POSTED: 29 FEBRUARY 2004 - 5:30pm HST

A game with a rich tradition

image above: "Hanapepe Swinging Bridge" string figure by Juan Wilson. Vidwo by Earl Stokes

String figures tell a story

Last year, I attended a delightful presentation at Hanapepe Public Library. Our friends Lois and Earl Stokes presented Hawaiian String Figures. The familiar Cat’s Cradle is an example of one type of string figure. Lois and Earl captivated the audience at the library, which ranged from young children to old folks. They use colorful rainbow strings to form the figures, which they distribute to the audience so that everyone can learn to make a few figures. This activity had everyone engaged, as even a young child can learn to make some simple figures.

Lois has made an art of manipulating the colorful rainbow strings, as she chants the Hawaiian songs which accompany the string figures. It is a beautiful, spiritual and educational experience to watch her presentation. Earl provides a nice balance with some comic relief, and he is very popular with the children.

String figures are found in many traditions throughout the world. Lois and Earl have worked for several years researching Polynesian String Figures. They spent countless hours deciphering unillustrated written descriptions of how to form the figures. The Hawaiian string figures are generally done individually, rather two people passing the strings back and forth as in Cat’s Cradle.

They have also found and learned Hawaiian chants and songs which accompany the figures. The songs and chants tell stories, much like the hula does. They are another means of carrying on the oral tradition of the Hawaiian people. The figures are a vehicle for teaching legends and lore, and make learning easier and more fun.

The Hawaiian word for a string figure is “hei”, which means to snare. Lois and Earl have discovered over a hundred Hawaiian figures. Some have different names from different locations. One example is “hula Lumahai” (Lumahai swimming path), which is also called “kai o Lehai” (sea of Lehai), “waawaa iki” (little fool), “waiwai e” (rich man), or “waa liilii (little canoe). Another example is called “koko o Makalii (Calabash Net of Makalii) in Kona, but “papio-maka-nui” (papio fish with big eyes) on the other islands. My favorite is "honu", which forms a turtle.

Lois and Earl also teach how to form a bracelet out of the rainbow string, which they call a bracelet of rainbow blessings. It can be worn on the wrist, then taken off to make string figures. Lois and Earl always wear a rainbow string or two around their neck or on their wrist, and are always ready to teach and share their gift.

Lois and Earl believe that string figures are more than just child’s play. The strings have many layers of meaning; a literal meaning, a figurative meaning, a historical or legendary reference, a sexual meaning and a hidden meaning. String figures can be a tool of the shaman, used for influencing relationships, restoring harmony, and healing. The strings can connect one to the spirit of Aloha, connecting with the mana or Divine Power within and opening one to the flow of increased blessings.

You will find Lois and Earl at many festivals and craft fairs throughout Kauai, and also at the Farmer’s Market in Hanalei on Saturday mornings. Stop by and enjoy!

A Hawaiian string figure silhouetted against the setting sun

Editor’s Note:
Lois and Earl Stokes are members of Aloha International, a non-profit, worldwide network of peacemakers and dedicated to the practice and promotion of the Aloha Spirit.

They can be reached at:
More information, strings, other materials and books can be found at: