Words Of Power
by Veronica S.
Nani Lim playing an ipu
heke (gourd drum) and chanting on the Big Island
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.
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
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
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
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
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!
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
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
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
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
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