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The story of Kukahau`ula and Poli`ahu

During the cooler winter months, a blanket of snow often covers the summit of Mauna Kea. The first rays of the early morning sun cast a brilliant shade of red on the mountain, hitting the peak first, then spreading down slope and disappearing as the sun rises. This striking phenomenon is seen as the manifestation of the deity Ku in the form of Ku-ka-hau-‘ula (Ku of the red-tinted snow).

It is the basis of a great love story (reprinted below), a legend of devotion between Kukahau‘ula and Poli‘ahu, the beautiful Snow Goddess of Mauna Kea.

Though written in a romanticized 19th century style, and mistakenly referring to Mo’oinanea (the “matriarch of all mo’o gods and goddesses”) as a male, the story possibly contains the kernel of the original legend.

Traditional stories often relate the interaction of deities with the land and people. Are they simply quaint legends? Or are they accounts of the natural history of our islands?

The story of Kukahau’ula and Poli’ahu suggests a Hawaiian understanding of the history of glaciation on the mountain. Mauna Kea was one of the few places in the tropics that was repeatedly covered by glaciers during the ice ages. An ice cap as much as 400 feet thick once covered about twenty-six square miles of the summit area, reaching down to the 10,000 foot level — on an island that lies within 20 degrees of the equator.

In the story, Kukahau‘ula — Ku, a deity representing the male force in the form of the rising sun — pursues Poli‘ahu, the woman of the mountain, but is constantly thwarted by frost, snow and freezing rain — a period of time that could perhaps represent the ice ages. When Kukahau‘ula finally embraces Poli‘ahu, her heart melts, the ice age is over, and the resulting snow melt forms the springs and streams that water the land below, providing life to the people.

Natural history is thus related in a beautiful and poetic way. The story expresses the deep attachment between the Hawaiian people and the earth around them. It relates natural phenomena as part of a great love story, an expression of unity and harmony that is at the heart of the Hawaiian cosmos.

The effects of the last ice age are still felt on the mountain. The centers of the summit cones on Mauna Kea are permanently frozen to just a few feet below the surface. This layer of permafrost, or ground ice, is all that is left of a once-giant glacier.

The highest pu‘u, the summit peak of the mountain is named Ku-ka-hau-‘ula.

The Betrothal of the Pink God and the Snow Goddess
The Pink Snow Is Always Seen Upon Mauna Kea

by Ahuena
Paradise of the Pacific
July, 1931, v. 44 n 7

"Tell me one of your many legends, Puna, some tale belonging to the Big Island of Hawaii …something different, something altogether apart from the lore of Pele, goddess of Volcanoes, creator of the Islands."

So spoke a tawny-skinned young girl to her indulgent old Hawaiian nurse whose bent form bespoke four score years and more.

Her devoted old nurse sat on the edge of the mat, facing her.

"Let us finish this task first…while I tell you the legend of the betrothal of the Pink God and the Snow Goddess of Mauna Kea. The Pink God's devotion to the Snow Goddess of Mauna Kea is most wonderful to behold. He is known as the most constant lover on the island of Hawaii."

"How beautiful!" exclaimed the maiden. "What a pleasure it would be to see them in real life — but continue with the story, please."

Then the old nurse's voice floated out in a low tremulous chant, apparently chiding the young girl for her impatience —

The youths of Kohala never travel unprepared;
Their kapa togas are already on;
They heed not the rain nor the wind
for their shoulders are ever kept warm.
So worry not for thou shalt hear
The story of the Pink God of Mauna Kea
whose glowing beam is seen afar,
And she of the snow-white bosom
Whose heart melts at his caress.

"Listen," continued Puna, "the Pink Snow is always seen on Mauna Kea, the great white mountain that towers above and almost touches the blue heavens. Its summit of snow-clad peaks clings to the clouds that float near the sun, at Hikiana (the Beginning), where the rosy Kipu‘upu‘u (chilling) rain continually dwells and comes sweeping down to the district of Waimea and at Lanimamao, and away up on this great white mountain dwells a beautiful snow-white maiden whose name is Poliahu…who wears a wreath of the silvery, snow-white hina-hina blossoms that grow upon the mountain tops.

"She is known as the Snow Goddess of Mauna Kea. She is the favorite daughter of the red-headed god, Ka-ne, Creator of Waters, and the Goddess of the Mist called Hina. Her nurse's name is Lihau (the Chilling Frost).

