Ancient Hawaiian Pahee (Javelin Throw)

Pahee (sometimes called moa pahee) was an ancient Hawaiian sport that involved throwing a short javelin-like pole down a long dirt path in an effort to land it as far as possible. This sport was centered around gambling, much like other traditional Hawaiian sports such as mokomoko (boxing) and ulu maika (a sport similar to bowling), and matches were typically put together for the primary purpose of betting on a winner.

While wagering was a central aspect of pahee, it is unclear when bets were placed and winnings awarded. In most ancient Hawaiian sports, bets were placed before the competition begins and winnings were passed out after somebody won. Despite this, Davida Malo, a reputable Hawaiian historian, states in his 1903 Hawaiian Antiquities that bets were placed after the men threw their pahee sticks but before they even walked up to confirm whose landed farther. However, he also states that the first man to score ten points won the game. It would be expected in a game with multiple points that everyone would place their bets at the start of the match and the winnings would be handed out at the end of all the rounds, rather than in between the throwing and scoring. As the practice of pahee faded out sometime in the 18th century with only a few eyewitness accounts to preserve its details, this issue will likely remain a mystery.


History

As Hawaii had no written launguage prior to European contact in the 18th century, there is no written history of pahee’s practice in the ancient kingdom. As such, it isn’t feasible to determine at what point in time the sport began to develop. Because the Hawaiian Islands were likely settled in the 4th century AD, the sport could theoretically date to a similar period, though this is speculative. Its history likely runs parallel with ulu maika, as these sports were both played on the same kauha (“place,” the prepared dirt track in this case).

Traditional Hawaiian culture underwent somewhat of an unraveling in the 19th century. This was largely due to increasing influence of Western missionaries who discourage practices that they deemed dangerous, pagan, or otherwise undesirable. As essentially all ancient Hawaiian sports involved gambling (particularly kukini foot races), these games were heavily discouraged. While some of these traditional sports experienced a resurgence in practice later on (such as he’e holua – lava sledding), pahee was among those that was not revived.


Equipment

The pahee itself was a short pole, typically 2 to 4 feet in length, with a thick, rounded front and thin, tapered tail. It was made of Hawaiian hawthorn or kauila wood, the latter of which is very sturdy and so dense that it sinks in water. This pole was polished, probably with coconut oil, like the various boards used for ancient surfing. Another type of carved stick, called moa, was apparently identical to the pahee stick except that it was shorter. Individual pahee and moa sticks could vary slightly in weight and shape; there was no absolute standard that the athlete had to adhere to.


How to Play

The pahee match took place on the same kahua track used for ulu maika (Hawaiian “bowling”); a long course of packed dirt that would help the javelins skid farther. The two competing men would each take up their pahee stick in preparation. How the event unfolded from here is unclear. Most accounts relate that one man would throw his pahee, then the other would throw his, then the two of them would walk down the track to see who threw theirs farther. However, some accounts suggest that the goal was simply to throw the pahee between two poles planted into the ground. It may have been the case that these poles served as some sort of course markers, and that it was understood that the athletes had to keep their throws within bounds. As some accounts of ulu maika mention these poles on the track, it is likely that this is the case.

As mentioned above, Hawaiian historian Davida Malo notes that the athletes repeated this process until one of them scored ten points. As such, pahee games could last between 10 and 19 rounds before it was called to an end, assuming that none of the throws were determined to be a draw.

Bibliography

Malo, D. (1903). Hawaiian antiquities (Moolelo Hawaii). Palala Press.

Handy, E. S. (1965). Ancient Hawaiian civilization: a series of lectures delivered at the Kamehameha schools. Tuttle Publishing.