Unwritten Literature Of Hawaii - Nathaniel B. Emerson - ebook

This classic study of the Hula is a gold-mine of information for explorers of Hawaiian language, music, dance and culture. Gives the full annotated Hawaiian text of the songs, along with an English translation. As in many other traditional cultures, Hawaiian art, dance, music and poetry were highly integrated into every aspect of life, to a degree far beyond that of industrial society. The poetry at the core of the Hula is extremely sophisticated. Typically a Hula song has several dimensions: mythological aspects, cultural implications, an ecological setting, and in many cases, (although Emerson is reluctant to acknowledge this) frank erotic imagery. The extensive footnotes and background information allow us an unprecedented look into these deeper layers. While Emerson's translations are not great poetry, they do serve as a literal English guide to the amazing Hawaiian lyrics.

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Unwritten Literature Of Hawaii

The Sacred Songs of the Hula


Nathaniel B. Emerson , A.M., M.D.




© David De Angelis 2017 – all rights reserved
















































Previous to the year 1906 the researches of the Bureau were restricted to the American Indians, but by act of Congress approved June 30 of that year the scope of its operations was extended to include the natives of the Hawaiian islands. Funds were not specifically provided, however, for prosecuting investigations among these people, and in the absence of an appropriation for this purpose it was considered inadvisable to restrict the systematic investigations among the Indian tribes in order that the new field might be entered. Fortunately the publication of valuable data pertaining to Hawaii is already provided for, and the present memoir by Doctor Emerson is the first of the Bureau's Hawaiian series. It is expected that this Bulletin will be followed shortly by one comprising an extended list of works relating to Hawaii, compiled by Prof. H. M. Ballou and Dr. Cyrus Thomas.

W. H. Holmes,



This book is for the greater part a collection of Hawaiian songs and poetic pieces that have done service from time immemorial as the stock supply of the hula. The descriptive portions have been added, not because the poetical parts could not stand by themselves, but to furnish the proper setting and to answer the questions of those who want to know.

Now, the hula stood for very much to the ancient Hawaiian; it was to him in place of our concert-hall and lecture-room, our opera and theater, and thus become one of his chief means of social enjoyment. Besides this, it kept the communal imagination in living touch with the nation's legendary past. The hula had songs proper to itself, but it found a mine of inexhaustible wealth in the epics and wonder-myths that celebrated the doing of the volcano goddess Pele and her compeers. Thus in the cantillations of the old-time hula, we find a ready-made anthology that includes every species of composition in the whole range of Hawaiian poetry. This epic1 of Pele was chiefly a more or less detached series of poems forming a story addressed not to the closet-reader, but to the eye and ear and heart of the assembled chiefs and people; and it was sung. The Hawaiian song, its note of joy par excellence, was the oli; but it must be noted that in every species of Hawaiian poetry, mele--whether epic or eulogy or prayer, sounding through them all we shall find the lyric note.

The most telling record of a people's intimate life is the record which it unconsciously makes in its songs. This record which the Hawaiian people have left of themselves is full and specific. When, therefore, we ask what emotions stirred the heart of the old-time Hawaiian as he approached the great themes of life and death, of ambition and jealousy, of sexual passion, of romantic love, of conjugal love, and parental love, what his attitude toward nature and the dread forces of earthquake and storm, and the mysteries of spirit and the hereafter, we shall find our answer in the songs and prayers and recitations of the hula.

The hula, it is true, has been unfortunate in the mode and manner of its introduction to its moderns. An institution of divine, that is, religious, origin, the hula in modern times has wandered so far and fallen so low that foreign and critical esteem has come to associate it with the riotous and passionate ebullitions of Polynesian kings and the amorous posturing of their voluptuaries. We must make a just distinction, however, between the gestures and bodily contortions presented by the men and women, the actors in the hula, and their uttered words. "The voice is Jacob's voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau." In truth, the actors in the hula no longer suit the action to the word. The utterance harks back to the golden age; the gesture is trumped up by the passion of the hour, or dictated by the master of the hula, to whom the real meaning of the old bards is ofttimes a sealed casket.

Whatever indelicacy attaches in modern times to some of the gestures and contortions of the hula dancers, the old-time hula songs in large measure were untainted with grossness. If there ever were a Polynesian Arcadia, and if it were possible for true reports of the doings and sayings of the Polynesians to reach us from that happy land--reports of their joys and sorrows, their love-makings and their jealousies, their family spats and reconciliations, their worship of beauty and of the gods and goddesses who walked in the garden of beauty--we may say, I think, that such a report would be in substantial agreement with the report that is here offered; but, if one's virtue will not endure the love-making of Arcadia, let him banish the myth from his imagination and hie to a convent or a nunnery.

If this book does nothing more than prove that savages are only children of a younger growth than ourselves, that what we find them to have been we ourselves--in our ancestors--once were, the labor of making it will have been not in vain.

For an account of the first hula we may look to the story of Pele. On one occasion that goddess begged her sisters to dance and sing before her, but they all excused themselves, saying they did not know the alt. At that moment in came little Hiiaka, the youngest and the favorite. Unknown to her sisters, the little maiden had practised the dance under the tuition of her friend, the beautiful but ill-fated Hopoe. When banteringly invited to dance, to the surprise of all, Hiiaka modestly complied. The wave-beaten sand-beach was her floor, the open air her hall. Feet and hands and swaying form kept time to her improvisation:

Look, Puna is a-dance in the wind; The palm groves of Kea-au shaken.

Haena and the woman Hopoe dance and sing

On the beach Nana-huki,

A dance of purest delight, Down by the sea Nana-huki.

The nature of this work has made it necessary to use occasional Hawaiian words in the technical parts. At their first introduction it has seemed fitting that they should be distinguished by italics; but, once given the entrée, it is assumed that, as a rule, they will be granted the rights of free speech without further explanation.

