Kava kava (Piper methysticum) has become increasingly known in the Western world as a safe anxiolytic herb, tranquilizer, and relaxant made from the dried and powdered roots of the kava plant. As the worldwide demand for alternatives to anxiety medications and alcohol increases, the prestige of kava and its wonderful profile of effects has increased apace. Yet kava hasn’t always been obscure everywhere; in fact, to indigenous peoples throughout the South Pacific, kava is a central aspect of social and religious life. In the spirit of exploring the lesser-known aspects of kava, I’d like to bring you a collection of the myths, legends, and rituals surrounding kava in Hawaii—that piece of the South Pacific closest to our shores!
Kava: Food of the Gods
Kava kava is called ‘awa in Hawaiian; the etymology of the word has been traced back to the Polynesian kava or ava (Maly 2006). So as not to cause confusion, I will use the English word kava throughout this article. According to Hawaiian oral traditions, kava was brought to the islands from Kahiki, the ancestral homeland that Hawaiian antiquarians have identified as Polynesia. In many myths, kava was imported by the gods Kane and Kanaloa, major figures of the Hawaiian pantheon who almost always appear together in stories. Described as subsisting primarily or exclusively on kava, these gods are also the mythical first kava farmers: Kane and Kanaloa roam across the Hawaiian archipelago planting kava and causing springs to flow where there is no ready supply of water with which to make the kava brew (Pukui 1973). In this sense, Kane and Kanaloa also represent the divine origins of all food plant cultivation: kava was planted in the same areas as staple crops such as banana, taro, and sugarcane, and thrives under similar conditions of warmth and plentiful rain (Maly 2006). As gods, Kane and Kanaloa are able to create the conditions necessary to produce the food (kava) that they require for their subsistence, and farmers would thus pray to them to create the same conditions for the food plants that sustained the Hawaiian people.
Many ritual chants (mele) recorded from local informants propitiate the gods and ask them to ensure a bountiful harvest of kava and other crops. When establishing a new plot of kava, farmers would call on the goddess Ka-‘ohu-kolo-mai-iluna o ka lā‘au (The-mist-which-crawls-atop-the-forest) to help the kava grow:
You who cause the ‘awa [kava] stalks to grow
Cause the leaves of the ‘awa [kava] to increase
And fill the planting holes
With the dark ‘awa [kava] which the rat likes to eat
The ‘awa [kava] of the gods, planted by the birds
The sacred ‘awa [kava] of my father Pōhaku-o-Kāne-maka-i‘a
Let the rains increase the ‘awa [kava] growth
Let life come to me, Ka-Miki” (Maly 2006, p.8)
Besides rituals for the planting of kava itself, kava was also offered as a key sacrament of rituals seeking the blessing of the gods for success in nearly every endeavor, including for a bountiful harvest or catch; at harvest festivals; and when choosing the right tree to carve into a canoe. Offering rituals were often elaborate and might involve several rounds of propitiatory chants. For instance, when selecting a tree to carve into a canoe, a kahuna (priest) would venture into the forest and meditate for several hours until the gods showed him the right tree. He then returned with a party of men for the harvesting and food offerings of kava, cocoanuts, red fish, and a pig. After sacrificing the offerings with incantations (hoomana), the party slept at the base of the tree and harvested it the next morning with further incantations (Malo 1951; Beckwith 1970).
Offerings were always sacrificed by eating, after a portion had been ceremonially offered to the presence of the gods. With kava, the kahuna could do this by pouring a serving of brew onto the ground, onto a carven image of the deity, or by sprinkling it into the air. The kahuna would drink the remainder out of a kava cup (kanoa) made from a polished coconut shell cut lengthwise. The protocol surrounding kava’s ceremonial use required that the kava implements such as cups and strainers be handled with the utmost care: the bowls could not be placed anywhere they might be stepped over or otherwise desecrated, and could not be put directly on the ground; instead a barkcloth mat must be set under them (Beckwith 1970, pg. 94). The halau hula, or school of dance and chant (from which we get hula dance), also featured kava drinking in their ceremonies to sacralize a space before singing or dancing could commence. Each dancer would receive a portion of kava to drink while the hula master poured a libation of kava on the altar and chanted a hymn to the gods (Pukui 1943).
