Guardian Geckos

by Veronica S. Schweitzer

Ten years ago, on the Puna side of this island, I spent my first few nights in Hawaii sleepless and stunned. It wasn't just the sudden transition from stark northern Europe to the lush and humid tropics that kept me awake. I found myself to be a captive audience to the most bizarre spectacle between creatures that I had ever seen.

A chirping sound, the kissing of lips, or perhaps the smacking of cheeks followed by a rapid pitter-patter would startle me awake, and in the dim light of a lantern I would suddenly see a little lizard attack a crusty cockroach somewhere on the wall.

The two battled, and the sound of hard-shelled cockroach wings being bashed against the ceiling by a graceful gecko, hardly larger in size, held me in awe. The struggle was ruthless and final. In the morning only a few hairy legs bore witness to the unpredictable laws of the jungle.

Not knowing anything about gecko mythology, I named geckos the guardians of my new home. With an instinctive revulsion for cockroaches I developed great devotion for these small lizards of Hawaii.

Which is just as well, because they sure make themselves at home in our houses. Gecko droppings everywhere! Yet, as long as they stay out of my printer and hard drive, I'll feed them honey every night. Geckos love sugar, and, fascinating as they are, they work hard for their living, chomping all those bugs.

The geckos of Hawaii have earned a great reputation rooted in the earliest history and the first migrations to the islands. While there are over 900 species of geckos worldwide, only eight species have settled on the islands, four of these in recent years.

All geckos have immovable eyelids. The eyes with unusual vertical pupils are covered by a transparentmembrane which the gecko cleans with its long, sticky tongue. They are the only lizards who are able to make sounds, other than hissing, and their name is a direct imitation of their nightly chatter.

Highly specialized toe pads covered with microscopically small suction cups allow geckos to run easily on smooth surfaces, such as glass, and ceilings. Yet despite their speed they can't help displaying a clownish waddle in their tireless effort to pull their clinging feet free. The geckos in Hawaii all belong to the family Gekkonidae and are mostly nocturnal. The first geckos might have traveled to Hawaii as stowaways aboard the first Polynesian canoes. They have been on the islands for perhaps 1500 years! It is also possible that eggs might have floated onto shore independently, even earlier perhaps, since the eggs are tolerant to salt water.

For centuries, those first geckos comprising four different species, thrived on the islands. The mourning gecko, the stump-toed gecko, and the Indo-Pacific gecko were gregarious and lived close to humans, in urban areas. The tree gecko lived a solitary existence in forests and meandering valleys near streams.

Top Left: The Orange-Spotted Day Gecko, Top Right: The Mourning Gecko, Bottom Left: The Indo-Pacific Gecko, Bottom Right: The House Gecko

Sometime during or after World War II a fifth gecko species arrived, the house gecko. This aggressive little lizard, although just as useful and adorable as its relatives has driven most other geckos away from humans into the wilderness during the last 30 years or so.

House geckos feast on juvenile geckos, including their own. They are less afraid when they are preying. Add to this that the earlier geckos, with the exception of the Stump-Toe, are parthenogenic or unisexual. They are, in fact, all female, laying fertile eggs without the help of a male. The House Gecko, however, has males and females, and the males are simply too strong, too big, and too aggressive. The friendly females, despite seniority, don't stand a chance and are forced to find their meals elsewhere. So much for equality.

Over the last decades three more species, colorful and spectacular in their appearance, are making their home here. Most likely a few of them escaped as pets. With glamorous greens and flecks of orange and gold their brilliant bodies set them apart from the loyal brown-hued geckos.

One of them, the nocturnal tokay gecko is one of the largest gecko species in the world growing up to 14 inches. It greedily feeds on mice and small birds, as well as other lizards, representing another danger for the older geckos.

Recently, introduced large Asian birds are also after the innocent gecko. It's hard to believe, but the early Polynesian geckos are increasingly uncommon!

While the exotic, brightly attractive reptiles are slowly expanding their territory on the islands, it is all too easy to forget about the importance of the original, little lively lizards. They are modest representatives of the great magical lizard, the powerful mo'o. They are guardians, not just against bugs.

The mo'o is an ancient mythological being which appears in legends throughout Polynesia. For the Polynesians, geckos were perfect mirror images of this dragon-like monster. It was believed that the great mo'o could simply use the body of the gecko for one of its many manifestations.

Naturally the gentle, little geckos were deeply respected. They were sacred. The vigilant geckos, with their ability to change colors and to drop wiggling tails when threatened, resembled the mo'o and filled a crucial role in Hawaiian religion.

The mo'o was part of an intricate communication system with the gods. The Hawaiians, like many cultures, depended on sorcery as a means of mediation between divine and human worlds. They needed symbols which showed the effectiveness of their prayers and their rituals. They needed images to which they could adhere magical powers.

The wrath of the gods could bring death. Their joy brought life. And so it was vital to Hawaiian society that at someone's death family members would appease the gods.

The deceased were closer to the gods than the living and so they could contribute to the gods' power in the protection of the surviving household. To achieve this, their spirits had to be strengthened. The dead person had to be set up, with the right prayers and the right worship, to become a guardian spirit, most traditionally in the form of a power animal.