A glossary, which explains all the Hawaiian words used in the prose text, is appended. Let no one imagine, however, that by the use of this little crutch alone he will be enabled to walk or stumble through the foreign ways of the simplest Hawaiian mele. Notes, often copious, have been appended to many of the mele, designed to exhaust neither the subject nor the reader, but to answer some of the questions of the intelligent thinker.

Thanks, many thanks, are due, first, to those native Hawaiians who have so far broken with the old superstitious tradition of concealment as to unearth so much of the unwritten literary wealth stored in Hawaiian memories; second, to those who have kindly contributed criticism, suggestion, material at the different stages of this book's progress, and, lastly, to those dear friends of the author's youth--living or dead--whose kindness has made it possible to send out this fledgling to the world. The author feels under special obligations to Dr. Titus Munson Coan, of New York, for a painstaking revision of the manuscript.



One turns from the study of old genealogies, myths, and traditions of the Hawaiians with a hungry despair at finding in them means so small for picturing the people themselves, their human interests and passions; but when it comes to the hula and the whole train of feelings and sentiments that made their entrances and exits in the halau (the hall of the hula) one perceives that in this he has found the door to the heart of the people. So intimate and of so simple confidence are the revelations the people make of themselves in their songs and prattlings that when one undertakes to report what he has heard and to translate into the terms of modern speech what he has received in confidence, as it were, he almost blushes, as if he had been guilty of spying on Adam and Eve in their nuptial bower. Alas, if one could but muffle his speech with the unconscious lisp of infancy, or veil and tone his picture to correspond to the perspective of antiquity, he might feel at least that, like Watteau, he had dealt worthily, if not truly, with that ideal age which we ever think of as the world's garden period.

The Hawaiians, it is true, were many removes from being primitives; their dreams, however, harked back to a period that was close to the world's infancy. Their remote ancestry was, perhaps, akin to ours--Aryan, at least Asiatic--but the orbit of their evolution seems to have led them away from the strenuous discipline that has whipped the Anglo-Saxon branch into fighting shape with fortune.

If one comes to the study of the hula and its songs in the spirit of a censorious moralist he will find nothing for him; if as a pure. ethnologist, he will take pleasure in pointing out the physical resemblances of the Hawaiian dance to the languorous grace of the Nautch girls, of the geisha, and other oriental dancers. But if he comes as a student and lover of human nature, back of the sensuous posturings, in the emotional language of the songs he will find himself entering the playground of the human race.

The hula was a religious service, in which poetry, music, pantomime, and the dance lent themselves, under the forms of dramatic art, to the refreshment of men's minds. Its view of life was idyllic, and it gave itself to the celebration of those mythical times when gods and goddesses moved on the earth as men and women and when men and women were as gods. As to subject-matter, its warp was spun largely from the bowels of the old-time mythology into cords through which the race maintained vital connection with its mysterious past. Interwoven with these, forming the woof, were threads of a thousand hues and of many fabrics, representing the imaginations of the poet, the speculations of the philosopher, the aspirations of many a thirsty soul, as well as the ravings and flame-colored pictures of the sensualist, the mutterings and incantations of the kahuna, the mysteries and paraphernalia of

Polynesian mythology, the annals of the nation's history--the material, in fact, which in another nation and under different circumstances would have gone to the making of its poetry, its drama, its opera, its literature.

The people were superstitiously religious; one finds their drama saturated with religious feeling, hedged about with tabu, loaded down with prayer and sacrifice. They were poetical; nature was full of voices for their ears; their thoughts came to them as images; nature was to them an allegory; all this found expression in their dramatic art. They were musical; their drama must needs be cast in forms to suit their ideas of rhythm, of melody, and of poetic harmony. They were, moreover, the children of passion, sensuous, worshipful of whatever lends itself to pleasure. How, then, could the dramatic efforts of this primitive people, still in the bonds of animalism, escape the note of passion? The songs and other poetic pieces Which have come down to us from the remotest antiquity are generally inspired with a purer sentiment and a loftier purpose than the modern; and it may be said of them all that when they do step into the mud it is not to tarry and wallow in it; it is rather with the unconscious naiveté of a child thinking no evil.

On the principle of "the terminal conversion of opposites," which the author once heard an old philosopher expound, the most advanced modern is better able to hark back to the sweetness and light and music of the primeval world than the veriest wigwam-dweller that ever chipped an arrowhead. It is not so much what the primitive man can give us as what we can find in him that is worth our while. The light that a Goethe, a Thoreau, or a Kipling can project into Arcadia is mirrored in his own nature.

If one mistakes not the temper and mind of this generation, we are living in an age that is not content to let perish one seed of thought or one single phase of life that can be rescued from the drift of time. We mourn the extinction of the buffalo of the plains and of the birds of the islands, rightly thinking that life is somewhat less rich and full without them. What of the people of the plains and of the islands of the sea? Is their contribution so nothingless that one can affirm that the orbit of man's mind is complete without it?

Comparison is unavoidable between the, place held by the dance in ancient Hawaii and that occupied by the dance in our modern society. The ancient Hawaiians did not personally and informally indulge in the dance for their own amusement, as does pleasure-loving society at the present time. Like the Shah of Persia, but for very different reasons, Hawaiians of the old time left it to be done for them by a body of trained and paid performers.

This was not because the art and practice of the hula were held in disrepute--quite the reverse--but because the hula was an accomplishment requiring special education and arduous training in both song and dance, and more especially because it was a religious matter, to be guarded against profanation by the observance of tabus and the performance of priestly rites.

This fact, which we find paralleled in every form of communal amusement, sport, and entertainment in ancient Hawaii, sheds a strong light on the genius of the Hawaiian. We are wont to think of the old-time Hawaiians as light-hearted children of nature, given to spontaneous outbursts of song and dance as the mood seized them; quite as the rustics of "merrie England" joined hands and tripped "the light fantastic toe" in the joyous month of May or shouted the harvest home at a later season. The genius of the Hawaiian was different. With him the dance was an affair of premeditation, an organized effort, guarded by the traditions of a somber religion.

