A People Without a Past: Mythology and History

Samuel Manaiakalani Kamakau

In 1841, historian Samuel Kamakau warned against Hawaiians becoming “a race without a history.” This nearly came to pass, and in many circles (including powerful circles in Hawaiʻi) it is as if it did. The lesson of recent findings in Hawaiian history and archaeology (meaning in the last 50 years, but especially that last 20) is that we can trust our kupuna. Scientific findings have moved closer and closer to Hawaiian understandings in topics such as migration and oral history. Even unbelievable stories can be understood to be “true” if seen as metaphors. And what have our kupuna told us? For one thing, they unequivocally stated with the Kuʻe petitions in 1897-98 that they did not want us to be Americans (or only Americans). This is a modern example that is easy understand, but it is the older stories that are more difficult to reconcile.

Joseph Campbell has shown that Hawaiian mythology has correspondences to Eastern and Western mythologies, as if connecting to a “world mind.” The world’s foremost scholar of mythology, Joseph Campbell, is buried in Hawaiʻi at Oʻahu Cemetery (as is Kamakau, interestingly). Campbell got the spark for mythology at the Museum of Natural History in New York City when he saw the dioramas of Native Americans. This led to a lifelong study of comparative mythologies – Native American, “Oriental,” Western and even Polynesian. It is this incorporation of Hawaiian myths that particularly attracted me to Campbell’s work; many thinkers have grand meta-narratives that have great explanatory power, but they nearly always fail to apply to my own Hawaiian culture, and are thus incomplete.

Campbell’s work is impossible to summarize here, but he offered much in terms of explanation of the meaning of mythological stories, including biblical ones. One explanation that particularly struck me was that of meaning of the virgin birth, which he explains through chakras. To Campbell, the virgin birth is confusing when it is seen as a physical birth

“When the symbols that a religion is tied to is connected to a history, and then that history is found to be false, the symbols also fall.” Campbell suggests that the symbols emerge not from the outside world, but from the psyche [important note: psyche means soul, not mind – psychology has forgotten its own root (see Ken Wilber’s Integral Psychology)].

“Every civilization in the world has been shaped by mythology.” People live out these mythologies. Just as Jung’s work helped Campbell to understand the psychic meaning of myths, Hawaiians can use Campbell’s work to reconcile the mythological and historical dimensions of our oral history. In short, by reconciling the metaphorical nature of or history, we can begin to trust ourselves, our kupuna and our culture.

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1 Comment

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One response to “A People Without a Past: Mythology and History

  1. Luana

    Thank you, Umi. I’ve always been a fan of Joseph Campbell. The interconnectedness of myth and life always rings true for me as a Hawaiian. And his belief of universal truths “Truth is one, though the Sages know it as many,” is a sentiment that follows what I’d been taught of ‘Aloha.’

    Liked by 1 person

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