A humble, sacred plant, that silently speaks volumes, hides deep within the jungles of Kaua‘i. For centuries, leis made from the shiny fragrant leaves of maile (alyxia oliviformis) have been used to communicate love, respect, blessing, enduring devotion, reverence, friendship, and a desire for peace. Maile is an indigenous vine or shrub found in wet forests throughout the Hawaiian Islands. The dark green leaves can be easily overlooked by the uninitiated. To create a lei the stems are stripped of bark, which unleashes maile’s fresh, unmistakable scent, and tied into loose open knots. Maile is usually worn as an open-ended lei draped loosely around the shoulders. Possibly the oldest, and certainly one of the most popular leis, the maile lei is steeped in history and tradition. Known as “The Royal Lei” because it was prized by ali‘i (Hawaiian royalty) and often given to denote honor and respect, maile leis were used by people of all classes for many different occasions.
Maile is associated with Laka, the goddess of hula. It was, and still is, ceremoniously placed on Laka’s altar in hula heiaus (temples). Many ancient chants celebrate its fragrant beauty. Some old-timers will tell you that you can still smell the scent of maile where Laka heiaus once stood. The maile lei is also a symbol of courtship and love. In ancient times a woman would deposit one on the doorstep of the man she hoped to marry, boldly announcing her intentions to her beloved and the entire village. During wedding ceremonies, the kapuna (priest) would bind the hands of the bride and groom together with a strand of maile to symbolize their commitment and union.
Maile was employed as a peace offering in times of battle. When peace was desired, warring chiefs would meet in a heiau to resolve their differences. There they would work together to weave a lei of maile. When the lei was completed, peace was officially established.
The maile lei’s popularity endures. Boys often wear one to their prom, and it is a favorite graduation gift. Grooms adorn themselves and their groomsmen in maile leis, and the hand-binding ceremony is still popular at weddings. They are generously given as signs of friendship, and it is customary for the recipient to join the open ends to symbolize the love that weaves the friends together. When dancing hula, performers continue to wear maile in honor of their goddess, and these leis are never given away. They are reserved for Laka. Untying a maile lei, in the Hawaiian version of a ribbon-cutting ceremony, commemorates the opening of new buildings, roads, and businesses.
There are no hard and fast rules about where and when to wear a lei. They are used to mark important life events but can be worn anytime, just because. Since it is given in the spirit of love and generosity, it is considered rude to refuse a lei. When you are finished with your lei, you should return to the earth, ideally in the spot it was collected. Otherwise, it can be hung from a tree or buried. Regardless of who gave it, a lei is also a gift from the ʻāina (land).
Beautiful to look at and heavenly to smell, the maile lei embodies the spirit of Aloha. Perhaps the next time you wish to express love, respect, or the desire for peace, you can let the gift of a time-honored maile lei convey more than mere words ever could.
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