And this characteristic, with qualifications, will be found to belong to popular Hawaiian sport and amusement of every variety. Exception must be made, of course, of the unorganized sports of childhood.

One is almost inclined to generalize and to say that those children of nature, as we are wont to call them, in this regard were less free and spontaneous than the more advanced race to which we are proud to belong. But if the approaches to the temple of Terpsichore with them were more guarded, we may confidently assert that their enjoyment therein was deeper and more, abandoned.



In building a halau, or hall, in which to perform the hula a Hawaiian of the old, old time was making a temple for his god. In later and degenerate ages almost any structure would serve the purpose; it might be a flimsy shed or an extemporaneous lanai such as is used to shelter that al fresco entertainment, the luau. But in the old times of strict tabu and rigorous etiquette, when the chief had but to lift his hand and the entire population of a district ransacked plain, valley, and mountain to collect the poles, beams, thatch, and cord stuff; when the workers were so numerous that the structure grew and took shape in a day, we may well believe that ambitious and punctilious patrons of the hula, such as La’a, Liloa, or Lono-i-ka-makahiki, did not allow the divine art of Laka to house in a barn.

The choice of a site was a matter of prime importance. A formidable code enunciated the principles governing the selection. But a matter of great solicitude--there were omens to be heeded, snares and pitfalls devised by the superstitious mind for its own entanglement. The untimely sneeze, the ophthalmic eye, the hunched back were omens to be shunned.

Within historic times, since the abrogation of the tabu system and the loosening of the old polytheistic ideas, there has been in the hula a lowering of former standards, in some respects a degeneration. The old gods, however, were not entirely dethroned; the people of the hula still continued to maintain the form of divine service and still appealed to them for good luck; but the soul of worship had exhaled, the main study now was to make of the hula a pecuniary success.

In an important sense the old way was in sympathy with the thought, "Except God be with the workmen, they labor in vain that build the house." The means for gaining divine favor and averting the frown of the gods were those practised by all religionists in the infantile state of the human mind-the observance of fasts and tabus, the offering of special prayers and sacrifices. The ceremonial purification of the site, or of the building if it had been used for profane purposes, was accomplished by aspersions with sea water mixed with turmeric or red earth.

When one considers the tenacious hold which all rites and ceremonies growing out of what we are accustomed to call superstitions had on the mind of the primitive Hawaiian, it puzzles one to account for the entire dropping out from modern memory of the prayers which were recited during the erection of a hall for the shelter of an institution so festive and so popular as the hula, while the prayers and gloomy ritual of the temple service have survived. The explanation may be found, perhaps, in the fact that the priests of the temple held position by the sovereign's appointment; they formed a hierarchy by themselves, whereas the position of the kumu-hula, who was also a priest, was open to anyone who fitted himself for it by training and study and bypassing successfully the ai-lolo ordeal. After that he had the right to approach the altar of the hula god with the prescribed offerings and to present the prayers and petitions of the company to Laka or Kapo.

In pleasing contrast to the worship of the heiau, the service of the hula was not marred by the presence of groaning victims and bloody sacrifices. Instead we find the offerings to have been mostly rustic tokens, things entirely consistent with light-heartedness, joy, and ecstasy of devotion, as if to celebrate the fact that heaven had come down to earth and Pan, with all the nymphs, was dancing.

During the time the halau was building the tabus and rules that regulated conduct were enforced with the utmost strictness. The members of the company were required to maintain the greatest propriety of demeanor, to suppress all rudeness of speech and manner, to abstain from all carnal indulgence, to deny themselves specified articles of food, and above all to avoid contact with a corpse. If anyone, even by accident, suffered such defilement, before being received again into fellowship or permitted to enter the halau and take part in the exercises he must have ceremonial cleansing (huikala). The kumu offered up prayers, sprinkled the offender with salt water and turmeric, commanded him to bathe in the ocean, and he was clean. If the breach of discipline was gross and willful, an act of outrageous violence or the neglect of tabu, the offender could be restored only after penitence and confession.


In every halau stood the kuahu, or altar, as the visible temporary abode of the deity, whose presence was at once the inspiration of the performance and the luck-bringer of the enterprise--a rustic frame embowered in greenery. The gathering of the green leaves and other sweet finery of nature for its construction and decoration was a matter of so great importance that it could not be intrusted to any chance assemblage of wild youth who might see fit to take the work in hand. There were formalities that must be observed, songs to be chanted, prayers to be recited. It was necessary to bear in mind that when one deflowered the woods of their fronds of íe-íe and fern or tore the trailing lengths of maile-albeit in honor of Laka herself--the body of the goddess was being despoiled, and the despoiling must be done with all tactful grace and etiquette.

It must not be gathered from this that the occasion was made solemn and oppressive with weight of ceremony, as when a temple was erected or as when a tabu chief walked abroad, and all men lay with their mouths in the dust. On the contrary, it was a time of joy and decorous exultation, a time when in prayer-songs and ascriptions of praise the poet ransacked all nature for figures and allusions to be used in caressing the deity.

The following adulatory prayer (kánaenáe) in adoration of Laka was recited while gathering the woodland decorations for the altar. It is worthy of preservation for its intrinsic beauty, for the spirit of trustfulness it breathes. We remark the petitions it utters for the growth of tree and shrub, as if Laka had been the alma mater under whose influence all nature budded and rejoiced.

It would seem as if the physical ecstasy of the dance and the sensuous joy of all nature's finery had breathed their spirit into the aspiration and that the beauty of leaf and flower, all of them familiar forms of the god's metamorphosis--accessible to their touch and for the regalement of their senses--had brought such nearness and dearness of affection between goddess and worshiper that all fear was removed.

