The Legend of the Night Marchers

CULTURE | July 24, 2019

Still from Night marchers The Gods Retake Hawaii. Source: (codejunkies.co.uk)

All cultures have legends of things that go bump in the night. Some are known throughout the world while others are specific to a particular culture. The legend of the night marchers, which has been passed down in Hawaiian tradition since ancient times, falls in the latter category.

Who (or what) are the Night Marchers?

Known as huaka’i pō in the Hawaiian language, the night marchers are a procession of ghosts who have allegedly been seen marching down the mountains at night. Their march is accompanied by the sound of beating drums and chanting. Some stories say the marchers are armed spirit warriors on their way to battle. Some speculate that the apparitions are searching for the entrance to the afterlife. Others believe they are the ghosts of warriors assigned to protect the ali’i.

A painting showing a range of Hawaiian tribal chieftains. Source: (pinterest.com)

Who are the Ali’i?

During the caste system of ancient Hawaii, leaders known as ali’i were believed to possess spiritual power called mana and were thought to be the physical representations of the gods. When an ali’i traveled through a village, the warriors accompanying him would beat their drums and blow conch shells to announce his arrival. This announcement could be life-saving as the villagers were forbidden to make eye contact with the ali’i and the punishment for violating this edict was death. The warriors are believed to have continued their duties into death and many witnesses claim the night marchers are accompanied by the gods and goddesses themselves.

Captain James Cook. Source: (ancientpages.com)

Who are the Witnesses?

Like most legends, tales of the night marchers were passed down orally. In many cases, it was the storyteller’s grandfather or uncle who witnessed the march. Written accounts of the legend did not begin until after Captain Cook arrived in Hawaii in 1778. The first published account, which referred to the night marchers as ‘oi’o, occurred in 1883 and described an incident in which a phantom army was being led by the ghost of King Kamehameha, who had united the islands of Hawaii into one kingdom in 1810. Since then there have been several published accounts, with the fullest one being made in 1930 by Mary Kawena Pukui. At the same time, stories continue to be passed down orally with many residents claiming to have seen, or to know someone who had seen, the apparitions.

Cliffs of the Koolau Range as seen from the Nuuanu Pali Lookout, Oahu, Hawaii, USA. Source: (Wikipedia)

When and where do the Marches Occur?

Most of the sightings occurred at night, but there have been a few reports of daytime marches. Some nights seem to be more common than others. The marchers are allegedly more active during the new moon. The locations of the marches are often near sacred sites such as temples and caves. A few popular locations are the Nu’uanu Pali Lookout, Ka’a’awa Valley, and Kalihi Valley.

Torches. Source: (honolulumagazine.org)

What exactly did the witnesses see?

As with any legend, the stories vary somewhat. Often the witnesses simply see a line of torches moving down the mountainside. Some see footprints while others claim the marchers float several inches above the ground. Some witnesses also claim to hear drumbeats and chanting. Other characteristics described by witnesses include weather changes such as heavy wind, rain, mist, fog, thunder, and lightning. Some witnesses claim the marchers engage in revelry. The one thing that the witnesses seem to agree on is that anyone who happens upon the night marchers should run away or lie down and play dead because it is believed that making eye contact with them is punishable by death.

Tags: hawaii | night marchers legend

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Penny Chavers


Penny, besides writing, loves to spend her time with family and friends. In her spare time, she also enjoys playing the piano, board games, and taking online classes on topics that interest her.