The lizard or mo'o, shape-shifting and agile, was one of the oldest and most powerful of guardian spirits along with the shark, the owl and the hawk.

These guardian spirits were called aumakua in Hawaiian. Mortals did not harm or eat their living representatives, and their wisdom came through in visions and dreams.

The mo'o has been described as a lizard of monstrous size somewhere between 12 and 30 feet, with a glistening black body. It lives in fish ponds, quaffs the sacred and intoxicating awa root in great delight, and can be seen when the first flames of a fire light the altars where it dwells. When there is foam on the fishpond, you know the mo'o is home and any fish caught there will taste bitter.

So old is the mo'o as guardian spirit and protector, that it appears in the Hawaiian creation legends in the garden of the first man and the first woman.

In one early legend the mo'o is the oldest of four sisters. Beautiful Moho-lani (Divine mo'o) is the only one who finds a husband. Of course her sisters are jealous and in conspiracy with two sirens they spirit the husband away to the depths of the ocean. But with the help of the guardian spirits, Moho-lani's son glances quickly over the sea with his lightning body. He finds and restores the lost husband and destroys the evil sisters. Their scattered remains will forever grow as barren trees on the beach. As for the sirens, the son turned them into mackerels.

King Kamehameha I conquered and united the Hawaiian islands in the name of the mo'o-woman Kiha-Wahine. He deeply believed in the powers of his aumakua. He set up her image, dressed in yellow and tapa, in the heiau in Kohala, demanding that all who passed her, even those in canoes sailing by off shore, should prostrate in her worship.

The mo'o guards not only individuals and families, but also districts and places. Apparently at the bottom of two pools in Puna the remnants of petrified mo'o shapes are still visible and it is said that anyone wishing to swim here must first dive down and touch the enchanted rocks. It is also believed that when you crush a gecko egg outside, you will fall over the cliffs.

The mo'o changes shape at will and isn't always a friendly spirit. Often she is pictured as a gorgeous, seductive woman whom no man can resist. The poor guys don't know that she wants to gobble their flesh. She lures the husband away from the wife with the intention to devour him after a passionate affair. Eventually the husband either gets homesick or he wakes up to the danger he is in. He can only escape by creating an impossible task for the mo'o--maiden. In one story he asks her to fill a gourd in which he has secretly drilled holes with snow-water from the goddess Poliahu on the top of Mauna Kea.

With new migrations arriving on the islands, and traditions changing over time, the role of the mo'o also changed. In the later legends around the fire-goddess Pele and her sister Hi'iaka, the mo'o has been transformed in a whole family of evil water spirits. In the form of heavy fog and sharp rain they attack Pele's volcano. One time, when Hi'iaka leaves Pele in search for Pele's lover, unfriendly water spirits challenge her with torturous obstacles before she can complete her mission. The mo'o no longer mediates with the gods.

There is one beautiful story in which the mo'o is neither a small, evil spirit, nor the apotheosis into a great, protective aumakua, nor a dangerous monster. It was recorded by Mary Kawena Kupui of Ka'u. Handsome Kamanu was fishing at the freshwater stream near his house when a gorgeous woman appeared. She was slender. Her reddish hair fell over her shapely shoulders, and Kamanu, at first, was afraid. Of course he had heard of the seductive mo'o. But this woman reassured him and told him they would marry and live at the bottom of the river. They would be very happy together, she said. She even promised Kamanu she would make sure his family in the house upstream would always have fish and shrimp to eat. And so Kamanu said yes. He followed her, and even though she was a mo'o, he trusted her and loved her well..

But after a year he grew homesick and asked her permission to visit his beloved parents who probably thought by now that he was dead. "Go visit," she said, "and when you return, I'll be waiting for you. But you must kiss no one before you kiss your father. If you kiss another one first, I have to leave you alone."

Excited, in love with his wife and eager to tell his parents about his marriage, Kamanu went home. His dog, delighted, ran out to greet him, jumped up and licked his face and lips. The family had a happy reunion and soon Kamanu returned to his wife at the river. He found her weeping.

"You have lost me," she cried, "good-bye my husband."

Kamanu waited for her. He called for her many, many days. His beautiful mo'o-woman never returned. Within months Kamanu died of grief and he was buried at the river's edge.

A caring mo'o, who withdraws.

Perhaps this is the story of the early Polynesian geckos today. Their gentle wisdom overpowered too often, they are withdrawing to the forests and the quiet rivers far away.

They are worth listening to, these magical lizards. They bring good luck, they say.

Readers Respond:

On your web site I noticed you said ALL geckos have immovable eyelids. That is not true, I personally have owned two different kinds of geckos that have movable eyelids. They are leopard geckos, and African fat-tail geckos, some of (the) most common types.

There is one beautiful story in which the mo'o is neither a small, evil spirit, nor the apotheosis into a great, protective aumakua, nor a dangerous monster. It was recorded by Mary Kawena Kupui of Ka'u. Mary Kawena Pukui is her proper name. Thanks for your wonderful stories about the mo'o.
Jon Bryan

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Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.