The Hawaiian Lei

by Veronica S. Schweitzer

'I got leid in Hawaii', proclaims a favorite bumper sticker that many visitors take back to the mainland. What is it about those fragrant flower garlands and the sensual image invoked by the words lei and Hawaii?

From the earliest times, men and women worldwide have adorned themselves with leis. Perhaps what has made Hawaii's leis so unique in history, is the fact that its rich culture was isolated so many centuries from other civilizations. The tropics offered an abundance of blossoms, beads, and leaves.

Hawaii leis mark any important event in a person's life. There are leis of grief, and leis of love, leis of love-making, leis of marriage, of dying, and of birthing. There are leis for political, community, social, personal, farming, and religious ceremony.

In old Hawaii, all those activities overlapped. The farmer blessing the new crop, the fisherman praying for safety, and the chief chanting in the heiau, all belonged to a people united by a deep-rooted belief in their gods. Each Hawaiian flower and leaf has a specific symbolic meaning, with its own legends and oral history.

The island of Hawaii is the island of the lehua flower, ohia lehua, the tragic fire flower of the sisters Pele and Hi'iaka. The emotional legend of Hi'iaka and her red-tufted fragrant lehua is chanted in the greatest Hawaiian meles. Even today, one shouldn't pick the lehua flower on the way to the volcano, Pele's home.

Another lei, frequently used, is the maile leaf lei. The lei maile was the lei of all people, all classes, and all occasions, but most especially, it was associated with the worship of the gods of hula. Maile, sweetly perfumed, has many siblings, with different shaped leaves and traditions. In Hawaii legend there once was a greedy maile, a brittle maile, a luxuriant maile, and a sweetly scented maile. They were abandoned in the forest by their angry demi-god brother, because they weren't able to help him in his conquest of a beautiful chiefess.

Most visitors are only aware of the plumeria lei, widely available at airports and hotels. The plumeria is a relative newcomer in the old tradition. Harder to find is the lei pikake with its unequaled perfume, or the lei of the magnificent red or turquoise jade vine.

The ancient Hawaiians excelled in the creation of permanent leis, construed of feathers, ivory, beads, and even teeth. Often, these leis were an emblem of ali'i.

Leis in Hawaii are for men, women, and children, of all ages and ranks. They tell the story of the Hawaiian people, their mythology, their legends, their history, and their culture. It's good to get leid in Hawaii.

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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.