Huaka'i Pō: The Legend of the Hawaiian Night Marchers

Night marchers
Night marchers | © jai Mansson / Flickr
Photo of Kalena McElroy
5 September 2018

Hawaiian legends are passed down for generations, and the legend of the night marchers is no different. Ask any Hawaii resident, and they will surely be able to recount a tale – maybe even one of an uncle or “aunty” who saw the legendary spirits themselves.

What are night marchers?

Night marchers, known as huaka’i pō in the Hawaiian language, are death-dealing ghosts. Folklore describes them as a group of spirits – sometimes traveling with ancient Hawaiian gods or goddesses in their midst – that march down the mountainside after sunset. The procession is often accompanied by the sounds of the conch shell, rhythmic drumming, and oli (chants).

The legend of huaka’i pō

The legends of the night marchers are rooted in ancient Hawaii, which was once governed by a strict caste system. When an ali‘i (chief) passed through a village, his warriors blew conch shells and beat pahu drums to announce his arrival. Commoners were expected to stare at the ground, never, ever making eye contact. The consequence of disobeying this kapu (taboo) was death.

The ali‘i weren’t just leaders – they held immense mana (spiritual power) and were often thought of as physical representations of the gods. These same warriors tasked to protect the ali‘i and uphold the kapu are believed to continue their duties into the afterlife as the night marchers.

Hawaiian warriors with traditional helmets | © Gabriel Bertram Bellinghausen / WikiCommons

History and accounts

Since Hawaiian was only a spoken language at the time of western contact, the first written account of the night marchers wasn’t until 1883. The document described various sightings of ghost soldiers following the spirit of King Kamehameha the Great on the Big Island. This wasn’t the only claim by Hawaii residents who have seen the frightening ghosts of the night. Indeed, the legends of the night marchers are still told throughout the Hawaiian Islands today, with more than a few locals who proclaim they are not just a fairy tale.

Torch in the night | © Igor Lepilin / Unsplash

Across the island chain, residents have reported seeing a line of torches moving down the mountain, many times in areas with sheer cliffs and no roads or trails for miles. Some say the night marchers leave just their footprints behind, while others claim they float above the ground without leaving a trace. In either case, the universal understanding among believers is that you should never cross a night marcher’s path.

As legend tells it, any unfortunate mortal who hears the warning sounds of a nearby procession should run and hide or lie down on the ground to let them pass, but most importantly, follow the ancient kapu and never make eye contact – or face the ultimate consequence.

Moon phases | © Gianni Zanato / Unsplash

When and where do they march?

The ancient spirits are thought to be most active during the new moon and near sacred sites such as heiau (temples), caves and areas once reserved for ali‘i. On O‘ahu, there are numerous reports of night marchers in Ka‘a‘awa Valley, Yokohama Bay, Kaniakapūpū, Ka‘ena Point, Kalama Valley, and Waimānalo, among many other locations. Whether you believe these legends or write them off as local superstition, consider yourselves warned.

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