"Ka-ne, her father, created a silvery swimming pool with beautiful clear water within it for Poliahu, upon the summit of Mauna Kea, reflecting the heavens, forming a basin behind the snow-clad peaks. And in this wonderful, cool basin of Wai-au…he placed a Merman there, as a sentinel, to guard over it and keep a loving watch over the Snow Goddess. The name of this favored sentinel was Moo-i-nanea. It was, and is, he that drives all admiring lovers from there, all who dare climb the mountain slopes and steep precipices to catch a glimpse of Poliahu and chant poems of love and admiration to her. Others he entrances until they become numb and fall asleep before they can behold the face of the beautiful Snow Goddess as she passes by on her way to the icy pool.

"But there was a devoted lover whom he helped to cross the kapu pool, for he found this lover to be constant and true despite his trials and disappointment.

"This lover was the handsomest and most daring man that he had ever seen. He was known as Ku-kahau-ula (The Pink Tinted Snow's Arrival), the Pink-Tinted Snow-God of Mauna Kea, who made daily pilgrimages to court the Snow Goddess at morn and in afternoon.

"Throwing his pink kapa toga over his shoulders, and starting down on the first sun's ray, beyond Haehae, the Land of Desire at the eastern gateway of the sun at Kahiki (the Beyond), he tried to approach as near as possible the place where she dwelt upon the snow-capped mountain. He watched her each day as she played with the kini-akuas (fairies) amongst the silversword (hina-hina) near the pool, and, sometimes further down near the fern belt. But her faithful attendant, Lihau (the Chilling Frost), was always with her.

"Each day he became more fascinated and made every effort to reach her abode and court her — win her for his bride — but Lili-noe, another sprite (the Fine Rain) drove him back, and at other times when he started, Pele's sister at the eastern gateway of the sun endeavored to entice him away, all striving to prevent him visiting Poliahu, at Mauna Kea.

"Undaunted, he continued his pilgrimages, sending his beam towards Mauna Kea. One day when Poliahu had grown into womanhood, the handsome prince espied her, identifying her by her fine soft white kapa robe that Hina, her mother, had beaten out so beautifully from the bark of the Wauke plant with her magic kapa beater, until it resembled soft white clouds when finished. Her nurse, Lihau, wrapped it around her.

"Poliahu was coming slowly down the mountainside almost to where plant life grew when he saw her, and immediately was enraptured with her beauty, beholding her from his place of vantage. Her sparkling face and divine form were radiantly beautiful, and it seemed to him that she even out-rivaled the silvery-white hina-hina blossoms. Throwing his pink kapa toga over his shoulder again, he hastened to greet her, but her nurse, Lihau (the Chilling Frost) and Kipu‘upu‘u (the Hail) came out and found her. It became so chilly he withdrew his beam.

"However, that did not weaken his resolution to court her. The next day he departed earlier than usual on his love quest — for he planned all night how this feat of winning the Snow Goddess for his own could be accomplished, and when dawn arrived he departed bravely, but Lilinoe (the Fine Rain) chased him away again. Again and again he made the attempt at each new dawn of day and near sunset, approaching closer and closer, until one day Poliahu's mother, Hina (Goddess of Mist) discovered him just as he was nearing the Snow Goddess' abode. She immediately covered the mountain with mist and sent out Lilinoe (the Fine Rain), and then the biting, black, drizzling rains, Kua-uli and Kipu‘upu‘u to sweep across the forest, all in her anger and fear of losing her beautiful snow-white child.

"So, the Snow Goddess was hidden from view, and he had to return alone to the Land of Paradise, disappointed.

"Another dawn came and he started again, wearing his usual pink kapa robe, full of hope, and determined to win his heart's desire that day.

"Hina, who was on guard, saw him and sent the biting black rain after him. He glided back and forth and waited until the rain had disappeared, when he departed again, his pink kapa so vivid as he traversed the heavens that its reflection caused a glorious rainbow to arch. When the sentinel Merman saw the rainbow caused by the radiant form of the Pink God reflected in the mist, he understood the omen of love and took pity on him, and blew his conch shell, calling out to him:

"'Oh, Magnificent Pink Lord, come tomorrow at dawn and I will show you the way to meet Poliahu and conquer Hina; come with thy iridescent pink robe; part the Gray Veil of Night, and send thy red glow to fascinate her;

"'I have watched thee daily as thou sailed the heavens in quest of thy loved one, at morn and in afternoons, and am convinced of your love; come to the swimming pool; be not afraid of Lihau's anger; you can overcome her coldness.'

