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Let me Lei it out for you!

Hawaii is synonymous with the flower Lei. Have you seen in TV shows or in movies, someone arriving in Hawaii, is given a Lei and a kiss on the cheek? This "ancient" custom actually started sometime in the early 1900's, and is really more for the tourists. Ancient Hawaiians would instead greet someone by placing their nose to the other person's. While it is impossible to say who created the first Lei, Kuku'ena-i-le-ahi-ho', the younger sister of Pele, is said to be the one who invented it. It is likely that the Hawaiian tradition began with their Tahitian ancestors. While most people think of a necklace of flowers as a Lei, the term also applies to wreaths, crowns, and bracelets, all of which can be made with "seeds, fruits, flowers, leaves, ferns, seaweed, shells, feathers, and human hair."

Lei are not only for adorning people. Huge temple complexes, known as Haeiau contained offering stands called Lele. This was a structure made from one to four legs that support a platform. On top of this, people leave offerings including fruit, vegetables, pigs and Lei.

The deities that these offerings were made to included Lono. An image of the god Lono was decorated with a Lei of ferns and feathers. Just like humans, the gods and goddesses enjoy making, wearing, and giving away Lei.

It's not only the gods and goddesses that don a Lei. The Menehune, which have been equated with the faerie, are found in gift shops, children's books and construction are signs. They are depicted as being short and nearly naked, wearing little more than a hardhat, toolbelt and a Lei.

When thinking of a Lei, you instinctively think of the Hula dancer. Since Hula started out as sacred, long before it became part of the "tourist trap," the Lei worn by the dancers are sacred as well. This is because the Lei for Hula is considered sacred to the goddess Laka, and they are handled very carefully.

The colors of the Lei can be as varied as the natural materials that they are constructed from. The tiny white pupu shell symbolizes the island of Ni'ihau. Yellow (Melemele) is a color held only for the Ali'i, the chief or chiefess. Brightly colored feathers can also comprise a Lei; and can only be worn by women.

Perhaps the most celebrated use of flowers by Hawaiians is the Lei. Over the generations, the materials use to make Lei have evolved; the modern versions would be unrecognizable to those of ancient Hawaii; "plumeria, carnations, orchids, pikake, white, ginger, and roses, were then unknown." While some plants are gathered in the forest, valleys, plains, lava flow areas, and ocean, others are cultivated. Let's look at some of the plants that are used to make Lei:

  • Hala: Sometimes the fruit of this plant, which resembles a pineapple, is used when making Lei. While beautiful and slightly fragrant, this plant is seldom used because it is considered unlucky, unless it's New Year's Day. If you wanted to give a politician bad luck, you could give them a Lei made with Hala fruit so they would not win the election. If a fisherman saw someone wearing a Lei Hala, they would immediately turn around and go home because no fish would be caught that day. Conversely, Lei with Hala are a symbol of a completion of something important, and are worn as a sign of accomplishment, as well as to rid oneself of misfortune.

  • 'Ilima: Flowers from this plant are very popular, however, it requires hundreds of blossoms to make a single Lei. Also, the flowers wilt shortly after being picked. Decades ago, a crepe-paper version was quite popular. It is said that in old Hawaii, only the ali'i were allowed to wear a Lei 'ilima, while others say that they can be worn by anyone. Perhaps it is because the flowers are said to attract mischievous spirits, and that's why they are considered bad luck.

  • Ki: Ki is often used for thatching roofs, but it is sometimes also used for Lei. For instance, if a woman was menstruating and needed to cross in front of Pele's temple, she would wear bracelets, anklets, and a Lei made of Ki leaves. This would ensure protection against Pele's wrath at being disturbed by the menstruating woman's (lifeforce).

  • Kukui: the "shells" (nuts) of the Kukui have been used for Lei since antiquity.

  • Limu Kala: Sometimes called "sea lettuce," this is a seaweed that is used in Lei worn by Hula dancers. For healing purposes, "Kala" means "to forgive," and this plant can aid in recovering from physical, emotional, or spiritual conditions. The patient, wearing the Lei Limu Kala, would walk into the ocean and allow the waves to crash against them, which would wash away after loosening their ailment. Also, for those that work with water, Lei Limu Kala are given as offerings at fishing shrines in hopes of a good catch.

  • Maile: this plant has been used to make open-ended Lei. This particular Lei can end battles: opposing chiefs would meet at a temple, each with a Lei Maile, and signaling the end of fighting.

  • 'Ohi'a Lehua: this plant is sacred to the goddesses Hina, Laka, and Hi’iaka-I-Ka-poli-o-Pele, and Lei made from this are favored by them.

  • Pala'a/Palapala'a: Lei made from this plant are worn by women to treat female issues.

Finally, there are various beliefs and tabus regarding the Lei:

  • Pregnant women should not wear a Lei; it is believed that the child could be strangled by the umbilical cord.

  • Also, dreaming of a Lei means that someone that you know is pregnant.

  • Never give away a Lei that has been given to you; this will bring you bad luck.

  • Never ask for a Lei that someone else is already wearing.

  • If you have worn a Lei, it contains some of your mana (life force energy). Therefore, you should never leave it lying around where someone who has ill intent towards you can find it. They can use it to send negative energy your way.


Hawaiian religion in Magic by Scott Cunningham

The secret power of Huna by Rima A. Morel, PhD

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