The hula is a major ritual in Hawaii, not just for show at luaus and beach parties. It is used for storytelling and passing down myths. It originated as a tribute to gods and goddesses and as a way of preserving history through the oral tradition. Hula was used to commemorate special events (such as royal births) or for victory in war. It was also used in magic for fertility or abundance of food and resources. The hula celebrates the feminine body and its creative power. The sultry movement of the belly and hips, undulating in space, as it celebrates the life-bearing nature of the womb.
The hula was always performed in accompaniment of chanting or singing, and usually with percussion and drums. Because of its ritualistic nature, the hula contains many allegorical levels. For example, the dance begins with the symbolic gesture of someone stepping though a doorway.
At one level, it signifies an entrance to the story and tradition, but at another level, it is a metaphorical transportation back to sacred time, signifying an actual recreation of that time and event. The doorway transports one to another world, to the recreation of the beginning. (Like Navajo healing ritual: a recreation of the origins; a transcendence of this reality and immersing oneself in sacred time.)
The dances were passed down through the generations with strict detail and precision. It was believed if the dance were altered, history would be changed; moreover, this was also a sign of disrespect to the deities, and they would be angered. The hula was a ritual, and all of one’s energy and concentration had to be put into the ritual in order for it to be effective.
In the 1920’s, the missionaries came to Hawaii and were outraged by the sexual nature of the hula. The ceremony was viewed as a defilement of the godhead because of its physical nature. It was also condemned because it contained pagan undertones such as the worship of nature and of multiple deities. It is said that Queen Ka’ahumanu, widow of King Kamehameha I, outlawed public performances after being baptized by the missionaries. She had overridden the authority of the halau, or school, which contributed to the loss of one of the oldest traditions of the islands.
In 1874, Kalakaua, the Merry Monarch, took the throne and encouraged the revival of the hula tradition by building the Iolani Palace and providing public hula performances. Fifty years had gone by since the hula of the past performed in ritual and the hula of today, and there is no doubt that some traditional wisdom had been overlooked as a result of the taboos. The hula ritual had shifted from being of a sacred nature into a form of entertainment. All forms of Polynesian dance consequently became identified as the hula.
In the 1970’s there was a renewed interest in Hawaiian culture and religion. This allowed the traditional hula, the Kahiko hula, to be revived. Hula schools began to reemerge and Hawaiian history began to be uncovered. There is still the controversy of whether the Kahiko hula should be preserved in its original ritualistic form or whether the new dances are acceptable as stories of Hawaiian history and as part of the growing body of legend. The hula is the only existing record of early Hawaiian life, even though it no longer exists in its purest form.
There are certain goddesses to whom the hula is sacred. The main one being Laka, the creatrix of the dance who demanded certain kapus, or taboos, during training involving sex, sugar cane, hygiene, and respect for the teachers (kumu). Those who disobeyed had to go through an extensive purification process. Another goddess associated with the dance is Hi’iaka, Pele’s sister. She embodies the spirit of the hula, and a lot of dances tell the story of Pele and Hi’iaka. All these hula goddesses belong to the Pele lineage.
The hula is a sacred dance which celebrates fertility and creation through storytelling. As we honor our womanhood, we should also honor our bodies and our natural world around us. These are things that give us life, sustain us, so we owe these things our deepest reverence in return. How do you honor your body? What rituals do you use to have a deeper connection with yourself?
Ikam is a freelance writer from South Florida. She received her Masters in Religious Studies in 2001, specializing in myth and ritual. She has worked with victims of crime and trauma and also has a Masters in Criminal Justice, which she got in 2008. Ikam is interested in spirituality, healing, health, and the paranormal. She loves writing about a wide variety of topics, including travel, entertainment, culture, and health. Ikam wants to be a part of the Cycle Harmony community in hopes she will help and inspire others to achieve their goals, as well as share ideas on women, spirituality, and healthy living.