Alongside these more elaborate and occasional ceremonies, ritual offerings were a part of the daily life of every pious Hawaiian householder:
Each householder kept in his house of worship, called the mua, a food gourd (hulilau) called called kuuahu (altar) or ipu (gourd) of Lono, covered with wickerwork and hung by strings to a notched stick. Inside the gourd were kept food, fish, and ‘awa [kava], and a little piece of ‘awa [kava] was tied to the handle outside. Morning and evening the pious man took down the gourd, laid it at the door of the house, and, facing outward, prayed for the chiefs, commoners, and the good of his own family, then ate the food from the gourd and sucked the ‘awa [kava]” (Beckwith 1970, pg. 33).
While different gods were offered various foods as sacraments—for instance, Lono was offered red fish, black cocoanut, and white fish, while Kane and Kanaloa were offered pig, red fowl and cocoanut—all the gods were always offered kava as well (Beckwith 1970). Like the ambrosia of Greek myth, kava is frequently considered the only food of the Hawaiian gods, and is often synonymous with the body of the gods. Thus, it was always treated with the utmost respect. Perhaps most interesting of all is that kava was considered the body of the gods specifically because of its “narcotic” (Beckwith 1970, pg. 95), or otherwise psychoactive effects. It may not be too much of a stretch to draw a parallel between the ceremonial and sacred position of kava and that of psychoactive sacraments in other indigenous cultures, such as peyote among the Huichol or Psilocybe mexicana (teonanacatl, literally translated as “gods’ flesh”), among the pre-Columbian Aztecs.
Kane and Kanaloa: Kava Drinkers and Water Finders
Although all the Hawaiian gods partake of kava in myth and legend, perhaps none are tied so closely to the sacrament as Kane and Kanaloa, the twin gods originally responsible for bringing the kava plant to Hawaii (Beckwith 1970; Maly 2006). Almost always appearing together in Hawaiian oral traditions, Kane and Kanaloa are contrasted visually–Kanaloa is tall and fair haired while Kane is darker skinned with curly black hair and thick lips (Thrum 1907)—and rule over different parts of the natural world: Kane is the god of the land, terrestrial plants, sunlight, fresh water, and forests, while Kanaloa has dominion over the ocean, marine life, and the art of medicine. Kane is also said to be the ancestor of both chiefs and commoners and so is more closely allied to humanity than Kanaloa.
Stories of rivalries between Kane and Kanaloa led some earlier anthropologists to equate Kanaloa with the Christian devil (the ill-wisher of humankind), while Kane is the well-wisher of humankind (Beckwith 1970). A legend that appears in several traditions around the Hawaiian Islands tells that Kanaloa was part of the first group of spirits who were “spit out by the gods” (Beckwith 1970, pg. 60) and descended from the lower heaven to live on the islands after their creation. However, after his group is forbidden from drinking kava, Kanaloa leads these spirits in a rebellion against the other gods and is cast down to the underworld to be its ruler. While its structure seems heavily Christian-inspired and thus the story may be missionary-influenced, the inciting incident of being banned from kava drinking is a completely local theme. Many older Hawaiian myths and legends center around the gods’ struggles to gain and maintain the privilege of kava drinking, a theme that reflects the layers of protocol and negotiations of status that determined who could drink kava and when in Hawaiian society (Beckwith 1970).
As a contrast, most myths invoke Kane and Kanaloa as partner gods with equal roles in improving the Hawaiian Islands and making them suitable for the cultivation of kava and other food crops. Together these gods cause springs and watercourses to flow, and plant, prepare, and drink kava. Kane and Kanaloa are also addressed jointly in rituals to ensure a good harvest and consecrate canoes.
Tricks, Traps and Tests: The Mischievous Side of Kava
While in ritual invocations and ceremonies, kava usually appears as an element of community bonding and harmony, many Hawaiian myths playfully use the contest to secure and consume kava as a source of conflict and mischief. Trickster figures in Hawaiian myth such as Maui and the dog-man Puapualenalena, are often shown stealing kava from the garden patches of gods or high-ranking chiefs, either for their own amusement or under the orders of a higher-ranking figure (Beckwith 1970). These trickster figures are typically kupua (shapeshifters) whose power resides in their own hands (Beckwith 1970, pg. 436); as such they are not subject to the powers of the gods and are outside the complex hierarchy of social status and rank that determines the actions of gods and mortals.
