The Name of Mauna Kea

It has gotten a bit confusing of late. As the argument rages over the summit of Mauna Kea even the name of the mountain is something that few can agree upon. Mauna Kea, Maunakea, Mauna Akea, Ka Mauna a Kea, or Mauna a Wakea are all used by the various parties involved. This is not an idle question, what to call the mountain, the various names are used to present a point of view, a context from which to view the mountain.

Mauna Kea White
Mauna Kea with a fresh covering of snow and ice
The argument has even become contentious on occasion as many insist the correct name is Mauna a Wakea, essentially the mountain of the god Wakea. As this is heavy in religious connotation and procliams the sacredness of the summit, one can understand why this name has become such a symbol.

“The districts of Amakooa and Aheedoo are separated by a mountain, called Mauna Kaah, which rises in three peaks, perpetually covered with snow, and may be clearly seen at 40 leagues’ distance… On doubling the East point of the island, we came in sight of another snowy mountain, called Mouna Roa.” – Journal of the Cook expedition March 17791

The name of this mountain is found in the journals of the Cook expedition, recorded as “Mauna Kaah”. This would be the first record of the mountain’s proper name in writing, and possibly the most accurate record of the ancient usage. The journal does not translate Kaah, but does translate Mauna as mountain. Attempting to translate kaah or kaʻah using modern references does not seem to yield any useful result.

“the summit of the mountain Monakaa, which had been obscured by the clouds since our making the land, was now clear” – Captain Joseph Ingraham, May 22, 1791

It is these first recordings in written form that are interesting. The ancient Hawaiians had no written language, no records of the name exist before the first Europeans to visit Hawai‘i. Many of the verbal traditions and pule have lost in the intervening centuries. We can safely assume that the captains making these logs were attempting to record the name of the mountain as told to them by the local inhabitants.

“May 4 Saw the summit of Mouna Kaah towering far above the clouds and in places covered with snow We also saw Mauna Roa appearing not far off from the other but without snow The grand appearance of both these mountains as seen from on board the ship upwards of 100 miles out at sea would repay the traveller for coming so far on purpose to see them.” – Diary of Botanist James Macrae 18252

Reading the diaries of later visitors one finds the same names. Clearly the names recorded by the Cook expedition were the accepted names used by later English visitors to the islands. Likewise the name as recorded by the missionaries is consistently Mauna Kea.

On approaching the islands, I have more than once observed the mountains of the interior long before the coast was visible, or any of the usual indications of land had been seen. On these occasions, the elevated summit of Mouna Kea, or Mouna Roa, has appeared above the mass of clouds that usually skirt the horizon… The Journal of William Ellis 18234

An ancient ahu (shrine) atop Mauna Kea with the summit in the background
The Journal of Bingham is of particular interest as he was well know for his faithful recording of the Hawaiian language and his involvement in formalizing the written version of the language.

The king [Kauikeaouli, King Kamehameha III] set out with a party of more than a hundred, for an excursion further into the heart of the island, and an ascent to the summit of Mauna Kea. – The Journal of Hiram Bingham 1830

Much of the argument centers around the literal translation of Mauna Kea as “White Mountain” versus the more religious interpretation as “Mountain of Wakea”. While there is evidence to support both interpretations, it would be productive to find additional sources on the more religious interpretation. According to a few sources Wakea can be also expressed as Akea or simply Kea. This comes from ancient mele that proclaim Mauna Kea as the first offspring of the sky god Wakea with the ocean goddess Papa.

There is also an appearance the the Mauna a Wakea version is the result of a recent desire among some Hawaiian practitioners to create a more religious interpretation of the name exploiting the similarity of Wakea and Kea. Evidence for such an interpretation in the source documents is scant and the desire for the Mauna a Wakea version to be accepted is very strong as it resonates with many of the issues surrounding use of the mountain.

Several translations of the Hawaiian creation myth and genealogical chant, the Kumulipo, do not appear to refer directly to Mauna Kea. Neither the Kalakaua version, nor the Liliʻuokalani translation contain any direct references to the mauna. Other mele refer to the entire island of Hawaiʻi as the first offspring of Wakea and Papa. But the evidence is conflicting, there are recorded mele that do contain direct references referring to Mauna Kea as the first child of Wakea3.

O hanau ka mauna a Kea,
Opuu ae ka mauna a Kea.

Born of Kea was the mountain
The mauna of Kea budded forth

– mele hānau (birth chant) sung at the birth of Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III)4

Thus the Ka Mauna a Kea name is presented as the full name of the mountain. One could easily see that this might be shortened to Mauna Kea in everyday usage, to be recorded as Mauna Kaah by the first Europeans to set down the name in writing. The conflicting information simply documents the fragmentary nature of ancient Hawaiian beliefs, where each family or clan held slightly differing versions of belief and religious practice varied across the islands.

While exploring the issue is interesting there is no definitive answer here, either translation may be correct, perhaps even both. For now I will observe the name Mauna Kea when writing. This preserves both the White Mountain literal translation and the Mauna of Kea meaning. Some sources have moved to using Maunakea, which is arguably more accurate as a proper noun, but breaks with centuries of tradition and historical context. Using Mauna Kea as two words, serves to match the historical usage and gives continuity to enable the indexing and search functions of this internet age.

  1. Snow on the Summits of Hawai‘i Island: Historical Sources from 1778 to 1870, Norbert Schorghofer, Elianna Kantar, M. Puakea Nogelmeier, The Hawaiian Journal of History, vol. 48 (2014)
  2. Diary of Scottish Botanist James Macrae 1825
  3. Mauna Kea, the famous summit of the land, Kepa Malay, Onaona Malay 1985
  4. Mauna a Wakea website as retrieved September 2015

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

2 thoughts on “The Name of Mauna Kea”

  1. Andrew-
    Have really enjoyed reading your posts regarding the Mauna Kea controversies, and today’s effort is outstanding! Thank you so much for your efforts! -Dean

  2. There is a mountain hike here on Oahu that goes by many names. Koko Crater, Kokohead Hike, Koko Head hike, Kokohead stairs, Kohelepelepe… It gets argued every so often and I could go into the reasons why, but to me it doesn’t matter. The name is whatever people call it. If people and search engines understand the location from the name, then it’s fine with me.

    And personally, I still call it Mauna Kea.

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