Kapu System
Excerpts from The Breakdown of the Kapu System by `Iwalani R. N. Else


Before the arrival of Cook in 1778, Hawai‘i had a highly stratified social structure with the power held by ruling ali‘i (royalty). Within this "structure of dominance," religion constituted the relationship among Hawaiians:

Religion governed the political and economic elements of the social totality, with all aspects of human relationships and practices religiously constituted and infused with sacred meaning. Religion determined the status of groups and individuals, and religion was the basis for the allocation, appropriation, and distribution of land and goods. (Buck, 1993, p. 33)

Religion, as Buck (1993) described, is a complex and ambiguous relationship between the concepts of mana, kapu, and noa.

Mana is a complex concept defined as "process, performance, power, abstract force, and effect or all these things." Mana is the "positive manifestation of spirituality and power [which] emanated from the gods and was channeled through the ali‘i" (Buck, 1993, p. 33). Buck further stated that mana manifested itself in the well-being of a community, in human knowledge and skills (canoe building, harvesting), and in nature (crop fertility, weather, etc.).

Kapu and noa are ideological concepts that are binary opposites. According to Durkheim (1912), kapu is associated with what is divine (i.e., sacred and forbidden), and noa is associated with things that are not divine (i.e., profane). Both people and things could be considered either kapu or noa depending on whether they were tied to things that were considered divine.

The kapu system in ancient Hawai‘i established rules and regulations that not only provided for living in harmony with the land but also dictated daily life. There were three types of interaction: (a) among classes of people, (b) between people and the gods, and (c) between people and nature.

The first type of interaction was among different hierarchical groups of people. Ancient Hawai‘i was socially stratified into groups with hierarchical class roles. There were three major groups: the ali‘i, the maka‘āinana (commoners) and the kauā (outcasts). The ali‘i were persons who "derived their high status by virtue of the fact that they were direct descendants of the gods; hence they were sacred relative to the maka‘āinana, who were in theory also descendants of the gods but through junior branches" (Levin, 1968, p. 408). Ali‘i possessed great amounts of mana because of their relationship to the gods. The kahuna (priests and occupational experts) were part of the ali‘i class and included traditional medical doctors called kahuna lā‘au lapa‘au.

Even in the ali‘i class, there was social stratification based on mana, or the relationship of each ali‘i to the gods. There were four different ranks of ali‘i. From highest to lowest, they were pi‘o, nī‘aupi‘o, naha, and wohi. The higher the rank, the closer the relationship to the gods and the more strict the kapu. For example, for pi‘o and nī‘aupi‘o, anyone in their presence or the presence of their personal articles was required, upon penalty of death, to prostrate themselves (Levin, 1968).

The makaainana were also descended from the gods, although not directly like the ali‘i, and were the workers of the subsistence economy. The maka‘āinana were the farmers, fishermen, and craftsmen and were deeply embedded into the Hawaiian subsistence economy. A clear relationship existed between these two groups.

Between the ali‘i and makaainana there existed a bond of mutual obligations and duties. The makaainana were obligated to give goods and services in the form of taxes in kind and labor. In return the ali‘i confirmed their tenure rights to the land which they tilled and on which they resided. More importantly, it was the duty of the ali‘i to secure for the makaainana supernatural protection from natural calamities and to petition the gods for abundant harvest from the fields and the seas through temple rituals. (Levin, 1968, p. 408)

This relationship is of vital importance with Western trade and influence and is discussed below. Because of their closeness to the gods, the ali‘i (through their mana) were responsible for the second type of interaction: the connection between people and the gods.

The kauā were the class of outcasts reserved for ritual killings or sacrifices. While the ali‘i and the makaainana were groups descended from the gods, the kauā were thought to be earlier migrants to Hawai‘i that were later conquered (Levin, 1968) and were viewed as antithetical, or profane, to the sacredness of the ali‘i (Kamakau, 1905/1968).

The kapu system was based on sets of binary oppositions where male elements were held sacred and female elements were profane. In the Kumulipo, or the Hawaiian creation chant, the elements are set up as the binary opposition of Pö (darkness, which is female) and Ao (light, which is male). From darkness and light, life is created. According to Levin (1968), the male element Ao represented life, light, sky, day, strength, and knowledge. The female element Pö represented darkness, death, earth, night, weakness, and ignorance.

Thus the kapu system as a system of classification pointed out those things which were considered sacred having been derived from the positive male aspect of nature and those things that were common and unsacred being derived from the negative female aspect of nature. (Levin, 1968, p. 12)

According to Durkheim (1912), sacred things are "set apart and forbidden" collectively by a group of people, and the object or idea remains sacred as long as the group continues. This notion greatly influenced not only the kapu system but also the existence of food kapu. Certain foods represented aspects of male gods (Levin, 1968). Although all food in a realistic sense is mundane, certain foods become sacred when specific meaning is attached to them. For example, pork was a symbol for the god Lono, coconut and the ulua fish were symbolic of Kū, and niuhi (white shark) was symbolic of Kāne. Because these and other foods symbolized the male gods, women were not only prohibited from eating these foods but were also prohibited from eating with men.

The third type of interaction the kapu system dictated was the relationship between people and nature. It did this by providing environmental rules and control that were essential for a subsistence economy. Within the Hawaiian calendar, there were two ceremonial cycles. One dictated rules for planting and the other for harvesting (Levin, 1968). During kau (temperate dry season) planting, building, and warfare occurred. During ho‘oilo (temperate wet season) warfare was forbidden and the makahiki, or harvest festival, occurred.

As mentioned above, the ali‘i were responsible for providing the maka‘āinana with supernatural protection from forces that could destroy crops and food. If an ali‘i did not perform religious duties accordingly, he could be replaced by another ali‘i who could handle the religious responsibilities, thereby providing more efficiently for the needs of the maka‘āinana (Malo, 1903/1968).

The three types of interaction in ancient Hawai‘i follow Marx’s ideas of the dimensions in which individuals become alienated (a) from others, (b) from their work, and (c) from nature. Buck (1993) offered a Marxist structural analysis that may be useful in determining the relationships between material and economic production (kapu system) and how it was socially distributed (through those with mana) and how ideological and religious practices bring legitimacy to relationships based on power. Buck (1993) stated that "although Marx fully recognized the power of human consciousness and agency, he believed that ideas, beliefs and values do not exist independent of the material conditions of life and human activities" (p. 20). The kapu system was the ideological system, governed by those with mana, that dictated material and economic production and social relationships. Agency was determined by the hierarchical station one held.

Source:  http://www.ksbe.edu/pase/pdf/Hulili/Else.pdf


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