The Poetics of Astronomy at Kūkaniloko

The Poetics of Astronomy at Kūkaniloko


I ka ‘ōlelo no ke ola, i ka ‘ōlelo nō ka make.

In words/language is life, in words/language is death.

(Words can heal, words can destroy.)

An ‘ōlelo no’eau – a traditional wise saying


Walter J. Ong, an expert on orality, said, “Oral peoples commonly, and probably universally, consider words to have great power.” Cultures that did not have a written language sometimes had complex and sophisticated oral arts. Hawai’iʻs oral arts are among the most sophisticated in the precontact world. The meanings of words were thought about and were used so that they allowed multiple understandings.

Young people gifted in oratory were trained in the poetic arts. There were recitations, debate, contests of wit, puzzling contests, the weaving of new chants and mele, and competitions among students that were judged by known experts. 19th Century Hawaiian scholar David Malo said, “In ancient Hawaii it was at the king’s court that were gathered the notable bards, poets, and those in whose minds were stored the traditional lore of the nation.” The experts themselves engaged in competitions, honing their already considerable skills.

“When the bards, poe haku mele, had composed their meles, they met at the ni-o, a house where were assembled also the critics, poe loi, the wise men, literati and philosophers, kaka-olelo, who were themselves poets: and the compositions were then recited in the hearing of this learned assembly, criticized, corrected and amended, and the authoritative form settled.”[1]

  • David Malo, Hawaiian Antiquities, at, 185

“The Hawaiian (or Polynesian) composer who would become a successful competitor in the fields of poetry, oratory, or disputation must store up in his memory the rather long series of names for persons, places, objects, or phases of nature which constitute the learning of the aspirant for mastery in the art of expression. He is taught, says one tale, “about everything in the earth and in the heavens”— that is, their names, their distinguishing characteristics.”

  • Martha Beckwith, introductory notes to “The Hawaiian Romance of Laieikawai,” Part 2: Nomenclature – Emotional Value,” Internet Archive, no page number.

Gifted orators and weavers of words (haku ‘ōlelo) were admired and respected and their station was elevated.

The tools of orality include metaphor, simile, homonyms, antonyms, references to historical and legendary-mythological events and persons, symbols, and more. There is a particular tool that is rife in Hawaiian astronomy as expressed through Kūkaniloko. That tool is the implex – a densely packed word or phrase that contains, that holds, multiple lines of meaning.

All poetry contains layers of “hidden meanings,” sometimes understandable only to those who are sensitized to different levels of subtleties. Hawaiian chants are no exception. A skilled chanter would oftentimes weave kaona or double-meaning creating three (3), four (4), or five (5) different levels of possible translation. So while some may hear the mele and think it means one thing, others more familiar with the context would understand a very different interpretation. It is often said that it is nearly impossible to fully understand the meaning of a chant because of this use of kaona. Only the intended recipient of the composition would be able to grasp its true meaning.

  • Kamehameha Schoolsʻ website, addressing Hawaiian poetry

Implexes are widely and deeply employed in the naming of stars, and in the naming of the landscape markers for the rise and set of stars, and in the naming of the stations of the sun.

Hawaiian experts in the poetic arts used levels or layers of meaning, especially the device of implexes, to compress multiple lines of meaning into a single word or phrase. I think of these implexes as explosive compression. The lines, or perhaps more accurately intertwining braids or webs, of meaning explode in many directions from a single phrase or word. What an implex means to the listener, or to the reader today, depends both on what the listener/reader knows and on the increasing understanding or recognition the listener/reader experiences over time. This is true for many realms of knowledge, and particularly so for the knowledges associated with astronomy. Not only does the listener/reader have to recognize the presence of multiple meanings, she/he has to know the multiple names of each celestial object and how those objects relate to one another, to deity, to the calendar, to the structure of time and space, to the hierarchies of celestial beings and terrestrial sociopolitical status, to the elements of prophecy a celestial body indicated, and to the mo’olelo associated with each of these. Itʻs not a knowledge set the average well-educated person either then or now is likely to have.

