Mermaids in Polynesian Myths & Legends

Mermaids in Polynesian Myths & Legends March 9, 2023

World of the Islanders

Let´s dive into the mermaid myths of Polynesian islands. It is easy to imagine the southern seas being filled with exotic mermaids and sea creatures. Polynesian islands cover many languages and cultures and myths from different islands are intertwined in various ways to each other because many of the islanders were sailors. These Polynesian legends that I am sharing mainly come from Hawaii, Tahiti and New Zealand.


In Hawaii, Mo’o is an umbrella term to describe all sorts of water spirits. Mermaids in Hawaiian mythology are sea goddesses and sea gods. They were humanoid hybrids between humans and fishes, serpents, eels, octopuses or even crocodiles. Mo’o’s could be extremely tiny creatures or they could be gigantic. It was believed that Mo’o’s originally developed from gecko lizards to human women and then to sea goddesses. Mo’o lived in both salt and fresh waters. In lagoons, ponds, rivers, lakes and in the ocean. There is a Hawaiian expression that in each woman there lives a little Mo’o inside them.

The Siren

​Stories about the dangers of the mo’o’s were not too different compared to any other mermaid myths from different parts of the world. It was believed that mo’o’s were especially dangerous to men who were too weak to resist their feminine powers. Mo’o´s would seduce them and then drown them. According to Hawaiian folklore after a person passed away they could return back to this world and transform themself into a mo’o.

Story of Hina and Mokuna

There is a famous Hawaiian folk tale from the Wailuku river and the Rainbow falls which tells about a mo´o called Hina. She was a beautiful sea goddess who had a competitor, an evil mo´o called Mokuna, who wanted to kill Hina and destroy her home. Jealous Mokuna pulled a giant rock into the river plucking it. The water level was rising and Hina´s home was about to be destroyed. She called her son Maui to help her. Fisherman demi-god Maui started to chase Mokuna with his canoe but Mokuna was faster and hid in a waterhole. Maui called goddess Pele to help him to destroy Mokuna. Pele came down from the volcano bringing hot lava with her. The water turned burning hot and in the end killed evil Mokuna. Still today it is said that when you visit Rainbow falls you can see the remains of Maui’s canoe in the bottom of the river. On stormy days water boils because there is lots of volcanic activity. Maybe there is a seed of truth in these stories.

Hina and the Merman

​Every island has their own story versions of Maui, Hina and other Polynesian heroic characters and mythical deities. In New Zealand, there is a legend told where Hina is not Maui´s mother but his love interest. According to the story, Hina was an extremely beautiful woman. One night she was walking on the beach and saw a gorgeous man swimming in the ocean. The man introduced himself as Tuna. Soon two fell in love and decided to get married but Tuna had few conditions. The first one was that they could only meet at night and the second was that they could only meet at the beach. Because Tuna was a mo’o who had the ability to transform himself into a human at night but he was a merman at day. Hina agreed but after some time she got frustrated with these conditions. One night Tuna came to Hina and told her that he believed that his life was in danger and that if something bad would happen to him she should cut his head off and plant a tree from it and there would be fruits growing from that tree which would have his face. Demi-god Maui who was also in love with Hina was jealous of Tuna and he killed him. Hina planted the tree which was a coconut tree and there she saw Tuna´s face once again. There are many different versions told from this story. According to another version Hina killed Tuna for cheating on her and married Maui. In Tahiti, Hina is a moon goddess and Tuna is her pet eel.

Maui the god of Fishermen

Maui is a common heroic demi-god character in Polynesian mythology. One legend tells that Maui was originally a god but his mother Hina did not like his appearance and throw him away from the homes of the gods to the ocean where Maui was raised by the fishes and the sea creatures and later on he became the god of the fishermen. The story of Maui has similarities to the Greek story of the blacksmith god Hephaestus who was thrown away from mount Olympus by his mother Hera who did not like his appearance. The intertwining of myths and legends is multicultural and universal. Similar themes in myths appear in different cultures which necessarily haven´t had any contact which each other because human minds are wired to think the same no matter where we come from. For the wider public, Moana and Maui are most well-known for their famous (and amazing!) Disney animation but did you know that Moana means “ocean” in Hawaiian?

Moana Nui Ka Lehua

Moana´s character is familiar to millions thanks to the Disney animation. Feisty islander girl however is purely a Disney character but there is a Polynesian legend about a mermaid goddess called Moana Nui Ka Lehua. She was a goddess who ruled the oceans, waves and storms. She had two sharks who were her royal guards and Moana also had the ability to transform herself into a shark. It was believed that Moana Nui Ka Lehua ruled the sea between the Hawaiian islands of Kauai and Oahu.
Moana Nui Ka Lehua´s encounter with the demi-god Maui was not as pleasant in the myth as it was in the animation. The story tells that Maui was fishing in the sea that belonged to the ocean goddess. Moana Nui Ka Lehua was outraged by Maui´s impoliteness so she took his fishing hook and attached it to a submerged rock. Soon Maui realized what was going on and now it was the turn for the trickster god to become outraged. He captured Moana Nui Ka Lehua and dragged her into the beach where she slowly died. Maui who was angry with the gods still did respect them so he took Moana Nui Ka Lehua´s body into a shrine where she turned into a sacred tree.

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