Monday, April 13, 2009

Hawaiian Gods

"This masterful sculpture of the Hawaiian god Kuka'ilimoku was created for a temple of the great warrior and chief Kamehameha I, who unified the Hawaiian islands at the beginning of the 19th century. Chants, offerings, and processions honored the god.

Kuka'ilimoku, one of the many forms of the powerful and protective god Ku, became the favorite deity of Kamehameha I who was the supreme ruler of Hawai`i in the early 1800s. Kamehameha I built many temples for religious ceremonies dedicated to Kuka'ilimoku. After Kamehameha's death in 1819, his son Liholiho (Kamehameha II) succeeded him. He abolished Kapu, a political and religious system with strict rules governing social behavior, ended the worship of Kuka'ilimoku and other deities, and called for the destruction of temples. As a result, this sculpture is one of only three large carved images of Kuka'ilimoku that have survived."

Image: Kuka’ilimoku (temple image), early 19th century. Artist not identified. Hawai‘i. Breadfruit wood (Artocarpus incisus).

Image and text courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum’s online database, available at:

Consider the above text in contrast to Ka‘ahumanu’s speech in Act 1 Scene 2:

“Here is why I, Ka‘ahumanu, Kuhin Nui (co-ruler) and widow of Kamehameha, have done these things. For many years now we have seen these haole, these foreign men among us. We know that they break the kapu (taboo) laws. Do the gods come to punish them? No! Some of the women have gone to the ships and have eaten with these haole men. Do the gods come to punish them? No! So why should it be that they will come to punish us at all? I think these beliefs are nothing, false. And here is another thing. We know where the punishment comes from. It does not come from gods. It comes from men. It comes from the priests who grow greedy for power. And who is it who hates most this kapu law of eating? We, women of the ali‘i (chiefly class). We do not want a lowly place any more, and the men of the priesthood will see this! You should have seen the fear in their faces when we sat to eat. Hewahewa made a great prayer to the gods. Liholiho, the king, approached the women’s table. Many of the faces in the crowd became as white as the full moon. Liholiho sat with us to eat. He ate and the people waited in silence, waited for the terrible wrath of the gods … which never came! Then a great cry rose from the women. “Ai noa (free eating), ‘ai noa! The kapu laws are ended! The gods are false.”

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