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The Significance of Sharks in Native Hawaiian Culture

a person standing next to a body of water

Sharks, as we know them today, first evolved around 150 million years ago during the Jurassic Period. Ever since then, sharks have been the apex predator of the ocean and have been known to be very dangerous as well as incredible and majestic. Native Hawaiian culture has revered sharks for thousands of years, but why?

Keep reading and learn more about why sharks are so special and respected in traditional as well as modern native Hawaiian culture. 

What You Need To Know About Sharks in Native Hawaiian Culture

If you ever have the chance to view ancient Hawaiian relics and pieces of art, you will notice that many of them include depictions of sharks to some degree. Some of those old relics might even contain shark teeth or shark skin, especially weapons and drums. From these relics, you might think that the ancient Hawaiians focused on hunting sharks, but this is not quite true. 

On the contrary, the ancient Hawaiians tried to avoid killing sharks as much as possible. This is because they believed that sharks were something known as aumākua. Aumākuas are very special, spiritual creatures, or rather complete spirits, that used to be human. 

In particular, an aumākua is a spirit that used to be someone from a person’s family. For example, an aumākua may be a person’s grandmother or parent who has passed away. The unique thing about aumākua spirits is that they take the form of an animal. 

In a way, this is a way for the human spirit to be reborn and to continue living, only in a different form. In some cases, an aumākua spirit may even come back as an object. This may sound strange, but in traditional Hawaiian mythology and ideology, everything, including inanimate objects, has some semblance of life in it. 

Even things as simple as rocks may contain some kind of thriving spirit. But how does the concept of aumākua connect to sharks in particular? It is important to know that the Hawaiians did not worship sharks as gods. 

However, they did believe that sharks did have some kind of connection to the gods.

The Details

In a way, sharks were powerful and important spiritual beings that, in a way, were connected to certain deities. Also, keep in mind that not all aumākua spirits are sharks, and not every Hawaiian has a shark as their personal aumākua. 

A person with an aumākua as a shark may see that shark in a dream to act as a spiritual guide. This is especially true in times of crisis or good news. 

Even so, sharks were still seen as half-human beings even to those who did not have shark aumākuas. Beyond that, sharks, in general, were seen as symbols representing a higher power. In a way, sharks to Hawaiians were similar to the symbol of the host or wine in Christianity. 

Because sharks were so revered in traditional Hawaiian culture, it would have been unusual for Hawaiians to kill or eat sharks. Some would even treat sharks (if the shark was their aumākua) with special care. For example, some would toss food out into the water for that shark to eat so that the spiritual relative inside the shark would be contented. 

This may sound strange today, but revering the shark was quite a normal thing to do hundreds or even thousands of years ago in Hawaii. Today, modern Hawaiians do not worship or revere sharks as they once did. However, modern Hawaiians still hold a certain respect for sharks. 

This is because many modern Hawaiians still feel a connection to their ancestors. In order to still respect the rich cultural past of their people, it only makes sense that modern Hawaiians respect sharks in order to also respect what their ancestors believed. 

The Myth of the Shark

Another reason why sharks have such a strong significance in Hawaii is that there is a myth that a shark once guided Hawaii’s first inhabitants to the island. Kamohoaliʻi was a giant shark that was not an aumākua but instead an actual god. Kamohoaliʻi could take the form of any fish in the ocean, but he most often took the form of a large shark. 

This shark god was also the brother of another very important deity, the volcano goddess Pele. It was believed that Kamohoaliʻi lived in the many undersea caves dotted throughout the islands that make up Hawaii. According to legend, Kamohoaliʻi took the responsibility of guiding a group of people in canoes across the ocean to Hawaii. 

These would be the first inhabitants of the island and ever since that point, the Hawaiians would have a special respect for sharks. Kamohoaliʻi, in particular, is often honored in many traditional Hawaiian chants and songs. Besides this particular story of Kamohoaliʻi, sharks, in general, were believed to have a strong connection to mortal people, to gods, and to the rest of the world

What You Need to Know

Ancient Hawaiians believed that everything in the world was connected. This was true not only for animals and fish but also for rainbows, clouds, storms, rocks, plants, and so on. While ancient Hawaiians greatly respected sharks, they also understood that they could be dangerous, especially when provoked. 

This belief still holds true even today. Keep in mind that there are many different types of sharks. Some sharks are more or less relaxed and not very aggress. 

Others, on the other hand, may be more curious and may err on the side of aggression. Some, like the great white shark, are known to be dangerous not only due to their size but also their temperament. For that reason, it is important not only to respect the ancient importance and beauty of sharks but also the power and potential danger that they may cause. 

At the same time, it is important to remember that sharks are not killing machines and certainly not like the shark featured in the movie Jaws. Sharks are often misunderstood as being nothing but man-eating monsters, but in reality, this is not true. The only way to truly understand what a shark is like up close is to dive with one. 

Diving With Sharks

Diving with sharks is a popular activity in Hawaii, especially for tourists. Diving with sharks may seem like a terrifying activity, but it can actually be a very unique and even life-changing experience. It is important to keep in mind that this activity is done as safely as possible. 

If you decide to dive with sharks, you will be kept in a very strong and safe barred cage. That way, sharks will have the freedom of swimming around you and you won’t be in any danger. Even the strongest of sharks won’t be able to get through the bars of the cage. 

For that reason, you should be able to relax as you watch the sharks swim around you up close. While you can view sharks from an aquarium, there’s nothing quite like being in the same water as a shark or being close enough that you can feel the movement in the water as the shark swims around you. 

Sharks Up Close

You might even have the chance to see many species of sharks at once. Some of the most common types of sharks in Hawaii are the sandbar shark, scalloped hammerhead shark, white reef tip shark, and black reef tip shark. All of these sharks are quite unique and you will be able to tell them apart based on their unique markings, size, and overall body structure. 

On some shark dives, you might not even need a cage to protect you. In this case, you can swim freely with the sharks along with the rest of the people on the tour. This is sure to be an invigorating experience even for those who have been shark diving before. 

Needless to say, free diving with sharks is something that you won’t forget for the rest of your life. 

Native Hawaiian Culture and Sharks

Native Hawaiian culture has long seen sharks as very special, spiritual creatures. Some believed that sharks were even members of their family that came back in another spiritual form. While sharks are not revered as much as they once were, they still hold a very special place in the hearts of many modern Hawaiians. 

If you want to see the unique power and majesty of sharks up close, you can always consider diving with them. Click here to learn more about it. 

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