Hei: Hawaiian String Figures


In Hawaii String Figures were called hei. Dickey (1928) recorded more than 115 different figures and slip tricks. Many were accompanied by stories and chant. It is hard to know how much of the knowledge has been forgotten, changed or kept hidden. The meanings of these chants and figures remain open to interpretation.

If you look up the meaning of the word hei in the Hawaiian Dictionary (1986) by Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Elbert you will find the following definitions:

hei. 1. Nvt. Net, snare, stratagem, ruse; to ensnare, entangle, catch in a net; to festoon with leis, See kahei 1, 2; Luka 5.4. ho’o.hei. to snare, tangle, rope, lasso; to beset with difficulties; to infatuate, be enraptured. o’ohei mana’oH, to infatuate beguile; spellbound. o’ohei pipi,H to rope cattle. a ho’ohei ‘ana i na pua,K catching fish fry. ho’ohei a’e ‘oe i kanakaE (Luka 5.10), you shall catch [by fishing] men. o’ohei mana’oH, to cast a spell, enchant, beguile. 2. nvi. String figure, cat’s cradle; to make such. Many kinds are listed by Dickey. 3. n. Motion of hands and fingers, especially of the dying. (Some persons did not make string figures, hei, at night because of the association of the figures with the motions of death.) 4. vs. Adept, deft; to absorb, as knowing a skill. a ‘ike a ka makua, he hei na ke keikiK, the knowledge of the parent is absorbed by the child. 5. Var. of hai, to sacrifice. Cf. haiau, heiau. ei kapuH, sacred place. (Probably PPN fai.) 6. n. Water oozing from a cliff and trickling down. Cf. hi 2.

The Hawaiian language is poetic and is filled with many subtle meanings and metaphors. Each chant might contain as many as five or more different meanings; a literal meaning, a figurative meaning, a historical or a legendary reference, a sexual meaning and a hidden meaning (McBride 1972:38). The Hawaiians were also very fond of playing with words. So in attempting to understand the Hawaiian string figures one must pay attention to the words as well. It has been our experience that the string figure really comes alive when the movement of the hands is accompanied by the chant. We have also experienced that chanting and making the figure under the mountain or on the beach of the island it was made on or the place it was named after adds a depth of understanding that transcends words (a reason for you to come and visit us. We lead tours to sacred sights and areas mentioned in the String Figures.)

© 2011-20 Lois & Earl Stokes