When one speaks of ancient Hawaiian culture, one of the first things to come to mind may be the “Kapu” system. The social order of old Hawaii was defined by very strict societal rules, do’s and don’ts, and the transgressor paid with his or her life. Every crime was a capital offense, steppng onto the chief’s shadow, fishing out of season, were indeed paid for with one’s life. Acquital was possible if he or she could reach a pu’uhonua (place of refuge) and be cleansed as well as exonerarated by a kahuna (priest). The pu’uhonua was especially important in times of war as a refuge for women and children as well as warriors from the defeated side.
The focal point of Hawaiian social order and kapu was the ali’i, or royal class.From this high born group came the ruler-caretakers of the isles. Some ruled well, some did not. Some would only venture out at night so as to lessen the possibilty of their subjects unintentionally breaking various kapu against them. Others did just the opposite, inflicting the kapu system upon the people for no reason.
Kamehameha the Great (1758-1819) is remembered as a very wise and powerful ruler. He was responsible for uniting all of the islands’ into one great kingdom under his leadership. He was also the last to rule under the ancient kapu system. Just months after death, his wife Ka’ahumanu and son Liholiho abolished the old laws forever.
The kahuna were both spiritual counselors as well as political advisors to chiefs such as Kamehameha. Hawaiian tradition speaks of Pa’ao a light-skinned kahuna who came from either Kahiki (Tahiti) or some say Upolo, Samoa. He engineered the overthrow of a very harsh chief named Kamaiole. Pa’ao brought Pili Ka’ai’ea from his homeland to renew the Hawaiian royal class. Pili Ka’ai’ea became the new high chief, it is from him that Kamehameha decended.
Along with introducing the new line of ali’i, Pa’ao also strengthened the awareness of the war god Ku, and probably intiated the practice of human sacrifice, as well created more elaborate heiau’s than were previously known. A kahuna might also be a doctor, craftsman, artist or even a farmer. Specialists in a great many fields were kahuna, as long and disciplined training were required to be kahuna kalai (master carver), kahuna niho (dentist), kahuna ‘upena hana (master fishnet maker).
No books or charts were used to teach the haku mele ula (master of chants & music) but thousands of lines of verse could be chanted. No sextant, compass nor radar were available to kahuna ho’okele, yet by reading flying birds, shape, color and size of clouds, the stars and wave movements guided his canoe or fleet through thousands of miles of open ocean.
Kahuna attributed their creative skills as an inheritance from the ‘amakua (ancestral spirits) and the higher gods. Along with the ali’i and commoners they showed their gratitude by presenting offerengs at shrines and heiau (temple) as well as worshipping before sacred pohaku (stones), and wooden ki’i (images).
Many striking rock formations on Oahu are ancient sites. A number of these are the subject of legends. According to tradition, they represent individuals who were turned to stone, or serve as the dwelling place for a spirit or god.
Pohaku whether the tiny ‘ili’ili or the megalith pali (cliff) boulder was a very large part of ancient Hawaiian religion. Offerings for the local deity were left at pohaku sites. Some stones were used by kahuna in conjunction with spiritual or religious practices, others served as border markers for land division. The pohaku stood in the landscape as a physical reminder of the spiritual threshold.
Some pohaku were known as ko’a (fishing shrines), having been used to locate special fishing grounds. A ku’ula was a smaller stone said to hold a spirit that helped the fisherman. The ku’ula was said to speak to the fisherman in his dreams, directing him to finding the location of the stone itself, and then if well cared for the fisherman would then be rewarded with good fishing and a heathy life. Jagged or pourous stones were considered female, smooth finer grained stones, male. Usually dark stones were male, lighter were female.
“The surf rises at Koolau
Blowing the waves into mist,
Into little drops,
Spray falling along the hidden harbor.
There is my dear husband Ouha,
There is the shaking sea, the running sea of Kou,
The crab-like moving sea of Kou.
Prepare the awa to drink, the crab to eat.
The small konane board is at Hono-kau-pu.
My friend on the highest point of the surf.
This is a good surf for us.
My love has gone away.
Smooth is the floor of Kou,
Fine is the breeze from the mountains.
I wait for you to return,
The games are prepared,
Pa-poko, pa-loa, pa-lele,
Leap away to Tahiti
By the path to Nuumealani (home of the gods)
Will my lover (Ouha) return?
I belong to Hono-kau-pu,
From the top of the tossing surf waves.
The eyes of the day and night are forgotten.
Kou has a large konane board.
This is the day, and to-night
The eyes meet at Kou.”
This chant about the surfrider Mamala was translated from Hawaiian. This is the story…
Kou was a noted place for sports and games of chiefs long ago. East of Kou was a pond with a beautiful grove of coconut trees belonging to the chief, Hono-kau-pu. In this area was the the finest surf waves of old Honolulu, this surf bore the name of Ke-kai-o-Mamala (The sea of Mamala) When the waves were high, it was known as Ka-nuku-o-Mamala (The nose of Mamala).
Mamala was a chiefess of kupua character, meaning that she was a mo-o, or gigantic lizard, as well as a beautiful woman. She was able to assume whichever shape she desired, one of the legends says that she was a shark and a woman, and had for her husband a shark-god, Ouha.
Mamala and Ouha played konane on the large smooth stone at Kou, and drank awa together. Mamala was known as a very skillful wave rider, the people on the beach would respond with applause over her athletic feats.
The chief of Hono-kaupu chose Mamala as his wife, so she left Ouha to live with her husband. Angry, Ouha tried to injure both of them, but was driven away. He fled to Ka-ihi-Kapu where he appeared as a man offering shrimp and fish to the women of the area. The shrimp and fish escaped his basket, and the women ridiculed the god-man. Ouha could not endure the shame of this, and casted off his human form becoming the great shark god of Waikiki.
I would like to note that if a chant was said wrong or sung off key, this too was a capital offense.
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