He kánaenáe no Laka

A ke kua-hiwi, i ke kua-lono,

Ku ana o Laka i ka mauna;

Noho ana o Laka i ke po’o o ka ohu.

O Laka kumu hula,

5 Nana i a’e ka wao-kele,2

Kahi, kahi i moli’a i ka pua’a,

I ke po’o pua’a,

He pua’a hiwa na Kane.3

He kane na Laka,

10 Na ka wahine i oni a kelakela i ka lani:

I kupu ke a’a i ke kumu, I lau a puka ka mu’o, Ka liko, ka ao i-luna.

Kupu ka lala, hua ma ka Hikina;

15 Kupu ka lala ona a Maka-li’i, 4

O Maka-lei,5 laau kaulana mai ka Po mai.6 Mai ka Po mai ka oiaio-- I ho-i’o i-luna, i o’o i-luna.

He luna au e ki’i mai nei ia oe, e Laka,

20 E ho’i ke ko-kua7 pa-ú;

He la uniki8 e no kaua; Ha-ike-ike9 o ke Akua;

Hoike ka mana o ka Wahine,

O Laka, kaikuahine,

25 Wahine a Lono, i ka ou-alii.10

E Lono, e hu’11 ia mai ka lani me ka honua. Nou okoa Kukulu o Kahiki. 12 Me ke ano-ai13 aloha, e! E ola, e!


A Prayer of Adulation to Laka

In the forests, on the ridges

Of the mountains stands Laka; Dwelling In the source of the mists.

Laka, mistress of the hula,

5 Has climbed the wooded haunts of the gods,

Altars hallowed by the sacrificial swine, The head of the boar, the black boar of Kane.

A partner he with Laka;

Woman, she by strife gained rank in heaven. 10 That the root may grow from the stem,

That the young shoot may put forth and leaf,

Pushing up the fresh enfolded bud,

The scion-thrust bud and fruit toward the East, Like the tree that bewitches the winter fish, 15 Maka-lei, tree famed from the age of night. Truth is the counsel of night-- May it fruit and ripen above. A messenger I bring you, O Laka, To the girding of paú.

20 An opening festa this for thee and me; To show the might of the god,

The power of the goddess,

Of Laka, the sister,

To Lono a wife in the heavenly courts.

25 O Lono, join heaven and earth!

Thine alone are the pillars of Kahiki. Warm greeting, beloved one, We hail thee!

The cult of god Lono was milder, more humane, than that of Kane and the other major gods. No human sacrifices were offered on his altars. The statement in verse 26 accords with the general belief of the Hawaiians that Lono dwelt in foreign parts, Kukulu o Kahiki, and that he would some time come to them from across the waters. When Captain Cook arrived in his ships, the Hawaiians worshiped him as the god Lono.

The following song-prayer also is one that was used at the gathering of the greenery in the mountains and during the building of the altar in the halau. When recited in the halau all the pupils took part, and the chorus was a response in which the whole assembly in the halau were expected to join:

Pule Kuahu no Laka

Haki pu o ka nahelehele,

Haki hana maile o ka wao,



Hooulu 14 lei ou, o Laka, e!

O Hiiaka15 ke kaula nana e hooulu na ma’i,

5 A aeae a ulu16 a noho i kou kuahu, Eia ka pule la, he pule ola, He noi ola nou, e-e!


E ola ia makou, aohe hala!


Altar-Prayer to Laka

This spoil and rape of the wildwood, This plucking of wilderness maile-- Collect of garlands, Laka, for you.

Hiiaka, the prophet, heals our diseases.

5 Enter, possess, inspire your altar; Heed our prayer, ’tis for life; Our petition to you is for life.


Give us life, save from transgression!

The wildwoods of Hawaii furnished in great abundance and variety small poles for the framework of the kuahu, the altar, the holy place of the halau, and sweet-scented leaves and flowers suitable for its decoration. A spirit of fitness, however, limited choice among these to certain species that were deemed acceptable to the goddess because they were reckoned as among her favorite forms of metamorphosis. To go outside this ordained and traditional range would have been an offense, a sacrilege. This critical spirit would have looked with the greatest disfavor on the practice that in modern times has crept in, of bedecking the dancers with garlands of roses, pinks, jessamine, and other nonindigenous flowers, as being utterly repugnant to the traditional spirit of the hula.

Among decorations approved and most highly esteemed stood preeminent the fragrant maile (pl. IV) and the star-like fronds and ruddy drupe of the íe-íe (PL.II) and its kindred, the hála-pépe (pl. III); the scarlet pompons of the lehúa (pl. XIII) and ohi’a, with the fruit of the latter (the mountain-apple); many varieties of fern, including that splendid parasite, the "bird's nest fern" (ekáha), hailed by the Hawaiians as Mawi's paddle; to which must be added the commoner leaves and lemon-colored flowers of the native hibiscus, the hau, the breadfruit, the native banana and the dracæna (ti), plate V; and lastly, richest of all, in the color that became Hawaii's favorite, the royal yellow ilíma (pl. VI), a flower familiar to the eves of the tourist to Honolulu.

While deft hands are building and weaving the light framework of the kuahu, binding its parts with strong vines and decorating it with nature's sumptuous embroidery, the kumu, or teacher, under the inspiration of the deity for whose residence he has prepared himself by long vigil and fasting with fleshly abstinence, having spent the previous night alone in the halau, is chanting or cantillating his adulatory prayers, kanaenae-songs of praise they seem to be--to the glorification of the gods and goddesses who are invited to bless the occasion with their presence and inspiration, but especially of that one, Laka, whose bodily presence is symbolized by a rude block of wood arrayed in yellow tapa that is set up on the altar itself. Thus does the kumu sing:

Pule Kuahu

Ei’ au, e Laka mai uka, E Laka mai kai; O hooulu

O ka ilio17 nana e hae,

5 O ka maile hihi i ka wao,

O ka lau-ki18 lei o ke akua,

O na ku’i hauoli

O Ha’i-ka-manawa, 19 O Laka oe,

10 O ke akua i ke kuahu nei, la; E ho’i, ho’i mai a noho i kou kuahu!


Altar Prayer (to Laka)

Here am I, oh Laka from the mountains,

Oh Laka from the shore;

Protect us

Against the dog that barks:

5 Reside in the wild-twining maile And the goddess-enwreathing ti. All, the joyful pulses

Of the woman Ha’i-ka-manawa!

