So… I guess it’s time to learn about native Hawaiian mythology, huh?
We’re on the home stretch of seventh-generation Pokémon now, and today we’re talking about the four guardian deities of the Alolan islands: Tapu Koko, Tapu Lele, Tapu Bulu and Tapu Fini. These four are deeply woven into Alolan culture and identity, and they have a special relationship with the Alolan trial system and its administrators, the four Island Kahunas. They’re also the pièce de résistance of generation VII’s unprecedented level of interest in taking inspiration from the culture, ecology and history of the real-world region its setting is based on.
The word Tapu in the names of these Pokémon (Kapu in their Japanese names) refers to a Hawaiian word kapu, which is sort of untranslatable but approximately means “sacred.” For any fellow New Zealanders in the audience, this is basically analogous to the Māori concept of tapu; in some parts of Polynesia the word is tabu, the origin of the English word “taboo.” Kapu is a quality possessed by gods and spirits, but also by people, particularly high-ranking people like priests and chieftains. The word also refers to the rules and restrictions that govern interactions with the sacred. Things that are kapu are not to be messed with – they must be approached in specific ways, through the observance of specific rituals that are woven into the fabric of social order. Failure to observe kapu can bring divine displeasure not only upon yourself, but potentially upon your entire community. Navigating a relationship with a deity is a minefield of requirements and prohibitions, and understanding their inscrutable will is best left to professionals. The old gods of Hawai‘i are often beneficent, and their work preserves the balance of nature, but they are not all-loving or all-forgiving: they can be offended, and when offended, they can seem vindictive and capricious. The four Tapu, as we’ll see, are much the same. Arguably, you can see their shared signature move, Nature’s Madness, as an expression of this. It cannot be resisted and its damage cannot be mitigated, always cutting the target’s HP in half, sweeping Pokémon aside like a force of nature, but it’s also “fair” in its way, and usually cannot knock a Pokémon out: the Tapu will always give you a chance. The intermediaries between Alola’s primal guardian deities and the “civilised” world of humans are given the title Kahuna – taken from the Hawaiian word for a priest (technically, anyone with great wisdom in any field can be called a kahuna, but the term tends to refer to religious leaders unless another area of expertise is specified). Pokémon trainers in general have a special role as people who understand, and can solve, Pokémon-related problems, and Pokémon stories often portray this problem-solving as a mediation between civilisation and nature – a balancing act. The Alolan Kahunas are the same, but more so, because they deal with Pokémon who hold a lot more actual power than most, and have come to expect a certain religious cast to their relationship with humanity.
Traditional Hawaiian religion is tricky to study. Information from before the unification of the islands by Kamehameha the Great (r. 1782-1819) is fairly scarce, and the different islands of the archipelago probably didn’t have a single unified religious tradition in ancient times. However, it is generally thought that ancient Hawaiian polytheism recognised four major gods as the principle guardians of nature: Kāne, Kū, Lono and Kanaloa. Equivalents of all four can be found in cultures throughout Polynesia (for instance, they correspond roughly to the Māori atua Tāne, Tū, Rongo and Tangaroa), and they are probably versions of ancestral deities worshipped during the settlement of central Polynesia over 900 years ago. Not every region has all of them (e.g. there is no Kāne/Tāne in Samoa or Tonga) and some regions have additional gods of similar rank that don’t exist in Hawai‘i (such as Haumia, the Māori god of wild-growing foods); the set of exactly four is more or less specific to Hawai‘i. It makes sense to view the four Tapu of Alola as counterparts to these deities, as they have a similar set of four roles – and let’s note, also, that four is an unusual number in the first place; legendary Pokémon usually come in threes. This interpretation is not my own, and I couldn’t tell you who thought of it first; I’m just here to evaluate how well I think it works – so first, some significant discrepancies.
