Into the Source

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

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Noa Huna

I could easily lose myself puzzling out kaona, yet another layer of meaning awaits the sensitive reader or listener: noa huna, or the spiritual element of the poem. The Kumulipo is a kaleidoscope: any way you turn it, a new pattern emerges. It’s a family tree, a star map, collection of private court jokes, an ode to abundance. But beneath it all, a sacred vein runs through its lines.

“The Kumulipo sets forth not only that life evolved, but that human life evolved upon the same creational plane,” writes Poka Laenui. “Thus, while we are connected biologically to all of the creatures and plants of the earth, we are also spiritually bonded.”

“Humans, we are the last chapter of this long story,” says Kaleikoa Ke‘ao. “We descend from, we are related to everything that came before us—the cosmos, the stardust, space, and time.”

Rubellite Johnson agrees, “In the conception and birth of the chief is the analogy of the conception and birth of the universe. As man is born into the universe, so is the   universe reborn in him; he is the intelligent survivor of cosmic creation in the highest form of organic life on earth . . . he is the culmination of all forms.”

At its foundation, the chant communicates a deep respect for all life, from a position of equality and reverence. The interplay between opposing forces conveys a sense of balance and harmony, and implies a responsibility stemming from the notion of cause and effect.

I was honored to speak with Johnson recently about her work translating the Kumulipo. “The   distances the poem can cover in just a few words,” she says, “that’s why it struck me. It’s so well conceived. It encapsulates the philosophy that you see elsewhere in the world, the great thoughts.” Far from wishing to keep this native treasure to herself, Johnson says she’d like to see others carry on where she left off. “Anybody who works with the Kumulipo is going to derive great understanding from it.”

Having scratched the surface of the chant’s cryptic layers, it’s clear that my journey with the Kumulipo has just begun.

Kumulipo Hawaiian Hymn of Creation, Vol. I, by Rubellite Kawena Johnson, 1981, Topgallant Publishing Co., Ltd, Honolulu, Hawaii. Used with permission.

Dave Zaboski is a California artist whose work has appeared in major animated Disney films; he is currently illustrating Deepak Chopra’s first children’s book.

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