Hawaiian myths and legends abound with such characters. They are traditionally described as monsters having the power of appearing in different kinds of bodies. They usually have cruel and vindictive characters and are ready to destroy and devour any persons they can catch. There are, however, many kupuas of kindly spirit who give watchful care to the members of their own families.
Many Hawaiian kupua are considered as gods having a double body, sometimes appearing as a man and sometimes being able to change shape, into an animal, vegetable, or mineral form. The latter form always possesses supernatural powers. William Westervelt mentions the following classification for kupua:
- Ka-poe-kino-lau (the people who had leaf bodies)
- Ka-poe-kino-pua (the people who had flower bodies)
- Ka-poe-kino-manu (the people who had bird bodies)
- Ka-poe-kino-laau (trees of all kinds, ferns, vines, etc.)
- Ka-poe-kino-pupu (all shells)
- Ka-poe-kino-ao (all clouds)
- Ka-poe-kino-maani (all winds)
- Ka-poe-kina-ia (all fish)
- Ka-poe-kina-mano (all sharks)
- Ka-poe-kina-limu (all sea-mosses)
- Ka-poe-kina-pokaku (all peculiar stones)
- Ka-poe-kina-hiwa-hiwa (all dangerous places of the pali)
Famous kupua in Hawaiian legends
Mamala the surf-rider was a chiefess of kupua character. She is described as a moʻo, or gigantic lizard or crocodile, as well as a beautiful woman. She could assume whichever shape she most desired. One of the legends says that she was a shark and woman.
In an old Honolulu legend, a kupua who is a dog-man overthrows the government of Kahanai and becomes the ruling power between Nuuanu Valley and the sea. He is a cannibal and many of the people are killed and eaten by him. He can appear at will either as a man or a dog.
In Maui, the king once had a kupua, a rooster, which was very cruel and destructive. He could assume a different bird form for each magic power he possessed. This, with his miraculous human powers, made him superior to all the roosters which had ever been his antagonists in cock-fighting.
In Kauai, Akua-pehu-ale (god-of-the-swollen-billow) was a kupua who devoured his enemies and was greatly feared and hated even by his own tribe.
In the legend of the bread-fruit tree, Papa, one of the ancestors of the people living in all the islands now known as Polynesia, is described as a kupua. Her daughter Kap-ula-kinau also has kupua, or magic power.
- Pukui, Mary Kawena and Samuel H. Elbert (1986). Hawaiian Dictionary. University of Hawaii Press.
- Rose, Carol (1996). Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia. ABC-Clio, p. 176.
- Westervelt, W. D. (1915). Legends of Old Honolulu (republished in 2003 by Mutual Publishing, Honolulu, Hawaii).
- Westervelt, W. D. (1915). Hawaiian Legends of Ghosts and Ghost Gods (republished in 1998 by Mutual Publishing, Honolulu, Hawaii).