String Figures and Shamanism 



Are string figures just a child’s game? In this article, Lois Stokes asks you to consider the idea that "the world is what you think it is." Perhaps string figures are more, much more than child’s play.


It has been said that the spirit of the string figures was a guardian spirit of shaman. It is now the time for me to tell the story of how I met this ancestral spirit and how my husband and I became caretakers of a knowledge so ancient that it appeared to have been lost and forever forgotten. We have been given a gift from the ancestors and we want to acknowledge it as a living treasure and share its mystery with you.

I do not really know what the ancient ones did with the string. I was not there. But what I do know is that the string seemed to speak to me and I listened. I was compelled to find out about string figures and how they were once used. My research took on a life of its own as I sat silently weaving ancient patterns with my fingers and a simple loop of string.

String figures are found in almost all of the cultures of the world: Africa, The Arctic, Australia, Japan, The Pacific Islands of Micronesia, Melanesia, Polynesia, Among the indigenous cultures of North America, Central and South America and throughout Europe, Asia, the United States and the Middle East. They are very ancient. You may know a version from your childhood called cat’s cradle.


In Hawaii they are called Hei which on one level means to snare. Chants and stories often accompany the making of the string figures. It is difficult to know how much of the knowledge of the ancient ones has been forgotten, adapted or concealed in the process of coming to us today. Therefore the meanings of these chants and figures remain open to interpretation. Each stanza 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. It is with great enjoyment when one can understand the depth of these subtle and multiple meanings.

We must remember that the word holds power, especially the spoken word. Names were not just given but carefully selected. Words seem to have a power beyond mere communication. So in attempting to understand the Hawaiian string figures one must pay attention to the words as well as the patterns.

I have become aware of over 115 Hawaiian figures. Each pattern has its own energy. They not only sound and look different but they feel different. It was with this feeling sense that I stepped into a different realm.

In my search to understand the meaning of the string figures I had been studying astronomy, mathematics, physics, architecture, philosophy, ethnology, anthropology, archeology, comparative religions, healing and shamanism. I looked into the meaning of symbols and ritual, the influence of energy, colors, number, geomancy, sound, shapes and patterns. I’ve studied cosmology and myths and in particular the culture, language and beliefs of Hawaii and Polynesia. People and books would come my way to teach and inspire me. I tried to remain open to the knowledge that came to me and yet leave open the book for the many stories yet to hear.


There came a day when I put the books aside and stepped out into the energy of this sacred Island of Kauai. I would weave patterns with the string as I sat by the ocean or by a mountain stream. I played string games with the children and with the adults who took great delight in remembering what was once forgotten. That is when the magic started to happen and I knew without a doubt that the gift I was given was significant. String figures were not just a child’s game but the tool of a shaman. A tool for influencing relationships within the self, with others and with the environment. A tool for restoring harmony. They had been placed in the hands of the children so they would not be forgotten. The spirit of the string figures had come to me so that I could retell a story.

The Story

Children and Shaman – a playful conspiracy…

The story as it was told to me by the string started off as children so often do, with a few questions which in turn led to even more questions. I ask you now to journey to a space of wonderment and to ask the question…

What If…

What if…string figures are more than just a children’s game?

What if…they were used to snare? And what did they snare?

What if…string figures connect ancient wisdom with modern times?

What if…string figures were used by the navigators?

What if…they had meanings related to the sun, moon and the stars, to eclipses, zeniths and nadirs and to other natural phenomena of the skies?

What if…they had meanings related to the teachings of the land and of the people who made them?

What if…they were a map. A means of giving and noting directions? Could they be used to help locate yourself in space?

What if…they retained numerical codes?

What if…they were used like the abacus or the quipus of Peru as a recording device, to determine time, to tally and to add?

What if…they were used to measure star distances, wave motion, navigation distances and other forms of measurement?

What if…they had meanings related to the heiaus, alignments and to sacred space and sacred time?

What if…they were used as mnemonic devices to aid the remembering of genealogies and important teachings?

What if…they were an early form of secret written language?

What if…they were used for communication?

What if…they were used to teach and to tell the myths and legends?

What if…they were used as an entertainment event for storytelling and competition?

What if…they were given to the children as a game and the children were watched as they played and their particular skills and talents were noted for further training?

What if…the elders used string figures to test and train the memory along with the other senses, so that the history and traditions of the people could be preserved and passed on?

What if…they were used to generate mana, influence, power?

What if…the erotic chants and moving string figures were used to increase the sexual power? Could they have been used to teach about sex?

What if…string figures are alive, could they be fields of energy and information? Instead of seeing the string as an object could we see it as a package of information? Could you think of the string as a bundle of consciousness rather than as a material object?

What if…they were used as an energy device, employing the harmonic frequencies of color, shape, movement and sound?

What if…they were a form of sacred geometry?

What if…they are thought structures. When people looked at a certain figure, without knowing what they mean, images would come and they would understand it?

What if…they help people think in a different way?

What if…they were used for divination?

What if…you could find a picture in the string, something that is meaningful? What memories and experiences have passed into this object and are reflected back to you? Can you see how your consciousness transforms a lump of matter into a symbol of life experience?