One trickster figure who recurs in both Hawaiian and Polynesian myth is Maui, a kupua whose stories are highly localized to different regions of the Hawiian Islands but retain a more or less consistent form. Maui is somewhat godlike in that he has a miraculous birth: his mother Hina-of-the-Fire gives birth to him without having lived with a man (Beckwith 1970) . However, Maui is not one of the gods and owes no allegiance to them: he even kills two deities—the fish god Pimoe, and the bat god P’eap’ea after the latter kidnaps his wife. Maui also steals the black (hiwa) kava of Kane and Kanaloa as one of his first “strifes” (Beckwith 1970, pg. 228). His deed is echoed by Kaulu, another shapeshifter who bedevils the gods after they spirit away his brother Kaeha to the lower heaven. Kaulu plays several tricks on the gods, first hiding in a palm leaf and demanding “in the voice of a god”(Beckwith 1970, pg. 437) that the kava cup be given to his brother. He also fools the gods into giving him all their food plants and avoids the traps they set up to kill him and Kaeha, until finally the gods are glad to be rid of them. Upon returning to earth, Kaulu becomes chief in his birthplace of Koolau.
More complex layers of protocol and propriety surround the tale of Puapualenalena, a kupua whose ability to transform into a yellow dog at will has made him an accomplished thief. In some versions of the tale, Puapualenalena steals fish from his master as fast as the man can pull them from the water (Beckwith 1970). When his master—a great kava drinker—discovers the theft, he promises not to punish Puapualenalena if he will steal some kava from the chief Hakau’s taboo crop. However, Puapualenalena is caught by the chief in the act of theft. Chief Hakau promises not to punish Puapualenalena or his master if Puapualenalena will steal a conch shell that was stolen from a temple (heiau) on Oahu by the ghosts or spirits who inhabit the valley of Waipio. The spirits’ constant blowing on the conch shell disturbs the chief’s sleep:
Wearisome the cliffs of Waipio
With the constant sounding of the Kiha-pu [conch]
Ineffective is the chief’s ‘awa [kava]
With the constant sounding of the Kiha-pu [conch]
The chief cannot sleep all winter
Vexed and worried
With the search for someone who will find
That cursed kupua on the cliff
Where it gleams there (Beckwith 1970, pg. 351).
Thus it is the initial theft of the conch shell which has unbalanced the social order (since the spirits blow it at inappropriate times that disturb the chief), a rift that not even kava, the usual smoother of social relations, can fix (“ineffective is the chief’s ‘awa”). By stealing back the conch shell, Puapualenalena restores the social order through a further act of theft: returning the conch to its rightful place in the heiau, he wins a pardon for himself and his master for violating the taboo of stealing the chief’s kava.
While in this trickster myth, kava becomes a tool for rebalancing social relations, other tales use kava drinking to test the protagonist’s mettle. Sometimes this test takes the form of elaborate trials the hero must go through to obtain kava and the materials for preparing the drink (Maly 2006); in other stories, kava-drinking itself becomes the test, or even a ploy to do away with the hero. One folk story tells of Lele’asapai, grandson of the chief Samata, who is sent to retrieve his grandfather’s yam plantings after they are stolen by the flying spirits of Alele (Beckwith 1970). On the way, Lele’asapai stops by the territory of the chief Savea Si’uleo, who secretly plans to destroy Lele’asapai. First Savea tries to destroy his camp, which Lele’asapai’s guardian spirit prevents; Savea later sends Lele’asapai to fetch kava and misdirects him, but again his guardian sets him on the right course. Finally, Savea gives Lele’asapai poisoned kava to drink; his guardian saves him a third time by drinking the poison instead. Lele’asapai is then able to go on and retrieve the yam plantings at Alele (Beckwith 1970).
A similar tale is woven about Lefanoga, who follows his father and elder brother to his family’s gathering in the heavens against their wishes. Outraged at Lefanoga for breaking the taboo, his family gives him “the poisonous kava” to drink (Beckwith 1970, pg. 438); Lefanoga avoids the poison and uproots the whole plant to bring back to the Tagaloa people on earth. This brief mention of the “poisonous kava” is intriguing from an anthropological as well as a mythic perspective: could it be a reference to an older strain of kava no longer cultivated on Hawaii at the time the story was told, or perhaps to poisonous parts of the plant, such as the leaves, that are never traditionally consumed?
