Mo'o are mythical Hawaiian lizards. According to our kupuna, or Hawaiian elders, they can grow up to 30 feet long.

Unlike fairy-tale dragons that breathed fire, mo'o were often friendly as well as hostile. Kamehameha built a heiau in Waikiki for a mo'o that helped him win the Battle of Nu'uanu.

Hawaiians on Maui say a sacred lizard lived in Ko'ie'ie Fishpond at Kalepolepo near Kihei. Another mo'o lived in a pond at Lahaina.

It's hard to tell a mo'o deity from a garden-variety gecko because mo'o can make themselves appear in any size.

Mo'o are a common feature of Hawaiian mythology. If they weren't real, how did the concept get started?

I never thought much about this until former Advertiser compositor Raybern Freitas confronted me last week with a mo'o sighting in historical times. He said he got the story from Maggie Alu, who lives at Wailua, a taro-growing community on Maui.

"Maggie Alu told my mother that her grandma took her to a pond way up inside Wailua Valley toward Haleakala," Freitas said. "She was 8 years old at the time. Her grandmother showed her a mo'o, a giant lizard, swimming in a pond."

So far as I know, that's the only report of a mo'o sighting since I came to Hawai'i 51 years ago.

Freitas remembers a legend about the mo'o out at La'ie that ate humans. The people killed it. If you look at the rocks off the point at La'ie, those are the bones of the mean mo'o.

Freitas said he asked an auntie on Maui, a family friend, if she'd ever heard about a giant mo'o when she was young. "Right away she mentioned the spring on Maui at Lipoa Street and Kihei Road that wouldn't dry up because a mo'o lived there," he said.

Considering all the publicity that the Loch Ness monster gets, I thought our own mo'o deserve attention, too. Freitas has two theories about mo'o.

  1. "When the Polynesians came to Hawai'i, they found mo'o here," he speculated. "They weren't as big as a Komodo dragon, 6 to 7 feet, but they were big enough to scare people. They were few in number and died out." The problem with this theory is that archaeologists have never found any giant mo'o bones.
  2. "We know the Polynesians sailed all over the Pacific," Freitas continued. "Let's say they made it to the Galapagos Islands where there are giant lizards. The Polynesians saw these creatures and brought the legend back. It spread over Polynesia."

In any event, mo'o seem to me typically Polynesian. They are usually friendly unless you hurt somebody in their family. Maybe mo'o are how people explain mysterious shadows in a mountain pool.

Reach Bob Krauss at 525-0873.