Mo-o are a type of dragons that were worshipped as ghost-gods by the ancient Hawaiians.
The New Zealanders used the same names for some of their large reptile gods. They, however, spelled the word with a "k," calling it mo-ko, and it was almost identical in pronunciation as in meaning with the Hawaiian name. Both the Hawaiians and New Zealanders called all kinds of lizards mo-o or mo-ko; and their use of this word in traditions showed that they often had in mind animals like crocodiles and alligators, and sometimes they referred the name to any monster of great mythical powers belonging to a man-destroying class.
Mighty eels, immense sea-turtles, large fish of the ocean, fierce sharks, were all called mo-o. The most ancient dragons of the Hawaiians are spoken of as living in pools or lakes. These dragons were known also as kupuas, or mysterious characters who could appear as animals or human beings according to their wish. The saying was: "Kupuas have a strange double body."
There were many other kupuas besides those of the dragon family. It was sometimes thought that at birth another natural form was added, such as an egg of a fowl or a bird, or the seed of a plant, or the embryo of some animal, which when fully developed made a form which could be used as readily as the human body. These kupuas were always given some great magic power. They were wonderfully strong and wise and skilful.
Usually the birth of a kupua, like the birth of a high chief, was attended with strange disturbances in the heavens, such as reverberating thunder, flashing lightning, and severe storms which sent the abundant red soil of the islands down the mountain-sides in blood-red torrents known as ka-ua-koko (the blood rain). This name was also given to misty fine rain when shot through by the red waves of the sun.
By far the largest class of kupuas was that of the dragons. These all belonged to one family. Their ancestor was Mo-o inanea (The Self-reliant Dragon), who figured very prominently in the Hawaiian legends of the most ancient times, such as "The Maiden of the Golden Cloud."
Mo-o-inanea (The Self-reliant Dragon) brought the dragons, the kupua dragons, from the "Hidden Land of Kane" to the Hawaiian Islands. Mo-o-inanea was apparently a demi-goddess of higher power even than the gods Ku, Kane, or Kanaloa. She was the great dragon-goddess of the Hawaiians, coming to the islands in the migration of the gods from Nuu-mea-lani and Kuai-he-lani to settle. The dragons and other kupuas came as spirit servants of the gods.
For a while this Mo-o-inanea lived with her brothers, the gods, at Waolani, but after a long time there were so many dragons that it was necessary to distribute them over the islands, and Mo-o-inanea decided to leave her brothers and find homes for her numerous family. So she went down to Puunui in the lower part of Nuuanu Valley and there made her home , and it is said received worship from the men of the ancient days. Here she dwelt in her dual nature--sometimes appearing as a dragon, sometimes as a woman.
Very rich clayey soil was found in this place, forced out of the earth as if by geyser action. It was greatly sought in later years by the chiefs who worshipped this goddess. They made the place tabu, and used the clay, sometimes eating it, but generally plastering the hair with it. This place was made very tabu by the late Queen Kaahumanu during her lifetime.
Mo-o-inanea lived in the pit from which this clay was procured, a place called Lua-palolo, meaning pit-of-sticky-clay. After she had come to this dwelling-place the dragons were sent out to find homes. Some became chiefs and others servants, and when by themselves were known as the evil ones. She distributed her family over all the islands from Hawaii to Niihau. Two of these dragon-women, according to the legends, lived as guardians of the pali (precipice) at the end of Nuuanu Valley, above Honolulu. After many years it was supposed that they both assumed the permanent forms of large stones which have never lost their associations with mysterious, miraculous power.
Even as late as 1825, Mr. Bloxam, the chaplain of the English man-of-war, recorded in "The Voyage of the Blonde" the following statement:
"At the bottom of the Parre (pali) there are two large stones on which even now offerings of fruits and flowers are laid to propitiate the Aku-wahines, or goddesses, who are supposed to have the power of granting a safe passage,"
Mr. Bloxam says that these were a kind of mo-o, or reptile, goddesses, and adds that it was difficult to explain the meaning of the name given to them, probably because the Hawaiians had nothing in the shape of serpents or large reptiles in their islands.
A native account of these stones says: "There is a large grove of hau-trees in Nuuanu Valley, and above these lie the two forest women, Hau-ola and Ha-puu. These are now two large stones, one being about three feet long with a fine smooth back, the other round with some little rough places. The long stone is on the seaward side, and this is the Mo-o woman, Hau-ola; and the other, Ha-puu. The leaves of ferns cover Hau-ola, being laid on that stone. On the other stone, Ha-puu, are lehua flowers. These are kupuas."
Again the old people said that their ancestors had been accustomed to bring the navel cords of their children and bury them under these stones to insure protection of the little ones from evil, and that these were the stone women of Nuuanu.
Ala-muki lived in the deep pools of the Waialua River near the place Ka-mo-o-loa, which received its name from the long journeys that dragon made over the plains of Waialua. She and her descendants guarded the paths and sometimes destroyed those who travelled that way.
One dragon lived in the Ewa lagoon, now known as Pearl Harbor. This was Kane-kua-ana, who was said to have brought the pipi (oysters) to Ewa. She was worshipped by those who gathered the shell-fish. When the oysters began to disappear about 1850, the natives said that the dragon had become angry and was sending the oysters to Kahiki, or some far-away foreign land.
Kilioe, Koe, and Milolii were noted dragons on the island of Kauai. They were the dragons of the precipices of the northern coast of this island, who took the body of the high chief Lohiau and concealed it in a cave far up the steep side of the mountain. There is a very long interesting story of the love between Lohiau and Pele, the goddess of fire. In this story Pele overcame the dragons and won the love of the chief. Hiiaka, the sister of the fire-goddess, won a second victory over them when she rescued a body from the cave and brought it back to life.
On Maui, the greatest dragon of the island was Kiha-wahine. The natives had the saying, "Kiha has mana, or miraculous power. like Mo-o-inanea." She lived in a large
deep pool on the edge of the village Lahaina, and was worshipped by the royal family of Maui as their special guardian.
There were many dragons of the island of Hawaii, and the most noted of these were the two who lived in the Wailuku River near Hilo. They were called "the moving boards" which made a bridge across the river.
Sometimes they accepted offerings and permitted a safe passage, and sometimes they tipped the passengers into the water and drowned them. They were destroyed by Hiiaka.
Sacred to these dragons who were scattered over all the islands were the mo-o priests and the sorcerers, who propitiated them with offerings and sacrifices, chanting incantations.
- HAWAIIAN LEGENDS OF GHOSTS and GHOST-GODS collected and translated from the Hawaiian by W. D. WESTERVELT - Boston, Ellis Press