Into the Source

Hawai'i's creation chant weaves together threads of ancient Hawaiian thought--heady science, deep spiritualism, and tantalizing innuendo.



To unravel the next layer of the chant, I sought Kaleikoa Ka‘eo’s assistance. The Maui Community College Hawaiian studies professor clued me in: several translations exist, and they vary dramatically.

Kalakaua, Hawai‘i’s last king, published the Kumulipo in 1889 to fortify his claim to the throne during uncertain political times. He’d inherited the sixteen-chapter epic, composed at least two centuries prior for an ancestor of his. It traced his family history back through generations of highborn chiefs to the universe’s very origins. When the royal chant hit the newsstands, “There was an uproar among many of the kahuna [priestly] families,” says Ke‘ao. “It wasn’t meant for the masses. It was sacred.”

Hawaiians considered such genealogies to be of great value, capable of bestowing power on their owners. Reportedly, when Bastian sought help with translating the chant into German, his Hawaiian acquaintance replied, “Would you rob me of my only treasure?”

Nevertheless, the chant was shared. Several Hawaiian writers, including the prolific journalist Joseph Poepoe, composed interpretations. Queen Liliuokalani translated her brother Kalakaua’s manuscript into English while imprisoned during the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. Polynesian folklorist Martha Beckwith created the version most widely known today in 1951.

Each interpretation is unique. As Mederios mentioned, the archaic language presents interpreters with a puzzle, as does the original manuscript’s lack of okina and kahako punctuation marks, which can transform a word’s meaning with a single stroke. A more significant variable, however, is the Hawaiians’ fondness for metaphor.

Embedded within in the chant’s lines are hidden meanings, or kaona, at which the ancients excelled. Like Shakespearean drama, the Kumulipo weaves together astute political commentary and bawdy humor. Sexual references—men with ripe gourds and women who “sit sideways,” a euphemism for taking more than one lover—are rife throughout the chant. The constant word play renders a “true” translation difficult.

“In Western literature there’s the idea that there’s one true copy. In Hawaiian culture it’s a little different,” says Ka‘eo. “It’s not meant to be solid, but a fluid work that’s always in progress. That’s part of the beauty. The more layers one included, that was considered to be the art.”

After a little detective work, Johnson’s students discovered that the places lined up on a map, says Ka‘eo.

Ka‘eo studied under Rubellite Kawena Johnson, the revered  scholar, archeo-astronomer, and author of the most recent Kumulipo translation. He describes learning to detect a chant’s hidden meanings in one of Johnson’s classes: “‘First off,’ she said, ‘don’t use the haole mindset. What do you see in the chant? Place names. Where are they?’”

After a little detective work, Johnson’s students discovered that the places lined up on a map, says Ka‘eo. Place names, star groups, and other navigational clues thread through the Kumulipo. Numerology also plays a part: fours and eights repeat throughout the text. Species might be mentioned for their symbolism, rather than their scientific relevance.

“I’ll give you a kaona,” says Ka‘eo. I listen attentively, as I would to someone bestowing me with a gift. “At the very end of the seventh chapter, it describes the bat. Bats come out at twilight, at the movement from darkness to light. Bats hang upside down, like a baby is born. It’s a preview. It’s telling you what’s coming up: the human is going to be born.”

It’s a valuable gift. The bat he describes is overlooked in Beckwith’s translation, though Liliuokalani and Johnson both refer to it.

Of several translations, Johnson’s is the most thorough—and elusive. Her complete manuscript tops 700 pages, including extensive annotations. Unfortunately, only the first volume—two of the chant’s sixteen chapters—was published. In the rare, out-of-print book, Johnson illustrates the significance of the Hawaiian word pe‘a, which alternately refers to a bat, octopus, starfish, or rayfish:

“The term pe‘a . . . is an inclusive generic term for species that ray or branch out from a focal point. . . . There is a pronounced preoccupation in the Kumulipo with species named pe‘a by which a basis of cross-shape classification for the radial or kite forms may be deduced.”

Johnson references additional definitions of pe‘a: canoe sail, kite, cross, crossed arms, branches bound to a royal standard, or kahili. With this in mind, a mention of rayfish may also convey a reminder of royal voyaging canoes on the horizon.



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