Unlike the four Tapu, these gods are not tied to specific islands; each of the four was worshipped throughout Hawaii, and indeed beyond. While we’re here, though, notice that the four Tapu, like the forms of Oricorio, use the emblem colours of their respective islands: yellow, pink, red and purple. All four gods are male; although the Tapu are, like most legendary Pokémon, beyond gender, Tapu Lele and Tapu Fini could certainly be described as female-presenting. Try as I might, I also cannot find a good set of relationships between the Hawaiian gods and the specific animals that the four Tapu also seem to be based on, as evidenced by both their names and their physical designs (especially when their tiki mask “shells” are closed) – rooster, butterfly, bull and fish. In traditional Hawaiian religion, the kino lau – the many forms – of the four principle deities make up all nature, not just the specific animals regarded as totemic, so there aren’t really “canonical” versions of what each of the four great gods looks like. For that reason, I don’t know that this is a huge strike against the interpretation we’re working with, and there is some independent logic to each of the chosen forms, in any case. But here’s the part that does work really well: each of the four Tapu has a particular area of responsibility, as described in the names of the four sets of ruins where they live – conflict, life, abundance and hope (in English, anyway; see below) – and these match fairly closely with standard interpretations of the roles of the four major Hawaiian gods. Like ancient deities, the Tapu are not beholden to fulfilling these roles in exactly the ways that we, as humans, might like them to, which can make them unpredictable and dangerous.
So, what do we find behind god number one?
Tapu Lele, the Tapu of Life, is usually thought to correspond to Kāne, who is often considered the supreme deity. In Hawai‘i and elsewhere in Polynesia he is the creator of humankind, and he is typically associated with the sky, the sun and rain, life, procreation and often vegetation (his counterpart in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Tāne, is the father of the birds and the forest). In its capacity as the guardian of all life, Tapu Lele heals injured wild Pokémon that come to it, using the magical power of its shining scales. However, it is also fickle and cruel. The anime implies that it doesn’t fully understand its own power, and can beat other Pokémon to within an inch of their lives while thinking that it’s engaging in a friendly battle; we see it do this to Ash’s Rockruff, laughing the entire time. When Gladion’s midnight Lycanroc and Olivia’s midday Lycanroc bring Rockruff back to Tapu Lele to ask for healing, it seems offended and attacks them, but eventually does heal Rockruff, apparently because it’s impressed by their fighting spirit. It’s an unpredictable Pokémon, as likely to punish you as to help you. The Sun and Moon website also suggests that overexposure to Tapu Lele’s healing scales can be somehow harmful, although it doesn’t get into the details. In a pattern that more or less holds for the others in the group, Tapu Lele, the Tapu of Life, seemingly contradicts its own divine role by making its home, at least in the games, in a huge graveyard, surrounded by reminders of life’s transience and the inevitability of death (maybe there’s a double meaning here to “Ruins” of Life). Like the others, it cares about the balance of nature: new life begins, old life dies. It doesn’t care about maintaining that balance in a way that caters to the needs of humans, or even necessarily to Pokémon.
The name “(Ta)pu Lele” is conceivably in reference to the Hawaiian word pulelehua, the brilliant red kamehameha butterfly. This one is… pretty hard to see, but Tapu Lele does seem to have butterfly wings, and it scatters glittering scales like other butterfly Pokémon; other versions of its name, like the Japanese “Kapu Tetefu,” are also believably references to butterflies. It’s possible we should interpret its body as looking like a sort of cocoon. Butterflies aren’t, to my knowledge, a traditional Hawaiian totem animal, or a notable form of Kāne, but they do have a long history as symbols of rebirth, making them an appropriate form for a guardian of life.
Each of the four Tapu has a unique ability that automatically generates one of the terrain effects introduced in generation VI, in the same way as abilities like Drizzle automatically generate weather effects (remember: terrain effects overwrite each other, but overlap with weather, and do not provide any benefits to Pokémon in the air). The fact that the Tapu have this unique ability to command the land is symbolic of their special role as the guardians of Alola itself, the four islands and their ecosystems. Tapu Lele’s Psychic Surge creates Psychic Terrain (this is actually the only one introduced in generation VII, presumably specifically to accommodate the Psychic-type Tapu Lele). The effects of Psychic Terrain don’t have much to do with Tapu Lele’s role as guardian of life – it boosts Psychic-type attacks and blocks priority moves. It is interesting, though, that it’s the only terrain effect which can be created by something other than the appropriate Terrain move or Surge ability: you can also set it up using Mew’s unique Z-move, the Genesis Supernova, which represents Mew’s supposed role as the origin of all life in the Pokémon world (Pokémon sort of goes back and forth on which element is most closely linked with “life force” as an abstract concept; sometimes it’s Dragon, sometimes it’s Fairy, here it seems to be Psychic).
