Why does precontact Hawaiian astronomy at Kūkaniloko matter?

kukaniloko july 15 2010 021

Why does precontact Hawaiian astronomy at Kūkaniloko matter?

Kūkaniloko, because of its geographical and cultural position as the piko of the island of O’ahu, offers a wide window on precontact astronomical knowledge within the Hawaiian Islands. The rise and set of the sun at each of the eight sun stations and of the stars were marked on the landscape from the point of view of Kūkaniloko by places named for each of those rise and set events. Those place names say something about the cultural characteristics and functions of each star and sun station. So, too, do each of the many names for each star. In combination the place names and star names provide information not just about the characteristics and functions of celestial objects, but also about the knowledge systems and the epistemology that undergirds those systems. That, though, just brushes the surface of the knowledge systems and epistemology.

Geography is represented in Kūkanilokoʻs astronomy. O’ahuʻs moku (major land divisions) boundaries were marked at their intersections by stars that signalled sun stations from the point of view of Kūkaniloko. The piko stone as well as two of the moku boundary markers pinpoint the location of O’ahu in the Pacific Ocean.

The division of the year into 36 anahulu that tracked the travel of the sun from solstice to solstice in 36 10-day weeks (anahulu) which were marked both by the sunʻs position and the stars that indicated the sunʻs progress on its annual journey relates the sunʻs cycle to the cycles of stars. This is just one part of the functions of Kūkanilokoʻs piko stone and just one indication that precontact sky experts knew what modern Western science calls celestial mechanics. And it shows us some things about precontact Hawaiian mathematical and geometrical knowledge.

The stars also tell us of important ideas, like the structure of space and time, the psychology and metaphysics of the center, the metaphysics and ontology represented by stars that recite cosmogony and the concepts of pō and ao, the mediating function of the third and fourth dimensions of space and time. They speak to us of gender status and gender relationships. They tells us of the time and space after death and before birth. They talk about union and harmony between things that are different, even opposite.

Of course they also tell us about the calendar and seasons and teach us navigation both terrestrial and maritime and of the hierarchy in the heavens that is mirrored in the socio-political hierarchy of precontact O’ahu.

The astronomy tells us that knowledge sets are part of knowledge systems and that both are interwoven with other knowledge sets and knowledge systems. Each and all of these need each other, that they are interdependent. Interdependence is a central characteristic of relationships and connections in the astronomy at Kūkaniloko.

Kūkanilokoʻs astronomy shows and teaches us about the precontact knowledge and expertise of what in modern Western times is called poetics – poetic tools such as metaphor, homonym, symbolism, synecdoche, association, and especially implexes (the art of the use of language to compress multiple meanings in a single word or phrase). And of the value, the importance of both ambiguity and redundancy as tools for memory and recall as well as for the power of compression of meaning.

Kūkanilokoʻs astronomy attaches us emotionally and spiritually to Oʻahuʻs geography, to its places and their histories and stories and deities. In that way it contributes to our recognition of our responsibility to the ‘āina as a whole and places in particular. It shows us our place and our kuleana in the continuum of time and space, and in that way lets us know that our individual and collective lives matter.

And precontact Hawaiian astronomy asks us to find, to feel, to experience, to engage in the ever-deepening understanding of culture and the knowledge and clues to knowledge present in that astronomy. Itʻs not just about stars, not just about astronomy in its Western sense. Itʻs about knowledge, spirit, intellect; itʻs about land and sky and sea, about ideas and spirit and understandings and intellect, about the past as guide in the present and for the future. It asks us to malama, to care for and protect Kūkaniloko, other wahi pana, and the whole environment including the earth, sea, and sky.