Unwritten Literature of Hawaii, by Nathaniel B. Emerson, , at sacred-texts.com
In this preliminary excursion into the wilderness of Hawaiian literature we have covered but a small part of the field; we have reached no definite boundaries; followed no stream to its fountain head; gained no high point of vantage, from which to survey the whole. It was indeed outside the purpose of this book to make a delimitation of the whole field of Hawaiian literature and to mark out its relations to the formulated thoughts of the world.
Certain provisional conclusions, however, are clearly indicated: that this unwritten speech-literature is but a peninsula, a semidetached, outlying division of the Polynesian, with which it has much in common, the whole running back through the same lines of ancestry to the people of Asia. There still lurk in the subliminal consciousness of the race, as it were, vague memories of things that long ago passed from sight and knowledge. Such, for instance, was the mo’o; a word that to the Hawaiian meant a nondescript reptile, which his imagination vaguely pictured, sometimes as a dragonlike monster belching fire like a chimera of mythology, or swimming the ocean like a sea-serpent, or multiplied into a manifold pestilential swarm infesting the wilderness, conceived of as gifted with superhuman powers and always as the malignant foe of mankind. Now the only Hawaiian representatives of the reptilian class were two species of harmless lizards, so that it is not conceivable that the Hawaiian notion of a mo’o was derived from objects present in his island home. The word mo’o may have been a coinage of the Hawaiian speech-center, but the thing it stood for must have been an actual existence, like the python and cobra of India, or the pterodactyl of a past geologic period. May we not think of it as an ancestral memory, an impress, of Asiatic sights and experiences?
In this connection, it will not, perhaps, lead us too far afield, to remark that in the Hawaiian speech we find the chisel-marks of Hindu and of Aryan scoring deep-graven. For instance, the Hawaiian word pali, cliff or precipice, is the very word that Younghusband--following, no doubt, the native speech of the region, the Pamirs--applies to the mountain-walls that buttress off Tibet and the central plateaus of Asia from northern India. Again the Hawaiian word merle, which we have used so often in these chapters as to make it seem almost like a household word, corresponds in form, in sound, and in meaning to the Greek μέλος: τα μέλη, lyric
poetry (Liddell and Scott). Again, take the Hawaiian word i’a, fish--Maori, ika; Malay, ikan; Java, iwa; Bouton, ikani (Edward Tregear: The Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary). Do not these words form a chain that links the Hawaiian form to the ιχθύς of classic Greece? The subject is fascinating, but it would soon lead us astray. These examples must suffice.
If we can not give a full account of the tangled woodland of Hawaiian literature, it is something to be able to report on its fruits and the manner of men and beasts that dwelt therein. Are its fruits good for food, or does the land we have explored bring forth only poisonous reptiles and the deadly upas? Is it a land in which the very principles of art and of human nature are turned upside down? Its language the babble of Bander-log?
This excursion into the jungle of Hawaiian literature should at least impress us with the oneness of humanity; that its roots and springs of action, and ours, draw their sustenance from one and the same primeval mold; that, however far back one may travel, he will never come to a point where he can say this is "common or unclean;" so that he may without defilement "kill and eat" of what the jungle provides. The wonder is that they in Hawaii of the centuries past, shut off by vast spaces of sea and land from our world, yet accomplished so much.
Test the ancient Hawaiians by our own weights and measures. The result will not be to their discredit. In practical science, in domestic arts, in religion, in morals, in the raw material of literature, even in the finished article--though unwritten--the showing would not be such as to give the superior race cause for self-gratulation.
Another lesson--a corollary to the above--is the debt of recognition we owe to the virtues and essential qualities of untutored human nature itself. Imagine a portion of our own race cut off from the thought-currents of the great world and stranded on the island-specks of the great ocean, as the Polynesians have been for a period of centuries that would count back to the times of William the Conqueror or Charlemagne, with only such outfit of he world's goods as might survive a 3,000-mile voyage in frail canoes, reenforced by such flotsam of the world's metallic stores as the tides of ocean might chance to bring them--and, with such limited capital to start with in life, what, should we judge, would have been the outcome of the experiment in religion, in morals, in art, in mechanics, in civilization, or in the production of materials for literature, as compared with what the white man found in Hawaii at its discovery in the last quarter of the eighteenth century?
