The City of Refuge: Ancient Hawaiian Sanctuary Protected Law Breakers from Death Sentence

The City of Refuge: Ancient Hawaiian Sanctuary Protected Law Breakers from Death Sentence

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For the ancient people living on the Hawaiian Islands, kapu was a major factor in their day-to-day lives. Kapu was a system of laws that governed political and religious affairs as well as lifestyle choices and gender roles. Anyone caught guilty of breaking kapu was sentenced to death. The only refugee a kapu rule-breaker could find was at Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau, a sanctuary that also protected defeated warriors and civilians in times of war. No one could be harmed while they were within the sacred walls of Puʻuhonua.

The Hawaiian word ‘kapu’ can be translated into English as either ‘forbidden’ or ‘sacred’. The opposite of kapu is ‘noa’ which is ‘free of rules’. The kapu regulations were an important tool used by the chief and priestly classes to maintain power. According to the legend used to sustain the system, the kapu laws were divinely inspired. Take, for instance, ai’kapu, the kapu laws that govern how men and women can interact and famously forbade men and women from eating together. This law came about when Wakea (father of the sky) desired to sleep with his daughter, Ho ʻohokulani. He then made the law known as ai’kapu which forbade men and women from eating together. This gave him time to consort with his daughter without his wife getting suspicious. As time went on, additional eating restrictions were placed on women. They could not eat pork (the body form of the god Lono), bananas (the body form of the god Kanaloa), coconuts (the body form of the god Ku), or taro (the body form of the god Kane). It was also kapu for women to eat large or red fish. Given the already limited selection of foods available on the islands, experts believe that Hawaiian women many subsisted on seaweeds.

A kapu sign in Maui, Hawaii

A kapu sign in Maui, Hawaii ( public domain )

Another major part of the kapu laws were the kapuhili restrictions, which includes kapu ku mamao (times when it was forbidden to be in the place of the chief) and kapu noho (times to assemble before the chief). These laws were designed to preserve the mana (spiritual power) of the chief and priests, both of whom were believed to have add semi-divine roles here on earth designated as the kahuna (chief) and ali’i (priests; descendants of gods), respectively.

Here is a short list of some prominent kapu restrictions, taken from David Malo’s Hawaiian Antiquities :  

1. The men and women had to eat separately.

2. The food for the men and women had to be cooked in separate imu (underground ovens).

3. A wife was forbidden to enter the eating-house of her husband while he was eating.

4. Women were forbidden to eat certain foods, among which were pork, banana, coconut, and certain fishes.

5. A commoner would be put to death if his shadow fell on an ali’i’s house or anything that belonged to the ali’i.

6. When an ali’i of high standing ate, the people around him had to kneel.

7. Offerings of pig, coconuts, red fish (kumu) and awa were sacrificed to the gods before a tree was cut down to make a canoe.

8. In times of war, the first two men killed in battle were offered as sacrifices to the gods.

9. The opelu fishers would gather at their special heiau in the evening to spend the night together to worship their god of fishing.

10. During the summer months of Kau, the aku fish was kapu and could not be eaten.

11. When fishers were lashing their hooks, everyone in the community had to keep quiet

12. Kamehameha I put a strict kapu on the cutting down of ‘iliahi trees (sandalwood), to make sure its supplies would not run out.

Another major part of the kapu laws were the kapuhili restrictions, such as times when it was forbidden to be in the place of the chief

Another major part of the kapu laws were the kapuhili restrictions, such as times when it was forbidden to be in the place of the chief (Image credit: Herb Kāne)

The kapu laws were enforced by watchful officials known as ‘ilamuku. Once apprehended, the rule-breaker was sentenced to death without any chance to explain him/herself or any form of trial. Anyone caught breaking a kapu law would be put to death by clubbing, stoning, strangulation, drowning, or burning. There was no compassion in the enforcement of this system. The thinking went that to break kapu was to greatly anger the gods and so leniency would be a double affront and could have severe consequences.

The one hope a kapu rule-breaker had at surviving was to make it to Puʻuhonua before the ‘ilamuku caught them. Once in the sanctuary, the kahuna himself would provide shelter and protection to the rule-breaker and sometimes even forgiveness. After certain rituals, the kapu violator would be welcomed back into the community with no stain on his record.

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