What Is the Significance of the Hawaiian Honu?

Fleetham Dave/Perspectives/Getty Images

The Hawaiian honu refers to the varieties of green sea turtle native to the Hawaiian Islands. The honu is considered an aumakua, or guardian spirit, and also a sign of good luck. The honu is the last remaining reptile indigenous to the Hawaiian Islands, and it is viewed as a symbol of endurance and longevity.

Ancient Hawaiians believed that aumakua could take the shape of any animal. As sea turtles are native to Hawaii, they became a sacred symbol to the Hawaiians and historically could be consumed only by royalty. When sea turtles were consumed, ancient Hawaiians used every part of the honu. The flesh, cartilage and internal organs were cooked and eaten in soups or stews. Shells were broken into pieces and made into tools, such as fish-hooks or scrapers. The turtle’s skin was made into leather. Ancient Hawaiians also presented the honu as an offering to Kanaloa, the god of the ocean. Kanaloa was said to assume the shape of a honu when he took physical form.

Long exploited for their shells, modern green sea turtles are an endangered species protected under both state and federal laws. The population continues to rise slowly, but many young sea turtles still die due to pollution, ocean debris and fishing nets.