What if…you could ask the string through its position and its vibration for any oracular guidance that may be needed?

What if…you could Grok the string pattern for answers to your questions?

What if…they could be used to illustrate shape shifting? Indigenous cultures recognize that storytelling can reshape an individuals experience or life story. Many shamans are gifted storytellers and shape-shifters.

What if…they were used as a tool for manifestation?

What if…they were used for healing? Could the knots symbolize the constriction, the illness and the removal of the knots as a release from that illness?

What if…they held the power of the Mudras as they reveal the hand energy looked at by the various traditions of Ayurveda, Chakras, Acupressure, Reflex Zones, Meridians, Palmistry and Astrology.

What if…they can restructure the neurons in the brain? As the environment changes our mental state, our way of thinking changes and so too does the brain.

What if…changing patterns of string affect change in your vibrations and in your physical reality?

What if…string patterns affect your energy and then you affect the energy of what is being observed, healed or created?

What if…you could place a healing intent into the patterns of the string? Could they be used to create sacred art?

What if…they function as a meditation, relaxation device? Could they help people free their thoughts and themselves from time and space?

What if…the manipulation of string accompanied by chants facilitates imagery that is ritualistic and ceremonial in content?

What if…they were used in ritual?

What if…journeywork combined with the manipulation of string can access the psychomythology, or imagery and memory work, within each person which can support healing and help transform pathology?

What if…the journey and string figure technique may be an ancient form of what we know today as a stress reduction technique as well as a way of inducing a natural altered state?

What if…they were used as a pathway for the spirits and in communication with the spirits, for soul retrieval, to make a journey?

What if…they were used in ritual for the passing on of the dead to the otherworlds?

What if…string figures were portals?

What if…they were used to trap and snare spirits?

What if…they were symbolic of life’s mysteries, the cosmic egg, the world tree, A labyrinthine path, grandmother spider’s web? Could they help us focus on the center and the journey to the sky and on the earth and to the underworld? Could they symbolize our interconnectedness?

What if…they contained the knowledge and power which lies beyond man through spiritual insight

What if…they can be used to remember the ancestors, to benefit from their powers, because that was the genetic past?

What if…they could be used to access the mind of the ancients?

What if…they were a prayer?


Lois & Earl Stokes are shaman and artists of the spirit residing on the island of Kauai in Hawaii. They perform string figures as a healing art and can be reached on the internet at

They practice the Hawaiian Shamanic Healing Arts and live the Huna and the Aloha Spirit of Hawaii. They are ordained Alaka’i of Huna International.

They view string figures as a gift from The Ancestors and want the children of this land to know the beauty of this living treasure.


The thoughts in this article are not mine. I only asked the question "What if…" The words belong to the keepers of this ancient wisdom. Only some of whom I have acknowledged here. There are many more. We are all connected to the ancient past and each one of us holds a piece of the puzzle to this Divine Mystery. Our ancestors stand behind us and they have given us a special gift. I was told to write down everything that I heard or read that had some relationship with the spirit of the string figures and that is what I did and I continue to do.

Mahalo and blessings to the people whose words and thoughts were inspiration to the creation of this work. The spirit of string figures has brought them to my doorstep and in keeping with the belief that the reciting of names gives the spirit power and brings them to the present moment, I honor them with this name chant. For the academics, a complete bibliography will be made available upon the completion of the book from which this article is an outline or upon request at

