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What is a Menehune?

In Hawaiian mythology, the Menehune [pronounced meh-neh-HOO-neh] are said to be a people, sometimes described as dwarfs in size, who live in the deep forests and hidden valleys of the Hawaiian islands, far from the eyes of normal humans. Their favorite food is the mai'a (banana), but they also like fish.

The Menehune were said to be superb craftspeople. Legends say that the Menehune built temples, fishponds, roads, canoes, and houses. They are said to have lived in Hawaiʻi before the human settlers arrived many centuries ago.

In Beckwith's Hawaiian Mythology, there are references to several other forest dwelling races: the Nawao, who were large-sized wild hunters descended from Lua-nu'u, the mu people, and the wa people (Beckwith 1970:321-323).

Some early scholars theorized that there was a first settlement of Hawai'i, by settlers from the Marquesas Islands, and a second, from Tahiti. The Tahitian settlers oppressed the "commoners", the manahune in the Tahitian language, who fled to the mountains and were called Menahune. Proponents of this theory point to an 1820 census of Kauaʻi by Kamualiʻi, its ruling chief of that island, which listed 65 people as menehune (Schmitt 1981).

Folklorist Katherine Luomala believes that the legends of the Menehune are a post-European contact mythology created by adaptation of the term manahune (which by the time of the settling of the Hawaiian Islands had acquired a meaning of "lowly people") to European legends of brownies (Luomala 1951). Menehune are not mentioned in pre-contact mythology; the legendary "overnight" creation of the Alekoko fishpond, for example, finds its equivalent in the legend (Nordhoff 1874) about the creation of a corresponding structure on Oʻahu, which was supposedly indeed completed in a single day - not by menehune, but, as a show of power, by a local aliʻi who demanded every one of his subjects to appear at the construction site and assist in building.