Polynesian Trees of the Dead

Much of this blog’s content is based on studies I did into the Jamaican fieldwork of the American anthropologist, Martha Warren Beckwith (1879-1959). However, Beckwith is perhaps better known for her Hawaiian research: for example, The Hawaiian Romance of Laieikawai (1919), Hawaiian Mythology (1940) and The Kumulipo, A Hawaiian Creation Chant (1951). For this month’s post I will be looking at three trees which have connections to the spirit lore of Hawaii and other parts of Polynesia.

The Kuikui – (Aleurites molucannus) AKA candlenut

In Hawaiian spirit lore the Kuikui tree was believed to provide a means by which souls of the dead could find their way to the spirit world. To achieve this, the soul must grab hold of a branch which appears to be dry and brittle but is, in fact, green and healthy. The branch will fling the soul into the next life – either up to the world of the gods or down into the underworld. If a soul fails to do this, it runs the risk of losing its way and being fated to remain earthbound (Beckwith, p. 157).

In an alternate version of the soul’s journey cited by Beckwith, the soul goes to a leaping place to begin its passage to the next world. At the leaping place stands a tree named Ulu-la’ti-o-waka (Beckwith doesn’t’ give the species) surrounded by little children. One half of the tree is fresh and green, the other dry and brittle. Although they look like they may break, the soul should aim to take hold of the dry branches not the green ones; if it clasps a green branch it will be thrown into the underworld. Using the dry branches the soul must proceed to the top of the tree and then climb down via the trunk. At the bottom, small children again await to guide the soul away from the land of the dead (Ibid., p. 156).

A Rarotonga variant states that climbing the dry branches of the Kuikui will take you to the underworld (Ibid., p. 158).




The Bua AKA Betel Nut Palm Tree (Areca catechu)

In Mangaia a large bua tree “with fragrant blossoms” and a branch for each of the main gods also acts as a ladder to the spirit world. The soul must climb onto the branch dedicated to his or her family’s god. Then they either leap into the sky to be with the gods and ancestral spirits or fall into a giant net to go to the domain of Miru, goddess of the dead (aka Milu, god of the dead in the Hawaiian pantheon) (Ibid., p. 158).

Beckwith found similar beliefs in Rarotonga where souls climb an ancient tree and fall in to Miru’s net to face an afterlife of torment (Ibid., p. 158).



Akeake (possibly Dondonaea viscosa)

In the Chatham Islands, Beckwith noted that the souls of dead Moriori chiefs go to a certain spot in Perau where they climb the branches of an ancient Akeake Tree to reach the spirit world (Ibid., p. 158).

On a poignant note, Beckwith also recounted that in Fiji part of the soul’s journey to the land of the dead takes it past an unnamed tree. Souls of children cling to the tree and ask how their parents are doing in the world of the living. (Ibid., p. 158).



Next time… I continue on the theme of trees but this time in Jamaica where I take a look at the lore surrounding one of the creatures that inhabits the mighty cottonwood (Ceiba) trees.


Martha Warren Beckwith, Hawaiian Mythology (reprint, with a new introduction by Katherine Luomala, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1970, of orig. edn, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1940).

Image credits:  Kuikui by Forest & Kim Starr – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Starr_020803-0119_Aleurites_moluccana.jpg

Bua/Betel Nut Palm by Pratheepps – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beetle_palm_with_nut_bunch.jpg

Akeake by Bushmansfriend – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Akeake.jpg