If you are or have been a visitor to the Hawaiian archipelago and you’ve managed to make the acquaintance of a few friendly locals, you’ll notice that they will acclimate you to all the places you should go, and should not go. However, if you are so inclined to inquire as to the local folklore that you may have heard about from your hotel concierge or tour bus driver, one of the first things your newly-made, local friend will caution you about in a low tone of voice is the Night Marchers. Who are the night marchers you ask? And why is there an almost hushed reverenced when the name is mentioned?
The night marchers are the ghosts of long dead warriors who, in life, were charged to process in front of a Hawaiian ruler who’s status was so sacred that all who were in his or her presence were required to strip naked and lay face down with their hands clasped behind the back of their heads. In life, under no circumstances could one raise their eyes and look at the passing procession, much less the sacred ruler. If the protocol was broken, that person of lesser rank would be killed on the spot. There were no terms of negotiation or a time period in which to call your personal attorney. The law was the law for all and it was absolute. Disobey and death was the punishment. Our greatest conqueror, Kamehameha had a wife, Keopuolani, who was of a higher and more sacred rank than he was. Because of Keopuolani’s rank, the great chief was required to strip naked in her presence and crawl to her.
Now, in the afterlife, these warriors who march in the night, continue their sacred duty. They often appear during the last four moon phases of the Hawaiian lunar calendar. Fortunately, for the living, there are warning signs prior to the arrival of the night marchers. You may see their long procession of red torch lights along the mountain ridges. They will also sound their pahu (drums) and pu (conch shells) as another kind of warning. You may hear chanting in Hawaiian and you may smell the pungent aroma of sulphur. According to local folklore, if you’ve missed all the signs and it is well past any opportunity to run; all that is left is to strip naked and lay face down with your hands clasped behind your head. Any genealogical ties to a ghostly warrior in the procession may save you, especially if you are able to recite your geneaology in chant form. In some traditions, you are encouraged to urinate on your hands and then to rub your micturition all over yourself so that the night marchers will find you too disgusting to kill. I assure you that these cautionary measures are as our oral traditions dictate and were not made up by we natives as a way to have sport with new visitors to the islands.
My own experience with the Night Marchers came one evening, years ago, as I led a ghost tour of thirty-eight architects to a Chinese cemetery in the valley above Waikiki. The poor architects were so scared that it took fifteen minutes waiting for them to board the bus. The group huddled closely together as we neared the children’s section of the cemetery. I stopped at that spot and turned to share a few ghost stories with the group when I noticed that a terrific wind suddenly tore through the cemetery. The furious wind blew pebbles and debris at us and bent the trees low toward the ground sending the group running back to the bus.
As for myself, I watched all of this happen, I saw the trees and debris flying, I saw the people running but somehow, I couldn’t hear it and I could not feel it. It was as if I was encapsulated in a large bubble. The heat was stifling and I was perspiring heavily. Then, without warning, everything stopped. Upon returning to the bus, I could not convince the group of thirty-eight architects to continue that ghost tour any further.
The following morning I called my cousin who is a well respected cultural practitioner here in Hawaii and I described to him detail the incident from the night before.
“Oh!” he laughed, “Last night was the first of the night marcher moons. A procession comes through that Chinese cemetery. More specifically in that area where you were standing.”
“Why wasn’t I killed?” I asked my cousin, “My group, they weren’t harmed either.”
“They were smart,” my cousin said, “They ran back to the bus; you just stood there. You know that sensation you talked about? Being able to see everything but not being able to feel it or hear it? You must have had ancestors in that procession of night marchers. They must have recognized you and protected you until the rest of the procession passed. You were lucky.”