The deep connection and reverence the Hawaiians had for the ocean created the meaning behind the Hawaiian fish hook necklace. The ocean surrounded them, was their source of food and their means of travel. Their jewelry and ornamentation was made of shells fished from the sea. They had navigated thousands of miles on uncharted high oceans, depending on their navigation by the stars and by listening to the language of the waves.
Known in Hawaiian as the makau, the fish hook pendant stands for everything that is good and promises its wearer prosperity, strength and good luck.
In the early days of Polynesian settlement in Hawaii, the ancient fishermen created fish-hooks out of every available material they could find. Using tools and files made from coral and stone, they chipped and carved fishhooks out of whale and human bones, shell and wood and even from the teeth of dogs! The makau was used to catch fish in the open water and the fishermen had such fine fishing skills that they would use different hooks for different types of fish.
For larger, harder to catch prey like the big sharks, the fishermen would use hardy and strong fish hooks made from human and animal bones. Smaller fish required more delicate fishhooks which were generally carved from pearl or the shell of the turtle.
Makau and fish ponds
As they became more sophisticated, the Hawaiians added increasingly sophisticated tools to their fishing weapons including spears, nets made of plant fibers and traps. Of course, they proved themselves to be geniuses in aquaculture by designing fish ponds which were made of porous lava rock and coral. Seawater would ebb through the porous stone walls, leaving the fish, which were swept in at high tide, behind in the large fish ponds.
There are many of these fish ponds left today in Hawaii. On Molokai, you can see one of the largest collections of intact ancient fish ponds; one of them is actually in use and the pond is repopulated with mullet and awa, the types of fish which would have been found here hundreds of years ago.
Manaiakalani, the magical fish hook of Maui
Stories of creation narrate that Maui, the Hawaiian demigod, created the Hawaiian chain of islands by dragging his fish hook on the ocean floor. He convinced his unsuspecting brothers in the canoe to paddle furiously by fooling them that he had caught a great fish. With their efforts, Maui’s high mighty fish hook, called Manaiakalani, dragged the land mass out of the ocean and the Hawaiian Islands were born.
Nowadays, the fish hook necklace is made of several different types of material such as koa wood, mother of pearl, fossil bone or in some cases, from ancient mammoth ivory and shark teeth. The modern-day fish hook is strictly ornamental but the meaning behind the Hawaiian fish hook necklace is still relevant.
Contemporary makau jewelry
Contemporary Hawaiian jewelry artists who create fish hook jewelry and pendants usually make two styles. A simple hook is one made from a single material be it wood or bone. A composite hook is constructed from two types of material such as wood and bone. By varying the positioning of the barb along the hook, artists come up with different creative looks.
Even in modern-day jewelry, some Hawaiian artists have taken pains to use old Polynesian techniques in tribute to the meaning behind the Hawaiian fish hook necklace. Some use natural fibers such as sennet from the coconut or fiber from the olona plant which was deemed so strong that it was used as rigging on sailing ships.
Another natural fiber used comes from the hau plant, the yellow hibiscus which is endemic to Hawaii. The fiber is so strong that it was commonly used to make fishing nets.
The importance of knotting
By observing the care taken by the ancient Polynesians to securely lash the fish hooks, we start to understand the meaning behind the Hawaiian fish hook necklace. In the ancient culture, a knot was deemed a sacred binding between man and the gods. In the importance they paid to knotting and cording, the Hawaiians were similar to other ancient cultures. The Incans for example used knots to store information.
Although this was not much used by the Hawaiians, their Polynesian cousins in New Zealand, the Maori, would carve images of gods onto the shaft of the makau. This practice has been adopted by contemporary Hawaiian artists to make “tiki makau”. Images of benevolent gods such as Lono, the Hawaiian god of peace and prosperity, are popularly carved onto Hawaiian fish hook pendants.
There are kitschy reproductions of makau in tourist paraphernalia which is found everywhere in Hawaii. Whichever you decide to buy as your souvenir from Hawaii, what is more relevant is to remember the meaning behind the Hawaiian fish hook necklace when you wear it. <-->