Saturday, April 12, 2014

Kapu - Be Careful What You Do!

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. 

P.S. If you are blog hopping from the A to Z challenge, please include your link if you comment! I try to reciprocate comments as quickly as I can, though I did lag behind last year, especially towards the end.

P.P.S. I am running two mini-contests during the A-Z Challenge (and into part of May). Here's how to enter


  1. Were bananas kapu for women because of shortage of food then?

  2. I found this very interesting. Not at all Kapu!

  3. I don't think bananas were scarce, but they were considered sacred, food that was offered to the gods. Since women were considered unclean, then one wouldn't want to defile the gods by sharing them with women. But also, I heard somewhere else that bananas had a sexual meaning, which is why they weren't eaten by women. I can't find whether this is true or not.

  4. I am learning so much. I'm glad I live in this century. I will have been killed as I don't do well with being told "forbidden" if I don't agree but I'm glad there are still teenagers.

  5. Oh I can relate to that, forbidden is like a red flag for me, I launch straight at it, at least to see WHY and does it make sense :)

  6. Great post, thanks for this little insight to the Hawaiian culture, there's so little I know about it and I found it really interesting!
    Andrea, #atozchallenge Mighty Minion Asset

  7. Very interesting. I love all the research you put into this. Amazing there were foods women could not eat.

  8. Interesting! The more I read your blog the more I want to visit :) Lovely!

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    Multicolored Diary - Tales of colors
    MopDog - The crazy thing about Hungarians...

  9. Mahalo! (Hawaiian for thank you) I adore Mop Dog. Your other blog is intriguing too, but Mop Dog rocks.

  10. "Mighty Minion Asset" That's quite a title! Thanks for including your link!

  11. Glad I found you!


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