One night each month, it is said that an eerie white mist appears along the highest peak of the Koʻolau mountains. Those who have borne witness to this manifestation say that the mist slowly coalesces into the form of a menacing dog.

On those nights, wise travelers avoid crossing through Nuʻuanu to avoid the malicious ʻōlohe dog-man who roams the valley.

Foreign travelers in the 19th century claimed to have seen this phenomenon and noted that when the figure appeared, the neighborhood dogs would wail and howl until it disappeared. Kūpuna from the area used to say that the apparition is that of the cruel supernatural dog-man named Kaupe who once ruled Nuʻuanu and who continues to haunt its forests and trails to this day.

Supernatural dogs have long been part of Native Hawaiian traditional stories or moʻolelo. After all, dogs traveled with our Polynesian ancestors across the Pacific for thousands of years.

Photo: Petroglyphs of dogs are found throughout Nuʻuanu Valley
Petroglyphs of dogs are found throughout Nuʻuanu Valley, likely representing Kaupe, the ʻōlohe dog-man. The images may have served as a warning to travelers. Original artwork by Ian Kūaliʻi.

In Hawaiʻi, it was a long-held custom among families to keep dogs for companionship, hunting, and even as a food source. But dogs were also said to have had special abilities. Some of the old folks said that dogs could see spirits and that if one were to mix a dog’s mucous with specific herbs, that concoction would enable them to see beyond what an ordinary human could see.

Many chiefs tattooed their bodies with dog-related images. Dogs also acted as guardians and ʻaumakua (family gods). Some of the akua could take the kino lau (body form) of a dog, particularly Kū and Lono. And dog forms in clouds were seen as omens. Due to this connection with the gods and our ancestors, hula and heiau (temples) dedicated to supernatural dogs do exist.

Hawaiian moʻolelo also speaks of supernatural dogs sometimes called the “dog men.” They were described as being hairless, but their skin was often dark red and brindled. Because they were hairless, they were referred to as “ʻōlohe.”

On Maui, they were called the haʻa (low) people, supposedly based on their stature. Their faces had the visage of a depilous dog but their bodies were human.

They were known to have supernatural abilities, including shapeshifting, and therefore were classified as a kupua (demi-gods). In a little-known version of the legend of Kaʻulu, Lono-ka-eho defeats a dangerous ʻōlohe kupua at Kualoa, hurling and smashing his body. This ʻōlohe kupua became the islet of MokuʻĪlio, which is an alternative name and origin story for Mokoliʻi Island (wrongly referred to as “Chinaman’s Hat” by most people today).

Historian Samuel Kamakau records that the dog-man kupua, Kūʻilioloa, came from Kahiki and pierced the akua Kanehoalani at Kualoa. In some traditions, Kūʻilioloa was seen as a manifestation of Kū, while others claim him as a shapeshifting ʻōlohe. In either case, Kūʻīlioloa was a protector of travelers in Waiʻanae.

According to different moʻolelo, the ʻōlohe dog people lived in caves dug from sandhills. Many of these ka lua ʻōlohe, or caves where the ʻōlohe once lived, were said to be in the area known today as ʻEwa Beach. Some ʻōlohe also lived in Kula, Maui.

The dog ʻōlohe should not be confused with the class of skilled warriors within the Hawaiian martial art of lua so-called because they plucked their hair and greased their bodies for combat – although dog ʻōlohe were also known for their wrestling skills.

In fact, dog ʻōlohe are from a different genealogy. The Kumulipo records the birth of the ʻōlohe as the people of the “wagging tails” in the fifth wā. The Kumulipo also seems to associate the ʻōlohe with places where spirits roam. Brindled dogs were said to be ʻōlohe or possessed of their power. Brindled and hairless dogs were additionally held in kapu by devotees of Pele and known as ʻīlio moʻo. A tale from Oʻahu speaks of an ʻīlio moʻo named Pae who was saved from a village feast by a woman with reddish-brown hair. That woman was said to have been Pele herself.

In the 18th century, it was claimed that King Kahekili of Maui had a division of dog-headed ʻōlohe, which must have been a fearsome sight on the battlefield. When Alapaʻinui of Hawaiʻi sent messengers to Maui, they landed and found the ʻōlohe people. The messengers took one look, went back on their canoes, and moved on to Oʻahu.

