Sometime ago I had an unusually vivid dream. I was swimming underwater, perhaps ten or fifteen feet below the surface. I was swimming along with little effort, not holding my breath. Looking to one side I saw that I was swimming alongside a huge shark. I had a moment of panic being so close to such a fearsome beast. The shark’s side was 5 feet from top to bottom, it was about 30 feet long, but it wasn’t a harmless whale shark. Then I looked at the shark’s large eye which was staring at me and noticed that the shark’s gaze was intelligent and somehow caring. Immediately, in the dream I felt not only comfortable but deeply peaceful. When I woke up, I remembered the dream clearly.
Among Hawaiians there is a tradition of having a personal totem animal called one’s ʻaumākua.
The wehewehe dictionary’s definition:
nvt. Family or personal gods, deified ancestors who might assume the shape of sharks (all islands except Kauaʻi), owls (as at Mānoa, O’ahu and Kaʻū and Puna, Hawaiʻi), hawks (Hawaiʻi), ʻelepaio, ʻiwi, mudhens, octopuses, eels, mice, rats, dogs, caterpillars, rocks, cowries, clouds, or plants. A symbiotic relationship existed; mortals did not harm or eat ʻaumākua (they fed sharks), and ʻaumākua warned and reprimanded mortals in dreams, visions, and calls. (Beckwith, 1970, pp. 124–43, 559; Nānā 38.) Fig.., a trustworthy person. (Probably lit.., ʻau 4, group, + makua, parent.) See pulapula 2. hō.ʻau.makua To acquire or contact ʻaumākua.
Growing up in Honolulu one heard much of Hawaiian traditions. At my elementary school we heard Hawaiian stories of how Maui raised the islands out of the sea and, on occasion, learned a Hawaiian chant celebrating the god Lono. So it was clear to me that I had a giant shark god as my `aumakua. This was a source of satisfaction; however, if you ask how seriously I took this as protection if I swam in shark infested waters, the answer is “not very.” And, in fact, there is no way I would voluntarily swim in such waters. I knew of and felt the power of some Hawaiian myths, but remained a geeky haole (white person), quite afraid of sharks. I remember body surfing at a great place near Portlock place at Koko head with a crowd of others. As we waited for waves a fishing boat came by and warned us that they had just seen a shark. Everyone moved in closer to the break line, but after missing a wave or two moved back to where we could catch the waves. I was definitely fearful and on guard. True Hawaiians, on the other hand, were not all that afraid of sharks.
My uncle who had come to Hawaii a little prior to 1920 told a story he had heard about the time when dynamite had first come to the Islands. The Hawaiians would go to the outer reef in their canoes, set off a stick of dynamite under water, leap into the water and throw the stunned fish into their canoes. Sharks would show up and go into a feeding frenzy. The Hawaiians would pretty much ignore them except for an occasional push or kick and keep throwing fish into their canoes. I’m not sure how much of this I believe, but certainly the story has it that Hawaiians were very respectful, but not afraid of sharks. One must of course distinguish between reef sharks and the pelagic Tiger shark. Spear fishermen know that they should keep their speared fish at the end of a long line rather than tied to their waist because reef sharks would go after the speared fish. Actual shark attacks, on the other hand, seem to come from Tiger sharks who mostly can reach shore only where the reef is missing or not very wide.
My `aumakua experience of Hawaiian culture was a dream. Others have had vivid, waking experiences. On the Big Island of Hawaii where there are active volcanoes, there is a tradition of Madame Pele, the goddess who controls volcanoes. Many people native or otherwise believe that Madame Pele actually exists. She supposedly is fond of gin so people living near the volcano leave offerings of gin near their houses. It seems to be a good idea to be respectful and try to be in her good graces whether or not she really exists. My mother told me, probably in the 1970’s, of an older couple (haoles), friends of her and my dad, who happened to be in the parking lot of the Crater rim road at the Kilauea Iki view point during the great eruption of 1959. It was at night, but hardly dark, as a fountain of lava about a mile down the crater was illuminating the landscape. A mile sounds like a considerable distance. However, the lava fountain, on one occasion reached almost 1900 feet high (see Wikipedia). The Empire State building in Manhattan is 1454 feet high at its very tip top, while the new World Trade Center’s spire tops out at 1776 feet. So while my folk’s friends stood near the edge of the crater one can imagine a garish, flickering light, intense radiating heat, dark shadows and a loud roar as molten gobs of lava fell into the lava lake at the fountain’s edge. The couple took in the awesome scene for a while, then noticed a Hawaiian women nearby. She had reddish hair and wore a red holuku (Hawaiian mother Hubbard dress). They exchanged a few remarks with her about the incredible scene they were witnessing, then turned back to look at the fountain. Finally, satisfied, they turned to go back to their car and noticed the Hawaiian women rise a couple feet off the ground, drift away to the edge of the parking lot, and vanish.
When I heard this story, I felt a tensing of muscles in my back and my hair felt like it was standing on end. Could I have had this same experience? My emotions said so, but my reason said unlikely. The couple had an hallucination. But just what is the status of hallucinations? One notes that our entire experience of the world is entirely inside our heads, with considerable mental processing of our raw sense impressions. Could not the processing of neuronal pathways, influenced by one’s cultural background, and an incredible, dreamlike scene, construct an image that appears in consciousness as real? It would seem so. Hearing this story made me think that stories, for example, of the Greek gods were likely based on genuine hallucinations rather than simply literary imagination. Probably literary imagination was involved in the elaboration of such hallucinations into an entire cosmology, but behind the stories were experiences of the gods and goddesses that passed for real.
For the Hawaiians living before Captain Cook’s discovery, the myths were integrated into their natural surroundings and constituted an entire world view. Besides being the background to hard won practical knowledge and lore, the myths told of the place of humans in the universe. Their meaning carried religious significance, practical significance and social significance. In the modern world, West and East, reality has been split into “areas” and thereby degraded.
This post has gone on long enough and I will doubtless get later into an inquiry about the concept of “reality”. For now let me just say that if someone explains to you what “virtual reality” is all about, the proper reply is “I didn’t know there was any other kind.”