IWD 2021: Martha Warren Beckwith: the Hawaii connection

Nature and Supernatural Nature grew out of my PhD thesis, “Shadow Worlds and “Superstitions”: An Analysis of Martha Warren Beckwith’s Writings on Jamaican Folk Religion, 1919-1929”. Martha Warren Beckwith  (1871-1959) was an American anthropologist, folklorist and academic and although her research into he folk cultures of rural African-Jamaicans was pioneering, she who is perhaps best known for her work on Hawaii. For International Women’s Day 2021, I want look at her connection to the island.


Beckwith’s interest in Hawaiian folklore stemmed from her upbringing on the island of Maui where she had become fascinated by the islands’ folk culture and mythology. She had been born in 1871 in Massachusetts but her family moved to Hawaii a few years later and she grew up on Maui where her father was a teacher. The family had a prior connection to the island via Martha’s great aunt, Lucy Goodale Thurston, a Christian missionary to Hawaii (Luomala, p. 341).

Beckwith returned to the States for her higher education and lived there for the rest of her life but made frequent trips back to Hawaii. She wrote prolifically on Hawaiian folklore and mythology, using a nineteenth-century Hawaiian newspaper serial based on an older oral narrative as the subject for her anthropology thesis at Columbia (Bronner, p. 244). Her works in this field include “The Hawaiian Hula Dance” (1916), “Hawaiian Shark Aumakua” (1917), The Hawaiian Romance of Laieikawai (1919), “Hawaiian Riddling” (1922), Hawaiian Mythology (1940) and The Kumulipo, A Hawaiian Creation Chant (1951). After her retirement from teaching, she became Honorary Research Associate in Hawaiian Folklore at the Bishop Museum, Honolulu (Ibid., p. 342).

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A comment Beckwith made when writing about her early upbringing on Maui, for me, sums up the powerful influence Hawaiian culture made upon her:

  “we were always aware of a life just out of reach of us latecomers but lived intensely by the kindly, generous race who chanced so many centuries ago upon its shores” (Beckwith, p. xxxi).

After Martha Beckwith’s death in 1959, her ashes were buried in Makawao cemetery on Maui, the resting place of her parents, brother, sister and the close friend who helped finance her research endeavours, Annie Alexander.

Next time… what (or maybe who) is lurking in that almond tree?


 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).

Simon J. Bronner, Following Tradition: Folklore in the Discourse of American Culture (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1998).

Katharine Luomala, “Martha Warren Beckwith: A Commemorative Essay,” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 75, no. 298 (Oct.-Dec., 1962), pp. 341-353.

Image credits: 1) Haleakalā volcano on Maui, Viriditas at English Wikipedia., CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Image credits:2) Hawaiian Mythology by H.R. Sparkes