Kapu means taboo, forbidden, prohibited, banned. It also means a rule or law. And it also means sacred. It’s pronounced kind of like “kah-pooh” with emphasis on both syllables.
The ancient Hawaiians had many rules or kapu.
|A kapu sign, a link to Hawaii's past.|
Some kapu were for religious reasons. They kept certain temples, items and people sacred and untainted. Another meaning of the word kapu is sacred or holy. This is why a commoner could not stand near a chief nor touch his shadow or personal items. The chief was holy and sacred. One could get killed.
Certain days of the month were kapu days when commoners had to stay inside their houses all day. Even the animals had to be kept quiet, like chickens. Imagine trying to keep a chicken quiet all day! The Hawaiians figured it out: they put their chickens in covered wooden bowls.
|Do you think you could keep these chickens quiet to observe the kapu?|
Some kapu protected and managed natural resources. Fishing kapu ensured there were always enough fish to catch, so there were rules around not catching baby fish or fish during spawning season. There were many kapu around water, like not bathing in certain places. This kept the water safe for drinking.
Other kapu are much harder to relate to: it was kapu for men and women to eat together. Even their food could not be cooked in the same underground oven. Some foods women were not allowed to eat include pork, coconuts, certain fish, and bananas because they were considered sacred. Maybe these kapu were also a way to manage the food supply.
These ancient kapu helped to structure life and make things predictable, but they were also very hard to follow. Kapu were not to be taken lightly. Breaking a kapu, even accidentally, could be punishable by death. There were no trials. One could not plead extenuating circumstances.
Then in 1819, after Hawaii had many years of contact with foreigners, King Kamehameha II (Liholiho) broke the kapu by eating with women. This action brought an end to the kapu system, and to the structure of society.
In modern days, kapu is sometimes used as a “no trespassing” sign. A kapu sign means don’t come here, stay out. Luckily, modern kapu signs are not punishable by death. Otherwise, with all their trespassing, there would be no teenagers in Hawaii! I've been collecting kapu signs because I'm fascinated to see how rare they are becoming. Kapu can also mean "reserved" or belonging to someone.
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