Thou art Laka,

10 The god of this altar;

Return, return, abide in thy shrine!

The prayers which the hula folk of old times chanted while gathering the material in the woods or while weaving it into shape in the halau for the construction of a shrine did not form a rigid liturgy; they formed rather a repertory as elastic as the sighing of the breeze, or the songs of the birds whose notes embroidered the pure mountain air. There were many altarprayers, so that if a prayer came to an end before the work was done the priest had but to begin the recitation of another prayer, or, if the spirit of the occasion so moved him, he would take up again a prayer already repeated, for until the work was entirely accomplished the voice of prayer must continue to be heard.

The pule now to be given seems to be specially suited to that portion of the service which took place in the woods at the gathering of the poles and greenery. It was designed specially for the placating of the little godfolk who front their number were addressed as Kini o ke Akua, the multitude of the little gods, and who were the counterparts in old Hawaii of our brownies, elfins, sprites, kobolds, gnomes, and other woodland imps. These creatures, though dwarfish and insignificant in person, were in such numbers--four thousand, forty thousand, four hundred thousand-and were so impatient of any invasion of their territory, so jealous of their prerogatives, so spiteful and revengeful when injured, that it was policy always to keep on the right side of them.

Pule Kuahu

E hooulu ana i Kini o ke Akua,

Ka lehu o ke Akua, Ka mano o ke Akua,

I ka pu-ku’i o ke Akua,

5 I ka lalani Akua,

Ia ulu mai o Kane,

Ulu o Kanaloa;

Ulu ka ohia, lau ka ie-ie;

Ulu ke Akua, noho i ke kahua, 10 A a’ea’e, a ulu, a noho kou kuahu.

Eia ka pule la, he pule ola.


E ola ana oe!



Invoke we now the four thousand,

The myriads four of the nimble,

The four hundred thousand elves, The countless host of sprites, 5 Rank upon rank of woodland gods.

Pray, Kane, also inspire us; Kanaloa, too, join the assembly.

Now grows the ohi’a, now leafs ie-ie;

God enters, resides in the place;

10 He mounts, inspires, abides in the shrine.

This Is our prayer, our plea this for life!


Life shall be thine!

From one point of view these pule are not to be regarded as prayers in the ordinary sense of the word, but rather as song-offerings, verbal bouquets, affectionate sacrifices to the gods.


Of what nature were the gods of the old times, and how did the ancient Hawaiians conceive of them? As of beings having the form, the powers, and the passions of humanity, yet standing above and somewhat apart from men. One sees, as through a mist, darkly, a figure, standing, moving; in shape a plant, a tree or vine-clad stump, a bird, a taloned monster, a rock carved by the fire-queen, a human form, a puff of vapor--and now it has given place to vacancy. It was a goddess, perhaps of the hula. In the solitude of the wilderness one meets a youthful being of pleasing address, of godlike wit, of elusive beauty; the charm of her countenance unspoken authority, her gesture command. She seems one with nature, yet commanding it. Food placed before her remains untasted; the oven,imu,20 in which the fascinated host has heaped his abundance, preparing for a feast, when opened is found empty; the guest of an hour has disappeared. Again it was a goddess, perhaps of the hula. Or, again, a traveler meets a creature of divine beauty, all smiles and loveliness. The infatuated mortal, smitten with hopeless passion, offers blandishments; he finds himself by the roadside embracing a rock. It was a goddess of the hula.

The gods, great and small, superior and inferior, whom the devotees and practitioners of the hula worshiped and sought to placate were many; but the goddess Laka was the one to whom they offered special prayers and sacrifices and to whom they looked as the patron, the au-makua,2 of that institution. It was for her benefit and in her honor that the kuahu was set up, and the wealth of flower and leaf used in its decoration was emblematic of her beauty and glory, a pledge of her bodily presence, the very forms that she, a sylvan deity, was wont to assume when she pleased to manifest herself.

As an additional crutch to the imagination and to emphasize the fact of her real presence on the altar which she had been invoked to occupy as her abode, she was symbolized by an uncarved block of wood from the sacred lama21 tree. This was wrapped in a robe of choice yellow tapa, scented with turmeric, and set conspicuously upon the altar.

Laka was invoked as the god of the maile, the ie-ie, and other wildwood growths before mentioned (pl. II). She was hailed as the "sister, wife, of god Lono," as "the one who by striving attained favor with the gods of the upper ether;" as "the kumu22 hula"--head teacher of the Terpsichorean art; "the fount of joy;" "the prophet who brings health to the sick;" "the one whose presence gives life." In one of the prayers to Laka she is besought to come and take possession of the worshiper, to dwell in him as in a temple, to inspire him in all his parts and faculties--voice, hands, feet, the whole body.

Laka seems to have been a friend, but not a relative, of the numerous Pele family. So far as the author has observed, the fiery goddess is never invited to grace the altar with her presence, nor is her name so much as mentioned in any prayer met with.

To compare the gods of the Hawaiian pantheon with those of classic Greece, the sphere occupied by Laka corresponds most nearly to that filled by Terpsichore and Euterpe, the muses, respectively, of dance and of song. Lono, in one song spoken of as the husband of Laka, had features in common with Apollo.

