Unwritten Literature of Hawaii, by Nathaniel B. Emerson, , at sacred-texts.com
One turns from the study of old genealogies, myths, and traditions of the Hawaiians with a hungry despair at finding in them means so small for picturing the people themselves, their human interests and passions; but when it comes to the hula and the whole train of feelings and sentiments that made their entrances and exits in the halau (the hall of the hula) one perceives that in this he has found the door to the heart of the people. So intimate and of so simple confidence are the revelations the people make of themselves in their songs and prattlings that when one undertakes to report what he has heard and to translate into the terms of modern speech what he has received in confidence, as it were, he almost blushes, as if he had been guilty of spying on Adam and Eve in their nuptial bower. Alas, if one could but muffle his speech with the unconscious lisp of infancy, or veil and tone his picture to correspond to the perspective of antiquity, he might feel at least that, like Watteau, he had dealt worthily, if not truly, with that ideal age which we ever think of as the world's garden period.
The Hawaiians, it is true, were many removes from being primitives; their dreams, however, harked back to a period that was close to the world's infancy. Their remote ancestry was, perhaps, akin to ours--Aryan, at least Asiatic--but the orbit of their evolution seems to have led them away from the strenuous discipline that has whipped the Anglo-Saxon branch into fighting shape with fortune.
If one comes to the study of the hula and its songs in the spirit of a censorious moralist he will find nothing for him; if as a pure. ethnologist, he will take pleasure in pointing out the physical resemblances of the Hawaiian dance to the languorous grace of the Nautch girls, of the geisha, and other oriental dancers. But if he comes as a student and lover of human nature, back of the sensuous posturings, in the emotional language of the songs he will find himself entering the playground of the human race.
The hula was a religious service, in which poetry, music, pantomime, and the dance lent themselves, under the forms of dramatic
art, to the refreshment of men's minds. Its view of life was idyllic, and it gave itself to the celebration of those mythical times when gods and goddesses moved on the earth as men and women and when men and women were as gods. As to subject-matter, its warp was spun largely from the bowels of the old-time mythology into cords through which the race maintained vital connection with its mysterious past. Interwoven with these, forming the woof, were threads of a thousand hues and of many fabrics, representing the imaginations of the poet, the speculations of the philosopher, the aspirations of many a thirsty soul, as well as the ravings and flame-colored pictures of the sensualist, the mutterings and incantations of the kahuna, the mysteries and paraphernalia of Polynesian mythology, the annals of the nation's history--the material, in fact, which in another nation and under different circumstances would have gone to the making of its poetry, its drama, its opera, its literature.
The people were superstitiously religious; one finds their drama saturated with religious feeling, hedged about with tabu, loaded down with prayer and sacrifice. They were poetical; nature was full of voices for their ears; their thoughts came to them as images; nature was to them an allegory; all this found expression in their dramatic art. They were musical; their drama must needs be cast in forms to suit their ideas of rhythm, of melody, and of poetic harmony. They were, moreover, the children of passion, sensuous, worshipful of whatever lends itself to pleasure. How, then, could the dramatic efforts of this primitive people, still in the bonds of animalism, escape the note of passion? The songs and other poetic pieces Which have come down to us from the remotest antiquity are generally inspired with a purer sentiment and a loftier purpose than the modern; and it may be said of them all that when they do step into the mud it is not to tarry and wallow in it; it is rather with the unconscious naiveté of a child thinking no evil.
On the principle of "the terminal conversion of opposites," which the author once heard an old philosopher expound, the most advanced modern is better able to hark back to the sweetness and light and music of the primeval world than the veriest wigwam-dweller that ever chipped an arrowhead. It is not so much what the primitive man can give us as what we can find in him that is worth our while. The light that a Goethe, a Thoreau, or a Kipling can project into Arcadia is mirrored in his own nature.
If one mistakes not the temper and mind of this generation, we are living in an age that is not content to let perish one seed of thought or one single phase of life that can be rescued from the drift of time. We mourn the extinction of the buffalo of the plains and of the birds of the islands, rightly thinking that life is somewhat
less rich and full without them. What of the people of the plains and of the islands of the sea? Is their contribution so nothingless that one can affirm that the orbit of man's mind is complete without it?
Comparison is unavoidable between the, place held by the dance in ancient Hawaii and that occupied by the dance in our modern society. The ancient Hawaiians did not personally and informally indulge in the dance for their own amusement, as does pleasure-loving society at the present time. Like the Shah of Persia, but for very different reasons, Hawaiians of the old time left it to be done for them by a body of trained and paid performers. This was not because the art and practice of the hula were held in disrepute--quite the reverse--but because the hula was an accomplishment requiring special education and arduous training in both song and dance, and more especially because it was a religious matter, to be guarded against profanation by the observance of tabus and the performance of priestly rites.
This fact, which we find paralleled in every form of communal amusement, sport, and entertainment in ancient Hawaii, sheds a strong light on the genius of the Hawaiian. We are wont to think of the old-time Hawaiians as light-hearted children of nature, given to spontaneous outbursts of song and dance as the mood seized them; quite as the rustics of "merrie England" joined hands and tripped "the light fantastic toe" in the joyous month of May or shouted the harvest home at a later season. The genius of the Hawaiian was different. With him the dance was an affair of premeditation, an organized effort, guarded by the traditions of a somber religion. And this characteristic, with qualifications, will be found to belong to popular Hawaiian sport and amusement of every variety. Exception must be made, of course, of the unorganized sports of childhood. One is almost inclined to generalize and to say that those children of nature, as we are wont to call them, in this regard were less free and spontaneous than the more advanced race to which we are proud to belong. But if the approaches to the temple of Terpsichore with them were more guarded, we may confidently assert that their enjoyment therein was deeper and more, abandoned.