Kumulipo

Just because a human society has not developed writing does not mean that it cannot generate literature. In many nonliterate cultures, certain stories— and particularly creation myths—were so sacred that they were carefully learned and passed on from generation to generation, strictly verbatim, and thereby preserved intact for many decades or even centuries. Recital or performance, sacred in itself, was typically a formal affair and subject to strict protocols. The audience was often restricted to those of sufficient rank or those suitably initiated in some way.

A fine example of such oral literature is the Hawaiian prayer chant known as the Kumulipo. Passed down through several generations of high chiefs (ali'i), it came into the possession of the last native ruler of Hawai'i, King David Kalakaua, after which it was recorded and translated into English. It originated as far back as the mid-eighteenth century, a longevity that is all the more remarkable given its considerable length—over two thousand lines. It was composed for the ali'i Ka-'I-i-mamao, and clearly served as a legitimization of his rank and power. Its purpose was to demonstrate how he (and, by extrapolation, his descendants) was directly descended from a string of culture heroes and ultimately from the gods themselves. The Kumulipo was, according to later Hawaiian informants, the very chant that was recited to Captain Cook during a ceremony at Hikiau heiau on the Big Island of Hawai'i, when he was being received as the god Lono.

The Kumulipo combines a creation story and description of the world with genealogies that recount (or, as an outsider would see it, establish) the lineage of the chief. It is in the form of a poem, although substantial chunks consist of no more than lists of names. Although genealogical prayer chants of this nature are not exceptional in Polynesia, the Kumulipo describes various natural phenomena in particular detail. It is, in this sense, an excellent natural history. The heavens are included, of course, and the work actually begins with a reference to the sun, moon, and Pleiades. Some have claimed that a much richer body of astronomical knowledge is represented in the form of hidden, double meanings, which were undoubtedly included. Hawaiian is a language ripe for punning; subtle word play, allusions, and different levels of meaning were an essential characteristic of sacred chants. The difficulty lies in accurately reconstructing them. Unfortunately, much was lost in the early transcriptions of Hawaiian, which ignored subtle but vital differences in vowel sounds that have only relatively recently been represented using appropriate diacritical marks. The underlying, hidden meanings of old texts are extremely difficult to reconstruct, even for native Hawaiian scholars, and can vary widely in their interpretations. In this regard, the Ku-mulipo is no exception.

The genealogical lists in the Kumulipo certainly include known star names. One native Hawaiian scholar, Rubellite Kawena Johnson, has argued that the chant describes the heavenly cycles in considerable detail using various numerological encodings and devices. Others, however, argue that the particular ordering of and relationships between the natural phenomena described have more to do with the requirements of good rhythmic balance. However this debate is ultimately resolved, the Kumulipo is interesting enough as an example of a creation story that not only describes the natural world and its human inhabitants but tries to explain it.

See also:

Hawaiian Calendar; Na Pali Chant.

References and further reading

Beckwith, Martha W. The Kumulipo: A Hawaiian Creation Chant (repr.). Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1972.

Johnson, Rubellite K. Kumulipo: Hawaiian Hymn of Creation, Volume I. Honolulu: Topgallant Press, 1981.

-. The Kumulipo Mind: A Global Heritage. Honolulu: Anoai Press,

2000.

Sahlins, Marshall. Islands of History, 109-110. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Selin, Helaine, ed. Astronomy across Cultures, 93-94. Dordrect, Neth.: Kluwer, 2000.

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