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«HAWAIIAN ASTRONOMICAL CONCEPTS* BY MAUD W. MAKEMSON H E Polynesians of old conceived of the sky as a dome or inverted bowl T resting upon the rim of ...»

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H E Polynesians of old conceived of the sky as a dome or inverted bowl

T resting upon the rim of the hemispherical earth. One legend compares

the universe with a calabash, the cover of which formed the sky, while the

bowl was earth, land, and sea, the juice became rain, and the seeds were

metamorphosed into sun, moon, and stars. Several writers divide into three

zones the space between the earth-paa ilalo, the “solid below”-and the heavens-paa iluna, the “solid above.” Kepelino’s2 work contains several

allusions to the triple heavens, lani kaukolu, as in the chant:

In the space above, heaven is held fast;

In the space below, held fast is muddy earth.

From the space of heaven to the space of earth, there is still space.

The Hawaiian text from Kepelino reads:

0 ka lewa iluna ua paaia he lani.

0 ka lewa ilalo, ua paaia Honua-kele.

Mai ka lewa lani a i ka Honua-lewa, he lewa e!

The triple heaven thus consisted of three hemispherical zones, the highest being purely celestial, the lowest terrestrial, and between them was ka lewa “the air or space” (fig. 1).

FIG.1. The triple heaven of the Hawaiians.

In the summer of 1935, I collected data on ancient Polynesian astronomy a t the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, in Honolulu. The present paper is the first of a series on this subject. I am greatly indebted to Vassar College for a grant which made the research into original sources possible, to Dr H. E. Gregory, formerly Director of the Museum, who placed the facilities of that institution a t my service, to Professor Martha W. Beckwith of Vassar for invaluable advice, to E. H. Bryan, Jr, Curator, K. P. Emory, Ernest Beaglehole, J. F. G. Stokes, and other members of the staff of the Museum, past and present, without whose aid the work would not have been possible.

Martha Warren Beckwith (ed.), Kepelino’s Traditions of Hawaii (Bulletin, Bernice P.

Bishop Museum, No. 95, 1932), p. 28.



Malo3 states explicitly:

K a lavzi paa is that region in the heavens which seems so remote when one looks up into the sky. The ancients imagined that in it was situated the track along which the sun traveled until it set beneath the ocean, then turning back in its course below till it climbed up again in the east. The orbits of the moon and stars were also thought to be in the same region with that of the sun, but the earth was supposed to be solid and motionless.

In Malo’s work each of the three principal zones is subdivided into three strata. We should consider all except the ninth as terrestrial. The lowest, luna ae, is the region immediately above a man’s head when he stands upright; the sixth, luna a ke ao, is the “high place of the clouds.” The last three zones are (1) ke ao, ulu, “the black clouds;” (2) ka lani uli, “the blue sky;” and (3) the highest or ka lani paa, “the fixed or solid heavens.” Neither Kepelino nor Malo mentions a rotating heaven. In their COSmogony the celestial bodies are constrained to move on tracks across the sky. K a m ~ k a uhowever, writes that at the extreme boundary or kukuluo-ka-lani (“border of heaven”) are found the fixed heaven, the rolling heaven, and the triple heaven. It is probable that Kamakau’s version was somewhat influenced by his study of contemporary science.

In the Hawaiian cosmology, it was possible to journey to heaven by ascent of a tall tree or the rainbow. One could come within reach of the sun or moon by sailing out to the edge of the horizon and lying in wait a t the point where they rose, to catch them unawares. Thus the sun was snared by Maui with cords or a rope of hair. In another legend the sun was caught and shut up in a cavern for two months, bringing terrible suffering on earth until his release. An interesting and very old legend found in various parts of Polynesia records that in the early days, the sky was so close to the earth that human beings were forced to crawl about like animals, being unable to stand erect. The method by which the sky was finally pushed up out of the way varies in different islands.

The general cosmological concept of a hemispherical heaven resting upon the rim of a hemispherical earth is reflected in the ancient names for the horizon and the cardinal points. The word kukulu, appearing in many phrases, originally signified a vertical erection of some kind. I n the names of the cardinal points, kukulu evidently refers to the four great pillars, supporting the dome of heaven at these points. Kukulu also appears to have a David Malo, IZawaiian Antiquities (Special Publications, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, NO.2, 1903), pp. 28-30.