Diacritical marks do not, at least among native speakers, so alter the sound of a word as to make it into two or more separate words. The homonym continues, even in the presence of diacritical marks. Elision continues as well. At one point I was editing a documentary video for a local TV station. In addition to the tech in the room was a local visitor, another documentarian. I said the place name Kaaawa the way I had learned it from a hānai relative who was a native speaker, with barely a hesitation between ka and a or betwee a and a. The visitor corrected me – “itʻs Ka-ah-ah-va,” he said, and I said, thatʻs what I said. He was adamant, however. To him it was Ka-ah-ah-va.

Not long after that I was visiting Dr. Kekuni Blaisdell, a family friend and colleague of my father as well as an immensely respected kupuna whom Iʻd known since I was fifteen. Adhering, I thought, to the admonition of my, ahem, mistaken colleague at the TV station, I said something about the book Na Inoa Hoku. I pronounced each word separately. Kekuni said, “what?” I repeated myself. He said, “Oh, Nainoa Hoku,” eliding na and inoa.

Part of the Papaku Makawalu methodology asks that one ignore or remove diacritical marks in the process of understanding and interpreting oli and mele and other Hawaiian oral literature. It reminded me of what Moe Keale used to ask when I came to him with a question. Heʻd say, “Did you do the huna on it?”

The word huna has gotten a bad rap in the last twenty or so years because of certain writers and proselytizers of New Age pseudo-Hawaiian beliefs and practices. Kaona has not been similarly tainted. Kaona is hidden meanings. Huna is sacred/secret meanings. That is a difference between kaona and no’o huna, at least in the way I learned about the two, and the difference applies to astronomical knowledges. Astronomy was a sacred and secret knowledge set.

Here are some examples:

A solstice is a ko’i – meaning adze and axe. Each year has two solstices, one in December and one in June. These are represented on the piko stone at Kūkaniloko.

The piko stone is diamond-shaped. Taking the upper part (the summer half of the year) and the lower part (the winter part of the year) as separate shapes we have two axes – two ko’i. If you prefer them as adzes, we still have two ko’i – adzes – that meet at the solstices.

But koi has other other meanings.

Koi is to compel – as in to compel the sun to move on from its standstill at a solstice, and to pull, as to pull the sun forward on its journey.

Kōī is to flow with force, which the sun does. No matter how one tries to hold the sun back, it continues its forcefull flow.

All of these homonyms speak to the movement of the sun, punctuated at each end of the journey by a solstice.

And Kūkanilokoʻs orientation points at one end to the December solstice sunrise and at the other end to the June solstice sunset.

We can expand that. The December solstice sun rises over Kamana. The June solstice sun sets over Kamananui. The first thing these two place names show is that the December solstice has mana, but the June solstice has great mana.

But mana also means rays, like the rays of the sun. And at the December solstice the sunʻs rays are not as strong, not as great, as the sunʻs rays are at the June solstice.

Thereʻs more, though. During the June solstice period the deceased are able to return to earth to visit with the living. This is an important event, a great event, a time of great mana.

Antares, the bright red star in the constellation Scorpius, has many names, like most Hawaiian stars do. The best known of his Hawaiian names is Lehua.

Lehua has more than one meaning. The most obvious is the red blossom of the ‘ōhi’a tree, a tree that grows tall, representing the high station of Antares as a high chief in the heavens. But it also means the first warrior killed in battle, and the sacrifice of that warrior. Weʻll come back to that.

Another name for Antares is Ikuwa, the supreme (I) ruler (kū) of time and space (wā). What makes him such a supreme ruler? A couple of things. One is that he is a summer star, in other words a star we see in the summer nights, in a region of the sky where there are nowhere near as many stars as we see in the winter nights. Another is that, in part because of the scarcity of stars in that region of the sky, he marks or signals both the November solar nadir and the December solstice.

