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Mana & Kapu
Kahikilani: Chapter Two (cosmology & ecology)
In essence and practice the naturalistic mytho-religious forces described thus far inform and dominate every aspect of life in Kalalau. As in the rest of the Hawaiian archipelago and indeed throughout all of Polynesia, the primordial organizing principle of everything is Mana: soul power or vital spiritual force. Mana unites everything and everyone. Everything — from Akua to men, plants to rocks, wind, rain, waves, and animals — has Mana.
Mana is not, however, equally distributed. It is vested in different, distinct, and varying proportion(s) throughout the world of natural creation, indicating to the discerning eye an order of rank among capacities and possibilities. Mana is, in a word, embodied — as physical as it is spiritual — in persons, places, and things. People (and things) are born (or created) with Mana that might otherwise be described in terms of a certain quanta of concentrated natural cosmic energy. For human beings, Mana is essentially in the Koko (blood) and Ha(breath). It can be shared and transferred to others. It could be acquired — passed from one person (or thing) to another (by blood or breath or spirit) — and even in some cases taught, learned, and enhanced.
Mana remains an integral part of the Kino (mortal body): locus of all that is sacred (life and power). A pervasive sense of ku’pono (or “fitness”) reveals itself in such respects, which conveys a characteristic Hawaiian sense of spiritual and natural strength and attunement. Hawaiian culture — as to each & every individual person — “fits” with and within the cosmological and natural order of things. No coincidence that these handsome, energetic people place a high value and esteem on their physical fitness, agility, and beauty — knowing their strength, stamina, and stature to be a gauge of their Mana. Concern for health, vitality, and well-being heralds the relationship of care for (and of) body and soul in harmony with all that which houses them.
Thus, the reverent Hawaiians of Kalalau remain at home in their bodies, an essential, growing, mortal outgrowth of the ‘aina, together which speak to the meaning of Honua. Hawaiians of Kalalau affirm the intrinsic, tragic rank-order of everything: forces of nature, ideas, values, things, places, activities, animals and people. They mele (sing) and oli (chant):
Purer and more honest of speech is the healthy body!
Perfect and squarebuilt — that which speaks of the
meaning of Honua! Aloha! Malama ka ‘Aina!
Amana a ua noa! (“now the prayer has flown”)
Mana accords with Kapu (meaning both “sacred” & “forbidden”) — refined and univocal: a strict system of sacred and sanctifying rules, prohibitions, privileges, and responsibilities regulating people, places, things, and activities alike into sustainable, vivifying natural order. Like Mana, Kapu varies as to the specific particularities of time, place, circumstance — especially caste. It is the essential feature of religious and cultural life; the exclusive prerogative of the nobility; but no one (including Ali’i or Kahuna — even the Akua) can simply do as one wishes. Each and all are bound by their Mana — and Hopena (fate).
Kapu applies to location and time as much as to people, behavior,1 and things. Some days or seasons are Kapu, during which periods certain things (like fishing) could not be done. Those days are restricted to ho’omana (worship), ho’olau’e’a (celebration), kahului (contest), or pa’ani (play). When food is short, or fish are spawning, the Kapu maintains the balance and order of things in nature — so that nothing too much is taken or presumed.
A place is sometimes put under Kapu — marked by the crossed Kapu staves — indicating that no one should enter or go near. For example, bathing in streams is prohibited: a Kapu, handed down by the Akua Kaneand Kanaloa, that keeps wai (fresh water) clean for drinking; just as certain sacred surfing spots — wahi he’e nalu— are Kapu to the maka’ainana so to preserve the purity and Mana of the place itself. An ancient oli (chant), dear to the Ali’i Nui, goes thus:
Oi-ana! Life is a fountain of delight — but where the masses
also drink, all springs are tainted. The fruit grows mawkish and
over-ripe in their hands: the fruit tree becomes unstable and
withered at the top under their glance. Yet here — at this wahi
pana (sacred spot) — there is the spring of life at which no
maka’ainana drinks with me! Like the breath of ferns and
wet Earth deep in the forest, where cool water glides quietly
over moss-grown stones — distance makes clean.
