In Hawaiian tradition, spiders are often found in stories about ghosts and supernatural individuals.
Sam 'Ohu Gon III
Hawai'i Senior Scientist and Cultural Advisor
By Sam ‘Ohu Gon III
When the very formidable akua, Pe‘ape‘amakawalu (eight-eyed Pe‘ape‘a), kidnapped Kumulama, the wife of the demigod Maui, her rescue was not a simple matter. After all, sneaking up on an eight-eyed opponent would be impossible. Maui‘s clever solution was to have his mother, Hina, extend the night, until gradually, all eight eyes of the ever-watchful Pe‘ape‘amakawalu closed in sleep, allowing Maui to help his wife escape.
Pe‘ape‘amakawalu seems to have been inspired by eight-eyed spiders, which, along with scorpions and other arachnids, have settled on this number of optical organs. In Hawaiian tradition, spiders are often found in stories about ghosts and supernatural individuals. For example, along with moths, they serve as the wretched food for the ao kuewa, the ghosts who are lost and wandering and once populated the barren and uninhabited parts of old Hawai‘i.
But spiders also were admired for their fine webs. One of the Hawaiian names of the constellation Orion is ku‘uku‘u, which is also one of the Hawaiian names for spider. Orion travels along the celestial equator, and that imaginary sky line is called ke alanui o ke ku‘uku‘u: the path of the spider.
Not all spiders are web-builders; some have superb vision and strong jumping legs, and can launch themselves at their victims on the ground or as they pass by. Others wait in ambush, camouflaged amidst the flowers and foliage that might attract insects.
But the orb-weavers are perhaps the most elegant. They build their symmetrical arrays carefully, and orient them precisely to face the prevailing breezes. Then they sit in the middle of their net and wait with unmoving patience, until—when a hapless insect blunders into the web, they spring upon them, throwing more sticky silk over the struggling victim until they are wrapped up and helpless, and for good measure, administer a dose of toxin designed to paralyze and start the process of digestion.
With the exception of the iconic Hawaiian happy face spider, the native spiders of Hawai‘i receive little public attention. What is known is that these native species occur in just about every ecosystem type on land, from rainforest to the alpine desert, and from the coastal dunes to subterranean caverns. They are all predators, feeding typically on insects and other small invertebrates, and comprise one of the many obscure, yet arguably vital pieces of the ecological machinery that provide so much for all of us.
Sam 'Ohu Gon is a senior scientist and cultural advisor with The Nature Conservancy of Hawai'i.