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Are You Hooked Yet? Exploring Hawaiian Fishhooks



Once upon a time, there lived a demi-god named Maui, famed for being both a trickster and also for being remarkably bad at fishing. He was so bad that his brothers regularly left him behind when they went out on the water.

Maui, stubborn and tricky as he was, shapeshifted into an insect and hitched a ride on his brothers’ boat. He revealed his presence and demanded to be given a chance to catch the biggest fish. To keep the situation from being any more annoying, Maui’s brothers let him toss his fishhook into the water.

What they didn’t know was that it was a magical fishhook, traditionally called the makau, made from an ancestor’s jawbone. The ancestor had given it to Maui when he visited the underworld. He cast the makau into the sea and told his brothers to keep pulling and to not look back. The sea shook and rumbled, the line grew taut. One of the brothers couldn’t help himself and looked back, when he did, he cried out in shock. Maui’s hook had pulled up the islands underneath the water, and by looking back, the brother had kept them from being a mainland. The land had broken into pieces.

So goes one of the biggest Polynesian stories starring the common and oft-used fishhook. The Polynesian way of life was dependent on fishhooks. They were always by the sea, the most abundant source of food, and the fishhook was something that developed to make the most of the resources.

Not all important fish hooks were powerful and earth-changing though. Many objects were made to be presented as gifts to the chief or family, meant to unite the ‘ohana. The true foundation of relationship was repeated and thoughtful action, and a part of that was the exchanging of gifts.

These objects were often crafted to represent prestige and authority, but often, they symbolized more than that. Just like Maui’s fish hook was crafted from his ancestor’s jawbone, so too were many significant objects crafted from important relics of the past. As the item was used, it was also cherished; soon, it would be passed down to the younger generation. The relevance and meaning of the object deepened as the story of the ancestor was carried along with the object itself. The token was the focus from which the ancestor’s experience could be told and remembered.

These objects are a spiritual connection of mana, the life-force of the universe, which manifests as talent, intelligence, and other virtues. In Hawaiian tradition, ancestors are sometimes deified and called ‘aumakua, staying with their progeny and guiding them, infusing them with mana when they act well and work hard. By holding onto these objects, Hawaiians would hold onto their families and be connected closer to mana, the essence of life itself.

Many Hawaiians today have sadly been distanced from their lineage and their history. As time passes, so does memory and tradition. This precisely is what traditional Hawaiian art is mean to avoid; by carrying the objects reminiscent of the past, one is prompted to thank ones ancestors for their efforts, to connect deeply to mana, and to keep Hawaiian values alive. A fish hook, as a representation of everyday Hawaiian life as well as a legendary tool of fantastic myth, is the embodiment of that connection.

When one wears a fishhook, they are uniting with the strength of the past. It is a symbol of ingenuity, trustworthiness, and dedication. Without knowing how special one’s tradition is, perhaps the fishhook could look simply like a cool decoration. But it is so much more than that: it is the burden of a way of life, the artistry of ages gone by, and the well-wishes of ancestors who look on with pride. Wear the greatest tool of the seafaring Polynesians with integrity and steadfastness; you might one day create your own miraculous land out of the sea.

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