The landscape marker for the set of Antares is Hapapa. This name is an implex. Hapapa is a hawk-catching stick. The hawk is a symbol of the sun, of Kāne. When the hawk – the sun – is caught it cannot move away, just as the sun at the solstice is “stuck” for approximately two and half days before it returns to its annual journey.

Hapapa is also hapa-pā – half of an enclosure. The winter season is half of a year, half of the sunʻs round trip between solstices.

Hā-papa is to revive, give breath and life to Papa, the earth. At the December solstice the sun returns to its motion, going northward and re-warming and reviving Papa, the earth.

Hā-papa is also the four (ha) levels or foundations, the two solstices and the two equinoxes.

That does not exhaust the poetics of Antares.

One of his rise landscape markers is Kahiakehoe. The surface meaning of this is to be the first at the paddle, figuratively the first to get to work. And of course Antares is the first to get to work in rewarming the earth and urging the sun toward the June solstice. But the name also means to work the fireplow, in other words to start the fire. This meaning refers to igniting or reigniting the power of the sun, the fire of the sun, when the sun is at its weakest in December.

Another of the landscape markers for Antares is Halekou, the house made of the kou tree, and the house of male virility.

Itʻs useful to look at the poetics of Aldebaran because she is the celestial complement or partner of Antares. Their names and the names of their landscape markers tell us that.

Aldebaran is the bright red star in the constellation Taurus. Like Antares she has many names. One of her names is Oma.

Oma has many meanings. One of them is oven. Antares works the fireplow and lights the fire that heats her oven. This links back to Aldebaran as Papa-Haumea and the December solstice, with Antares as signalling the December solstice. But it is also interlinked with the November nadir and the May zenith and pregnancy.

(A short note:  One of the names for Antares is Hoku Ula, red star. One of the names for Aldebaran is also Hoku Ula, red star. Three other celestial objects share the name Hoku Ula – Betelgeuse, Mercury, and Mars.  Some early ethnologists thought that the people who told them about star names confused one Hoku Ula for another.  But they were neither confused nor did they mistake one red celestial object for another. Hoku Ula, red star, is a category, a classification of celestial objects. Hoku Ula is just one of many such classifications, categorizations.)

So, Aldebaran and the sun are together at the zenith in May about a half an hour after noon. This refers to Aldebaran as an oven in the heat of the season of Kau, summer. Six months later, the sun and Antares are together at the nadir about a half an hour after midnight. At that same moment, Aldebaran is again at the celestial zenith. This is an important event. For one thing, Aldebaran is female, Antares is male, and they are 180° apart in the sky, so this moment in November it is their union, the coming together, of Aldebaran and Antares, an annual completion and/or union of their relationship.

Also at this moment, they form a third axis, an up-down above-below axis that pierces the several critical intersections represented by Kūkaniloko – the intersection of the north-south axis and the east-west axis, the intersection of the line from the December solstice sunrise and the June solstice sunset with the line from the June solstice sunrise to the December solstice sunset, and the intersections of sunrise-sunset lines of the other sun stations – the two nadirs, the two zeniths, and the two equinoxes.

Pregancy is also interlinked with Aldebaran as oma. An oven is a metaphor for the womb, and thus sexual reproduction and pregnancy. And another of Aldebaranʻs names is Haumea, who is the goddess of childbirth.

The name Lehua for Antares means, among other things, the first warrior killed in battle who was then offered in sacrifice. One of the meanings of oma is the space between armies in which the first warrior killed was sacrificed. And an oven is one means of preparing the sacrifice.

So oma is an implex. It is an oven, meaning hot – and connecting Aldebaran with Antares who works the fireplow – and it is a womb, and it is a warriorʻs sacrifice. And it is the high officer of a high chief. And the heat is also a reference to the May solar zenith, in the first month of Kau – Summer – when days are hot.

The high chief in this is Antares, one of whose names is Ikuwa – supreme ruler of space and time. And one of his landscape marker names is Kahanalii – the chiefʻs place, and also the chiefʻs work, task, or responsibility.

