In Hawaiʻi, tales of the little people known as the Menehune have been passed down through generations. Stories of these mysterious folk can be found in ancient Hawaiian mythology and through more recent accounts. Menehune live in deep mountain forests and secret valleys, staying hidden from the modern world. Though tales of the Menehune are known throughout Hawaiʻi, they’re most associated with the island of Kauaʻi.
Menehune make their home in remote areas, living in caves, lava tubes, hollow logs, and banana-leaf huts. They eat taro, breadfruit, banana, yams, ferns, and fish. Favorite foods of the Menehune include haupia (coconut pudding), palaʻai (squash), koele palau (sweet potato pudding), and luau (taro leaves).
An 1820 census on Kauaʻi by King Kaumualiʻi included sixty-five Menehune in Laʻau, deep in the Wainiha Valley. A more recent sighting in Kauaʻi took place in the 1940s when forty-five elementary students saw a group of Menehune jumping up and down among the trees in Waimea, Kauaʻi.
Very few people have reported seeing the mysterious Menehune. One account passed down through generations describe the Menehune as short and muscular, with red or dark skin, a protruding forehead, big eyes, and long eyebrows. Not much is known about their language, but many tales indicate that Hawaiians were able to communicate with the Menehune. It is said that the Menehune have gruff voices, with a language that sounds like growls.
Travelers are warned to watch out for the Menehune because they are known to shoot tiny arrows at those who come too close to their homes. There are also tales of Menehune piercing the hearts of angry people with magic arrows, igniting feelings of love. Though mostly harmless if left alone, Menehune have been known to play tricks on people. When mischievous Menehune become uncontrollable, the owl god Paupueo summons the owls to chase them back into the forest. Menehune are afraid not only of owls, but also of dogs. If they hear a barking dog, they will abandon their projects.
Menehune can be playful. They take pleasure in song, dance, and music, and they are known to play games. Menehune also enjoy racing sleds down mountain slopes (heʻe hōlua), archery, and cliff diving. If you hear a splash in the night at a lagoon falls or an ocean bluff it may be a Menehune diving into the water.
They are also known for their great works such as fishponds, stoneworks, irrigation ditches, houses, and monuments, all built secretly at night. Their efforts were not a result of supernatural powers, but of tremendous strength and energy as well as great numbers. In Hawaiian Legends (1923), William Hyde Rice describes the Menehune as master craftsmen:
“They were credited with the building of many temples, roads, and other structures. Trades among them were well-systematized, every Menehune being restricted to his own particular craft in which he was a master. It was believed that they would work one night on a construction and if unable to complete the work, it was left undone.”
One of the best-known works by the Menehune is the ʻAlekoko “Menehune” Fishpond in Līhuʻe, Kauaʻi. This expansive waterway was built at the request of Chief ʻAlekoko and his sister Chiefess Kalālālehua. The Menehune agreed to build the fishpond on the condition that no one would watch while they worked through the night. When it was discovered the chieftains had broken their promise and observed the work, the Menehune dropped their unpolished stones in the water and left the dam unfinished.
In Waimea, Kauaʻi, the beautifully crafted Kīkīaola, better known as the Menehune Ditch, is an impressive engineering feat. The Menehune made this aqueduct with stones that were smoothed and squared into a tight wall, allowing water to flow through. This ʻauwai (irrigation ditch) is said to have stretched 25 miles inland.
The Menehune have built numerous heiau (temples) on Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, Maui, Hawai‘i, Moloka‘i and Ni‘ihau. Some of these heiau sites include Ulupō in Kailua, Oʻahu, Halekiʻi and Pihana in Wailuku, Maui, and Poliʻahu and Malae in Wailua, Kaua‘i.
Pa o ka menehune, the breakwater at Kahaluʻu Bay on the Big Island, is believed to have been built by the Menehune. The Menehune built the heiau Kūkaʻōʻō in Mānoa, Oʻahu, but the owl god Paupueo drove them from Mānoa Valley with the help of the owls of Kauaʻi.
Some of the Trails of the Menehune (Nā ala piʻi o ka Menehune), can still be seen in Kauaʻi above Hanapepe, Makaweli, Mānā, Nāpali, Miloliʻi, Nuʻalolo, and Hanapu. Menehune have been known to leave behind carvings of petroglyphs.
There are varying explanations for how the Menehune came to Hawaiʻi. In one account the Menehune first arrived in Hawaiʻi on a floating island. There are also descriptions of Hawaiʻi and New Zealand once being connected in a vast continent known as Mu, allowing the Menehune to travel back and forth until ocean levels rose. It’s also been said that it was the goddess Pele’s arrival to Hawai‘i that brought the Menehune.
It’s been suggested that the tales of the Menehune emerged from the different waves of Polynesians to the Hawaiian Islands. The first voyagers to settle in Hawaiʻi may have been from the Marquesas Islands, followed by a second wave of colonists from Tahiti centuries later. The new Tahitian arrivals may have subdued the original Marquesan settlers, eventually causing them to flee to the mountains, where stories of the Menehune emerged. Historians believe that the term “menehune” comes from the Tahitian word for commoner (manahuna). The Menehune may have been people of low social stature rather than people of diminutive size.
The Menehune may have remained hidden in deep forests and caves or they may have left to find a new home. The last King of the Menehune believed that there was too much intermarriage between Menehune men and Hawaiian women. He ordered that they leave Hawaiʻi and set sail to new lands. Some believe that the Menehune who left Kaua‘i settled on Necker Island, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. This now-abandoned rocky isle is home to 33 stone shrines and artifacts.
Where did the Menehune go? Are some still in Hawaiʻi? No one knows for certain. There are those who claim to have descended from the Menehune. There are also accounts of native Hawaiian families that continue to leave food near caves or in deep forests for the Menehune. When something goes missing—whether it’s keys, slippers, or bananas—it’s only natural to wonder if there’s a Menehune around.