Bringing it All Together: The Heart-Stirring Tale of Ka-Miki
Known in Hawaiian as “Awa He Mo’olelo Ka’ao”, this native tale—translated as “The Heart-Stirring Tale of Ka-Miki”, chronicles the journeys of two semi-divine brothers, Ka-Miki and Maka’iole, around the island of Hawaii by means of the ancient trail system (ala loa) (Maly 2006). The excerpt I will relate brings together many traditional themes surrounding kava in the oral traditions that chronicle its harvesting, preparation and ritual use.
Ka-Miki and Maka’iole, the grandsons of a goddess, are tasked with ridding the trail system and the royal communities of those who would abuse the people or the island’s resources. Having completed their training in Hawaiian martial arts (olohe), as a final test their goddess grandmother charges the brothers with gathering the materials to prepare the kava for their graduation ceremony. They must gather the sacred water of Kane with which to brew the kava; collect the strainer and coconut drinking bowls from their ancestress Lani-mamao; and retrieve a special yellow-barked kava (awa ili lena) from along the cliffs of Waipio. This kava is described as a favorite of the gods—“which the gods drink till they are drunk and bleary-eyed. Till their eyes are reeling, that is the ‘awa [kava] that is there along the sacred cliff of Waipio”(Maly 2006, pg. 11)—obviously a testament to this kava’s potency!
As in other Hawaiian legends, Waipio is represented as the abode of spirits, in this case ruled by the ghost king Luanu’u. Because of his skill at martial arts, Ka-Miki is sent to fetch the yellow-barked kava out from under the noses of the spirits of Waipio: he jumps to Waipio in a single bound, invoking the goddess Ka-‘ohu-kolo-mai-iluna o ka lā‘au (The-mist-that crawls-atop-the-forest) to shroud the area in a concealing mist. With this divine assistance, Ka-Miki climbs unseen to the roof of Luanu’u’s longhouse, where he spies the ghost king in a kava-induced slumber. After tricking Luanu’u into sending his ghost messengers away to look for the kava thief, Ka-Miki steals a bundle of kava from under Luanu’u’s nose and hides with it in the rafters. He evades the nets set out by the ghosts to snare him and even destroys some of them in combat, finally escaping with the kava back to Lani-mamao. The goddess then raises lightning and thunder in praise of Ka-Miki’s accomplishment.
Ka-Miki’s final trial is to fetch water from the sacred spring of Kane (a call-back to Kane and Kanaloa’s role in creating springs across the islands) with which to prepare the kava. As he carries back the water in the kava bowl (kanoa), some of the water is spilled by the wind goddess Wai-ko-loa (literally “water carried far”) and thus forms new springs in other areas of the island. Thus, a test that initially seems to upset the order of things (Ka-Miki must remove kava and water from their divinely ordained places), ends up propagating these sacred elements to other parts of the island in a balancing sacralization (Maly 2006).
Of all kava’s roles in Hawaiian mythology, perhaps none is more fundamental than that of establishing and reaffirming the divine order of nature and human social relations. The few times kava appears as a disruptive element are overshadowed by the instances in which kava is seen to establish or reaffirm harmony between gods and humans, as well as within human society. Being both the drink and the body of the gods, ritual preparation and consumption of kava was the primary way indigenous Hawaiians could affirm their own place in a divine order that extended from the very highest heaven all the way to the natural world on earth.
Beckwith, Martha. 1970. Hawaiian Mythology. University of Hawai’i Press.
Malo, David. 1951. Hawaiian Antiquities. Honolulu: B.P. Bishop Museum Press.
Maly, Képa. 2006. “’Awa: Cultural-Historical Perspectives in Hawaii”. In: Hawaiian ‘Awa: Views of an Ethnobotanical Treasure. Ed Johnston and Helen Rogers, eds. Hilo, HI: Association for Hawaiian ‘Awa.
Pukui, Mary Kawena. 1943. “Games of my Hawaiian childhood”. California Folklore Quarterly 2(3).
Pukui, Mary Kawena and Samuel H. Elbert. 1973. Hawaiian Dictionary. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Thrum, Thomas G. 1907. Hawaiian Folk Tales, A Collection of Native Legends. Chicago.