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Words Of Power
by Veronica S. Schweitzer     

Nani Lim playing an ipu heke (gourd drum) and chanting on the Big Island of Hawaii.

When there is no written language imagine selling property, traveling without any form of identification, or proving who your parents are, all without a paper trail. Imagine, as happened to a high chief in Hawaii long, long ago, that you flee from your island, end up in a shipwreck, and drift onto foreign shores: You would be considered an enemy and your death would be certain. Fortunately, this particular chief remembered his genealogy chant, and the islanders recognized the names of his ancestors. His lineage traced all the way back to the gods, and so his life was spared.

The ancient Hawaiian people kept no written records. Other than the petroglyphs they knew no written language. Yet they lived with a sophisticated hierarchical system of land divisions, a complex classification in ranks from commoner to highest chief, and a detailed genealogy. To keep track of this vital knowledge, any transition that might be of importance, either to others or to future generations, had to be memorized and passed on.

The Oli
To aid with memorizing, a system of verses emerged which over the years developed into an ingenious art form. The verses were known as the "oli", chants. They recorded the history of the land and the lineage of the aristocracy. Authentic records, they were used as proof in times that this was needed. The chants were crucial for the continuation of the political, social. economic, and ecological system of the Hawaiian world. After all, ones position in Hawaii depended on ones rank, and ones rank was determined by blood descent. The genealogy was often the only evidence of ones ancestry. It linked a person to all the ancestors, and through this one could show how much sacredness and royal blood had accumulated.

It worked like this: In ancient Hawaii words and names held power. (They still do, but this knowledge is kept very private.) Each name in a genealogy chant carried the mana (power) of the ancestor. All names were linked by birth. The longer this link of names in the chant, the more mana. The accumulation of power, which was sacred, could lift a person to the ranks of the gods among mortals.

The oli was different from the other two types of chants in Hawaiian culture, although the lines overlap and are flexible. Roughly speaking, the mele generally surrounded the emotional and festive life. With poetry as an outlet for feelings, creativity, and happiness, the mele loved music and dance. The pule, the prayer chant, addressed the gods and the aumakuas. It asked for protection.

The pule was as important as the oli in the preservation of the Hawaiian race, and in the survival of the people. The chants were about pleasing the gods and the ancestors, and about accumulating mana by reciting the words. Therefore, recitation followed strict rules. The oli had prolonged phrases all chanted in one breath, and often a trill (ii) at the end of each phrase would emphasize the words. The utterance of the chant was like a charm. Any mistake­­such as breathing before the end of the phrase, or even the slightest hesitation in pronouncing the long list of complicated names­­ weakened the good fortune and could cause the displeasure of the ancestors and gods. Certain chants required absolute clarity and control of voice.

Only specially trained kahunas (masters) could haku (compose) and memorize the long chants of aristocratic lineage. When attached to the court of a chief, they often chose others to help them with the careful editing work required to achieve the highest possible power in each chosen word. But in families of lesser rank, it was the firstborn child, the hiapo, who was expected from an early age to memorize all the familys knowledge that had to be preserved. The hiapo played less than other children. Study was his or her life. On the childs shoulders lay the responsibility of the familys genealogy.

The power of words
The words of the oli were selected with the greatest care and consideration. Naturally, the finely tuned art of mnemonics facilitated remembering the chants. More important, however, when it came to word choice, was the Hawaiian intuition that both language as a whole and words individually were like veiled images brimming with energy, which could manifest themselves in the physical environment.

Hawaiian language always covered several layers of meaning acting like veils obscuring what shimmered underneath. It was up to the intelligence and sophistication of the listener to interpret the different layers. Only the most initiate could reach into the deepest center, where the spiritual realm of words and chants spoke.

The underlying themes and meanings of chants and words were referred to as the kaona. While many of these words were also used in everyday language, commoners received no education to the deeper layers, unless a person was selected and nurtured by a kahuna. A deep fear existed that the sacred knowledge could disperse and dilute till it lost its meaning. It was protected by the system of kapu (taboo), so that anyone transgressing might face capital punishment.

