In a culture without written language, the living repositories of specialized information were the keepers of balance, the kahuna (kahu = keeper, na = balance). They were the experts. Poorly remembered knowledge was worse than useless. It was not only ineffective and perhaps dangerous, but could insult the gods and the ancestors, who were believed to punish people and 'ohana (communities) that did not show appropriate respect. Keepers of balance were carefully chosen.
Many people abuse the word kahuna. Some people claim this title after reading some books or after a holiday on Hawaii. Other people associate the word kahuna with dark magic (such as the ana'ana death chant). Even on Hawaii, feelings about kahuna and the old traditions are mixed.
In older days, although there were kahuna families, the gods selected kahuna students. Kahuna training followed omens and signals from the aumakua, akua and awaiku. Omens might indicate that a new-born baby or a young child should one day be trained. (An omen did not guarantee that a person would complete kahuna training, but showed that at least one god approved.)
A student was expected to have a natural aptitude, a good memory and to learn quickly. Potential students were questioned and thoroughly tested. There were no books and no notes could be taken. Instructions were given twice - with a maximum of three repetitions. If this were not enough, Pau! (Stop!) - a student could be dismissed. Little time was wasted on the incompetent or slow.
After dedication to the appropriate gods, apprenticeship was strict. Each student would be given personal rules, kapu (taboo), including special prayers and rituals. Students may be required to not cut their hair; to be celibate; to avoid contact with anything unclean, to have food restrictions or special tattoos.
For students of healing, one way to study the body was with ili'ili - 480 black, white and red pebbles which could be placed in the form of a human figure, with each pebble representing part of the body. A student, blindfolded, was required to identify each stone by texture and weight. Medical students also studied the healing properties and appropriate rituals for all plants - on land and in the sea.
After about four years, a student was again dedicated to healing gods. Their training became more demanding - with extra kapu restrictions. Kahuna training was only complete when the gods gave a signal that the student was ready. A graduation ceremony would be held, and students would be asked to construct something to represent their spirits in a healing Heiau (temple) - something that would please Lono, the great god of healers.
Students of la'au lapa'au (healing with plants) and la'au kahea (healing by calling) would often carve a piece of choice kukui (candlenut) wood, and wear kukui nuts. These objects would become kapu and be kept safe. Awa (mild narcotic) and a pua'a ele'ele (black pig) was prepared for a special feast.
During the consecration rituals, the kahuna kumu (expert teacher) would demonstrate his mana. A sick person might be "prayed to life" or an enemy "prayed to death" using la'au kahea. Finally the teacher would spit into the student's mouth, symbolizing the passing of mana and the end of apprenticeship. The teacher would help the student become established, until he or she was accepted by the 'ohana community and by other kahuna. Advanced training with other kahuna was encouraged.
Many kahuna were priests as well as specialists, mediating between the gods, ancestral spirits and the people of the 'ohana. Everybody in a community would need a healing kahuna eventually. Accidents happen, disputes between warriors occurred and infections could pass through a village. Worse, an offended god or a spirit (akua), should one break a kapu, could cause disease. An effective kahuna brought status to an 'ohana community.
Kahuna & 'Ohana
A kahuna was an important part of a community and should serve both ordinary people and chief families with humility and respect. A kahuna was intimately involved with all families of the 'ohana and knew all the details of village life - public and private. They maintained balance.
A kahuna could often recognize and dissolve potential problems before they occurred. If a disease did not respond to la'au lapa'au (herbal remedies), lomilomi (massage) or la'au kahea (healing chants), then that disease was considered to represent an imbalance in the community. Ho'oponopono (family healing) or ho'opi'opi'o (counter-sorcery) might be required. Sometimes, a kahuna ana'ana might be summoned, to counteract some of the darkest magic - ana'ana or death prayers.
Much of a kahuna's mana (power) was in the po - the spirit world. Each kahuna developed connections with esoteric energies. A kahuna was responsible for finding and storing mana (using ho'omana and ho'omanamana) and the consequences of using it. Good intentions were not enough.
Failing to heal disease might bring suspicion. Had the kahuna broken a kapu? Had the kahuna offended a kahuna nui (senior kahuna)? Had the kahuna shown disrespect to a kumu (teacher)? Not unlike priests, kahuna were expected to be role models for the 'ohana communities.
Types of Kahuna
Kahuna were experts - whether in building canoes, predicting weather or healing disease. Their homes were often temples, perhaps to Lono or to Uli. Tales of competition and battles between rival kahuna seem to have been common ... see Kahuna Sorcerers of Hawaii by Julius Rodman.
A kahuna could lose mana. Mana might be withheld by the gods as a test or as a punishment; or a more powerful kahuna could steal it. Perhaps worse was losing the trust of one's 'ohana - by stealing, bragging, making false claims or failing to heal diseases that are known to be curable.
Payment was commensurate with ability. In a society without money, the normal payment was food or labor. An effective kahuna could expect to receive regular supplies of fruit, eggs, fish and taro; and pigs for curing major problems. Kapa cloth and hand crafted household utensils were also given.
Each kahuna was expected to train replacements. No matter how excellent a kahuna, the continuity of an 'ohana required that a kahuna be a teacher. This cycle continued until the overthrow of the Hawaii aloha culture by ha'ole (white foreigners) who called kahuna training witchcraft, and made it illegal - for more see ho'omanamana.
I use huna kalani to help people experience an ancient Hawaiian magic. With the guidance and blessing of my Hawaiian kupuna (elders) and the help of awaiku, I teach Huna Kalani on Hawaii and kahiki ... elsewhere in the world. Would you like to bring Huna Kalani to your town?
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E komo mai. Welcome.
We bring this
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