Long before satirist Jonathan Swift conceived his Lilliputians in “Gulliver’s Travels,” Hawai‘i already had its own legendary dwarfs: the Menehune. Often caricaturized in television and print ads with large eyes and ears, bulging biceps and donning a warrior helmet, the cartoon-like Menehune of today belies the race’s legendary feats. Hawaiian mo‘olelo (stories/tales) recount a pygmy people with tremendous strength and energy, capable of supernatural achievements.
On Kaua‘i, just up Menehune Road from Highway 50, near the Waimea Swinging Bridge, the remains of an old stone irrigation system quietly feeds both lush flora and a centuries-old debate. Called Kikiaola in Hawaiian, meaning “Chief Ola’s watercourse,” the ancient stonework is affectionately known as Menehune Ditch. A nearby historical marker from Hawai‘i’s territorial era reads: The row of hewn stones along the inner side of the road is a remnant of one wall of an ancient watercourse, which is said to have been made by the Menehune.
“It will doubtless interest some readers to learn that Hawai‘i is the real home of the Brownies, or was; and that this adventurous nomadic tribe were known to the Hawaiians,” notes author Thomas G. Thrum in “Hawaiian Folk Tales.” “Unlike the inquisitive and mischievous athletes of present fame, the original and genuine Brownies, known as the Menehunes, are referred to as an industrious race.”
The Menehune are described to have been no taller than 3 feet; visible only to each other; and able to complete feats of masonry, such as the building of Waimea watercourse, in a single night. In fact, it was their rule that all endeavors be completed overnight, hence the origin of the saying: “He po hookahi, a ao ua pau”—In one night, and by dawn it is finished. A more modern adage, “E Menehune mai kākou,” is used to rally people to a common cause that usually requires a lot of manual labor.
“Kānaka (native Hawaiians) would awake in the morning and be astonished by their ingenuity,” says Royal Hawaiian Center’s cultural director Monte McComber. “The moʻolelo we do have of Menehune is of them being helpful, skillful and fearful of kānaka. The moʻolelo also note that kānaka were appreciative of these small statured helpers.”
It is believed that the Menehune are the real anthropological predecessors of the ancient Hawaiians. Some have even argued that the historical Menehune culture predates all other Polynesian cultures, and represents the historical link to the lost continent of Lemuria. While there is no reliable history of the Menehune, scholars and historians have debunked many of the far-fetched cultural stories that linger today. For instance, in an article for the Bishop Museum Bulletin entitled “The Menehune of Polynesia and other Mythical Little People of Oceania,” the late anthropologist Katherine Luomala surveyed the folkloric record and compared scholarly theories and traditional accounts of the Menehune, finding that similar creatures derived from post-European contact.
Those who theorize Menehune as an earlier, advanced Polynesian civilization cite linguistic evidence. Luomala notes that manahuna, a word linguistically related to Menehune, is the name of a class of people—the commoners or “little people” who performed the labor at the order of the big, powerful ruling class throughout central Polynesia.
When the Europeans arrived, the word for the common laborer class in Hawai‘i had become maka‘āinana. Already by this time, the term Menehune had come to mean bands of supernatural craftsmen of slight stature who live in the interior of the islands, especially in the northern valley of Kaua‘i.
“On the cliffs of Kauaʻi are still seen many paths and roads which were built by them,” William Hyde Rice writes in “Hawaiian Legends. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 3,” which was published in 1923. “These trails are still to be seen above Hanapepe, Mana, Napali, Milolii, Nualolo and Hanapu.”
Reminders of the Menehune exploits abound on Kaua‘i, including the Alekoko Fishpond in Līhu‘e; the Poli‘ahu heiau in Wailua, a highly important ritual place of the old Hawaiian culture; and the dry cave in Hā‘ena known as Maniniholo, named after the Menehune fisherman who dug it in order to trap a thieving spirit. There are breadfruit groves, hills, boulders, heiau (temples), trails, fishponds and river crossings that all hold stories about this energetic race. The Herculean achievements and amazing powers of this impish people—like those of the leprechauns and sprites—arouse our childlike imaginations.
“Some treat the subject with gravity and respect, and express the belief that they were the original inhabitants of these islands, but gradually gave way to the heavier-bodied ancestors of the present race,” Thrum notes. “Others consider that the history of the race has been forgotten through the lapse of ages, while the more intelligent and better educated look upon the Menehunes as a mythical class of gnomes or dwarfs, and the account of their exploits as having been handed down by tradition for social entertainment, as other peoples relate fairy stories.”