In the oli, the phrasing of words was allusive, the symbolism complex. Ambiguities stretched deeper than the surface. The sounds themselves carried power in determining the fate of men. With so much power in language, naturally its rendition had to be flawless!

The Kumulipo
Each of the Hawaiian islands held on to its own lineage chants linking its chiefs to the realm of the gods, the origins of humanity, and the ancestry of the Hawaiian people. The most famous lineage chant of all, the one that was preserved and recorded intact, was the great Kumulipo.

The word kumu means source, lipo means deep, profound, intense, and also comes from uli po, dark night. The Kumulipo is most often described as the Hawaiian creation chant composed as a cosmogonic genealogy, unfolding from the beginning of time to the 18th century. Under the surface meaning lie the hidden meanings, the kaona.

At first sight, the Kumulipo appears as a sacred and detailed creation story, describing the actual history of life on earth from its beginning to the birth of the child it was dedicated to. But underneath it linger immediate, political implications determined by the rank of the chiefs named. Some say the Kumulipo might also reflect the stages of the development of a human being, from infancy to adolescence to the rearing of a family. Or the stages passed through while in the spirit world as an embryo in the womb. It is the compilation of the physical and metaphysical worlds.

Date of composition of the Kumulipo is unknown, although said by Queen Liliuokalani to be around 1700, for the son of chief Keawe, Ka-I-i-mamao.

The chant is dedicated to Lono-i-ka-makahiki who is the cosmos described. He, in the chant, is the son of the chief Keawe, and will be the ancestor to Keopuolani, King Kamehamehas most sacred wife, as well as to King Kamehameha himself. Lonos origin begins in the darkness of the night of the Pleiades.

Life appears in the Kumulipo as the result of natural forces, male and female. While perhaps not scientific, it has more parallels to Darwins studies than to the Hebrew interpretations and the biblical sources.

The chant is divided in two parts:

Po­­the darkness and first stirring of life, the cosmic night­­tells of the night world, the birth of sea and land life, of winged life and crawlers. Hawaiian time begins with the darkest night which gives birth to male and female nights. Brother and sister mate to produce the divinity of the universe, which is all life. They give birth to the coral polyp and each creature in its turn gives birth to other creatures, proceeding up the evolutionary chain. Each descendant adds its name, and the mana, the sacred power is thus passed on.

Ao­­the dawn of the day, and the world of human beings­­starts with the eighth chant. It opens with the breaking of light, and the appearance of the first human ancestors, the woman Lailai, the God Kane, Kii the man, and Kanaloa, the "hot-striking octopus".

From there the chant branches out to the numerous names and lines of families. While the genealogy belongs to Lono, with 2102 lines, the entire Kumulipo represents a series of name chants linked into unity by over a 1000 lines consisting of genealogical pairs of names. Legendary and timely allusions weave themselves throughout the text to enhance the glorious reputation of family or individual.

The Kumulipo enhanced the prestige and fortified the political bid for power of the family to which it belonged by using ancient cosmogonic beliefs and linking names to the gods.

The language of the land
While the Kumulipo has been preserved, all chants were, as we have seen, an oral tradition. Only selected individuals memorized the long verses. Not performance-oriented, many of these were secret or only known to the aristocracy. After contact, and an epidemic of western diseases, beginning in 1778, Hawaiians experienced massive depopulation, at least 80% in the first 50 years. By 1891 only 5 % of the population remained.

Then, with American colonialism, the Hawaiian language was banned and virtually disappeared. Hawaiian-language newspapers and literature ceased to exist. Much of what was recorded ended up locked away in universities, musea, or on reels of microfilm inaccessible to the public.

Renewed interest in Hawaiian culture and history has brought some of these records back into life. Yet a more powerful record than these fragmented lines remains. The Hawaiian land itself, the aina, which nourished the ancestors in its soil and stone, which washed away rivalry into the salty oceans, whispers of the true roots of the Hawaiian people. Its what makes the islands special and what makes people proud to live here. In the land the unwritten words of the oli breathe power even today.


"Readers may submit editorial comments to any of our stories by sending an email to les@lbdcoffee.com. We would be happy to attach your comments and feedback to anything we publish online. Thank you for your interest.":

Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.

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