That other gods, Kane, Ku, Kanaloa,23 with Lono, Ku-pulupulu,6 and the whole swarm of godlings that peopled the wildwood, were also invited to favor the performances with their presence can be satisfactorily explained on the ground, first, that all the gods were in a sense members of one family, related to each other by intermarriage, if not by the ties of kinship; and, second, by the patent fact of that great underlying cause of bitterness and strife among immortals as well as mortals, jealousy. It would have been an eruptive occasion of heart-burning and scandal if by any mischance a privileged one should have had occasion to feel slighted; and to have failed in courtesy to that countless host of wilderness imps and godlings, the Kini Akua,24 mischievous and irreverent as the monkeys of India, would indeed have been to tempt a disaster.



While it is true that the testimony of the various kumu-hula, teachers of the hula, and devotees of the art of the hula, so far as the author has talked with them, has been overwhelmingly to the effect that Laka was the one and only divine patron of the art known to them, there has been a small number equally ready to assert that there were those who observed the cult of the goddess Kapo and worshiped her as the patron of the hula. The positive testimony of these witnesses must be reckoned as of more weight than the negative testimony of a much larger number, who either have not seen or will not look at the other side of the shield. At any rate, among the prayers before the kuahu, of which there are others yet to be presented, will be found several addressed to Kapo as the divine patron of the hula.

Kapo was sister of Pele and the daughter of Haumea25 . Among other rôles played by her, like Laka she was at times a sylvan deity, and it was in the garb of woodland representations that she, was worshiped by hula folk. Her forms of activity, corresponding to her different metamorphoses, were numerous, in one of which she was at times "employed by the kahuna26 as a messenger in their black arts, and she is claimed by many as an aumakua,"27 said to be the sister of Kalai-pahoa, the poison god.

Unfortunately Kapo had an evil name on account of a propensity which led her at times to commit actions that seem worthy only of a demon of lewdness. This was, however, only the hysteria of a moment, not the settled habit of her life. On one notable occasion, by diverting the attention of the bestial pig-god Kama-pua’a, and by vividly presenting to him a temptation well adapted to his gross nature, she succeeded in enticing him away at a critical moment, and thus rescued her sister Pele at a time when the latter's life was imperiled by an unclean and violent assault from the swine-god.

Like Catherine of Russia, who in one mood was the patron of literature and of the arts and sciences and in another mood a very satyr, so the Hawaiian goddess Kapo seems to have lived a double life whose aims were at cross purposes with one another--now an angel of grace and beauty, now a demon of darkness and lust.

Do we not find in this the counterpart of nature's twofold aspect, who presents herself to dependent humanity at one time as an alma mater, the food-giver, a divinity of joy and comfort, at another time as the demon of the storm and earthquake, a plowshare of fiery destruction?

The name of Hiiaka, the sister of Pele, is one often mentioned in the prayers of the hula.


In ancient times the hula to a large extent was a creature of royal support, and for good reason. The actors in this institution were not producers of life's necessaries. To the alii belonged the land and the sea and all the useful products thereof. Even the jetsam whale-tooth and wreckage scraps of iron that ocean cast up on the shore were claimed by the lord of the land. Everything was the king's. Thus it followed of necessity that the support of the hula must in the end rest upon the alii. As in ancient Rome it was a senator or general, enriched by the spoil of a province, who promoted the sports of the arena, so in ancient Hawaii it was the chief, or headman of the district who took the initiative in the promotion of the people's communistic sports and of the hula.

We must not imagine that the hula was a thing only of kings' courts and chiefish residences. It had another and democratic side. The passion for the hula was broadspread. If other agencies failed to meet the demand, there was nothing to prevent a company of enthusiasts from joining themselves together in the pleasures and, it might be, the profits of the hula. Their spokesman--designated as the po’o-puaa, from the fact that a pig, or a boar's head, was required of him as an offering at the kuahu--was authorized to secure the services of some expert to be their kumu. But with the hula all roads lead to the king's court.

Let us imagine a scene at the king's residence. The alii, rousing from his sloth and rubbing his eyes, rheumy with debauch and awa, overhears remark on the doings of a new company of hula dancers who have come into the neighborhood. He summons his chief steward.

"What is this new thing of which they babble?" he demands.

"It is nothing, son of heaven," answers the kneeling steward.

"They spoke of a hula. Tell me, what is it?"

"Ah, thou heaven-born (lani), it was but a trifle--a new company, young graduates of the halau, have set themselves up as great ones; mere rustics; they have no proper acquaintance with the traditions of the art as taught by the bards of * * * your majesty's father. They mouth and twist the old songs all awry, thou son of heaven."

"Enough. I will hear them to-morrow. Send a messenger for this new kumu. Fill again my bowl with awa."

Thus it comes about that the new hula company gains audience at court and walks the road that, perchance, leads to fortune. Success to the men and women of the hula means not merely applause, in return for the incense of flattery, it means also a shower of substantial favors--food, garments, the smile of royalty, perhaps land--things that make life a festival. If welcome grows cold and it becomes evident that the harvest has been reaped, they move on to fresh woods and pastures new.

To return from this apparent digression, it was at the king's court--if we may extend the courtesy of this phrase to a group of thatched houses-that were gathered the bards and those skilled in song, those in whose memories were stored the mythologies, traditions, genealogies, proverbial wisdom, and poetry that, warmed by emotion, was the stuff from which was spun the songs of the hula. As fire is produced by friction, so it was often by the congress of wits rather than by the flashing of genius that the songs of the hula were evolved.

The composition and criticism of a poetical passage were a matter of high importance, often requiring many suggestions and much consultation. If the poem was to be a mele-inoa, a name-song to eulogize some royal or princely scion, it must contain no word of ill-omen. The fate-compelling power of such a word, once shot from the mouth, was beyond recall. Like the incantation of the sorcerer, the kahuna ánaaná, it meant death to the eulogized one. If not, it recoiled on the life of the singer.

