friday feast from hawaii: kumulipo

In honor of Statehood Day, I would like to share one of Hawaii’s greatest poetic treasures. The KUMULIPO (“beginning in deep darkness”), is an epic prayer and genealogical chant that traces the origin of a family of alii (royalty) all the way back to the cosmos (spiritual world). A beautiful example of Hawaii’s rich oral tradition, the KUMULIPO, at over 2000 lines, is a wonder of human achievement. In ancient Hawaii, only trained haku mele (kahunas) were allowed to recite this chant on special occasions, such as in honor of Captain Cook’s arrival at Kealakekua Bay in 1779. The oral rendition was so critical that even one mistake was believed to destroy the truth of the chant, so the kahuna was put to death.

I am reminded that poetry arises from primal forces, and can be crucial in preserving economic and political history, culture, and mythology. I am in awe that at one time in Hawaii’s history, the poet was held in such high esteem that he was entrusted with thousands of years of evolutionary knowledge. As it was transmitted upon sacred breath, this seems to be poetry in its purest form.

Here is how it begins:


At the time when the earth became hot
At the time when the heavens turned about
At the time when the sun was darkened
To cause the moon to shine
The time of the rise of the Pleiades
The slime, this was the source of the earth
The source of the night that made night
The intense darkness, the deep darkness
Darkness of the sun, darkness of the night
Nothing but night.

Born was Kumulipo in the night, a male
Born was Po’ele in the night, a female
Born was the coral polyp, born was the coral, came forth
Born was his child an earthworm, came forth
Born was the starfish, his child the small starfish came forth  . . .

Read more of Beckwith’s translation here.

This week’s Poetry Friday roundup is at Kelly Fineman’s blog.

8 thoughts on “friday feast from hawaii: kumulipo

  1. wow!
    That is powerful stuff. Primal forces indeed. Thanks, Jama, for a very cool Poetry Friday selection.
    ~eisha (7-Imp)


  2. TadMack says:
    I love the repetition of phrases; I can imagine the hypnotic effect of just the word ‘born.’
    I think it might not be easy to memorize, however!!


  3. Oh, what a cool choice for Poetry Friday! And thanks for giving all the background information on the oral tradition…so interesting. And I love this part too: “I am reminded that poetry arises from primal forces, and can be crucial in preserving economic and political history, culture, and mythology.” Yes!
    Sara Holmes


  4. Poetry Friday
    Hi, Jama. I tried to leave you a comment yesterday, but I don’t know what happened. Anyway, thanks for sharing this beautiful oral poem and all the history that goes with it. Poetry is indeed both “primal” and “crucial” and I love that you’ve joined us for Poetry Friday!
    Sara Lewis Holmes


  5. Thanks for reading, Sara. The more I read about ancient Hawaii, the more I am impressed by how all their knowledge was “held” in their memories for hundreds of years. Can you imagine never being able to write something down?


  6. Re: TadMack says:
    Welcome, Tadmack! Did you have a chance to glance at the whole chant? You’re definitely right about the hypnotic effect. Chanters also had to breathe at precisely the right places so as not to mess up the inflections, etc. BTW, you’re officially entered into the blog contest!!


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