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Let’s Talk About Hi’iaka: The Queer Hawaiian Goddess With an Epic That Puts the Odyssey To Shame

Welcome to Mythology Monday!

collage lehua flower and hawaiian lava

Happy Monday! Recently we’ve had a few posts on the site doing deeper dives into some of our favorite lesser-known or misunderstood figures out of mythology and folklore, like the Goddess Brigid, the real St. Patrick, and Hades (who is not the devil!), which you wonderful readers have really seemed to enjoy and a few of you have even commented that you want more mythology. Well, wish granted. Welcome to Monday mythology, where we’ll be digging into different myths each week to highlight some of our favorite tales, heroes, and gods from around the world.

Today we’re headed to Hawai’i to talk about a truly amazing Goddess who deserves widespread attention, because she’s powerful, brave, and yes, queer. Meet Hi’iaka, a goddess of magic, hula, trees, and even the islands of Hawai’i themselves.

Now, when we call Hi’iaka or other famous figures from Hawai’i a “goddess” that’s not … quite accurate. Hi’iaka was what is called a Kapua. You see, in the Hawaiian religion, there’re basically tiers to divinity. There’re only three or four (depending on how you count and who’s counting) true “gods”: Kāne, god of creation and the sky, Kū: god of war, Lono: god of fertility, and peace and all that’s good, and Kanaloa: a god of the ocean, but also of things like the afterlife. Kāne and Kanaloa were complimentary, so much so that they were sometimes seen as the same deity in different forms.

Below these gods, called Akua, in power and also descended from them, are the Kapua, who are sort of lesser gods but not quite. Maui is one of these figures and Disney called him a demi-god, but that’s not really accurate because they aren’t half-mortal. They are all associated with very particular things and live in the sense that in many ways they are the thing they are deities of. Pele is the volcano. Below the Kapua were ʻaumakua, who are like guardian spirits or gods associated with families and places. And further complicating this was the fact that gods were given many different names and forms. A god-like wasn’t just one manifestation, there were many Kūs, including Kūkaʻilimoku who was the guardian deity of Kamehameha.

That’s a lot of background but it brings us to the Kapua we’re talking about today: Hi’iaka. There are many Hi’iakas in Hawaiian lore and belief, but the one we’re concerned with today is Hi‘iaka-i-ka-poli-o-Pele, or “Hi’iaka carried in the bosom of Pele.” You see Pele and many of her siblings were not born in Hawai’i, but rather came to the Islands from far off (much like the original Polynesian settler of Hawai’i) over the ocean. Pele was looking for a nice spot to tend her volcanic fires, but her sister, an ocean goddess, kept putting out Pele’s fire on different Hawaiian islands until Pele came to the Big Island of Hawai’i itself. This explains the craters and volcanos on the older Hawaiian island but also why physically Pele can’t leave Hawai’i.

On this journey, Pele was carrying an egg from her mother, and on Hawai’i, that egg hatched into Hi’iaka, Pele’s favorite sister. Now, Hi’iaka was very cool on her own. She loved life and plants, and the Lehua tree which grows near the volcanoes (pictured at the left above). At Pele’s request, she was the first to dance the hula, and chants to Hi’iaka still take place in hula schools in Hawai’i. Hi’iaka also had a mortal lover named Hopoe.

Now, let’s pause here a moment to talk about sexuality in pre-colonial Hawai’i. While there were a lot of rules about how men and women interacted and what men or women could do or eat, there it was also completely acceptable for men to take male lovers and the same went for women. We can’t impose European ideas of sexuality onto pre-colonial Hawai’i and the Moe aikāne. Same-sex lovers were common in ancient Hawai’i, and in this myth, Hopoe is depicted as very much the lover of Hi’iaka. In some stories, she even taught Hi’iaka the hula.

As the local poet and scholar Jamaica Osorio told KITV Island News regarding her research into Hi’iaka and how homosexuality was accepted in ancient Hawai’i:

The bulk of her research was centered around stories about Hawaiian goddess Hi’iakaikapoliopele. The legendary beauty is known for her infamous battles alongside female companions.

“Sometimes you read translations and you’re like, ‘Oh, her intimate friend.’ But what does that mean? Yeah, they’re lovers,'” said Osorio.

One of Hi’iaka’s most famous friends was Hopoe.

“She’s absolutely taken aback by her, she witnesses her beauty. There’s a commitment between them that they will rest their bones together…that wherever one shall go the other will follow,” Osorio explained.

Back to the story at hand! So, while Pele could not leave Hawai’i physically, her spirit or second soul could do so in her dreams. She did this at one point and went all the way to the island of Kauaʻi where she fell in love with a chief there named Lohiau. They spent several days and nights together as lovers do, but Pele had to go back to her body and told Lohiau she would send for him. When Pele awoke, Hi’iaka had been watching over her body. She asked Hi’iaka to go to Kaua’i and get Lohiau for her.

Now, this wasn’t a simple task, and so Hi’iaka was gifted with powers and tools and companions for this long and dangerous journey. Hi’iaka agreed to do this only if Pele promised to not hurt Hopoe or the grove of Lehua trees that was sacred to Hi’iaka. Pele agreed only if Hi’iaka would be back in 40 days and wouldn’t sleep anyone, particularly Lohiau.

So, Hi’iaka’s journey across the Islands is absolutely amazing and too complicated to retell here. Hi’iaka and her companions, who are all women, travel from place to place fighting supernatural entities called mo’o and having various adventures where Hi’iaka and friends use wits, magic, and piety to win the day. But of course, things go wrong because, by the time Hi’iaka reaches Kaua’i, Lohiau has died of a broken heart.

That’s fine though because Hi’iaka is such a badass she brings him back from the dead, but that takes a while, so by the time they get back to Hawaii and Pele, Hi’iaka has passed her 40-day deadline and Pele has killed Hopoe and leveled Hi’iaka’s Lehua grove. In retribution, Hi’iaka “took revenge on Pele and embraced Lohiau” on the edge of a crater right where Pele can see them. So Pele buries him in lava too, and Hi’iaka’s companions on her journey, but Hi’iaka brings him back.

In some versions, there’s a fight until the sisters realize this is all bad and stop fighting and let Lohiau chose between them. And who he chooses depends on the story as well, though he can’t be blamed for the versions where he picks Hi’iaka, the one who resurrected him twice over Pele who, you know, killed him. I like the version where he essentially says “no more of this” and goes back to Kaua’i alone. I also hope that Hi’iaka used her resurrection power to bring back Hopoe.

The legend of Hi’iaka is really incredible, and she’s such a cool figure that I hope more people discover. She’s brave, powerful, queer, creative, and smart, and her entire epic is centered around powerful women, so I think it’s a story that deserves a place alongside male-centric legends like The Odyssey. It’s the kind of story we need more of, so I encourage you to look up a version to explore in its entirety.

We’ll be back with more myths next Monday! If there’s a topic you’d like to see us explore, let us know in the comments.

(Images: National Park Service/Judy Edwards, public domain and Pexels)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.