I first learned about this phenomena while researching a haunting in a Kona, Hawaii firehouse. One of the clients informed me of the legend...mentioning that many of his relatives claimed to have witnessed the procession on the nearby beaches. He believed that the firehouse was haunted by a restless phantom warrior from the 18th century. The structure was fairly old and needed a lot of renovation. In fact, some parts of the structure were in total disrepair from what I gathered from witnesses. Despite the effort, the strange activity never really ended...not until the firehouse was eventually razed for a new building. So far, there hasn't been any reported activity that I am aware of.
Anyway...or the last century or so published and unpublished accounts have surfaced of people encountering the marching apparitions of chiefs, chiefesses, dead relatives, gods, goddesses, along with their entourages on roads they had once ceremonially traveled to attend to ritual ceremonies. Hawaiians call the phantom parade huaka‘i po.
The legend evolved from a cultural matrix that encompassed information passed on orally or from writings about non-phantom Hawaiian daytime and nighttime processions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries following Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778. Foreigners continued writing about the traditional and the transitional culture into the 19th century. In the marches were living human beings, some of whom were led by a man or woman of such high rank as to be considered divine, and by men carrying images of gods of both sexes. Hawaiians believed that marchers might include gods, goddesses, family guardian gods, and spirits of dead kinfolk who assumed either material or spectral forms visible to human onlookers.
Here is a story told in 1970 by a Hawaiian fisherman of Pepe‘ekeo, Hawaii, about the time he and his companion heard the phantom night marchers and saw their torches. The limpet picker related his story as follows:
One night when I was fishing for ulua Mahu-kona side, I was sitting listening to the waves crash on the rocks. I was with Keoki. We started talking story after sliding fresh puhi [eels] down the line. It was about ten o’clock. Suddenly I heard the sound of a conch shell blowing in the distance. Keoki heard it too. I thought it was the wind. Then a little while later we heard it again. This time it was a little louder. It was spooky because we didn’t see anything, Then we heard it again. We looked toward Ka-wai-hae side and then we saw it. It looked like a procession.At first we saw a line of torches in the distance. The procession was moving along the coastline. The conch shell blew again.
I took out my knife and Keoki got the rifle. We went seaward and laid down on the lava rock. We knew about night marchers from other fishermen. We knew you aren’t supposed to look upon the marchers and to lay on the ground face down. We did this. The marchers passed about fifty yards in front of us on the sand path. As they passed we could hear the sound of a drum pounding beat by beat. We didn’t look up until they were farther down the coast. All we could see now was the line of torches, and all we could hear was the far away sound of the conch shell.
We didn’t know if they were going to come back that night, but we didn’t want to stick around and see. We got our sleeping bags and made it to the car and went to Spencer Park to spend the rest of the night. In the morning we went back and picked up our rigs and equipment we left behind. - ojs.lib.byu.edu
More recent observers note that phantom processions frequently appear on anniversaries and at places of important national or local events that took place in the marchers’ lifetime. In 1970, a great-grandmother on Hawaii explained that spirits of dead chiefs and their followers still traveled from village to village to attend festivities such as they had enjoyed in life. She also noted that a very high chief had heralds to order people to prostrate themselves off the trail; anyone failing to do so risked being instantly killed by the chief’s guards.
In the old culture, a chief and his followers marched to battle arrayed in feather cloaks, helmets, and other finery. In the chief’s personal party were his wife, closest friends, and bearers of stick images representing his gods. Also in his procession were his general, priests, astrologers, as well as variously trained, equipped, and specialized ranks of warriors. Observers of phantom marchers frequently identify them as the spirits of a chief and his warriors.
The phantom night marchers have been seen frequently along the entire Kona coast including Kealakekua Bay and along The Pathway of the Gods, Kamehameha’s birthplace, and other sacred and historical sites. In 1970 the great-grandson of the woman who described the march of chiefs to festivities conjectured that the night-marching spirits might on occasion be connected with the Makahiki. In 1931 a Maui woman interpreted a phantom midnight festival as a reenactment of a Makahiki fertility rite.
Among adult observers are farmers, fishermen, ranch hands, U.S. soldiers, youthcamp counsellors, schoolteachers, a former interpreter in King Kalakaua’s court, a plantation owner, a physician, a tourist, a prominent politician, and the sister of another politician.
Most observers, in relating their experiences, state that they were not alone at the time, and their companions, in all but one instance, saw and heard what they did. Occasionally a whole family, a community, or a group of people see the marchers.
Opinions differ as to whether children can see or hear night marchers. A young Oahu girl whose mother aroused her during a procession was able to hear but not see it. Another heard the drums although her young companions could not, and as an adult this same girl heard, saw, conversed with, and marched alongside of the spirit of an ancestor. On Hawaii a family sat up with their children to wait in a safe place for the procession. As an adult, the daughter recalled that she had heard the marchers distinctly but had seen them only rather dimly. One evening two young boys at South Kona heard the marchers’ drums and saw their torches before their mother did, And a young Kohala girl, playing during the day in a forbidden field, was terrified when she heard a whistling wind, drums, heavy footsteps, and voices, and was knocked off the marchers’ path by a protective spirit who whispered a name in her ear which she later learned was that of a dead relative. A Moloka‘i family was happily excited when a son heard the spirits’ drums. On the other hand, a Maui woman as a child could not hear, and presumably could not see, the marchers, but as an adult she heard them so clearly that had she been able to record musical notation she could have put down the sounds of their chants, flutes, and drums. In the 1960s, an O‘ahu man stated flatly that only adults could hear and see the spirits, for as a child he had been unable to hear them although his parents and grandparents could.
There are hundreds of traditional and more modern accounts of the phantom marchers. Regardless of an intended or unintended motive, stories of experiences with night marchers or beliefs about them are told for many reasons: to entertain; to discuss a puzzling, inexplicable, perhaps frightening phenomenon; to pass the time and relieve boredom; to dispense knowledge about the phenomenon and proper behavior in regard to it; to frighten children into obedience and fear of night-wandering spirits; to endow sacred and historic sites with supernatural protection and value and protect them from further damage; to communicate oral history; or a combination of several of these things. But most importantly such stories function to express the storyteller’s sense of cultural and personal continuity with old Hawaiian culture.
NOTE: over the years I have received several very odd anecdotes from Hawaii...most are related to legends and beliefs. For example, I received a witness report that stated phantom wild pigs were seen throughout a macadamia nut grove. It was so bad that the owner couldn't keep workers...they considered it as a bad sign. I referred the case it to a local investigator who later confirmed that she had witnessed the phantom pigs herself. It's a long detailed story that I may cover one day...but a good example of some of the weird activity that comes from Hawaii. Lon
The Seven Dawns of the Aumakua: The Ancestral Spirit Tradition of Hawaii
Legendary Hawai'i and the Politics of Place: Tradition, Translation, and Tourism
Kamehameha: The Warrior King of Hawai'i (A Latitude 20 Book)