The Legend of Kena

Marquesan legend surrounding the exploits of one of that cultures most revered heroes, Kena, is embodied by a motif of the hero in his bath. Whenever I see someone tattooed with this motif, which is almost always buried in the intricacies of what we have come to regard as modern ‘Polynesian’ tattoo, I always ask them to tell me the meaning of the symbol. I have heard it described as a flower, turtle, and star. The wearer of this motif was most likely told by the tattoo artist, the meaning of the symbol, so the misunderstanding is not entirely the wearer’s fault.

Kena, who became a hero because of his strength, courage, tenacity and ultimately his wit, is almost always included in traditional Marquesan tattoo. Like the twin Samoan goddesses of tattoo, Tilafaiga and Taema, Kena has earned his name by his association with tattoo. Of course his legend is one of fantastic drama and strife–as is a great deal of Polynesian lore–but in the end, his story concludes with the death of the hero by his own design. I believe that it is this duality of being both brave and fearless, while also succumbing to the indiscretions of mortal behavior, that has established his position as perhaps the most celebrated of Marquesan heroes.

His legend is as follows:

The mortal hero, chief of Hivaoa, Te Aa leads an expedition to Havai’i, the underworld, to battle the ruler of Havai’i, Tu Tonga. At the end of the battle, Tu Tonga presents Te Aa with his two sisters, who become the wives of Te Aa’s companions.

Te Aa becomes trapped in the underworld, but his two companions and their supernatural wives manage to escape and return to Hivaoa. One wife gives birth to Kena while the other gives birth to Tefio.

When Kena and Tefio grow older, they marry one another.

The marriage goes bad because Kena is addicted to surfing. After 10 days of continuous surfing Kena begins to rot and becomes covered with sea growths and stench. Tefio, who warned him against surfing, leaves him and marries another man, Toee.

Undeterred, Kena prepares two freshwater, stone-lined bathing pools, one upstream from the other, with a small connecting stream in between them.

Later, Kena hears that the two sons of a neighboring chief are being tattooed. Using supernatural means, he hijacks the ceremony to ensure that he is tattooed first and that he has the best designs. After being tattooed he returns home to his mother, and lightning is seen to shoot from his armpits. His mother tells him not to do that because he will cause his cousin to collapse in fright. Kena then attends the feast at which the newly tattooed display themselves, which is also attended by Tefio and her new husband. Tefio falls in love with Kena again and they plan to elope.

They communicate via the channel connecting the two streams; Kean drops his lei in the stream, it floats down and Tefio retrieves it. Later they meet to have a tryst but cannot make love because they are ‘disturbed’. This happens again and again until Tefio becomes ill and sings her funeral lament.

She finally dies from ‘woman cramps’. Kena mourns her.

Later, after many other adventures, Kena returns to Havai’i to meet with Tu Tonga, his mother’s brother. He battles with Tu Tonga and breaks the ruler’s teeth so that he can no longer eat men. Kena then becomes beguiled by the sight of certain cockroach-women in the underworld, falls into a deep pit and dies. (VDS) (p. 186-7)

Kena, it seems, is a doomed soul before he is even born. His relation to the Po (the darkness, the place where god dwell and ancestors linger, the seat of all creation), and his connection to Tu Tonga, are all indications that the fate of this individual can only end badly.

However, during his life he excelled at being mortal. Surfing, upsetting the wife, thievery, romance, revenge and deception, are all relatable facets of the human condition. So while he may possess divine blood, his actions, more or less, define him as a typical, flawed mortal.

Perhaps that is why he was such an important figure? If you think about it, such tales of mortal/divine hybrids, succumbing to their own wanton mortal shortcomings is a common theme throughout history.

In the end, Kena is ‘beguiled’ by cockroach-women, then falls into a deep pit and dies. Perhaps speaking of his intrinsic tie to the underworld and the fact that no matter how hard he tried to rise above his cursed origins, he could never seem to pull it off.

Getting back to the symbol of Kena, unlike many of the other Marquesan heroes depicted in tattoo(which are merely etua-like symbols that are referred to as a hero or heroes) his image is always comprised of Kena in his bath.

It is in his bath that Kena concocts his plot to win his wife back and is also where he is denied ‘re-consummating’ his love/marriage for/to her. It is the place where he realizes his dreams as well as his failures. In that space, the bath is akin to the Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment, a place where his dreams spring to life, but also where they go to die.

The image ‘b’ is the most simplistic rendition of Kena in his bath. He is the small T at the center of the enclosure. As the motif evolves, it gains embellishment to such a degree that it becomes abstract.

One thing about Marquesan tattoo that is gender specific, is how to view any given motif, although this mainly applies to etua (godliness) and kea (turtles). When placed on a male, the motif should be viewed as if the bottom of the symbol rests on the horizontal plane, so that you view the object as if it were facing you. When placed on a female, the horizontal plane shifts so that you are now viewing the object from the top. That is how the etua (male) becomes a kea (female) while outwardly looking completely identical. It is this plane shift that causes one symbol to become another.

I mention this only because Vai-o-Kena is to be viewed as if he is in his bath, facing the observer. In ‘b’ this is fairly obvious, but as the motif evolves it becomes less so, which is why it is so often misinterpreted.

Aloha and peace!

  1. nenad says:

    hi. all i her is that the meaning for the most of marquesan motifs has been forgotten. reading what you write it doesn`t seem that way. where did you get your knowledge from?

    • Hello, thank you for reading my blog. In regards to Marquesan tattoo that isn’t necessarily the case. Although there is not a lot of readily accessible information out there; it does exist. Marquesan tattoo and plastic art was documented and photographed during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Although these resources are scarce and very expensive to obtain, they are the most thorough of any post-contact documentation that is available. I have also obtained resources directly from Marquesas, written by modern practitioners of tattoo. Aloha!