Tapu Koko, the Tapu of Conflict, picks out both the player (in the games) and Ash (in the anime) as a special trainer worthy of its personal attention and blessing, presumably because of their great potential to win glory in Pokémon battles. This Pokémon is probably meant to represent our second deity, Kū, typically referred to as the god of war. There’s a bit more to him than that; like Kāne and Lono, he can also be associated with farming, fertility and nature. However, he’s best known today as the fierce Kū-ka‘ilimoku, “Kū the Snatcher of Land,” the aspect in which he was worshipped by Kamehameha the Great and brought about the unification of Hawai‘i. It’s a commonly repeated piece of trivia that Kū is the only god whose worship regularly required human sacrifice (to the best of my knowledge, human sacrifice, typically of high-ranking prisoners of war, was a real thing in ancient Hawai‘i, though the idea that it was specific to the worship of Kū is something I haven’t been able to source as confidently as I’d like). All four Tapu are interested in battles and competition, and in the anime they all appear to witness Ash’s Grand Trials on their respective islands, but Tapu Koko is the one who develops a special relationship with the player in the games and encourages us, in its own mysterious way, to take the Island Challenge. It’s even tempting to see this as an allusion to Kū’s patronage of Kamehameha, who united the islands: the player, as the chosen of Tapu Koko, is likewise supposed to travel to all the islands of Alola and symbolically “conquer” each one, ultimately becoming the first Champion of all Alola. Tapu Koko lives in the Ruins of Conflict – high up the tallest mountain on Melemele Island, isolated from conflict, and actually inaccessible for most of the game, despite being a stone’s throw from our starting location. Nonetheless, Tapu Koko loves to observe battles, favours those who seek out conflict, and is also described as an intensely curious Pokémon, making it the most likely of the four to appear to people it finds interesting. Attracting the interest of a deity of conflict can, of course, be pretty dangerous, and of all the Tapu it is supposedly the quickest to anger.
“Koko,” or “Kokeko” in Japanese, is probably onomatopoeic of a rooster’s crow (you can hear this quite clearly when Tapu Koko shows up in the anime). Roosters are famously competitive, so it makes sense for Pokémon’s deity of conflict to be represented as a rooster. There are also a few feathered idols knocking around various museums that are thought to represent Kū-ka‘ilimoku, but this is probably not because Kū was always depicted as feathered or birdlike. To me, a more likely explanation is that feathered idols were one of the most demanding and therefore prestigious forms of traditional Hawaiian art, and a disproportionate number of the ones in museums originally fell into European hands during the time of Kamehameha – and Kū was Kamehameha’s patron god, so of course his idols were the best. I can believe, though, that a Game Freak designer might have Googled Kū, seen a bunch of feathered idols, and decided to roll with it.
Tapu Koko’s terrain ability is Electric Surge. On Electric terrain, as well as having the power of their Electric attacks increased, Pokémon cannot fall asleep (which also means they cannot use Rest). This makes a lot of sense for a Pokémon devoted to conflict: no rest, no peace; you fight until you’re finished. Electricity is a violent and dynamic element like Fire, associated with bolts of lightning, storms, and often with speed, making Tapu Koko stick out as the most active and quickest to anger of the four Tapu.