To my ancestor spirits and the kumu’s (teachers) and kahunas who have had an influence on my thinking, I visualize a waterfall. To Serge Kahili King of Aloha International whose words I have studied and who first published this work on his website at, I hold a lotus blossom. To Francis X. Warther I send the warm tropic wind so that we can hear the song of a navigator poet, To Rubellite Kawena Johnson, Frank Kawaikapuokalani Hewett, Kahu Abraham Kawai’i, Ed Kaiwi, Alan Alapai, Aunty Francis, Roberto Kaplan, Van James, and the Alaka’i of Huna International, I hold a basket of seeds and petals. To the shaman and the many people who have gathered on the sacred island of Kauai and to their ancestor spirits, I give a symbol instead of a name… a beautiful tapestry, woven with threads of many colors and textures. I now call upon the authors of the many books and articles whom I have connected with and to them I give a double rainbow which circles the tropic sun.
A. Grove Day, A. Johnston Abraham, A. Makanani, Aban Wall, Abraham Fornander, Adrienne L. Kaeppler, Albert Einstein, Albert von Thimus, Alberto Bueno Mendoza, Alexander A. Gurshtein, Alfons L. Korn, Alfred C. Haddon, Alfred Metraux, Al-Ghazall, Alice Thoms Vitale, Amos P. Leib, Anders Ryman, Andrew J. Conklin–Peck, Andrew Neher, Angeles Arrien, Ann Baring, Anna Walters, Anne Akers Johnson, Anne M. Chapman, Anthony F. Aveni, Anthony Lawlor, Aristides Quintilianus, Aristotle, Arlington H. Mallery, Armando M. Da Silva, Audrey Collinson Small, Barbara O’Rand, Barbara Tedlock, Barry Fell, Ben Finney, Bernard Second, Bertrand Russell, Billie Jean Isbell, Bob Westerveld, Bodo J. Baginski, Boetius, C. A. Marchaj, C. Earle Smith Jr., Camilla Gryski, Carl G. Jung, Caroline Curtis, Caroline Furness Jayne, Catherine C. Summers, Catherine Kalama Becker, Cassandra Eason, Cecelia F. Klein, Charles H. Hapgood, Christopher B. Donnan, Chuck Pettis, Claire R. Farrer, Craig Morris, David Fideler, David Kalakaua, David Lewis, David MacLean Eaton, David Malo, David Titus, Denise Schmandt-Besseratt, Dimiter Kolev, Donald Sandner, Donald Stanley Marshall, Dov Baer, Duke Kalar i Wise, E. S. Craighill Handy, Ed Lowell Hohn Bean, Edd Sterchi (Wakahana), Edmund Leach, Edward Stasack, Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Elliott Carter, Erich M. von Hornbostel, Ernest S. Dodge, Esther R. T. Mookini, Felix R. Mindt-Paturi, Frank Coppieters, Frank R. Wilson, Franz Boas, Frederick B. Wichman, Galileo, Gary Urton, Gelvin Stevenson, George F. Carter, Germaine Dieterlen, Gertrud Hirschi, Giorgio de Santillana, Guy Massat, H. C. Maude, H. E. Maude, Halley J. Cox, Hank Wesselman, Hans Jenny, Hans Kayser, Harry & Elizabeth Helfman, Hazrat Inayat Khan, Hein Broos, Hendrick Lorentz, Heraclides, Herbidius, Hertha von Dechend, Hildegard of Bingen, Humboldt, Ian Stewert, Isabelle Normand, Issac Newton, J. Frank Stimson, James Clark Maxwell, James Hornell, Jane Fulton Abernethy, Jennifer Day, Joan and Miron Borysenko, Jocelyn Godwin, Johannes C. Anderson, Johannes Kepler, John Charlot, John F. G. Stokes, John Kaipo Mahelona, John Michell, John Papa Li, Joost Elffers, Joscelyn Godwin, Joseph Campbell, Joseph D’Antoni, Joseph Feher, Joska Sous, Judith Ann Remington, Judith Cornell, Julie Stewert Williams, June Gutmanis, Kathleen Haddon, Karen J. Meech, Katharine Luomala, Keith Critchlow, Kenneth Nebenzahl, Kiana Davenport, Konstantin Kkorotkov, L. R. McBride, Leinani Melville, Leland Locke, Leon Battista Alberti, Leonardo da Vinci, Likeke R. McBride, Lilikala Kame'Eleihiwa, Linda Schele, Linda Shelly, Livio Gatullo Stecchini, Lorrin Andrews, Louis Kahn, Luca Pacioli, Lyle A. Dickey, M. J. Harden, M. Jane Young, Makoto Ooka, Marija Gimbutas, Marin Gazzaniga, Mark Sherman, Martha Beckwith, Martin Probert, Mary Kawena Pukui, Matila Ghyka, Maud Worcester Makemoson, Mazatl Galindo, Melinda Maxfield, Melissa Gayle West, Michael Edward Moseley, Michael Schuyt, Michael T. Turvey, Mimi George, Mircea Eliade, Moses K. Keale Sr., Muhammad Yunus, Nainoa Thompson, Nathaniel B. Emerson, Ness Mountain, Nicomachus, Nigel Pennick, Nona Beamer, Owen Gingerich, Paramahansa Yogananda, Patrick Vinton Kirch, Peggy Beck, Peter Nabokov, Plato, Plotinus, Pualani Kanaka’ole Kanahele, Pythagoras, R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz, R. T. Zuidema, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Ray A. Williamson, Rev. Philip D. Noble, Richard Goldard, Richard Rudgley, Richard W. Keatinge, Richard W. Strachan, Rita Carter, Robert Aitken, Robert Easton, Robert M. Malina, Roger Taylor, Roselle Bailey, Rowena Pattee Kryder, Rudolf Steiner, Sabrina Mesko, Sam Cannarozzi Yada, Samuel H. Elbert, Samuel Manaiakalani Kamakau, Scott Cunningham, Serge Kahili King, Sergei Rjabchikov, Shalila Sharamon, Sharoin L. Gibbs, Sidney Moko Mead, Sorena DeWitt, Stephen C. McCluskey, Steve Brinkman, Steven F. Brena, Suelyn Ching Tune, Susanne F. Fincher, Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter H. Buck), Terence Grieder, Thomas C. Blackburn, Thomas S. Barthel, Thor Heyerdahl, Timothy Freke, Tom Crockett, Travis Hudson, Vesselina Koleva, Vitruvius, W.W. Rouse Ball,Walter Woods, Wendell Clark Bennett, Will Wirt, William J. Conklin, William R. Corliss, Willian Stirling, Willowdean Chatterson Handy, Yukio Shishido.

Aloha nui loa e malama pono


© 2011-20 Lois & Earl Stokes