Hawaiian Accounts of Creation


A FAMILY chant like the Kumulipo, passed down orally from one generation to the next without the stabilizing force of a written text, must have been constantly exposed to political changes within the family and to the urge felt by a new song-maker to revitalize the old memorial by giving it a fresh application to more recent family events.

Although as a whole it preserves structural unity, the chant also gives evidence of a piecing-together of genealogies from different branches, together with the myths connected with them, and of changes in mere phrasing to give a different turn to the original design of a passage.

Hawaiians themselves are cautious about accepting the Kalakaua text of the chant as the original form.

Kupihea, as has been said, believes that Kalakaua took the opportunity to turn some of the enigmatic phrasing into a sneer at his detractors, as he most certainly intended glorification of his own dynasty by publication of the manuscript text.

In Kalakaua’s rendering some lines differ from this source, as other Kumulipo texts differ in minor details from the Kalakaua text.

Poepoe puts it thus: “The writer [Poepoe himself] can not prove this to be the true form of the Kumulipo prayer chant as it was begun in ancient days. . . . It is also not clear to him that the form of the chant issued anew in Kamokuiki’s book is the same as the original form . . . [but it contains] many difficult words . . . whose meaning can not be understood in these days. . . . It is [therefore] proper that this prayer chant of the Kumulipo be called ‘The Genealogy of the Beginning of the People of Hawaii’ (Ku-auhau Ho’okumu Honua o Hawaii).”

By the word Honua I understand not the land itself but the people who inhabit it, just as Hawaiian usage makes interchangeable the name of a chief with the piece of land he occupies.

The word Ho’okumu, literally “causing to begin,” may be better read “founding” or “begining” than by the word “creation,” which reflects biblical thought.

All evidence points to the general acceptance among Hawaiian scholars of Poepoe’s cautious conclusion.

From the beginning of missionary interest in Hawaiian tradition, the earliest informants have referred first to the authority of the Kumulipo.

Earth just grew

Poepoe quotes the Mo’olelo Hawaii in these words: “in this genealogy [the Kumulipo] it is said that the earth was not born nor was it made by hand but just grew.”1 

David Malo writes, as translated by Emerson: “In the genealogy called Kumulipo it is said that the first human being was a woman named La’ila’i and that her ancestors and parents were of the dim past [he po wale no], that she was the progenitor of the human race.”

He goes on to tell how “The-chief-who-broke-through-heaven” (Ke-ali’i-wahi-lani) looked below and saw this beautiful woman La’ila’i dwelling in Lalowaia and came down and made her his wife, and “from the union of these two was begotten one of the ancestors of this race.”

He imagines that these persons originated outside Hawaii but that their names have been preserved in Hawaiian genealogies.

Kepelino, an early convert of the Roman Catholic mission and strongly influenced by the biblical story of creation, makes Kane the active agent in forming heaven and earth.

He writes: “In the Hawaiian account, darkness (ka po) was the first thing and light (malamalama) followed. And because Kane made the darkness he was called Kane-in-the-Long-Night (Po-loa), because he alone dwelt at that time and he made it. . . . And he was called Kane-in-the-Light, meaning that he was the god that made light. And the light was called The-wide-light-made-by-Kane. . . . And so with the heaven (ka lani), it was called The-wide-heaven-made-by-Kane, because Kane made it.”

Here, in spite of Christian coloring, the order of creation is like that suggested in the Prologue to the Kumulipo and similar phrases occur.

Deep darkness then light

There is first darkness, po, or deep darkness, po-uli, then light, malamalama. Later in the passage Kepelino tells how “muddy-earth” (honua-kele) is “drawn by Kane out of the ocean.” Kane becomes “the chief who broke through heaven” of Malo’s account, ancestor of the high taboo chiefs or hoali’i in distinction from the low-ranking, na li’i noa, who do not command the taboos of gods.

Other later Hawaiian accounts of beginnings include a memorandum of “The Board of Genealogists of the Chiefs of Hawaii” given before the legislature of 1884, which calls the Kumulipo chant “a setting in order of the beginning of the earth for this race of men,” and the committee report of 1904 already quoted.

Both are preserved in manuscript in the Bishop Museum, and the second is printed as an appendix to Kepelino. It concludes, without mentioning the chant itself, “This is the genealogy of the Hawaiian people, that is, from Kumulipo-ka-po to Wakea and Papa.”

Hawaiians generally represent Po as a period of darkness and give the word the meaning of night as opposed to day (ao). So my translator in a passage from Kepelino: “There was Deep-intense-night (Po-nui-auwa’ea), a period of time without heaven, without earth, without anything that is made. There was only darkness (pouli), therefore it was called Deep-intense-night and Long-night.

“The Deep-intense-night was the darkness out of which all created things (na mea i hanaia) issued (i ho’opuka). . . . Only gods (he mau akua wale) lived at that time. . . .”

