Hawaiian Calendar


The Hawaiian islands were settled, probably in around c.e. 400, by Polynesians who had voyaged northwards across the Pacific for some 3,000 kilometers (2,000 miles) from central Polynesia. This new island chain provided a substantial land mass and a rich and fertile environment in which, over the subsequent centuries, agriculture developed and intensified, and the population thrived and multiplied. During the last two centuries or so before European contact, powerful social hierarchies developed, controlled by high chiefs (ali’i), with lesser chiefs, priests, and other specialists, and commoners (fishermen and farmers) being assigned to progressively lower ranks. There may also have been a lowest social class of slaves and outcasts. Everyday life, whatever a person’s rank in society, was pervaded by ritual observances and taboos tied to a strict calendar. This calendar derived from an earlier prototype, variants of which were in use all over Polynesia by the time of European contact.

What we know of the Hawaiian calendar derives largely from three native historians, David Malo, Samuel Kamakau, and Kepelino, whose accounts were first recorded in the mid-nineteenth century, in the decades following the arrival of the christian missionaries and the virtual eradication of indigenous religious practices. While broadly consistent, the three descriptions of the calendar differ markedly in many details. This variation not only indicates that there were significant differences from one island to another at around the time of European contact, but also suggests that the implementation of the calendar in practice, while following common principles, operated on a local basis. In view of the broad similarities between the recorded Hawaiian calendars and those recorded elsewhere in Polynesia, the general principles were probably of considerable antiquity.

The Hawaiian year, termed the makahiki, was divided into twelve months according to the phase of the moon. Most month names were used on more than one island and followed broadly the same sequence, but their timing in the seasonal year varied considerably from one Hawaiian island to another. The month Iki-iki, for example, was said to have occurred in March on O’ahu, in May on the big island of Hawai’i, in July on Kaua’i, and in August on Moloka’i. The main division of the year was always into equal summer and winter halves, but the two seasons were recorded as containing different sets of six months on different islands. All this might be taken as evidence that no additional (intercalary) month was ever inserted to keep the month sequence in step with the seasons, so that the sequence of months moved around in the solar year. Indeed, there is no record of an intercalary month being inserted, or of what procedure was followed in order to know when to do so. On the other hand, if there were no intercalation, then the timing of events that were fixed in the seasonal year (such as the beginning of summer) would progress on average by one month in every second or third year, and there is no evidence of this happening either.

The Hawaiians did make use of observations of astronomical events fixed in the solar year. Piecing together fragments of the available accounts, it appears that the beginning of the summer and winter halves of the year were marked by two major annual events involving the Pleiades. The beginning of winter, in about November, was marked by the appearance of the Pleiades in the eastern sky just after sunset as opposed to rising later in the night (loosely, their acronical rise). The beginning of summer, in about May, was marked by the first appearance of the Pleiades in the eastern sky before dawn, after not having been visible at all for several weeks (their heliacal rise). The Hawaiian term for the new year is the same as that for the year itself, makahiki, and this appears to be a contraction of makali’i-hiki, which means the rising of the Pleiades.

Each month consisted (nominally) of thirty nights—Hawaiians counted the nights rather than the days—whose names, like those of the months themselves, differed somewhat from island to island or place to place. According to Malo, the day when the new crescent moon was first sighted was known as Hilo, meaning “twisted,” because slender and twisted was how the moon appeared, and he goes on to name the other twenty-nine nights. There is no explicit reference to the last night, Muku, being skipped in approximately every second month, but this must have happened in order to keep the months correlated with the lunar phases. Nonetheless, it is quite clear that a rich set of prognostications was attached to the various nights of the month. For example, according to Kepelino, potatoes, bananas, and gourds planted on the day following Hilo will thrive, while those planted on Ku-kolu, the fifth night, will “just shoot up like coconuts” and be useless. Many native Hawaiians today still keep track of the phase of the moon and will only carry out certain activities, such as planting crops, on the correct day or days in the month. People’s personalities were also seen as related to the night of the month on which they were born. Before the arrival of the Europeans, each month contained four tapu (taboo) periods dedicated to the worship of particular gods, when appropriate ritual observances took place. Each was imposed at sunset and lifted at dawn two or three days later.

The term makahiki not only referred to the new year and the year as a whole, but also to a period starting at new year and lasting, by most accounts, for some three or four months. It was a sort of prolonged harvest festival, during which normal labors were suspended, as was the regular monthly cycle of ritual observances and taboos associated with them. Instead, a number of rites took place that were connected with the god Lono—who was particularly associated with (dryland) agriculture, fertility, and medicine—as well as with other gods in the Hawaiian pantheon. When Captain Cook first arrived on the Big Island of Hawai’i, he was received and revered as Lono himself, but when he was forced to return just eight days after his departure, in order to repair a mast, he was killed. The deification of Captain Cook almost certainly owed a great deal to the timing of his appearance in relation to the calendar, which may also have had a bearing on his subsequent demise. The first arrival occurred, by good chance, during the makahiki festival when the mythical return of Lono was annually re-enacted. The second happened inopportunely, after the makahiki period had finished. At this time Lono was meant to have departed, having fulfilled his annual task of regenerating nature, leaving the ali’i to rule in the normal way until the following year. His unexpected return constituted a threat to the perceived order of things and he met a ritualistic death. But this interpretation remains fiercely debated. The opposite view is that cook was primarily revered as a visiting chief and met his end in a skirmish that had a very down-to-earth explanation—it resulted from his attempts to take an ali’i hostage in return for a stolen boat.

A wider issue of considerable significance here is how outsiders should best try to comprehend, and hence to respect, indigenous traditions. Is it not demeaning to native Hawaiians, as the Sri Lankan anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere has argued, to assume that they were incapable of recognizing a real threat and dealing with this threat in a “common-sense” manner by attacking the perpetrator? Or is it more demeaning, as the American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has argued, to fail to recognize and respect the worldview within which Hawaiian religious beliefs and cal-endrical rituals operated, rather than trying to rate it against our own rationality?

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