Water of Life
Life for Hawaiians, especially before colonization, was centered on water and agriculture (land). The most important food staple at that time was kalo (taro), which relied heavily on the mana (life-force) of the water because the kalo was considered ʻohana (family) to the Hawaiians. The mana of the water was established through attentive cleanliness of the river ways by ceremony, which included pule (prayers) by the villagers. These ceremonies and prayers were important in maintaining a positive relationship between land and water, which led to the same relationship to all Kanaka Maoli (native Hawaiians).
There are two kinds of water in the Hawaiian language, wai (rain or land water) and kai (sea or salt water). The ancient God for wai was Kané and for the ocean water it was Kanaloa. Of the many water ceremonies used in pre-western contact Hawaii, the two most notable were kapu kai and pikai.
Kapu kai is the ceremonial bathing of one’s self in the sea or salt water if on land. This ceremony was done to purify the body and spirit of the individual,especially when an imbalance was present. This type of ritual was usually done in private however;it was not uncommon for a group of villagers or family members to perform kapu kai to bring harmony and peace into their ahupuaʻa and ultimately the world.
Ahupuaʻa (side note)
The original purpose of the ahupua’a concept was recognizing that each of us have responsibilities that contribute to the wellness or demise of the community and ultimately, the rest of the living world. The original intent (pre-warrior period) of the ahupua’a system was the non-verbal agreement among the inhabitants to protect, preserve and sustain a particular area of land and water that flowed from the mountains to the ocean. The outcome of each responsible action determined the outcome for the individual and ultimately, the people within that community. The island was divided equally like slices of a pie and everyone was allowed to travel the “mauka-makai” (highlands and lowlands) routes to access the abundance and to give back to the ahupuaʻa.
Through sharing resources and constantly working within the rhythms of their natural environment, Hawaiians enjoyed abundance and a balanced lifestyle with leisure time for recreation during the harvest season. The system was one of lokahi, which was the understanding of, “living as one” or we are all connected. Every thought, word(s) or action had a direct effect on everyone within that ahupua’a and ultimately to the planet. The original people were doing their share of maintaining balance and harmony within themselves and their community.
Sometimes kapu kai was done as a precautionary measure to ward off negative energies prior to performing in a public event. It was to ensure that the individual was not carrying wrong intentions or allowing wrong energies to interfere in their public presentation. This ceremony was also done prior to a student’s hula graduation,which was called ʻailolo and after a kahunaʻs healing treatment. Women did this ceremony following the end of their menstrual cycle each month.
Kapu kai should not be confused with ʻauʻau kai, which is bathing in the ocean for physical cleanliness. On the Big Island of Hawaii, kapu kai was usually done in five consecutive days. It was not uncommon however, to do this ceremony periodically for general improvement of physical and spiritual health. A child or an ill person could be given this ceremonial bath by someone else.
Each year I have a two week intensive Mana Lomi® (Hawaiian problem solving bodywork therapy) program in Hawaii. At least two days prior to everyone arriving I will go to the beach to do a kapu kai ceremony to purify myself, and my intentions. I envision everyone having an inspirational, life-changing experience. I see each person achieving exceptional skills that go beyond the mechanics of learning this spiritual and specific bodywork technique. During the ceremony I offer a hoʻokupu (gift) to the ocean and Kanaloa, which consist of Hawaiian herbs wrapped in Hawaiian ti-leaves. I will always end with a Hawaiian chant of inspiration.
Pikai is a traditional Hawaiian ceremony of sprinkling seawater or salt water to purify an area or person from spiritual contamination and harmful energies. This ceremony is commonly confused with the Christian ceremony of sprinkling of water. The use of water in symbolic purification is universal;however, pikai during the pre-western contact was unique to Hawaiians. The use of fresh water, seawater and even coconut water was used ceremonially.
Essentially, when the water of purification (wai huikala) had sea salt in it, the ceremony was pikai. Sometimes ʻolena (turmeric) or limu kala (sea vegetable) was added to the seawater for an enhanced outcome. In the hale puloʻuloʻu (house of purification sweat ceremony) that I conduct, I like to use awa (kava kava), ʻolena and sandalwood (ʻiliʻahi) to reconnect to the real power we have within.
Pikai was done when a new house or a new canoe was completed. As many other rituals do, pikai help relieve the feeling of being helpless in an unseen outcome (unknown) or the fear of something. Pikai brings a sense of protection from influences felt to be unclean or harmful.
The ancient Hawaiians viewed water as the essence of life for their ahupuaʻa much like their view of the human body. The land like the human body is dependent on the health of the “river of life.”