Friday, June 26, 2015

Night Marchers of Hawaii

Mainlanders such as myself tend to think of the beaches of Hawaii as being places of calm seas, warm sand, and half-dressed attractive people. I should, of course, know better - I am a native Californian and know that many people hold the same false view of my own home state - but nonetheless, this is how I think of Hawaii.

However, legend holds that the beaches of Hawaii are home to a rather fearsome group of spectres - Huaka'ipo, better known to mainlanders like me as the night marchers (though the words actually translate into "Spirit Ranks").

The Huaka'ipo are said to be the spirits of Hawaiian warriors who march in a single line throughout the island, playing drums and chanting. At sunset, or before the sun rises, the spirits march from their burial places to the locations of past battles, homes, or sacred places.

It is said that you her the drums first, followed by the sounds of chanting and conch shells, and then you may see torch light, and possibly smell a foul odor, before finally seeing the Huaka'ipo - and as they are non-corporeal, they may march through fences, walls, even homes. But resist the urge to look - the spirits are touchy, and are said to kill anyone who does not bow their head and look at the ground as a show of respect, some versions of the legend require that any witness lay face down on the ground to show respect, and some even hold that you must go inside or otherwise get away from the marchers to avoid attracting notice. Some legends hold that anyone killed in this manner is doomed to accompany the Huaka'ipo for their eternal march. However, if you are descended from one of the spirits, then you will be safe from their wrath.

There are, of course, other ways to avoid their notice. Specifically, placing leaves of the ti (not a typo) plant around your home will ward off evil spirits, and the Night Marchers (whether the Night Marchers are considered evil is open to debate, I suppose). Also, showing them respect may result in great things coming to you. Some versions of the stories even hold that the night marchers are a harbinger of death, rather than the cause of death, though these stories seem to be in the minority.

Most versions of the legend hold that there are multiple marches, each led by a different chief or commander, and that the characteristics of the march will correspond with the tastes and desires of that leader. And some marches are said to count gods among their members, with even brighter torches burning either out of respect to the god or due to the god's power. The marches containing gods usually contain six - three male and three female.

Typically seen at night, these spirits may be seen during the day of they are transporting a descendant to the afterlife. Whether that descendant is going to a more "normal" afterlife, or doomed to march with the Huaka'ipo is unclear.

Commentary: There is so much going on in this story, and it is fascinating to me both as a ghost story enthusiast and as an anthropologist.

When I first read about the night marchers, my first thought was that it was similar to the watchers in California's coastal mountains. But as I read more about them, it became clear that this was a very different sort of affair.

It seems entirely possible that the legend is based on actual rituals in which dancers or marchers would move about a territory either as a show of force or to collect tribute or both. In fact, such processions are common throughout the world, and the belief that the marchers may have in their ranks (or may become) spirits or gods while engaged in the ritual is also not uncommon throughout the world. It's easy to see how such a practice might, over time, become a ghost story, much as the very real 'Antap group became boogey men in Californian folklore. Some of the sources I read hinted at such an origin for the legend, though none explicitly stated it. I will need to do a bit more research to check into this.

Another similarity I noted was to the Wild Hunt of European folklore. In the wild hunt, spirits (or faeries, or demons, or ghosts, all depending on which version you encounter) head out along the countryside. In some versions of the story, it's demons chasing the souls of sinners, in others seeing the hunt can be a harbinger of death. In all cases, what is said to be seen are spectral humanoid creatures with the accoutrements of hunters chasing across the countryside.

And, of course, the versions of the story that hold that seeing or hearing the marchers is an omen of death are similar to the Banshee stories, as well as other ghost stories from throughout the world.

So, what to make of these similarities?  Well, my take on it is that some elements of the story grew up in Hawaii - probably including all of the standard parts (the form and nature of the march, the presence of gods, etc.), either as an element of folklore, or as a post-contact description of traditional practices. Other elements were likely added over time, as people from different cultures settled in Hawaii during the 19th and 20th centuries. I suspect that some aspects, including the apparent grouping of them all into the "night marchers" rather than individual parties of spirits, comes from the development of both tourist culture and modern media, which tends to result in the homogenization of local variations.

I also wonder, though I have no information to support this, whether the claim of safety if you are a descendant of one of the marchers might be a reaction to non-Hawaiian invasion of the islands. Throughout the world, local folklores change, sometimes radically, when outsiders arrive, especially when they are colonizers. The claim that you are safe if an ancestor is among the marchers seems consistent with these sorts of changes - a way of saying "you may live here, but you don't belong here, like I do!"

Sources: Funkypickens, Listverse, Hawaii News Now, Wikipedia, Huffington Post,

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