Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Kumulipo

The Fun Fact I shared with my hula class last week was about the Kumulipo, the creation chant that has existed since about 1700 to explain the origin of species, the creation of the Hawaiian Islands and the Hawaiians themselves. Literally, it means the source of deep darkness.

Before the New England missionaries came in 1820 and made Hawaiian a written language, the Kumulipo was passed orally from generation to generation by chanters who were trained to memorize the 2,102-line account and to chant it properly. The presentation of the chant was reserved for very auspicious occasions, such as the birth of ali'i, or royalty.

The Kumulipo took three hours to recite. I learned that one of the auspicious occasions when it was recited was at the ceremony to greet Captain Cook, who the Hawaiians believed was a god.

This gives me a valuable insight into the disaster that followed. The survivors of the incident, British sailors who had served under Cook's command, reported that Cook, who had ordinarily taken great pains to be respectful of native cultures, turned quite crabby and irritable while in Hawaii. In fact, it was his temper tantrum over some stolen nails that really irritated the Hawaiians and caused them to fight back. God or no god, the rude dude had to die. Cook's tragic error was to have that temper tantrum, which was said to be quite out of character.

But now I understand. The poor guy had just sat through a 3-hour chant! After a while, his frozen smile probably started to ache. Then he may have begun to think about his to-do list back on the ship or a million other things he'd rather be doing than listening to the remaining 2 hours . . . or 1 hour . . . of the chant.

Fast forward 70 years or so to when Kalâkaua became king. When his right to the throne was questioned, he duly recited the Kumulipo, through which he could trace his genealogy back to the gods. That settled the argument. To make sure he could later point to chapter and verse to support his claim, he wrote down the entire Kumulipo for the first time, in Hawaiian. When he went on a world tour in 1881, he took along his copy, which he hoped would impress the Europeans. They were all in a tizzy over Charles Darwin's Origin of Species. Kalâkaua liked to point out that the Kumulipo, which was based on stories told for centuries, contained the same story of evolution. Which it does.

According to the Kumulipo, first came the walewale, the primordial slime, and then a succession of creatures. Man comes along after the god-like humans and the human-like gods. (I don't think Darwin mentioned those guys!)

The Kumulipo was translated into English by Kalâkaua's sister and successor, Queen Liliu'okalani. After the monarchy was overthrown and she was held under house arrest in 'Iolani Palace, she tackled the project. Her translation, published in 1897, is available online, at

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