Triton shell trumpets were used in Italy as long ago as 5150 BC. “Blowing shells” are called Shanka in India, Dung-dkar in Tibet, Quiquizoani in Mayan culture, Nagak in Korea, and Horagai in Japan. (Tarleton)
Conch is a common name of a number of different medium-to-large-sized gastropods (sea snails). The pū is a Hawaiian conch shell; most in Hawai‘i are from the Triton’s Trumpet and the Helmet Shell. (Tarleton)
The Pū was used to accompany chants, to announce the beginning of a ceremony, and to communicate across the ocean between people in canoes and those on land. The blowing of the Pū should always be accompanied by protocol.
When it’s blown, how many times and in which directions all have a complex set of meanings. Traditionally, the Pū was not blown at night; it was thought that doing so would be a call to spirits of the night and darkness. (Hoewa‘a)
We first learn of conch shell use in Hawai‘i in a February 1779 entry in Cook’s Journal. Initially, Cook “had been received with honour and various rites which he had failed to understand as identifying his arrival as that predicted for Lono, a local deity.”
“Having then left Hawaii he was forced back by storm and a broken mast – a return which caused confusion among the Hawaiians as not conforming to their understanding of the situation.”
The Journal notes, “During the whole morning, we heard conchs blowing in different parts of the coast; large parties were seen marching over the hills …”
“… and, in short, appearances were so alarming, that we carried out a stream anchor, to enable us to haul the ship abreast of the town, in case of an attack; and stationed boats off the north point of the bay, to prevent a surprise from that quarter. …”
Pukui provides insight on a conch story that happened a few centuries prior, “In the days when Kiha was chief of Waipi‘o life in that valley was made miserable by the sounding of the menehune pū. Above the cliff-walled valley was [menehune] land ,where the little people lived their lives with small concern for the Hawaiians below.”
“Our night was day for them and it was then they blew upon their pū, or conch-shell trumpet. Down into the valley came the clear sound of the pū to be tossed back and forth by echoing cliffs till all Waipi’o was filled with sound. Dogs woke and barked, babies cried and there was little sleep to be had the whole night through.”
“Kiha, the chief, offered a reward to any man who would steal the pū and bring it to him. … [Kiha approached a dog owner and] A sudden thought came to Kiha.”
“‘Do you think,’ he asked the old man, ‘that your dog [Puapua] could get something for me? Each night the menehune blow their conch-shell trumpet. There is no sleep for me! No sleep for all Waipi‘o! Do you think your dog can get that pu?’” The dog then went to retrieve the pū.
“It was a big yellow dog who loosened the conch-shell trumpet, got it firmly in his mouth and stole out of the village onto the trail. Then he ran! But, as he ran swiftly, the wind blew through the conch with a low whistling. That sound woke the menehune. Their pū! Their pū was gone!”
“[T]he big dog scrambled from the river and dropped the pū at Kiha’s feet. Eagerly the chief picked it up. He had it! No more sleepless nights!”
“Kiha kept the pū. With it he sent messages or summoned workers. From that time it bore his name – the Kihapū.” (Pukui)
Kalākaua has a somewhat different take on Kihapū; he noted, “Many legends are related of the manner in which Kiha became
possessed of this marvellous shell …”
“… but the most probable explanation is that it was brought from some one of the Samoan or Society Islands three or four centuries before, and had been retained in the reigning family of Hawaii as a charm against certain evils.”
“In the hands of the crafty Kiha, however, it developed new powers and became an object of awe in the royal household. Whatever may have been the beneficent or diabolic virtues of this shell-clarion of Kiha-of the Kiha-pu, as it is called”.
In Kalakaua’s version, Kiha-pū was stolen from Kiha and he asked a man to have his dog retrieve it; “In a marshy forest in the mountains back of Waipio a band of conjuring outlaws have lately found a retreat.”
“A magic shell of great power, stolen from me many years ago, is now in the possession of some one of them-probably of Ika, their chief.” The dog retrieved it for Kiha.
“The overjoyed king raised and placed the trumpet to his lips, and with a swelling heart roused the people of Waipio with a blast such as they had not heard for more than eight years.” (Kalakaua) Kahipū is at the Bishop Museum.