Menehune, Leprechauns of Hawaii

Menehune by butterfrog
Menehune by butterfrog

The folklore of cultures the world over includes stories of magical little people. Although for most people the leprechauns of Ireland are the first to come to mind — in Hawaii the mischievous Menehune roam the deep forests, especially at night.

Hawaii’s legendary mystical and shy forest dwellers are small in size at about two feet high, although some are only six inches high and capable of fitting in the palm of someone’s hand. According to legend, they are very industrious master builders who use their great strength to accomplish mighty feats of engineering and construction overnight.

Menehune Origins

Many Hawaiian sources in recent years have suggested that the Menehune were indeed mythic creatures borne from the early period of the evolution of Hawaiian society. One explanation that has been given suggests that they were the first settlers of Hawai’i – descendants of the Marquesas islanders who were believed to have first occupied the Hawaiian Islands anywhere from 0 to 350 A.D.

When the Tahitian invasion occurred about 1100 A.D., as the theory goes, the first settlers of Hawaii were subdued by the physically larger Tahitians. Remnants of these earlier inhabitants of Hawaii would naturally then hide from the new invaders, occupying secret places in the valleys during the day, but scourging for food during the dark of night. Thus was born the legend of the little people of the Islands.

Historians believe that Menehune comes from the Tahitian “Manahune”, or commoner, and refers to a race of people who were small/low in social stature rather than physical.

Menehune Fun Fact

While the Menehune are often regarded as mythical beings, an official census conducted in the 1820s recorded a population of 65 Menehune residing in the enchanting Wainiha Valley on the island of Kauai.

Today, scholars speculate that the Menehune may not have been an imaginary race at all, but rather the descendants of the first wave of settlers who came to Hawaii from the Marquesas sometime around the sixth century. The Menehune legends come from later settlers who reached Hawaii six or seven hundred years later from the Islands of Tahiti. Scholars have concluded that this second wave of immigrants may have defeated the descendants of the original Marquesans, driving them north from the Big Island to Kauai, where they made their last stand. Only later did they emerge in their elfin guise. Linguistic
support for the explanation comes from the Tahitian home islands where the word Manahune derisively refers to a class of workers and slaves.

And yet others have theorized that they believe the Menehune were tales made up by the ali’i to give explanation for the construction of fishponds, temples, and other structures so that they wouldn’t have to give credit to the real people who built these things – the maka’ainana – the common people.

While Hawaii’s menehune legends are not limited to Kauai, the island certainly has its share of stories about these leprechaun-like people.

Master Builders

According to legend, the mystical Menehune were credited as master builders capable of completing major projects in a single night. The Alekoko Fishpond and the Menehune Ditch, an aqua duct that funnels water for irrigation from the Waimea River, were both attributed to their overnight efforts. According to legend, these diminutive elven creatures worked at night so as not to be seen by others, cutting, transporting, and fitting stones for their projects in something similar to a fireman’s bucket brigade. If they were discovered their work would have been abandoned. Luckily for the Hawaiians, the Menehune were exceptionally good at remaining unnoticed.

A double row of Menehune extended 25 miles to distant Makaweli on the west side. The workers passed stones hand-to-hand and built the fishpond for a princess and her brother. The Menehune were promised no one would observe them at work, which was carried on after dark. However, one night the royals watched the thousands of industrious creatures hard at work, only to fall asleep. At sunrise, the Menehune discovered them and turned them into twin stone pillars that can be seen today in the mountains above the fishpond. Dismayed by the interruption, the Menehune left two gaps in the fishpond wall. In the late 1800s, Chinese workers filled the gaps to raise mullet.

The elvish creatures enjoy dancing, singing, and archery. They have been known to use magic arrows to pierce the hearts of angry people to ignite feelings of love instead. They also enjoy cliff diving, so if you hear splashes in the night on the islands of Hawaii, it’s highly probable a Menehune is out for a night swim.

Whatever their origins, the Menehune have emerged from the past as playful elves – pot-bellied, hairy, and muscular, with bushy eyebrows over large eyes and a short nose with a trace of the mischievousness of their European counterparts.

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