We can look at the poetics associated with some of the other stars.

Thereʻs a mo’olelo that tells us that the mo’i Moikeha, who had lived in Tahiti, was now aging in his home on Kaua’i. He wanted to see La’a, the son he left behind in Tahiti. He chose his youngest son, Kila, to make the voyage to Tahiti to find La’a and bring him to Hawaiʻi to see Moikeha.

Kila makes the journey, has interactions with the Hyades and the Pleiades on his way to Moikehaʻs former house on a mountain where La’a now lives. La’a agrees to go to Hawaiʻi with Kila, and brings with him two pahu drums, a kind of drum that was not yet  known in the Hawaiian Islands. They landed at Kualoa on O’ahuʻs eastern shore and La’a became known as La’a-mai-kahiki – La’a from Tahiti.

A landscape marker for the rise of Cancer is Kila. Cancer is where the sun is at the July solar zenith. The word Kila means a high place – such as a zenith, the highest place in the sky. As Ki-la the word(s) mean the sunʻs travel, as in the sunʻs travel from one sun station to another throughout the solar year, and it means to aim at or pay attention to the sun. But the name also refers to Kila of the mo’olelo.

A landscape marker for the rise of Betelgeuse is Puʻu o Kila, Kilaʻs hill or mountain. Each of Betelgeuseʻs rises take place with a solstice. A solstice is also a high place, especially the June solstice. The June solstice takes place midway between the May and July solar nadirs. In addition to that, the June solstice takes place when the sun is at the northernmost – the uppermost – point of its annual journey. And again, this place name refers to the mo’olelo.

Unwinding the implex presented by the name Kila takes us to the mo’olelo and the sky. La’a, the one Kila came to Kahiki to bring back to Hawaiʻi, is the name of the Square of Pegasus. The Square of Pegasus has two other names – Aliilaa, La’a the chief, and Pōlaa, La’a of pō.

Pō in ordinary use means night. And of course we only see the Square of Pegasus at night when stars are visible. But pō has other meanings. Pō is the period of creation before the advent of humankind. It is also the realm of ancestors and the deceased, of mystery, potentiality, spirit, the unknown, and the not yet born. It has a terrestrial representation. The terrestrial ao realm – the region of the light of the sun – is between the Tropic of Capricorn at 23.5° south of the equator and the Tropic of Cancer at 23.5° north of the equator. The Tropics are the limits of the sunʻs annual travels. South of the Tropic of Capricorn and north of the Tropic of Cancer is pō, the regions beyond the limits of the sunʻs travels.

Laʻa is a chief and he is, through Kilaʻs landscape markers, associated with the a solar zenith and both solstices. So La’a seems to be related to, or associated with the sun – Kāne.

And he is related to the sun – and thatʻs evident in the place in the sky Laʻa stands at the stations of the sun.

La’a means sacred, consecrated, set apart for sacred purposes. It differs from kapu. A kapu can be removed and what had been kapu is then noa – freed of kapu. La’a cannot be removed. It can, though, also mean defiled or cursed. It also means to be bound under oath.

Lā is the word for the sun. ‘Ā is fire, burn, blaze – as the sun does. So Laʻa is probably associated with the sun.

This is a complex implex. The lines of meaning that are coiled in this implex include the Mokeha-Kila-La’a mo’olelo, which speaks of voyaging, chiefs, stars, and history; astronomy in the mo’olelo – the Hyades and the Pleiades; the several mo’olelo in which the Pleiades raise the net of food out of reach into the sky and the rat who nibbles the cord releasing the food; the stations of the sun and the importance of the sun, of Kāne; the understandings of pō and ao; the pahu drums brought by La’a and the role those drums played, including the announcing of the birth of a royal child at Kūkaniloko.

One day Tom, the kahu of Kūkaniloko, and I met at Kūkaniloko. We walked the perimeter of the site. When we got to the north side Tom gestured northward to the land section called Paalaa and he said “Itʻs not Paalaa. Itʻs Pā a La’a – La’aʻs Place.” Oh!  Itʻs Pā a La’a. Itʻs the area where La’aʻs drum Hawea was installed.  Itʻs La’aʻs place.