For the origins of Tapu Bulu, the Tapu of Abundance, who has power over all vegetation, we can go to the third of the great Hawaiian deities: Lono, the god of peace, cultivation and healing, who is sometimes also the messenger of Kāne. He is known as the creator of the sweet potato, a staple crop throughout Polynesia, and his priesthood enforced a four-month ban on all warfare throughout the Hawaiian archipelago during the harvest season in order to prevent crops from being destroyed or left to rot in the fields. Tapu Bulu has something of a reputation for laziness, or at least passivity. One of the great mysteries of Alola is how a lazy piece of $#!t like Nanu ever became a Kahuna. After watching Tapu Bulu’s episode, I’m pretty sure it’s because Tapu Bulu is also a lazy piece of $#!t. It empathises with his desire to do nothing and speak to no-one, ever, but like him it’s also kind of a jerk, so it made him a Kahuna out of a sort of vindictive sense of humour, and messes with him at every chance it gets – for instance, tossing a Sitrus Berry to Ash’s Lycanroc during his Grand Trial. Tapu Bulu’s home, the Ruins of Abundance, are in the middle of a barren desert. We could see this as commentary of sorts: humans consider the Haina Desert a wasteland, devoid of abundance, but Tapu Bulu knows better, as do the many Pokémon that live and thrive there. Then again, in the anime, Tapu Bulu actually has a little oasis on a plateau, apparently kept lush and green by its power, so it can apparently appreciate greener scenery as well. Despite its indolence, Tapu Bulu is the only one of the four whose wrath we’ve seen direct evidence of, in the form of the devastation it caused to the settlement on the south coast of Ula’ula Island, apparently leaving the area stricken with poverty (so it’s happy to deny abundance to those who displease it).
“Bulu” is… well, literally “bull,” and you can see that influence in Tapu Bulu’s horns, nose ring, and cowbell tail. Cattle are certainly not totemic animals; they didn’t even exist in Hawai‘i until they were introduced by Europeans at the end of the 18th century (after which they quickly turned feral). A bull makes sense as a representation of a god associated with farming and vegetation, because of the role of bulls and oxen in traditional agriculture throughout Eurasia and Africa, but it’s a curious choice in the Hawaiian setting, since Tapu Bulu is a guardian of the balance of nature, and cattle in Hawai‘i have mostly disrupted that balance. It could just be an oversight, but we could also view it as a symbol of the successful integration of Pokémon from other regions into the Alolan ecosystem, in contrast to the damage caused by invasive species in the real world (in particular, consider the importance of Tauros in Aloan life as ride Pokémon).
Tapu Bulu gets the terrain ability Grassy Surge. With Grassy Terrain in effect, as well as Grass attacks becoming more powerful, Pokémon on the ground are healed by a small amount every turn, and take half the normal damage from Bulldoze, Magnitude and Earthquake. Healing is one of the associations Lono often has, and it more or less fits with the idea of earthly abundance, and the bounty provided by nature. You could even claim that the weakening of certain Ground-type attacks reflects the way Tapu Bulu “tames the earth” as a deity of agriculture, causing the ground to give life where it might otherwise bring destruction.
Finally, we come to Tapu Fini, the Tapu of Hope, whose powers are said to come from ocean currents. Obviously the Water-type goes with the ocean god Kanaloa, who is associated primarily with the deep ocean, fishing and sailing, but also sometimes with death and the underworld. He may once have been considered the equal and opposite of Kāne, but seems to have become less important by the historical period (when Kāne, Kū and Lono were often worshipped as a trinity, possibly due to Christian influence). So if that’s what we’re working with, then why is Tapu Fini the Tapu of Hope? Well, it’s arguably a mistranslation. The ruins where Tapu Fini lives are known in Japanese as the higan no iseki (彼岸の遺跡, “ruins of Higan”), a name which references the Japanese Buddhist belief in a river dividing life from death; there isn’t really a straightforward literal translation, but Bulbapedia offers “Ruins of the Other Side,” and we see something similar in the official French translation Ruines de l’Au-Delà (“Ruins of the Beyond”). Once we know that, we can easily see Tapu Fini as a representation of Kanaloa in his dual roles as ocean deity and underworld deity. Tapu Fini is less fickle and vindictive than the other three Tapu, but is very aloof; according to the Sun and Moon website, it is often disgusted by people, and uninterested in appearing before humans. When it does encounter people, it tests them by trapping them in a disorienting mist, which “leads them to destroy themselves.” In the anime, Tapu Fini’s mist blurs the boundaries between life and death, making the spirits of the dead appear to those still alive, or trapping the living in the next world. Hapu warns Ash and his classmates that Tapu Fini’s power can be enticing, because it gives you a chance to see and talk to loved ones who have passed on, but can also lure you into the afterlife, never to return. While the kids are on Poni Island, Ash and Kiawe enrage Tapu Fini by damaging the Ruins of Hope in a training battle, and it traps Ash inside a magical veil of water, threatening to imprison him forever unless Kiawe completes a quest for it. In the next episode, though, they also experience Tapu Fini’s more positive side. Mallow gets closure from a chance to talk to her mother, who died when she was young; Ash’s Torracat sees the kind old Stoutland who raised it, and gets to learn Fire Blast by training with it; and Gladion and Lillie… don’t see their father, proving that he must still be alive.
