Outrigger Canoe: Manu

by Terry Wallace

Ka‘upu hehi ‘ale o ka moana. The ka‘upu bird that steps on the ocean billows. An allegory or symbolic representation to a sea-going vessel.

Manu. This term in much of Polynesia means “bird.” The two projections on either end of an outrigger canoe (ka wa`a or te waka) are called manu (mahnoo) or birds. These projections are functional as well as traditional and in some cases religious. In some parts of the Pacific, the manu is minimal and in others, they stick up several feet. Most sea-going vessels through the ages have had some kind of up-swept bow and stern. Viking ships employed end-pieces with god-manifestations on either end. All sea-going vessels in Polynesia and throughout the rest of the Pacific employed up-swept end pieces. Some are fancier than the rest. Lagoon and river canoes seldom used this device. They were simply not functional in that environment.

The functional purpose of the manu mua (moo-uh) or ihu (eehu), - both meaning forward, was as a “cutwater” when plowing through waves. If a wave does come over, its power is minimized and is further cut by the pale kai - splashguard (pahlay kaee). The purpose of the manu hope -rear (hopay) was to prevent, or at least minimize a following sea from “pooping the vessel,” that is, coming over the stern.

Why the term “manu” is used is a little harder to explain. The sea can be a scary place. Moana, the great ocean simply does not care one whit about the people that ride on her skin. But why a bird for your canoe, and not one of the mammals or fish? Simply put, one wants one’s canoe to ride on the sea, not in it. Polynesians held much significance in birds. Birds were often considered a manifestation of the human spirit leaving earth and going to heaven. The name ‘Iolani, one of the many names of Liholiho or Kamehameha II means the “Hawk of Heaven” or “Royal Hawk,” used because of its high flight in the heavens.

Birds were also observed to “flow” on wind currents at sea, having the ability to ride over waves without touching the water. If one observes a canoe and uses a little imagination, a bird is visible. Manu ihu being the beak, mo‘o (moh oh) or gunwales the wings held back in a gliding position and manu hope, the tail feathers. By employing bird symbols, both visible and in the mind, it was hoped that a sea-going canoe would symbolically “ride” the air currents over dangerous seas.

Pipi holo ka‘ao, the end.
Ku‘auhau mai.

References: Haddon & Hornell, Haywood, Holmes, Kane, Pukui

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