The word kapu may mean sacred, as well as forbidden (the word can also mean privilege). Any person, object, or place could be deemed kapu, which meant that the possibility of mortal danger imbued every aspect of existence. There were different categories of kapu — kapu of consecration, kapu of the kingdom, minor kapu, the kapu applied to those persons who possessed the volcano as an ‘aumakua (a family god or totem such as an owl or a caterpillar), and those whose spirits had entered into the bodies of sharks.
Some kapu were practical in origin and used to protect diminishing supplies of fish or plants; others were whimsical, or commemorative of a special date or event in the family of a chief. The extent to which kapu were enacted and enforced in Hawaiian society is thought to have been instituted locally in response to the fierce rivalry and competition among ruling families, and used to insure the immense power of the secretive priestly clans. Both aliʻi and priests had the right of life and death (only a high chief was given the awful kapu wela, which allowed him to burn alive any violator who offended him), enforced by a seemingly arbitrary system of strict rules and prohibitions, as well as a complex system of religious ritual.
The…tabu were strictly enforced, and every breach of them punished with death, unless the delinquents had some very powerful friends who were either priests or chiefs. They were generally offered in sacrifice, strangled, or despatched with a club or a stone within the precincts of the heiau, or they were burnt…the great mass of people were at no period in their existence exempt from its influence, and no circumstance in life could excuse their obedience to its demands.
Kapu served to establish order, requiring men to respect the land; to honor the chiefs who were the literal representatives of the gods; and to serve the thousands of omnipresent big and little gods. In return, the gods endowed the land and sea with bountiful food, and protected people from danger (often the gods themselves). In Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre writes that taboos represent threats of “inert violence,” in theory meant to protect those restricted by them. Violence is justified as counter-violence, or a retaliation and a defense against potential danger. In most early societies, the sight of a woman’s menstrual blood is a frightening omen, especially when it is the first time that the woman menstruates. Not only may the mysterious blood be dangerous to others, it may be dangerous to the girl herself — the danger is no less real because it is imaginary. To safeguard against the harm that the blood may bring to her and her community, the menstruating (or post partum) woman is deemed defiled, and isolated and confined until the blood disappears.
The extreme prohibitions in the Hawaiian system, particularly those applied to women, were reminders of the division between the mundane and the divine, emphasizing the understanding that humans were inferior to gods, and that women, who lived in a realm of darkness and death, were inferior to men (according to the historian Kepelino, a man born on the third night of the full moon would be fearless, brave, and kindhearted, while a woman born on that night would be an “ensnarer who ate filth”). The eating kapu was a fixed law for both chiefs and commoners, not because a man would die if he ate food that was forbidden, but to maintain the distinction between what was meant for men and what belonged to the gods.
As the system of kapu assumed a belief in sympathetic magic, commoners were forbidden any contact with ali’i, or with their food, clothing, canoes, temples, or sacred images, since anything possessed or even touched by an ali’i, including his nail parings, urine, excrement, and spittle (maunu) was considered invested with mana (spirit power) and could be used in sorcery. As a precaution against sorcery, maunu were daily carried away in the greatest secrecy by a chief’s most trusted attendants and taken out to sea, or buried, or hidden in a cave. When a chief’s feather staff, or the skirt of a chiefess, or the dirty bath water of an ali’i was carried through a village, an attendant warned anyone nearby to sit on the ground — should be disobey, he would be dragged to a heiau and killed. Discarded clothing was buried so that it could not be used as maunu, and old timers soaked their clothes in water so that they would disintegrate faster once they were buried. One never gave a lei to anyone who was not a close relation, for example, for if it fell into the hands of a sorcerer, it could be used to cause chronic scrofulous pustules to appear on oneʻs neck.
Mary Kawena Pukui, who was born in 1895, writes, “When I was a little girl, my grandmother used to take special care of my hair. She’d take any that came out during combing and roll it up and bury it in a hidden place…watching over every little thing because it could become maunu.”
John Papa Iʻi in his book, Fragments of Hawaiian History, a collection of essays written for the Hawaiian language newspaper Ka Nupepa Ku’oko in the years 1866 to 1870, described in the third person the training he received as a child in preparation for becoming an hereditary attendant in the court of Kamehameha II:
His mother placed on his back a bundle containing a wonderful malo made of feathers from mamo and apapane birds attached to a fine net, with rows of human teeth at the end…slipping his arms into the loops of the bundle, she taught him to cry, ‘E noho e! Squat down!’…The proclamation of this kapu was an exceedingly common practice in the court, and one which flustered many a newcomer who did not know that he must squat quickly and slip off his tapa wrap or shoulder covering…If a person was wearing a lei on neck or head, he must remove it and throw it away when the cry to squat (noho) was heard, otherwise the penalty would be death.
When a chief and his entourage, resplendent in long feather cloaks, helmets, and scented loincloths, ventured out of doors, they were accompanied by men whose responsibility it was to bear their spittoons; men who looked after their cloaks; and attendants who carried the towering kāhili. If a chief possessed the prostrating taboo, which required a person to throw himself face down on the ground should he be near the chief, executioners followed at the end of the procession, so as to catch more easily anyone who violated the kapu. A chief could spare a person’s life if he chose, however, placing his hand on the head of the offender and declaring him kapu to the chief.
As it was believed that a person’s shadow was his spirit made visible, a man could be put to death (burned, strangled, clubbed, or stoned) if his shadow fell upon a high chief, who was the possessor of the greatest possible mana, and thus untouchable (if the shadow of a person fell upon the dwelling of a high chief, he could also be killed). Because of this, aliʻi were carried in sedan chairs as their very footsteps rendered kapu the earth on which they walked. Royal children were carried on the shoulders of a special attendant, chosen for his loyalty and strength, who walked with his arms crossed over his chest to make a resting place for the childʻs feet.
When a chief and his men were eating, those present knelt with knees pressed tightly closed, forbidden to move until the meal was finished. If, in the presence of a high chief, a man’s head was seen to be smeared with clay, he could be put to death. If a man mistakenly stepped on a chief’s kapa, he could be put to death. If a man entered the house of an ali’i without first drying his loincloth, he could be put to death. Certain high chiefs and chiefesses were forbidden to hold a baby, lest the child soil their laps, a violation that would result in the childʻs death (because of this kapu, many high-ranking women did not tend their own children). If a man were to consort with a menstruating woman, he could be put to death, as to lie with a woman during menstruation was considered a greater offense than rape. A man could also be killed for sexual union with another woman during his wife’s menses.
The following is from Chant Seven,“The Dog Child,” in the creation myth known as the Kumulipo. The “narrow trail” was the path to the heiau, forbidden to anyone but priests.
Fear falls upon me on the mountain top
Fear of the passing night
Fear of the night approaching
Fear of the pregnant night
Fear of the breach of the law
Dread of the place of offering and the narrow trail
Dread of the food and the waste part remaining
Dread of the receding night
Awe of the night approaching.