How much a culture understands of the practice of dreaming is reflected in the variety and specificity of the terms it uses for different types of dream experience. The Hawaiian language contains a rich vocabulary for dreaming that makes a delightful study.
A general word for dreams in Hawaiian is moe’uhane, generally translated as “soul sleep” but better understood as “night experiences of the soul”, since for traditional Hawaiians, dreaming is very much about traveling. The soul makes excursions during sleep. It slips out of the regular body, often through the tear duct, described as the “soul pit” and travels in a “body of wind”.
During sleep the dreamer also receives visitations from gods (akua) and ancestral guardian spirits (aumakua) who may take the form of a bird or a fish or a plant.
Like all practical dreamers, the Hawaiians recognize that there are big dreams and little dreams. You don’t want to pay too much attention to a “wild goatfish dream” (moe weke pahulu), which is caused by something you ate or how fast you ate it. The colorful term is derived from popular belief that eating the heads of goatfish – at other times a delicacy – in the wrong season, when bad winds are blowing, causes sickness and troubling but meaningless dreams.
On the other hand, you want to recognize that a dream may contain the memory of a trip into the future that can give you information of the highest practical importance. Especially helpful is the “straight-up” dream (moe pi’i pololei) that is clear and requires no interpretation. There are “wishing” dreams (moemoea) that show you something you are pining for, which may or may not be attainable in ordinary reality. There are “revelations of the night” (ho’ike na ka po) that carry the power of prophecy.
A most interesting category of Hawaiian dreams are those – believed to be gifts of the guardian ancestral spirits – that are given to promote the healing of relations within a family or community. Dreams are also given by the aumakua to promote personal healing. The ancestral spirits deliver “night names” (inoa po) for babies that are on the way, and cautionary tales are told of misfortune that comes when the parents ignore a baby name delivered in a dream.
The Hawaiians pay special attention to visions that come on the cusp between sleep and waking (hihi’o) believing that these are especially likely to contain clear communication from the spirits and “straight up” glimpses of things that will unfold.
In our dream travels, we may be united with a “dream husband” (kane o ka po) or a “dream wife” (wahine o ka po). This can be pleasurable and even compelling, but Hawaiian lore teaches caution. Spend too much time outside your regular body in your “body of wind” and the physical organism may start to weaken and languish. You also want to be alert to deceivers who may take on the form of alluring sexual partners but are actually something else, like tricky mo’o, a kind of water imp. We want to bring energy from our juiciest dreams into embodied life and not leave it out there.
A favorite Hawaiian legend tells how a goddess accomplished this. Pele, on her volcanic island, was stirred by rhythmic drumming from far off. She left her body in her lava bed, charging her attendants not to rouse her for three days on any account. She traveled far in her “body of wind” and finally found the source of the magical drumming is a luau being held by a handsome prince. The goddess and the prince fell for each other and spent three days making love before Pele returned to the body she had left in her lava bed. Being a goddess, she was then able to arrange for her prince to be transported to the Big Island to live with her as her consort. Humans may find this kind of transfer harder to effect, but it’s always worth a try!
Until recently, the only published sources I could recommend on Hawaiian dreaming were older works by anthropologists and mythologists, notably Martha Beckwith’s indispensable Hawaiian Mythology. Now we have a wonderfully accessible book by Caren Loebel-Fried, Hawaiian Legends of Dreams (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press). Illustrated with the author’s own lively woodcuts and drawing on excellent research among the Beckwith and E.S. Craighill Handy papers in the Bishop Museum, this book takes us deeply and effortlessly into the language and lore of Hawaiian dreaming and is suitable for readers from middle school to sagehood..
Loebel-Fried’s retelling of Pele’s dream journey to Lohi’au and of the dream that led to the discovery of the hidden spring of Punahou, under a hala (pandanus) tree are especially engaging and instructive. The famous Punahou school in Honolulu stands at the site of that secret spring, and the school seal includes the image of a hala tree with a spring of fresh water flowing beneath it.
woodblock by Caren Loebel-Fried