The verbal form once settled, it remained only to stereotype it on the memories of the men and women who constituted the literary court or conclave. Think not that only thus were poems produced in ancient Hawaii. The great majority of songs were probably the fruit of solitary inspiration, in which the bard poured out his heart like a song-bird, or uttered his lone vision as a seer. The method of poem production in conclave may be termed the official method. It was often done at the command of an alii. So much for the fabrication, the weaving, of a song.

If the composition was intended as a eulogy, it was cantillated ceremoniously before the one it honored, if in anticipation of a prince yet unborn, it was daily recited before the mother until the hour of tier delivery; and this cantillation published it abroad. If the song was for production in the hula, it lay warm in the mind of the kumu, the master and teacher of the hula, until such time as he had organized his company.

The court of the alii was a vortex that drew in not only the bards and men of lore, but the gay and fashionable rout of pleasure-seekers, the young men and women of shapely form and gracious presence, the sons and daughters of the king's henchmen and favorites; among them, perhaps, the offspring of the king's morganatic alliances and amour--the flower and pick of Hawaii's youth. From these the kumu selected those most fitted by beauty and grace of form, as well as quickness of wit and liveliness of imagination, to take part in the hula.

The performers in the hula were divided into two classes, the olapa--agile ones-and the ho’o-paa--steadfast ones. The rôle of olapa, as was fitting, was assigned to the young men and young women who could best illustrate in their persons the grace and beauty of the human form. It was theirs, sometimes while singing, to move and pose and gesture in the dance; sometimes also to punctuate their song and action with the lighter instruments of music. The rôle of ho’o-paa, on the other hand, was given to men and women of greater experience and of more maturity. They handled the heavier instruments and played their parts mostly while sitting or kneeling, marking the time with their instrumentation. They also lent their voices to swell the chorus or utter the refrain of certain songs, sometimes taking the lead in the song or bearing its whole burden, while the light-footed olapa gave themselves entirely to the dance. The part of the ho’o-paa was indeed the heavier, the more exacting duty.

Such was the personnel of a hula troupe when first gathered by the hulamaster for training and drill in the halau, now become a school for the hula. Among the pupils the kumu was sure to find some old hands at the business, whose presence, like that of veterans in a squad of recruits, was a leaven to inspire the whole company with due respect for the spirit and traditions of the historic institution and to breed in the members the patience necessary to bring them to the highest proficiency.

The instruction of the kumu, as we are informed, took a wide range. It dealt in elaborate detail on such matters as accent, inflection, and all that concerns utterance and vocalization. It naturally paid great attention to gesture and pose, attitude and bodily action. That it included comment on the meaning that lay back of the words may be gravely doubted. The average hula dancer of modern times shows great ignorance of the mele he recites, and this is true even of the kumu-hula. His work too often is largely perfunctory, a matter of sound and form, without appeal to the intellect.

It would not be legitimate, however, to conclude from this that ignorance of the meaning was the rule in old times; those were the days when the nation's traditional songs, myths, and lore formed the equipment of every alert and receptive mind, chief or commoner. There was no printed page to while away the hours of idleness. The library was stored in one's memory. The language of the mele, which now has become antiquated, then was familiar speech. For a kumu-hula to have given instruction in the meaning of a song would have been a superfluity, as if one at the present day were to inform a group of well-educated actors and actresses who was Pompey or Julius Cæsar.

"Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue." Hamlet's words to the players were, it may be supposed, the substance of the kumu's instructions to the pupils in his halau.

The organization of a hula company was largely democratic. The kumu--in modern sense, the teacher--was the leader and conductor, responsible for the training and discipline of the company. He was the business manager of the enterprise; the priest, kahuna, the leader in the religious exercises, the one who interpreted the will of heaven, especially of the gods whose favor determined success. He might be called to his position by the choice of the company, appointed by the command of the alii who promoted the enterprise, or self-elected in case the enterprise was his own. He had under him akokua kumu, a deputy, who took charge during his absence.

The po’o-puaa was an officer chosen by the pupils to be their special agent and mouthpiece. He saw to the execution of the kumu's judgments and commands, collected the fines, and exacted the penalties imposed by the kumu. It fell to him to convey to the altar the presents of garlands, awa, and the like that were contributed to the halau.

The paepae, also chosen by the pupils, subject to confirmation by the kumu, acted as an assistant of the po’o-puaa. During the construction of the kuahu the po’o-puaa stood to the right, the paepae at his left. They were in a general sense guardians of the kuahu.

The ho’o-ulu was the guard stationed at the door. He sprinkled with seawater mixed with turmeric everyone who entered the halau. He also acted as sergeant-at-arms to keep order and remove anyone who made a disturbance. It was his duty each day to place a fresh bowl of awa on the altar of the goddess (hanai kuahu), literally to feed the altar.

In addition to these officials, a hula company naturally required the services of a miscellaneous retinue of stewards, cooks, fishermen, hewers of wood, and drawers of water.


Without a body of rules, a strict penal code, and a firm hand to hold in check the hot bloods of both sexes, it would have been impossible to keep order and to accomplish the business purpose of the organization. The explosive force of passion would have made the gathering a signal for the breaking loose of pandemonium. That it did not always so result is a compliment alike to the self-restraint of the people and to the sway that artistic ideals held over their minds, but, above all, to a peculiar system of discipline wisely adapted to the necessities of human nature. It does not seem likely that a Thespian band of our own race would have held their passions under equal check if surrounded by the same temptations and given the same opportunities as these Polynesians. It may well be doubted if the bare authority of the kumu would have sufficed to maintain discipline and to keep order, had it not been reenforced by the dread powers of the spirit world in the shape of the tabu.

The awful grasp of this law, this repressive force, the tabu, held fast the student from the moment of his entrance into the halau. It denied this pleasure, shut off that innocent indulgence, curtailed liberty in this direction and in that. The tabu waved before his imagination like a flaming sword, barring approach to the Eden of his strongest propensity.