"Ku-kahau-ula did as he was told, and as he started down in all his radiant beauty, he saw Moo-i-nanea beckoning and he came a little nearer to the topmost peak with his pink kapa cloth outspread prepared to throw one end of it over the shoulder of the Snow Goddess.

"Poliahu, seeing him at that moment, called out to her mother in ecstasy and delight.

"'Oh, Hina! Behold the handsome one as he stands at the very edge of the sun's ray — all ray himself — and his rosy form is sending a warmth to my bosom. He is wearing a pink helmet and is swathed in a pink cape. Look, mother Hina! Call to him to come nearer that I may chant a message of aloha to him.'

"Hina was beside herself with fear and grief at the possibility of losing her daughter, for she saw that his beauty had attracted Poliahu, and again, she sent the biting, driving rain and the cold, white mist over the land until the Pink Snow God was lost in the fog and it took him some time to find his home. He became discouraged, and he chanted to the sentinel of the pool, appealing to him to come to his assistance, for he was burning with an unquenchable love for Poliahu.

"'Lead me over the swimming pool, to my beloved; to the gods Ka-ne and Hina that they may know of my devotion.'

"'Then,' the sentinel called to him, 'come, brave one of the sky, but you must first conceal your beautiful pink kapa robe from view until you arrive at the pool; then take it out and wear it that you may go forward and snare the goddess with it. But you must come humbly, steadily and stealthily, spreading your radiant pink kapa well out as you approach the Goddess of the Treasure Bosom, Queen of the Snow.'

"Ku-kahau-ula followed the instructions minutely. The sun's ray glided over the swimming pool causing a rainbow to arch, turning the silvery waters to a shimmering pink. As the god approached the spot where the snow-white goddess was reclining upon a couch of snow and hina-hina blossoms, clad in her soft white kapa robe, her faithful nurse was watching over her in the sacred stillness of the mountains.

"He advanced slowly, his pink robe outspread, radiantly gilding the brow of Mauna Kea with its glorious hue, until it was almost noon, chanting softly to her of his love, in the stillness of god's acres until he was close enough to throw his brilliant pink toga over her shoulder. Drawing her within his arms, he wrapped the robe entirely around her until they both were concealed within its folds.

"The Merman, Moo-i-nanea, blew the conch-shell that the world would know of the betrothal, and chanted these words:

Ku-kahau-ula and Poliahu, Oh!
These two were betrothed in the Chilling Frost
In the cold region of Mauna Kea;
They are the residents of the uplands,
The children of the thicket of wild-woods
The thicket that radiates their love
From the summit of Mauna Kea
Is most beautiful to behold;
'Tis there the pink Sun's beam
Embraces and kisses the snow.

"And, from these early days, when the gods were betrothed on the heights of Mauna Kea we have followed the tradition of their marriage ceremony, the chieftain men, folding the feather cape of kapa around the chosen maiden, just as the sun's ray is reflected on the snow mountain and turns it pink at morn and noon and the treasure-heart of the goddess melts and overflows with love and feeds the mountain streams with her refreshing gift for man and nature to thrive upon.

"You have heard of the waters of Poliahu that our ancient and noble chieftains of that great island preferred to any other, to quench their thirst with, and how each day, starting at early dawn, carrying their water gourds all the way up the steep slopes of Mauna Kea, to a place called Pohaku-loa to fetch the drinking water from the melted snow accumulated there, bestowed by the goddess, for their feudal lords.

"Well, child, that is the aloha of Ku-kahau-ula and Poli-ahu who were betrothed in the cold region."

Then, as the story ended, and a chant floated out upon the air and faded away, the young girl sighed, and said, dreamily:

"Thank you, Puna," and smilingly gazed out toward the glinting blue sea of Waikiki and whispered,

"I, too, shall watch for the arrival of the glorious sunbeam that brings happiness and plenty, called the Pink God (Ku-kahau-ula) of Mauna Kea."


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