It were well to come to the study of primitive and savage people, of nature-folk, with a mind purged of the thanks-to-the-goodness-and-the-grace spirit.
It will not do for us to brush aside contemptuously the notions held by the Hawaiians in religion, cosmogony, and mythology as mere heathen superstitions. If they were heathen, there was nothing else for them to be. But even the heathen can claim the right to be judged by their deeds, not by their creeds. Measured by this standard, the average heathen would not make a bad showing in comparison with the average denizen of Christian lands. As to beliefs, how much more defensible were the superstitions of our own race two or three centuries ago, or of to-day, than those of the Hawaiians? How much less absurd and illogical were our notions of cosmogony, of natural history; how much less beneficent, humane, lovable the theology of the pagan Hawaiians than of our Christian ancestors a few centuries ago if looked at from an ethical or practical point of view. At the worst, the Hawaiian sacrificed the enemy he took in battle on the altar of his gods; the Christian put to death with exquisite torture those who disagreed with him in points of doctrine. And when it comes to morals, have not the heathen time and again demonstrated their ability to give lessons in self-restraint to their Christian invaders?
It is a matter of no small importance in the rating of a people to take account of their disposition toward nature. If there has been a failure to appreciate truly the mental attitude of the "savage," and especially of the Polynesian savage, the Hawaiian, toward the book of truth that was open to him in nature, it is always in order to correct it. That such a mistake has been made needs no further proof than the perusal of the following passage in a book entitled "History of the Sandwich Islands:"
To the heathen the book of nature is a sealed book. Where the word of God is not, the works of God fail either to excite admiration or to impart instruction. The Sandwich Islands present some of the sublimest scenery on earth, but to an ignorant native--to the great mass of the people in entire heathenism--it has no meaning. As one crested billow after another of the heaving ocean rolls in and dashes upon the unyielding rocks of an iron-bound coast, which seems to say, "Hitherto shalt thou come and no farther," the low-minded heathen is merely thinking of the shellfish on the shore. As he looks up to the everlasting mountains, girt with clouds and capped with snow, he betrays no emotion. As he climbs a towering cliff, looks down a yawning precipice, or abroad upon a forest of deep ravines, immense rocks, and spiral mountains thrown together in the utmost wildness and confusion by the might of God's volcanoes, he is only thinking of some roots in the wilderness that may be good for food.
There is hardly a poem in this volume that does not show the utter falsity of this view. The writer of the words quoted above, now in his grave for more than sixty years, was a man for whose purity and moral character one must entertain the highest esteem. He enjoyed the very best opportunity to study the minds of the "heathen" about him, to discern their thoughts, to learn at first hand their emotions
toward the natural world, whether of admiration, awe, reverence, or whether their attitude was that of blank indifference and absorption in selfish things. But he utterly failed to penetrate the mystery, the "truth and poetry," of the Hawaiian mind and heart. Was it because he was tied to a false theology and a false theory of human nature? We are not called upon to answer this question. Let others say what was wrong in his standpoint. The object of this book is not controversial; but when a palpable injustice has been done, and is persisted in by people of the purest motives, as to the thoughts, emotions, and mental operations of the "savage," and as to the finer workings within that constitute the furniture and sanctuary of heart and soul, it is imperative to correct so grave a mistake; and we may be sure that he whose words have just been quoted, were he living to-day, would acknowledge his error.
Though it is not the purpose of these pages to set forth in order a treatise on the human nature of the "savage," or to make unneeded apology for the primitive and uncultured races of mankind in general, or for the Hawaiian in particular, yet it is no small satisfaction to be able to set in array evidence from the life and thoughts of the savages themselves that shall at least have a modifying influence upon our views on these points.
The poetry of ancient Hawaii evinces a deep and genuine love of nature, and a minute, affectionate, and untiring observation of her moods, which it would be hard to find surpassed in any literature. Her poets never tired of depicting nature; sometimes, indeed, their art seems heaven-born. The mystery, beauty, and magnificence of the island world appealed profoundly to their souls; in them the ancient Hawaiian found the image of man the embodiment of Deity; and their myriad moods and phases were for him an inexhaustible spring of joy, refreshment, and delight.