Hawaiian Moon Calendar

In its wax and wane, Hawaiians of old found the secrets to sustainable living.

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muku
Muku, the new moon, is named for a traditional Hawaiian measurement: the distance from the fingertips of one hand to the opposite elbow when both arms are extended. Bananas planted this evening will bear a stalk of fruit one muku long—approximately four feet.

When I asked her which kahuna had decided this was so, she said wistfully, “That would be me.” Then, after a pause: “As more scholars come and debate me, that would be cool.”

For someone who spends her days wrangling with esoteric cosmology, Kalei Tsuha is remarkably down-to-earth. Her diction alternates seamlessly between soft-spoken scholarship and good-natured local-girl humor. For example, when she gets to the point of explaining that the Hawaiian calendar computes the movements not only of the sun and the moon but also of the constellations and stars, she interrupts herself to say, “That puts us right up there with the Mayans and the Aztecs. But you know what they say: ‘If you’re going to go, go hard, or go home!’”

Kalei is now writing a book on kaulana mahina, to be published next year by the Edith Kanaka‘ole Foundation. When that book appears, we will all be able to get hold of the most important quality of this calendar system—its radical usefulness.

The names and notations of the system are not mere historical oddities. They are instructions. They tell us when to plant and when to stay out of the garden, when to harvest medicinal plants, and when to cease fishing certain species that have entered a breeding cycle. Stop now. Cut back your plants now. Listen for thunder on the mountain now.

The names themselves predict the effects of the moon’s tidal tugging on sea and plant life. And they state which days are sacred (kapu) to which of the major deities. In this way the calendar is tied directly not to a certain religion but to a tried-and-true regulatory system that kept human beings thriving in these islands for centuries without deliveries of cargo from overseas.

A lot of practical wisdom was lost when the kapu system crashed following the death of Kamehameha. Not all of it is worth reviving, I suppose. But I’d like to think that the day will come when a solid understanding of the Hawaiian moon calendar will be prerequisite for any legitimate candidate for State legislature.

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