The rules and discipline of the halau, the school for the hula, from our point of view, were a mixture of shrewd common sense and whimsical superstition. Under the head of tabus certain articles of food were denied; for instance, the sugar-cane--ko--was forbidden. The reason assigned was that if one indulged in it his work as a practitioner would amount to nothing; in the language of the kumu,aohe e ko ana kana mau hana, his work will be a failure. The argument turned on the double meaning of the word ko, the first meaning being sugar cane, the second, accomplishment. The Hawaiians were much impressed by such whimsical nominalisms. Yet there is a backing of good sense to the rule. Anyone who has chewed the sweet stalk can testify that for some time thereafter his voice is rough, ill-fitted for singing or elocution.

The strictest propriety and decorum were exacted of the pupils; there must be no license whatever. Even married people during the weeks preceding graduation must observe abstinence toward their partners. The whole power of one's being must be devoted to the pursuit of art.

The rules demanded also the most punctilious personal cleanliness. Above all things, one must avoid contact with a corpse. Such defilement barred one from entrance to the halau until ceremonial cleansing had been performed. The offender must bathe in the ocean; the kumu then aspersed him with holy water, uttered a prayer, ordered a penalty, an offering to the kuahu, and declared the offender clean. This done, he was again received into fellowship at the halau.

The ordinary penalty for a breach of ceremony or an offense against sexual morality was the offering of a baked porkling with awa. Since the introduction of money the penalty has generally been reckoned on a commercial basis; a money fine is imposed. The offering of pork and awa is retained as a concession to tradition.



The ai-lolo rite and ceremony marked the consummation of a pupil's readiness for graduation from the school of the halau and his formal entrance into the guild of hula dancers. As the time drew near, the kumu tightened the reins of discipline, and for a few days before that event no pupil might leave the halau save for the most stringent necessity, and then only with the head muffled (pulo’u) to avoid recognition, and he might engage in no conversation whatever outside the halau.

The night preceding the day of ai-lolo was devoted to special services of dance and song. Some time after midnight the whole company went forth to plunge into the ocean, thus to purge themselves of any lurking ceremonial impurity. The progress to the ocean and the return they made in complete nudity. "Nakedness is the garb of the gods." On their way to and from the bath they must not look back, they must not turn to the right hand or to the left.

The kumu, as the priest, remained at the halau, and as the procession returned from the ocean he met it at the door and sprinkled each one (pikai) with holy water. Then came another period of dance and song; and then, having cantillated a pule hoonoa, to lift the tabu, the kumu went forth to his own ceremonial cleansing bath in the sea. During his absence his deputy, the kokua kumu, took charge of the halau. When the kumu reached the door on his return, he made himself known by reciting a mele wehe puka, the conventional password.

Still another exercise of song and dance, and the wearied pupils are glad to seek repose. Some will not even remove the short dancing skirts that are girded about them, so eager are they to snatch an hour of rest; and some lie down with bracelets and anklets yet unclasped.

At daybreak the kumu rouses the company with the tap of the drum. After ablutions, before partaking of their simple breakfast, the company stand before the altar and recite a tabu-removing prayer, accompanying the cantillation with a rhythmic tapping of feet and clapping of hands:

Pule Hoonoa

Pupu we’uwe’u e, Laka e!

O kona we’uwe’u ke ku nei.

Kaumaha a’e la ia Laka.

O Laka ke akua pule ikaika. 5 Ua ku ka maile a Laka a imua; Ua lu ka hua28 o ka maile. Noa, noa ia’u, ia Kahaula-- Papalua noa.

Noa, a ua noa.

10 Eli-eli kapu! eli-eli noa!

Kapu oukou, ke akua!

Noa makou, ke kanaka´.


Tabu-lifting Prayer

Oh wildwood bouquet, oh Laka!

Hers are the growths that stand here.

Suppliants we to Laka.

The prayer to Laka has power; 5 The maile of Laka stands to the fore.

The maile vine casts now its seeds. Freedom, there's freedom to me, Kahaula-- A freedom twofold.

10 Freedom, aye freedom!

A tabu profound, a freedom complete. Ye gods are still tabu; We mortals are free.

At the much-needed repast to which the company now sit down there may be present a gathering of friends and relatives and of hula experts, called olóhe. Soon the porkling chosen to be the ai-lólooffering is brought in--a black suckling without spot or blemish. The kumu holds it down while all the pupils gather and lay their hands upon his hands; and he expounds to them the significance of the ceremony. If they consecrate themselves to the work in hand in sincerity and with true hearts, memory will be strong and the training, the knowledge, and the songs that have been intrusted to the memory will stay. If they are heedless, regardless of their vows, the songs they have learned will fly away.

The ceremony is long and impressive; many songs are used. Sometimes, it was claimed, the prayers of the kumu at this laying on of hands availed to cause the death of the little animal. On the completion of the ceremony the offering is taken out and made ready for the oven.



One of the first duties of the day is the dismantling of the old kuahu, the shrine, and the construction of another from new materials as a residence for the goddess. While night yet shadows the earth the attendants and friends of the pupils have gone up into the mountains to collect the material for the new shrine. The rustic artists, while engaged in this loving work of building and weaving the new kuahu, cheer and inspire one another with joyful songs vociferous with the praise of Laka. The halau also they decorate afresh, strewing the floor with clean rushes, until the whole place enthralls the senses like a bright and fragrant temple.

The kumu now grants special dispensation to the, pupils to go forth that they may make good the results of the neglect of the person incident to long confinement in the halau. For days, for weeks, perhaps for months, they have not had full opportunity to trim hair, nails, or heard, to anoint and groom themselves. They use this short absence from the hall also to supply themselves with wreaths of fragrant maile, crocus-yellow ilima, scarlet-flaming lehua, fern, and what not.