Po the spirit world

The only attempt I have seen made to explain these two opposites, Po and Ao, on the basis of Hawaiian thought about the relation between this material world and a corresponding spirit world called the Po is to be found in Joseph Kukahi’s printed text of 1902.

There he places the Kumulipo beside other genealogies of beginning like that of Puanue, where “the pillars of earth and the pillars of heaven” (na kukulu o ka honua a me na kukulu o ka lani) are said to have been “born” to Paia-ka-lani and his wife Kumu-kane-ke-ka’a; or that of Wakea, where Papa gave birth to “this group of islands”; or the statement of others that it “was really made by the hands of Kane” (?), although “in the genealogy of Kumulipo, it is said that the Po gave birth to all things and established (pa’a) the heavens, the earth, and all things therein.”

Po – no ‘souls’

Kukahi goes on to explain the Po as a time of nonhumans when there were no “souls” (’uhane) of men living in the flesh but only strange fairy-like beings called ’e’epa and many-bodied beings called laumanamana. 

He expounds the meaning of the saying “the first people of Hawaii were born of the Po” in connection with the structure of the Kumulipo. He writes:

Like the first seven divisions in the first period of the world in the genealogical account of the Kumulipo night followed night and there lived gods alone [?].

44,400 Gods

During those intervals night reproduced night by living as man and wife and producing many gods often spoken of by the people of Hawaii as “the forty thousand gods, four thousand gods, four hundred thousand gods,” and in the eighth interval birth changed to that of human beings; that is, to La’ila’i and all those born with her. . . .

Laying aside the teachings and beliefs of this people (Hawaiians) in this new time, let our thoughts go back to where the very beginning was thought to be of the growing up of the generations of these islands, to the actual birth of the first person and those born with her out of the enclosures biting hard so as to be felt of the Po (paia ’a’aki konouli o ka Po).

The ancients believed that Po was divided into classes similar to the divisions among men.

Hierarchy of gods

There is a head and there are head gods (Po’o-akua) who dwell in power over Po; below them are governers (Kuhina), the executioner (Ilamuku), messengers (Alele), guards (Kia’i), down to the lower grades of gods who are commoners among the gods.

The head gods have great power (mana) in heaven and on earth.

The generations descended from them are their direct heirs from the Po and they received power in Po.

The Kuhina and Ilamuku continue to carry out their power in Po.

They have power (mana) over great things and small in Po.

Their descendants have like mana to the Kuhina and Ilamuku [of the Po].

From the messengers and guards down to the commoners among the gods come the innumerable hosts of night.

They reproduced, separated, and spread throughout Po.

It was said that in this life in Po some people were born without bones (’alu’alu) and from that time birth began to change in Po until human bodies came into being.

These changes are shown in the genealogical history of the Kumulipo.

From the leading gods, the Kuhina and Ilamuku, descended the classes of chiefs and the priests.

They had great power over the lives of people in ancient days and to them were given signs and mysterious omens not forgotten by the people of this race.

At the time when the mother gives birth, those of the Po show the signs of a chief. These are made visible in the arching of the rainbow, the flash of lightning, the vibrating roll of thunder, the spread of a low-lying rainbow, and in other signs common to this race.

Men of other races . . . have been puzzled . . . by these signs peculiar to this people.

There is no other explanation except the memory of the old faith held by this race that the chiefs are offspring and descendants of the ruling gods of Po, those who have power over the heavens and the earth.

In the night was Mary’s son born from the womb of his human mother in the place where animals were fed in the town of Bethlehem. The Magi were startled by a strange light. As they watched closely they saw a bright star over the land to the east and believed and knew that a great person from Po had come to dwell with man.

On the same night while the shepherds were absorbed in watching their lambs outside the town of Bethlehem, they were startled

by the shouts of thousands and thousands of armies of Po announcing in a genealogical chant,

“Glory to god
In the highest heaven
Peace on earth
Good will to men.”

This is an event handed down by the descendants of the inhabitants of the land of Canaan and they fully believed that this was a seed conceived by the ’uhane (Po) and born to a human being.

The people of these islands were accustomed to such things and firmly believed that they were the people whom Po caused to be conceived and born here, that they were the Iku ha’i (Ali’i or Mo’i) and the Ikialealea (Ali’i papa [class of chiefs], pua li’i [descendants of chiefs]) of the Nu’upule (Noho-ali’i) referring to the lesser chiefs.

It cannot be argued that ideas of an educated Hawaiian, however steeped in old tradition, can today, after more than a century of foreign contact, fully or even necessarily correctly interpret priestly teaching in the days before foreign infiltration.

Certainly Kukahi does little to clarify the Kumulipo idea of night following night and, “by living as man and wife,” producing the little gods represented, I suppose, by the varieties of plant and animal species which become their bodies in the material world, and later as begetting gods and men in bodily form.

This is scarcely straight personification but rather a doctrine of souls corresponding to and animating material bodies and grouped in succession in time as a means of reaching a system of classification corresponding to the Hawaiian approach to the universe and to society as a whole.

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