USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘fishhook’

The Origin of the Hawaiian Fishhook Pendant


I was wandering through some of the shops in Lahaina, wondering about the abundance of fishhooks that could be worn as necklaces. So I asked one of the shopkeepers about them.



Me: So I was curious as to where the practice of wearing fishhooks originated. Do you know?

Informant: There are many wild tales as to how the practice started. I had a customer about ten years ago who was very concerned about because of his religious beliefs. He wanted to buy a fishhook but was worried about its pagan connotations.

Me: Okay. Makes some sense I suppose.

Informant: Yes. So I contacted a friend who lives on another island about this. And his response was that the Hawaiians never wore their fishhooks.

Me: Okay.

Informant: The Hawaiians were a purely practical culture. And for them, they would not have worn their fishhooks as ornamentation. They would only carve them to use. So when you hear these legends of safe voyage and this and that – that is not true. However, I do have some examples of one of the few things that the Hawaiians did wear. You see these things here that look like hooks? [Pictured above]

Me: Yeah.

Informant: They look like hooks, but they’re not. They are something that was only worn by the royalty, the ali’i, or the representative of a royal. They are called paloas, which roughly translates as “whale’s tooth” or “tongue of the chief,” and they would wear massive ones on dozens of strands of braids. And that was one of the few things that the Hawaiians wore as a culture. This then translated, over time, along with the importance of the fishhook to the Hawaiian peoples, into the practice of wearing fishhooks as ornamentation. Also, these are mostly Maori designs that we have, not Polynesian. So this is one possible origin of the fishhook as ornamentation. I hope that answers you questions.

Me: Yes. It does. Thank you very much.

Informant: You’re welcome



To me, it is odd that something that has become such a major part of the consumer culture of Hawaii, something that is often seen as being traditional Hawaiian ornamentation, actually was not used for ornamentation at all. Yes, the fishhook is an incredibly important aspect of the Hawaiian culture, as the Hawaiian’s main source of protein came from the sea. There were no large land animals, no large game birds. Pigs, cattle, cats, dogs, and chickens only came to the Hawaiian Islands when the Europeans brought them. Thus, the fishhook would have been extremely important to the Hawaiians, an idea that was then taken by the tourist industry and turned into a decorative consumer item. I personally even have a fishhook on a length of cord that I got in Hawaii (the Big Island) years ago. Yet, the fishhook as decorative ornamentation has become so ingrained in Hawaiian culture that it might as well have become a folk tradition. It has become part of the traditional Hawaiian culture.


The Legend of Maui


I was once again wandering the streets and perusing the shops on Front St in Lahaina, HI with my mother. I was looking at some fishhooks that were carved from bone when the shopkeeper came to me. We got to talking, and I told her that I had heard of one possible origin to the practice of wearing fishhooks, when she offered up another reason for the practice, and told me the legend, the myth, of how the Hawaiian Islands came to be.



Maui, a demigod, was out fishing one day with his brothers. They paddled far beyond their usual fishing grounds. Maui then flung his fishhook, one that was similar to these [see picture above for a decorative example] that he had carved from bone. When he got a bite, he instructed his brothers, who were earthly, to paddle as hard as they could but not to look back behind them. His brothers, who were jealous of Maui’s status as a demigod, turned around and saw that Maui was pulling up, not a fish, but land out of the sea. As soon as they looked, they were amazed, and they stooped paddling. Because they stopped paddling, the land stopped rising out of the sea, so instead of getting a great continent, all Maui got was a small chain of islands in the Pacific. Maui was furious at his brothers, as he wanted a great continent. Thus the Hawaiian Islands came to be.



This myth reveals several things about the Hawaiian people. First is that they are a fishing people. They rely on the sea, and thus their fishhooks are incredibly important. Second is the fact that the fishhook is made from bone. Bone, especially whalebone, was considered to be able to become an extremely lucky fishhook. Also, Maui is not just a Hawaiian mythical figure. He features in myths and legends from New Zealand – such as the legend that tells of how New Zealand’s terrain formed; why it is so hilly – and from other areas of Oceania. This can be key in discovering the migration patterns of people into Oceania – how the ancient peoples spread from mainland Asia and Australia into such far-flung and isolated island chains in the middle of a vast body of water. By tracking where similar mythological and legendary figures crop up, such as the demigod Maui, anthropologists and archaeologists can track migration patterns and possible origins for the people of these far-flung and isolated Pacific Ocean Island chains. Furthermore, this myth demonstrates how central to the Hawaiian culture fishhooks are/were. The tourism industry presumably caught wind of this importance and began to make “authentic” Hawaiian fishhooks to be worn as ornamentation and sold as “traditional” Hawaiian jewelry/ornamentation, despite fishhooks never being worn by the Hawaiian people. Nowadays, practically every gift store, souvenir shop in the islands sells fishhooks, and it has become “traditional folk” jewelry.