Kupua are Hawaiian demigods with shape-shifting abilities. Due to their transformative abilities and supernatural powers, kupua are described variously as heroes, monsters, or tricksters. Some kupua are known to be destructive and vindictive, with a tendency to kill or devour their enemies. There have also been accounts of kupua acting benevolently as kindly spirits watching over their family members or helping the maka`ainana (common people). Kupua are known throughout the Hawaiian islands.
Kupua are skilled in warfare, using weapons such as spear, slingshot, battle-axe, and war club, as well as being able to defeat opponents through unarmed combat such as boxing and wrestling. While kupua such as Palila, Kapunohu, and Kepakailiula are superhuman warriors, there are those with other expertise such as the celebrated fisherman Nihooleki, the rat shooter Pikoiakaalala, the cock-fighting champion Lepeamoa, the powerful laborers Kalaepuni and Kalaehina, and the stretching kupua Kana.
Kupua are part human and part god, having a dual form (kino pāpālua). The non-human part of their nature is a result of an animal ancestor entering into the child at birth. Thus, kupua can appear human, but are able to take on a different form inherited from their divine ancestry. When Kupua are born in non-human form, they may be saved when a family member recognizes their divine nature. The kupua Palila was born in the shape of a cord and rescued from the rubbish heap by his grandmother Hina. Lepeamoa, a kupua with a double body of a human and a chicken, was born an egg and cared for by her grandmother Kapalama until she hatched into a beautiful bird, later transforming into a girl.
Unlike most shape-shifters, who can only transform into animal or humanoid creatures, some kupua are able to take on the body of plants or minerals. Kupua have been known to transform into creatures with bodies of leaves, flowers, vines, or mosses. Kupua can also take on the shape of a being whose body is made of shells, stones, clouds, or even winds. Descriptions of animal transformation tell of kupua changing into a creature with the body of a bird, fish, shark, or mo`o (giant lizard).
Kupua who transform from humans into other natural forms are said to have kinolau (many body forms). Though most kupua with kinolau have a dual nature, some kupua, such as Kamapua`a, have multiple forms. Kamapua`a can be a man or pig, but he can also take on the form of the humuhumunukunukuāpua`a fish, as well as various plants such as the `uala (sweet potato), kukui (candlenut tree), and the `amau`u tree fern.
Mo`o are kupua who can transform into a giant lizard or dragon. A mo`o can appear as a woman with long black hair streaked with white. When in human form, they may try to trick travelers to come close to their watery lair as they lay in the sun brushing their hair, but stay far away from the dangerous mo`o. Watch out when the mo`o transforms into a giant lizard, as it can be over 30 feet long. Mo`o live near fishponds or streams, which they protect, serving as guardians for the natural environment. When a mo`o is living nearby, the water, as well as the plants surrounding the pool, will take on a yellow-green cast and foam may be present.
Some well-known mo`o include Kalamainu`u and Mamala. The cannibalistic mo`o Kalamainu`u once angered the volcano goddess Pele by capturing her eldest sister’s husband. Pele’s encounter with the Kalamainu`u was a continuation of the conflict between the Pele family and the mo`o. Mamala was a mo`o known for her great skill as a surf-rider and her beauty. She was married to the shark-man Ouha, but left him for Chief Honokaupu. Due to his shame, Ouha cast off his connection with humanity and became the shark-god of the coast between Waikiki and Koko Head.
Some kupua have no kinolau, but are demigods in human form. Though they do not transform, they have supernatural abilities beyond humans. Māui, known in contemporary times as the Hawaiian Sup`pa Man, is a kupua who remains in human form. Māui is an example of a benevolent kupua. He created the Hawaiian islands by hauling them up with his fishhook, lassoed the sun to create longer days for work in the summer, and held up the sky with the help of his father.
Though some kupua have participated in heroic deeds, approach at your own risk because others are known to be tempermental, and, in some cases, deadly.
To learn more about the Hawaiian kupua and their transformative powers, check out this video from Kamehameha Publishing.