By Léo Azambuja
At the time that turned the heat of the earth,
At the time when the heavens turned and changed,
At the time when the light of the sun was subdued
To cause light to break forth,
At the time of the night of Makalii (winter)
Then began the slime which established the earth,
The source of deepest darkness.
Of the depth of darkness, of the depth of darkness,
Of the darkness of the sun, in the depth of night,
It is night,
So was night born.
This is the opening verse of He Kumulipo, No Ka I i Mamao A Ia Alapai Wahine, translated into English in 1895 by Hawai‘i’s last reigning monarch, Queen Liliu‘okalani.
Considered by many Hawaiian scholars as the most important work of literature of the entire Polynesia, the Kumulipo — as it is widely known — is actually a 2,102-line chant that survived orally for nearly 200 years before it was first published in Hawaiian language in 1889 by King Kalakaua, Liliu‘okalani’s brother and predecessor.
“The Kumulipo is probably the most detailed, comprehensive and insightful opportunity we have to see what our ancestors believed in and to help define who we are as Hawaiians today,” said Kaua‘i native Kawika Makanani, a retired Hawaiian history teacher and librarian who worked for 37 years at Kamehameha Schools on O‘ahu.
Westerners first heard the Kumulipo, or The Source of Darkness, when Capt. James Cook came ashore at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island in 1779 — a year after he had departed Kaua‘i to search for the elusive Northwest Passage.
Composed by Keaulumoku in 1700, according to Liliu‘okalani’s translation, the Kumulipo is an ancient prayer for the dedication of Big Island high chief Lonoikamakahiki (renamed Ka I i Mamao) to the gods soon after his birth, and at which time the honors of Kapu, Wela, Hoano and Moe were conferred to him by his father, King Keaweikekahialiiokamoku.
Noteworthy, Liliu‘okalani’s ancestry places her as the great great granddaughter of Lonoikamakahiki.
“It’s primarily a genealogy, but what’s interesting about it, is that it describes in metaphorical terms the beginnings of the universe,” Makanani said.
Divided into 16 wa, or eras, the Kumulipo depicts the origins of all living and non-living things, all intrinsically connected. It tells the history of the Hawaiian people and presents their ideas about space and time, explaining life forms and sharing many different concepts, including numbering.
And then there’s the duality, a concept in Hawaiian philosophy that everything comes in pairs. In the very genesis of the Hawaiian cosmos, the Kumulipo describes two primeval powers, male and female. Throughout the entire Kumulipo, this duality is a major element, Makanani said.
Although having studied the Kumulipo for many years, he said he is still just a student rather than an expert — and most who have studied the Kumulipo would probably say the same thing.
“It is a very complex and difficult chant and it calls upon knowledge that do not necessarily exists today, so it leaves a lot of room for interpretation,” said Makanani, adding the Kumulipo draws in many old ideas, metaphors and terminology. “We can never gain a full understanding of the Kumulipo at this point.”
The Kumulipo, he said, demonstrates the Hawaiians’ broad intelligence and understanding of the universe and their place in it. Maoris, Tahitians, Marquesans, Easter Islanders, they all have their literatures, but nothing they have compares to the Kumulipo.
The “frightening thing” about this, Makanani said, is that maybe they had similar works that haven’t survived. Or even in Hawai‘i, there might’ve been other chants of similar or greater significance that we don’t know about, and are now lost.
“So the Kumulipo is such a significant tool for helping us understand who our Hawaiian ancestors were and the lives that they lived and what they believed in,” he said.
Kumu hula Kaua‘i Iki runs a halau at a school in Kekaha, Kaua‘i’s Westside, attended primarily by Ni‘ihau natives or sons of Ni‘ihau natives. In the past, he was an art curator at the Bishop Museum on O‘ahu, at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., and at several other museums across the nation.
Chanting, Kaua‘i Iki said, is an essential element of the Hawaiian culture. It was through chanting that Hawaiians communicated with their gods. Chanting was also key to the preservation of the culture, because in the chants, he said, are stories, protocols and references to gods, chiefs and places. And the Kumulipo stands as one of the most important Hawaiian chants.
“It’s very important, it’s a cosmogonic genealogy, it’s a creation story … it’s the origin of our people, the origin of our traditions,” he said of the Kumulipo.
In 1820, Christian missionaries arrived in Hawai‘i, and soon put Hawaiian language into writing for the first time, reducing the language’s many dialects into a uniform system. But it wasn’t until Kalakaua’s reign that the Kumulipo was written down.
In 1891, Kalakaua died and was succeeded by his sister, Lydia Liliʻu Loloku Walania Wewehi Kamakaʻeha, who was crowned as Queen Liliu‘okalani. In 1893, the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown by a coup d‘état orchestrated mainly by United States and European businessmen. Two years later, Liliu‘okalani was put under house arrest following a counter-revolution, despite the queen denying knowledge of the plan.
While spending a year in house arrest, Liliu‘okalani took on the massive and challenging task of translating the Kumulipo from Hawaiian to English language. Her work was published in 1897, and again in 1978.
Kaua‘i Iki said it is fascinating that the Kumulipo survived orally through all those years. Perhaps it might have helped that a mistake while reciting important chants could mean a death sentence under the old Kapu system, which carried a set of legal proscriptions sanctioned by religious beliefs, and was enforced by the secular power of political authority. The kapu system was abolished in 1819.
At 53 years old, Kaua‘i Iki said he spent his whole life performing or watching hula, but he has seen only one school, Halau Kumana of O‘ahu, chant the Kumulipo. And they had to break it down in sections.
Makanani said he has heard of young Hawaiian scholars chanting the Kumulipo, but he has never seen it.
“It is quite a feat, and it has to be the right time and the right place,” said Makanani, adding it would take hours.
Kaua‘i residents will get a rare and free chance to take a look into the Kumulipo. On March 28, the Kaua‘i Historical Society will sponsor a presentation on the Kumulipo, hosted by Makanani, at the Kaua‘i Museum Courtyard in Lihu‘e from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Visit www.kauaihistoricalsociety.org for more information.