I’ve always had a strange repulsion and attraction to Tiki culture. On one hand, it’s a light-hearted, kitschy throwback to the 1950’s which involves cocktails, which is usually my thing. On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of beaches, hate Jimmy Buffett, and can’t really envision myself as an orange-tanned old guy in loafers with a gold chain under his Hawaiian shirt, smoking a cigar over umbrella-spangled mai tais at Trader Vic’s. I like piña coladas and getting caught in the rain as much as the next guy, but there’s something slightly unsettling about celebrating the subjugation of an entire civilization by drinking fruity, emasculating cocktails from mugs fashioned after their gods.
A little background, for the rest of us haole: The Polynesian religion, which is practiced in many forms on island nations from New Zealand to Hawaii, including Tonga, Tahiti, the Cook Islands, and Easter Island, has four major gods in its pantheon: Kane, the god of life; Ku, the god of war; Lono, the god of peace and fertility; and Kanaloa, the god of the ocean. Kanaloa and Kane were often paired together in chants and stories as complementary forces: Kane represents fresh water, Kanaloa saltwater. Kane builds the first canoe, but Kanaloa sails it. Rather than life and death, Kanaloa and Kane represent urge and execution, wilderness and civilization. And though missionaries tried to recast Kanaloa as a sort of Satanic figure of death and darkness because of his association with the ocean’s depths, the character assassination attempt didn’t entirely succeed. After all, as the Hawaiians know, the most miraculous gifts come up from the spirit world of the deep.
This is a tiki totem of Kanaloa, who is symbolized by the squid. He is mentioned as being tall and very pale-skinned, and you can see how his long hair sweeps either side of his body like tentacles.
This is the bigfin squid, a rarely-seen cephalopod from the benthic zone, the ocean’s depths. It has been sighted fewer then ten times in its adult form, and was thought of as cryptozoological until it was filmed off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii in 2001.
There are two astounding features of this squid, which measures about 21 feet in length: the long tentacles, which are perhaps 15-20 times the length of the mantle (the “head/body”), and the pinnae, those enormous “elephant ears” it flaps for locomotion. Squids in the Magnapinna family always display these big “fins,” especially as darling juveniles, for whom they are almost like sails. But only the adults have those long arms. No one yet knows how the bigfin squid feeds, but the best guess of marine biologists is that it drags its tentacles over the ocean floor, finding food by touch and taste, browsing on crabs and sea cucumbers from a safe distance, or catching unwary fish that bump into its tangled net of tentacles: the squid version of a jellyfish. If it’s true, it would make the bigfin the only passive hunter in the squid family.
When the moon is full and the squid migrate to the surface following the fish and plankton that rise to meet its light, Kanaloa watches over the fishermen who hunt them. The elusive Magnapinna, trawling the depths, has never been caught in their nets. The depths, for all its fanged horrors, is still a place of relative innocence, a sort of paradise in the dark. Kanaloa knows about paradise. He and Kane preside over the island of Kane-hona-moku, the dwelling-place of the gods, a tropical Eden where working and weeping are both forbidden and every earthly delight is found in arm’s reach, a sort of celestial tiki bar at the end of the world. But in the stories, it’s also Kanaloa, god of the deep, who drove man from it.