Over the course of roughly a month, the part of the Moon that is illuminated goes through a regular cycle of phases. Starting from dark new moon phase, the Moon gradually brightens, or waxes, through waxing crescent, first quarter, waxing gibbous and finally to a bright full moon phase 14 days later. The Moon then dims, or wanes, over the next 14 days, going through waning gibbous, third quarter, waning crescent and finally dark new moon again. This cycle is due to the relative orientation of the Sun, Moon and Earth, and the dark portions of the Moon are always caused by its own shadow shielding the Sun’s rays. New moon phase happens when the Sun, the Moon and the Earth are in a line, so that the far side of the Moon we can’t see is lit up. Full moon phase happens when the Sun, the Earth and the Moon are in a line, so we see the sunlit side of the Moon. The other phases occur in between these two alignments, which are also called syzygy.
The earliest astronomers may have been women, who discovered that the cycle of the Moon was synchronized with their menstrual cycle. Having an external cue for this internal cycle would have allowed women to time the birth of their children and perhaps help regulate the population of their tribe or clan in an environment with limited resources.
When locals on Maui got wind of the plans, many were deeply offended. For centuries the mountaintop has been seen as sacred to the Ali’i or Hawaiian chief royalty, and it is believed today to be an ancient burial ground for the Ali’i and their families. Astronomers argue that studying the Sun is the most appropriate scientific activity to conduct on the top of Haleakala, whose name means “House of the Sun,” and that such research would honor ancient Hawaiian beliefs.
Those who oppose the project have formed a group called Kila Kila o Haleakala or “majestic is the house of the sun.” Some locals are willing to compromise, suggesting that the telescope be constructed differently (possibly with fewer stories, or of a different color), but engineers argue that current building plans are necessary for a telescope of such ability.
Ancient Hawaiian legends state that Maui, one of the many demigods of Hawaii, once threw a magical fishhook, (Manai-a-Kalani or “fishhook from the Heavens”) into the Pacific Ocean to pull out the other Hawaiian islands. Maui had received this sacred fishhook from his father Akalana and was sent off in a canoe with his brothers to catch the giant ulua fish named Pimoe. This was a hard task, because if one were to look at Pimoe, the fish would die instantly and turn into solid land. Maui dropped his fishhook into the ocean and Pimoe grabbed a hold of it. Struggling to keep a hold of the line, Maui’s brothers turned around and the line snapped. Pimoe died and turned into hard land. Maui pulled the great hook out from the land and threw it up into the sky, where it became the constellation known as Maui’s fishhook. It still hangs there today, known to many as Scorpius.
Hawaiians were natural astronomers, studying their skies very carefully. They used their knowledge of the sky to navigate to the islands, to know when to fish, and to manifest their spirituality. They even had a name for each night of the moon’s phases. That’s 29 names! To learn more about Ancient Hawaiian astronomy from Harriet Witt herself, click here.