This plurality of theocratic custom, proscriptions, laws and norms represents an indispensable principle of a life-enhancing, healthy, strong ethos: a physiodicy that justifies the ways of the world for humankind and affirms the natural order of rank: celebrating a unity of value in the multiplicity and diversity of life — where everything, everywhere, inexorably has its Kapu. Under no circumstances does one break the Kapu — doing so invites the inevitable suffering of harsh, painful, humiliating consequences. The Ilamuku and Kahuna ‘ana ‘ana are stern enforcers of Kapu. They find anyone who breaks it and they “pray them unto death.”
Some — very few indeed — might escape death in one of two ways: they may be banished from the ahupua’a (a fate worse than death in the eyes of a Hawaiian) or they — lucky & intrepid — may escape to the sanctuary of the Pu’uhonua — a sacred, safe place of refuge where their Mana may be cleansed, purified, and restored, from which one might then return to society renewed . . . and forgiven. Although, according to the custom, the gates are always open to anyone (except kauwa —outcasts and untouchables) in spiritual crisis with a disposition toward worship, Pu’uhonua are not easy to access. They are guarded.
These places of sanctuary and protection are usually safeguarded by the fiercest Koa Pu’ali (warriors) and are surrounded by the most rarefied hale of the Ali’i and Kahuna. Potent Mana and myriad Kapu, in addition to high stone walls, enclose Pu’uhonua. Only the most intrepid and lucky — those most surely favored by Akua — can find their way inside.
Though in many ways oppressive and capricious, the Kapu system is rarely violated; its honored maintenance deemed a necessary protection by everyone (and everything) because they (everyone) understand Kapu guards the Mana of certain places and people — thereby maintaining cosmic balance and order.
§ § §
Whereas the Ahupua’a is a self-contained and self-sufficient area of land and sea — Mauka to Makai — within which the Hawaiians of Kalalau have available everything to them that they would either need or want in order to sustain themselves and flourish, the system of Kapu is intimately connected with respect and reverence for the enchanted natural world. Kapu thereby maintains and preserves the cleanliness, distance, and power of Mana — as it infuses and abides everything and everyone — precisely by distinguishing and separating society into aristocratic hierarchy and its proper, balanced parts: designating certain areas, things, and activities (on land and sea), as well as people, as either forbidden or severely restricted. All things (and persons) graded in sequence within the wheel of time, Kapu regulates life and protects Mana in a manner that ensures both the favor of the Akua and the maintenance of healthy cultural ecology.
Surrounded by strict cultural horizons that are as elevated, severe, precipitous, and jagged as the tropical mountain peaks that encircle them; as vast, turbulent, divine, and powerful as the ocean containing them, the Hawaiian people of Kalalau live with Aloha (love & compassion) in an enchanted world of primal oneness with their natural surroundings. The eternal sway and flow of everything mortal, forceful, natural, and divine happens together here with divine equipoise.
Kahikilani: born to a people ikaika (well-constituted) and high-spirited, with privileges and obligations, each to his and her own. All exist perilously — at once proud, loving, vulnerable, strong, fierce, and fragile. Circumspect and resolute in the presence of stern divinities; under sky and, equally, on both the kai (ocean) and ‘aina (land), they understand themselves as one. In unity, within a tenuous balance that presupposes — needs — strife and flux, all things are held together here in cosmic struggle.
Pau (end of Chapter Two — to be continued . . .)
Among myriad activities restricted by Kapu, kane (men) and wahine (women) are forbidden to eat together (their food could not even be cooked together in the same imu [earth-oven]), indeed many foods themselves are Kapu to wahine and maka’ainana alike — an archaic tapu going back to the origin of time itself . . .