This post is the first of what I hope and expect to be many such posts on Hawaiian history as I will be working this entire year on a Hawaiian history text. Iʻm just calling this series “Moʻolelo.”
Kumulipo is a cosmogonic chant, one of several, that mark the kinohi, the origin, of the Hawaiian people. During Kalākua’s reign, the German anthropologist Bastian (who is cited by Joseph Campbell as an early authority on mythology generally), somewhat improbably was given access to Kumulipo, which previously was held in secret with a Hawaiian family. This made Kumulipo a matter of public interest. In 1951, the Hawaiʻi-born scholar Martha Beckwith published what most would consider the seminal work, The Kumulipo: A Hawaiian Creation Chant. In her book Finding Meaning, Professor Brandy McDougall is critical of both Bastian and Beckwith as outsider views of this sacred text, but I find her critique, at least of Beckwith, to be overly harsh – Beckwith was very well-trained and was a contemporary of Hawaiian luminaries such as Joseph Poepoe, and her knowledge of pan-Pacific folklore was formidable then and would still be today. This sheer breadth is one of the issues that makes her text difficult to read. Beckwith was also well-acquainted with Kumulipo scholar Theodore Kelsey, who was fluent in Hawaiian, worked on the chant for many decades and had 50 Hawaiian informants.
This is where my family steps into the picture. My mother, Leialoha Apo Perkins, wrote her dissertation for the University of Pennsylvania on Hawaiian oli, which brought her to an near-lifelong interest, bordering on obsession, with Kumulipo. She knew Kelsey well, worked extensively with him and even I knew him – in fact I lived with him for periods in the home of another scholar of Hawaiian culture, June Gutmanis. But I was a young child with no aptitude for Hawaiian folklore. I will never forget, however, driving through the intersection of Kapiʻolani Boulevard and Dole Street in our Volkswagon Beetle around 1977 and Mr. Kelsey proclaiming “I was born in 1893!”
Beckwith was one of the few scholars who managed to publish on Kumulipo, and I have the sense that her work was not as extensive as she would have liked it to be. Kelsey had no major publications on it and my mother struggled as well, though she did publish a short-lived journal that includes rare information on the chant. Rubellite Kawena Johnson published the first volume of a translation, but subsequent volumes never appeared. This gives one the impression that Kumulipo’s mysteries are perhaps meant to stay just that.
The chant itself is over 2000 lines. It begins:
O ke au i kahuli wela ka honua
O ke au i kahuli lole ka lani
O ke au i kuka‘iaka ka la
E ho‘omalamalama i ka malama
O ke au o makali‘i ka po
O ka walewale ho‘okumu honua ia
O ke kumu o ka lipo, i lipo ai
O ke kumu i ka po, i po ai
O ka lipolipo, o ka lipolipo
O ka lipo o ka la o ka lipo o ka po
Po wale ho‘i
Hanau ka po
Hanau Kumulipo i ka po, he kane
Hanau Po ‘ele i ka po, he wahine
Beckwith’s book is appropriately subtitled “A Hawaiian Creation Chant.” Kumulipo is not the only origin myth (and use the term myth in Campbell’s sense of metaphor, not falsehood). Lilikalā Kameʻeleihiwa said in a class of hers that I attended that there were about ten such creation stories, held as chants. According to the great Hawaiian scholar Davida Malo:
ʻEkolu naʻe moʻokūʻauhau i manaʻo nui ʻia, ʻo Kumuulipo, ʻo Palikū, ʻo Olōlo. ʻO kēia mau moʻokūʻauhau kai manaʻo ʻia no laila mai ko Hawaiʻi nei lāhui kānaka me nā aliʻi pū…
There are … three genealogical accounts that are highly regarded, those of Kumuulipo, Palikū and Olōlo. It is thought that the Hawaiian people derive from these three genealogies, and also their aliʻi (trans. Langlas and Lyon).