A landscape marker for Sirius, a star that signals the two solar nadirs and the two solar zeniths, is Puu Pahu – Pahu drum hill or mountain. And, of course, it was Laʻa who introduced the pahu drum to Hawai’i when he brought his two pahu drums to Hawaiʻi from Kahiki. One of them, the drum named Hāwea, was installed near Kūkaniloko and was used to announce the birth of a royal child at Kūkaniloko.

The published star lists show Laʻa as the constellation Pegasus.  Pegasus is a winged horse. Where in precontact Polynesia was there a horse? Nowhere. Laʻa is not the whole of Pegasus then – it is almost certainly the Square of Pegasus. I canʻt prove that, but Iʻm sure of it anyway.

So the Moikeha-Kila-Laa mo’olelo is astronomical, and it is represented in landscape markers for sun stations, and it is associated with Kūkaniloko. And it means something.

Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, has more Hawaiian names than any other star. And thatʻs a lot of names. Some of his names are easy to recognize. The name Hokukelewaa – the canoe-steering star – speaks to his importance in navigation. A name he shares with the star Regulus is Kauopae – shrimp season. Another of his name is Lono, the god of agriculture and important in the annual Makahiki period. Another name is Lono-mai – Lono is coming – in this case probably refering to the rising of Sirius in the sky. I mention that because it seems that a star increases in mana as it rises to the meridian, reaching its peak mana at the meridian, and thereafter, as it descends, its mana decreases.

The rises and sets of Sirius coincide closely with both the May and July solar zeniths and with both the January and November solar zeniths. These are important sun stations. At the zeniths the sun is 90° overhead, allowing the rays of the sun to enter the manawa, the juncture of the skull plates at the top of the head – allowing wisdom, inspiration, intuition, and insight to enter a person. At the nadirs, the sun is 90° below, allowing the mana of the sun to enter the lowest of our pikos, the ma’i – the genitals – the source of descendants who are the inheritors of the lineage and genealogy.

There is also a Sirius “year,” called the puni. It is a ten-month year made up of approximately ten regular months plus an “empty” period. The ten months are the months between the January solar nadir and the November solar nadir. Both Maud Makemson and Rubellite Johnson have shown that the puni – the ten-month year – was well attested for the Marquesas and likely to have been known in Hawai’i.

Alala Point, a landscape marker for the rise of Sirius, has more than one meaning. It is most obviously the word for the Hawaiian crow. Crows eat many things, among them carrion. This associates Alala with death and thus with pō, the realm of the deceased. As a-lala it means the glittering or shining (as a star) of branching, a reference to geneaology, including descendants. This, too, associates Sirius with pō, this time with the sun at the solar nadir when a personʻs ma’i, genitals, are able to receive the influence of Kāne, the sun, in the reproductive organs. And as ala-la it is the path of the Kāne/sun, which Sirius signals at the two zeniths and the two nadirs.

Another landscape marker for the rise of Sirius is Ulupo, the heiau in Kailua. Ulupo is usually translated as “inspiration growing in the night.” In addition to that meaning is the meaning that inspiration arises from the particular nights of the solar nadirs when access to the realm of pō and of Kāne are available. Poka’i, a landscape marker for the set of Sirius is a partner of Ulupo. Pokaʻi is to lift into pō.

Another landscape marker for Sirius is Puu Pahu – Drum or Drums Hill. The drums are La’aʻs drums, the ones he brought to Hawaiʻi when Kila brought him from Tahiti to Hawai’i. Why the association between Sirius and the Kila-La’a mo’olelo? Itʻs probably because of the stations of the sun, notably the solar zeniths and nadirs.

So the poetics of Kūkanilokoʻs astronomy record cultural meanings of astronomical bodies and their activities.



















[1] Malo, Antiquities, p. 185.