S. M. Kamakau, K e Au Okoa, Nov. 4, 1869 (Ms. translation in Bernice P. Bishop Museum).

AMERICAN ANTHKQPOLOGIST [N. s., 40, the derived meaning of circle, as in the phrase for horizon, probably coming from the idea of a circular wall surrounding the earth and holding in the ocean.

Specific Hawaiian terms for the astronomical circles and reference

points are the following:

1. The horizon. We speak of the celestial horizon and of the terrestrial horizon. So, too, the Polynesians, with their usual love of antithesis have

two terms for the horizon:

(a) Ke kukulu o ka lani, “the circle of the heavens.” Malo further specifies it to be “the walls of heaven; the border of the sky where it meets the ocean,” while Kamakau adds, “the place above the dark clouds encircling the earth.” (b) Ke kukulu o ka honua, “the circle of the earth.” Malo, “the compass of the earth;” Kamakau, “the edge of the ocean close to the sky where it circles the borders of the earth.”

2. The zenith. Malo expresses direction upward in the vertical direction as mai kela paa a keia paa, “from this solid to that solid.” Ka ho’okui, “the juncture” (between the terrestrial and celestial zones) undoubtedly refers to the zenith according to both Malo and Kamakau.

Ka halawai, “the place of meeting,” a synonymous term is believed by Emerson, Malo’s c ~ m m e n t a t o r,to signify the line where heaven and ~ earth meet, i.e., the horizon. Kamakau,’however, also couples ho’o ka halawai with ka ho’okui and interprets them as names of the point upward in a vertical direction, equidistant from heaven and earth.

A line in an ancient chant, “Kau ka la i ka lolo,” has been translated “Hangs the sun in the zenith,” and Andrews’ dictionary6 gives lolopua, “rise up high,” as the modern word for zenith. However, since the sun i s near the zenith only in midsummer and may be as much as 40’ south of the zenith a t noon in the latitude of the Hawaiian Islands, i ka lolo is more correctly “at its highest point,” and is then synonymous with the Maori phrase, poutu maro.6 Curiously enough, Tregeara gives Puanga, the name of the star Rigel in the constellation of Orion, as a synonym for zenith. Since New Zealand is 35” or more south of the earth’s equator, and Rigel is only 8’ south of the Lorrin Andrews, A Dictionary of the Hawaiian Language (Special Publication, Bernice P.

Bishop Museum, No. 8, 1922): lolopua, p. 381; awakea, p. 75.

8 Edward Tregear, Maori-Pnlvnesian Com#arative Dictionary (Wellington, N. Z., 1891), pp. 361,365.


MAKEMSON] celestial equator, such usage must go back to a time when the Maori inhabited a land in 8’ south latitude. Precession of the equinoxes would have placed Rigel in the zenith of North Island 10,000 years ago.

3. The meridian. The celestial meridian is defined as the circle passing through the poles, the zenith, and the north and south points of the horizon.

In his Instructions in Ancient Astronomy as Taught by Kaneakahoowaha, Kamakau’ refers to a line drawn on the sky from the North Star through the center (zenith ?) to the southernmost star of Newe. I Newe is the f Southern Cross, as is usually accepted, such a line would correspond roughly to the twelfth hour circle, that is, a circle through the poles and the autumnal equinox. In the early evening of May and June it would coincide with the meridian. That Kamakau had the meridian or a fixed circle through the zenith in mind is evident from his subsequent explanation that the line divides the sky into halves. The eastern half of the sky he terms ke alaula a Kane, “the dawning or bright road of Kane,” i.e., the half of the sky in which the stars are still rising. The western half is ke alanui maawe ula a Kanaloa, “the much-traveled highway of Kanaloa.” Alanui is a highway; maawe, traveled; ula, red; hence, a path traveled so much that the red earth appears. The first phrase may be interpreted as signifying that the stars are entering the realm of the god of the upper regions; the second that they are descending to the region ruled by the god of ocean depths.

The Gilbert Island aborigines, who either had retained more of the earlier astronomical knowledge or had advanced beyond their fellow tribes in science, called the meridian te taubuki, “the ridge-pole of the sky-roof.”*

4. The cardinal points. The four directions on the horizon were associated with the four kukulu, or supporting pillars of heaven, with the diurnal motion of the sun, and with the motion of the trade-winds.