Near Punahou, there used to be a pit named after the ʻōlohe into which an ʻōlohe could disappear if they were being pursued by a chief. Martha Beckwith in her work, Hawaiian Mythology, records that eyewitnesses, including non-Hawaiians, have claimed to have seen dog-headed warriors with tails among the spirit ranks of the Huakaʻi Pō or “Night Marchers” marching alongside their other fallen comrades.

But in most moʻolelo, the ʻōlohe tended to be skilled robbers and tricksters, as well as powerful warriors.

“It is said that the voice of this malevolent spirit can imitate an old man or a young child and is accompanied by an unusual stillness – which should serve as a warning to the wary.”

The most famous of the ʻōlohe was Kaupe. Kaupe grew up in Līhuʻe, Oʻahu, which is where Schofield Barracks is today. He is described in written moʻolelo and oral traditions as having the body of a man and the head of a brindled dog with black and red stripes. In time he became so powerful that he overthrew the government of Kahānaiakeakua and installed himself as high chief in Nuʻuanu.

Kaupe was a cruel and evil chief. He terrorized the people of Oʻahu and Maui, even indulging in cannibalism. Without provocation, Kaupe plotted to kidnap the son of a chief of Hawaiʻi Island and offer him as a mōhai (sacrifice) at a heiau – a decision that would ultimately lead to his own demise.

Horrified by the kidnapping, the furious father followed Kaupe to Oʻahu to rescue his son. There, he consulted with Kahilona, a great kahuna kilokilo, or seer, from Kaheiki Heiau in Nuʻuanu. Today Kaheiki Heiau is in ruins but at one time it served as the paramount temple on Oʻahu for soothsayers and divination. Kaheiki Heiau was built by menehune with whom Kahilona had a special friendship.

Kahilona taught the father two prayers: one to make Kaupe fall into a deep sleep, and a second one to defeat Kaupe. Kahilona gave the chief specific instructions and advised him that, in order to work, the prayer to defeat Kaupe could not be chanted on the island of Oʻahu.

The father carefully memorized the prayers and then waited for nightfall. As the night grew deep and the shadows dark, he began chanting the sleeping prayer as he approached the wall of Kaupe’s compound. Kaupe soon fell into a trance-like sleep. With Kaupe unconscious, the chief was able to penetrate the compound without opposition and he quickly found and freed his son.

As the pair escaped into the forest, Kaupe suddenly awakened. Upon realizing what had happened, he raced into the forest after them intending to hunt them down. But Kaupe’s mind was still clouded by Kahilona’s chant and this allowed the father and son to evade Kaupe and hide in Moanalua Valley until they were able to secure their return to Hawaiʻi Island.

Outraged at being tricked, Kaupe relentlessly pursued the chief and his son across the ocean to their home on Hawaiʻi Island whereupon a fierce battle ensued. Although they were valiant fighters, the chief’s men were no match for Kaupe. As the weary defenders begin to succumb to Kaupe’s superior fighting skills, the chief remembered the chant to defeat Kaupe that was given to him by Kahilona.

In the midst of the raging battle, the chief began to chant. His voice rose urgently, piercing the surrounding chaos and, then, as he prayed, the tide of the battle shifted. Kaupe lost his advantage and his supernatural strength was diminished, allowing the chief and his men to subdue and kill the wicked dog-man.

But Kaupe did not die entirely. Because Kaupe was a kupua, his spirit was able to leave his body before being killed. It flew to Nuʻuanu Valley where, the story says, he continues to roam the forest to this day.

Modern urban legends claim that Kaupe’s voice can still be heard luring unsuspecting hikers and travelers to venture into dangerous areas of the forest. It is said that the voice of this malevolent spirit can imitate an old man or a young child and is accompanied by an unusual stillness – which should serve as a warning to the wary. It was also said that he can appear as a mist that slowly creates a shadow figure resembling Kaupeʻs ʻōlohe dog form.

During the construction of the Nuʻuanu Pali Tunnels, special protocols were conducted to ward off Kaupe and other hostile spirits and prevent them from harming the work crews who were building the tunnels.

It is perhaps in this vein that the kūpuna who traveled over the Koʻolau Moutains through Nuʻuanu Valley in days long past left numerous petroglyphs on the cliffs and along trails as an offering to the land and an acknowledgment of the supernatural elements that operate in that place that we may not see, but that we must respect.