A while back, I was talking to a relative in Hawaii. We were talking about Bigfoot (what else?), and the fact that there had been no reported Bigfoot encounters in that state.
“No,” he said, “but we do have Menehune.”
Menhune are legendary “little people” that are said to populate – or once have populated – the Hawaiian islands. Two to three feet tall, Menehune enjoy playing games and performing feats of strength by day. But at night, they work tirelessly to build structures such as irrigation ditches, heiau (temples), and retaining ponds. They are said to be exceptionally strong and smart, and expert craftspeople.
The merry Menehune are sometimes used as advertising figures in Hawaii, like this little guy for Menehune Water Company
Folklore has it that Menehune were the original residents of the islands, populating Hawaii long before Polynesian settlement. As Martha Beckwith writes in her book, Hawaiian Mythology, “Hawaiian families count the Menehune as their ancestral spirits and helpers, and these little people play the part of benevolent godparents to their descendants.” Within that role, they may occasionally perform favors for, or act as protectors to, their earthly family members.
The Menehune are credited with building various structures in the islands. One I have had the good fortune to visit is Mo’okini Heiau, on the island of Hawaii. This heiau, a sacred site where human sacrifice was once performed, was built of stones culled from an area 12 miles away. Hawaiian lore says the industrious little laborers formed a line and passed individual stones, man-to-man, from their quarry to the temple site until it was completed.
Mo’okini Heiau, temple walls
If the Menehune existed in antiquity, what became of them? My relatives have a Hawaiian friend who asserts that the unfortunate little people caused offense to King Kamehameha the Great, and the king’s henchmen rounded them all up, forcing them to leap to their deaths from a towering cliff. Folklorist Beckwith reports various tales which allege the Menehune eventually migrated to the mysterious “floating land of the gods.” But even now, people in Hawaii sometimes report encounters with the little people of legend. If you like, you can read about some of them at the following links:
Menehune tales may be dismissed as folklore, but as with many legends, they have basis in reality. One theory is that the meaning of the word has been garbled in translation. The Tahitian word “manahune” translates as a lowly person, someone of small social stature. Perhaps, through the years after Tahitian people settled in the Hawaiian islands, “manahune” became corrupted as “menehune” and the word was identified literally with people of small physical stature.
Artist’s rendering of Homo floresiensis
But real evidence of “little people” populations has been found in the Pacific – albeit not in Hawaii (yet). In the Philippines in 2003, researchers discovered Homo floresiensis, a three-to-four-foot-tall human relative who lived perhaps as recently as 12,000 years ago. And in 2008, researchers found remains in Palau, Micronesia, of what are thought to be extremely small Homo sapiens who lived about 1,000-3,000 years ago. As this article states, “It is well established that populations living on isolated islands often consist of individuals of smaller stature than their mainland cousins — a phenomenon known as island dwarfism.” Could the Polynesians who eventually settled in the Hawaiian islands have encountered these “little people” on their Pacific journeys, originating the Menehune legend? Or could similar little people have actually lived in the Hawaiian islands at one time?
As with so many other legendary creatures, the tales of the Menehune have stood the test of time. Whatever you believe with regard to the stories’ origins, you at least have to admit they’re first-rate folklore.
Beckwith, Martha. Hawaiian Mythology. Universty of Hawaii Press.
Small-Bodied Humans from Palau, Micronesia
Stories of the Menehunes