North: kukulu akau, “right-hand pillar.” The observer was thus thought to be facing west, possibly because the southwestern or leeward side of the Hawaiian Islands was considered the “front,” or because tradition referred to a far western land as the original home of the Polynesian race.

Other names for north are luna or iluna, “up,” and ko’olau, one of the names of the North Star. “After this star,” Kepelino9 writes, “Hawaii-nui [reputed discoverer of the islands] called the direction on the earth ko’olau

–  –  –

or north, not akau or right, which is an introduced word.” The Tongan word for north is identical, i.e., tokolau, according to Collocott.lo Kamakau gives the following synonyms for north: uliuli, ulunui, melemele and hakalauai. Since Malo lists Uliuli, Melemele, and Hanakalauai as geographical names found in ancient prayers, they are probably names of islands situated north of some land occupied by the ancestors of the Hawaiians in ancient times, thus giving their names to the direction. Uliuli, “dark blue of ocean depths,” is also the name of a star which Kamohoula places in the southern sky. Hakalauai and Hanakalauai are also star-names, probably identical. Melemele, “beautiful,” is a star-name throughout Polynesia. The connection between islands and stars follows as a matter of course, since stars guided navigators to the various islands and to each island corresponded the star-name which was its sailing direction.

South: kukulu hema, “left-hand pillar;” lalo or ilalo, “down;” kona, “the direction of the cross of stars, nu hoku h a, ” according to Kepelino.

Compare the Tongan word for south “tonga,” which is the same word as kona.

Lipo, “darkness,” and lewa, “space,” were other synonyms for south.

Kamakau names a point just above the southern horizon kuanalipo “standing in the dark.” The words lip0 and kuanalipo have as their opposites lio, “bright,” and kuanalio, “standing in the light,’’ which are applied to stars remaining continually above the northern horizon, perpetually encircling the pole.

East: kukulu hikina (from hiki, “rise,” and the present participle ending). Other synonyms are ka la hiki, “sunrise;” ka la hiki ola, “life-giving day,” and similar phrases on the same theme.

The Tuamotuan hiti and Maori whiti, “east,” are identical with hiki.

West: kukulu komohana, “sunset pillar.” Other words are ka la kau, “the sun lodged;” kaulana or napoo, “sunset,” and so on.

Malo also gives local terms for the cardinal points referring to geographical features such as the uplands or the ocean and depending on the observer’s location.

5. The equator and ecliptic on the sky. A people as advanced in the science of astronomy as the Hawaiians would be expected to have phrases describing the annual motion of the sun on the ecliptic. Kamakau, however, seems to be the only modern historian of the islands who offers any information on the subject. He gives two synonymous terms which have been interpreted a s the celestial equator: ke alanui o ke ku’uku’u, “the highway 10 E. V. Collocott, Tongan Astronomy and Calendar (Occasional Papers, Bernice P.

Bishop Museum, Vol. 8, No. 4, 1922), p. 160.


MAKEMSON] of the spider,” and ke alanui i ka piko a Wakea, “the way to the navel of Wakea” (the sky-parent).

The same phrase in Maori, te pito a Rangi, “the navel of the sky-parent,” is said by Smith‘l to signify the ecliptic, and aramatua, “parent path,” is given as a synonym. One of the Tuamotuan appellations for a planet, given to Emory by Fariua, also contains the word for spider, and is the only other such reference that I have found in Polynesian literature. It is Takurua a te tuku haga PO. I am inclined to the opinion that the path of the spider refers to the spiraling motion of the sun northward and southward during the year, i.e., to the ecliptic, and that the way to the navel of the sky-parent is the celestial equator as Kamakau states.

6. Tropics. A line parallel to the celestial equator and marking the northernmost limit of the sun in declination-corresponding to the Tropic of Cancer on the earth-Kamakau names ke alanui polohiwa a Kane, “the black-shining road of Kane.” A similar parallel in declination 23$” south and corresponding to the Tropic of Capricorn, he terms ke alanui polohiwa a Kanaloa, “the black-shining road of Kanaloa.” Within this zone, he states, are found the “fixed stars ruling the various lands,” na hoku ai-aina or na hoku (stars) o ke aina (lands). Outside the zone are the foreign stars, na hoku o ka lewa, “the stars of space,” and the highways of the navigation stars, ke alanui o na hoku ho’okele. Reference to a distinct class of “stars ruling lands” is found in several Hawaiian authors.

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