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The Kumulipo: A Hawaiian Creation Chant by…

The Kumulipo: A Hawaiian Creation Chant

by Martha Warren Beckwith

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Wonderful, wonderful chant of Hawaiian cosmogony, unlike anything I've read before – moody and pelagian and full of a strange sort of internal dream-logic. You can practically hear the midnight waves lapping at the beach as you read it. The poem itself covers barely sixty pages, with the rest of this sizeable book given over to Martha Warren Beckwith's awe-inspiring explanation of her translation methods, verse by verse, along with a sensitive discussion of possible interpretations which represents the distillation of a lifetime's study of Polynesian society, language and mythology. It's the sort of readable, erudite piece of mid-century philology (published 1951) that you never seem to get anymore. All that, plus an appendix which gives the whole chant in the original Hawaiian (albeit a somewhat outdated orthography).

Kumulipo is a compound word from kumu ‘beginning’, and lipo ‘deep darkness’; the chant thus means literally ‘the origin of (or from) deep darkness’, and it begins with a rich evocation of nothingness:

The intense darkness, the deep darkness
Darkness of the sun, darkness of the night
Nothing but night.

O ka lipolipo, o ka lipolipo
O ka lipo o ka la, o ka lipo o ka po
Po wale ho–'i

You can see from the Hawaiian how melodic and driving the original must sound when recited aloud. Hawaiian is a language with a very small phonological inventory – just eight consonants and five vowels (though these can be short or long – but compare this to English, with perhaps twenty-four consonants and around a dozen vowels, excluding diphthongs). Among other things, this means that Hawaiian has a huge scope for wordplay, assonance and rhyme. This was brought home to me on O‘ahu when I took part in a traditional canoe-blessing ceremony (don't ask) led by a Hawaiian kahuna, whose chanting, I thought, had an amazing power to it which came from this cumulative build-up of alliterative flourishes and repeating syllables and vowel-sounds. You can see this all the way through the Kumulipo – reading it out loud to yourself is great fun, if a little disconcerting to those around you.

Beckwith takes great pains to convey the effect of such linguistic playfulness to those readers whose Hawaiian is a little rusty. Discussing one section, about an adulterous scandal, for instance, she tells us:

The reaction upon outsiders and then that upon the injured husband is indicated by playing first upon the k sound to express precise forms of inarticulate disapproval in the head-shaking and cluck-clucking of the court gossips, then upon sounds in m combined with u to give the mood of sulky silence preserved at first by the husband when he begins to suspect the truth of the matter. The passage is impossible to render in English, certainly not literally.

Though (as the introduction to this edition points out) she does a pretty fine job:

There was whispering, lip-smacking and clucking
Smacking, tut-tutting, head-shaking
Sulking, sullenness, silence
Kane kept silence, refused to speak
Sullen, angry, resentful…

I quickly found myself putting complete faith in her choices, and letting myself sink into the logic of the chant itself, which leads you on a journey through the creation of life to gods, heroes, and finally simple men. There is an interesting tendency to link things together in thematic pairs – people, creatures, concepts. So when, out of the ‘deep darkness’, simple and then more complex life-forms begin to appear, they are always given in twos, a sea creature ‘guarded’ by a land creature. These pairs are marked off by the recurring refrain O kane ia Wai‘ololi, o ka wahine ia Wai‘olola, a sexual-geographical metaphor which Beckwith translates as ‘Man is for the narrow stream, woman for the broad stream’. A brief sample:

Man for the narrow stream, woman for the broad stream
Born is the Okea living in the sea
Guarded by the Ahakea tree living on land

Man for the narrow stream, woman for the broad stream
Born is the Wana [sea-urchin] living in the sea
Guarded by the thorny Wanawana plant living on land

Man for the narrow stream, woman for the broad stream
Born is the Nene shellfish living in the sea
Guarded by the Manene grass living on land

And so on, at exhaustive but strangely riveting length. As another reviewer has pointed out, it does make you wonder which sea creature humans are supposed to be guarding…

The notes and commentary are full of anthropological insight and detail which you would never work out from the chant alone. References to ‘the woman who sat sideways’, for example, play on a Hawaiian figure of speech for someone who took a second husband; similarly the complex system of taboo is given full discussion, right up to the highest grade of chief, the offspring of a noble brother and sister, who was considered so sacred that he could only go out at night because otherwise his shadow would make everything it touched holy and thus unusable. One seemingly innocuous line gets the following delightful explanation:

The line reading No ka aunaki kuku ahi kanaka is an allusion to the common method of starting a fire by means of two firesticks. One, the hard-grained aulima, is held upright in the hand (lima) and rubbed back and forth upon the hollowed surface of the other, the softer aunaki, to produce the spark, the action being a perfectly understood sex symbol among Hawaiians. Hence the line is to be literally translated, “From the female firestick comes the fire that makes man.” In other words, woman, impregnated by the male, nurses the spark of life that develops into a living man.

I love this! This particular version of the poem was preserved by Kalākaua, the penultimate Hawaiian monarch, and it includes various genealogical details designed to reflect the lineage of a specific family; different versions were, presumably, once in circulation in other communities. Reading the sometimes disjointed myths still surviving in here, you find yourself wishing there had been some Hawaiian Elias Lönnrot who could have done for these legends what was done for the Finnish Kalevala; alas, during that period at the end of the nineteenth century when everyone else was busy getting into literary nationalism, Hawaii was preoccupied with being annexed by the United States.

Still, what's here is great, and this needs a proper modern printing pronto. I can't quite believe this darkly beautiful, idiosyncratic creation chant has just thirty ratings here on Goodreads. That's outrageous! It deserves a thousand times as much – or as the Hawaiians once said, ‘forty thousand, four hundred thousand, and four thousand’. ( )
2 vote Widsith | Apr 27, 2016 |
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The Kumulipo is the sacred creation chant of a family of Hawaiian alii, or ruling chiefs. Composed and transmitted entirely in the oral tradition, its 2000 lines provide an extended genealogy proving the family's divine origin and tracing the family history from the beginning of the world.
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