“Fini” as “fin” and therefore “fish” is a bit more of a stretch to me than the other name origins, but I can believe the suggestion that “Fini” was a good choice because it also works as a play on “final,” referring to Tapu Fini’s association with the afterlife. Several types of fish and sharks in Hawai‘i are ‘aumakua (family totem animals), although I don’t think marlins, which is what Tapu Fini with its shell closed looks like to me, are one of them. In any case, all ocean creatures are, in principle, the children of Kanaloa, so this fits.
Unlike the other three Tapu, Tapu Fini gets a terrain ability associated with the type they all share, Fairy, rather than with its own individual type, Water. Misty Surge creates Misty Terrain, which is actually the only terrain effect that doesn’t grant an offensive bonus (instead of strengthening Fairy attacks, it weakens Dragon attacks). It prevents Pokémon from being afflicted with any major status ailments (burns, poison, etc.) or, as of generation VII, confusion. I don’t think the actual effects of Misty Terrain particularly line up with anything in Tapu Fini’s personality or role, but as we’ve seen, its ability to create mist is a core element of its flavour and closely tied to its role as a guardian of the afterlife.
The common theme with all four of the Tapu is that, although they are revered protectors of the land who bless its people and provide for them, they are also extremely dangerous when they are not treated with the proper respect (and occasionally even then). Pokémon that were once worshipped as gods are not a wholly new thing: the Kimono Girls of Ecruteak City seem to preserve an ancient cult of Lugia and Ho-oh, the Draconids in Hoenn treated Rayquaza as a tutelary deity, Arceus was regarded as the creator of the universe by the ancient Sinnohans, and the Unovan legends of Reshiram and Zekrom treat them as at least godlike. The Tapu are a new thing, though, in that they present us with a living society that continues to treat them as divine beings right now (arguably with some justification, given their apparent immortality and their role in fighting off the Ultra Beasts), meaning that we actually get to see that ongoing relationship in the games and in the TV show. The people of Alola have to continue to consciously pay respect to these beings that are seen as the living embodiments of nature, and take account of their wishes in developing or expanding their communities. The responsibility of humans to maintain that balance and show respect for nature is one of Pokémon’s core themes. Normally, it shows humans using advanced technology to overcome environmental challenges (Galar, a region based on Great Britain, the crucible of the industrial revolution, will probably be a return to form here), but Alola has something different – a mystical approach, mediated through Pokémon trainers who are chosen by representatives of the wild Pokémon themselves. The Trial system is an inevitable consequence, a rite of passage for young trainers that brings them face to face with the wilderness and demands that they earn the respect not just of their peers, but of nature itself. Like the real Hawai‘i, Alola has been brought into the modern, international world, and is now faced with a new balancing act: preserving its traditions and its relationship with the natural environment, while also modernising and taking the best of what other regions have to offer.
This is what I mean when I say that I love generation VII’s worldbuilding, and this is why I love Tapu Koko, Tapu Lele, Tapu Bulu and Tapu Fini.