In the ancient Hawaiian Islands, kapu was the name for the code of conduct that regulated and restricted nearly every aspect of Hawaiian daily life. Designed to enforce the political and religious foundations of Hawaiian society, kapu restrictions ruled on what people could eat, with whom they could associate, where they could harvest and fish, and how they were supposed to behave in the presence of ali’i (kings) and kahuna (priests). The word kapu is linguistically related to the Polynesian tapu or taboo, and represented a similar concept: kapu emplaced restrictions around objects (such as certain foods) and high-ranking people, essentially declaring them sacred or off-limits to commoners. The opposite of kapu was noa, meaning “free”, or “common”. As you might expect for a system so involved with Hawaiian life, there were also kapu restrictions surrounding the consumption of traditional kava beverages as well.
Ancient Hawaiian religion had it that the Hawaiian ali’i and their priests, the kahuna, received their spiritual power from the ancestral gods, which conferred on them the right to rule the common people. This spiritual power was called mana. High-ranking people could do certain things to increase or preserve their mana, such as drinking a potent brew of kava, which was considered to be full of mana. Other people also had the power to steal a high-ranking person’s spiritual power by certain actions, such as standing in the shadow of an ali’i or standing in his sight with your head higher than his. Kapu restrictions were created to regulate the balance of mana in Hawaiian society and protect high-ranking Hawaiians from having their mana stolen, either on purpose or inadvertently, by a commoner. The penalties for breaking a kapu were corporeal and usually severe; commoners could be put to death for breaking a kapu even by accident.
There were also kapu restrictions which governed interactions between men and women as well as dietary kapus, and of course kapus restricting who could drink kava. ‘Ai kapu prevented men and women from taking meals together, and also set limits on which foods women could eat. Foods such as pork, bananas, coconut and taro were kapu to women because they were thought to be the corporeal form of specific male Hawaiian gods. Certain kinds of large fish were also kapu to women, and seasonal kapu restrictions also existed to prevent commoners from overfishing.
Drinking a brew of kava (‘awa) was central to Hawaiian religious practice, and as such came with its own set of kapu restrictions. In the ancient past, only ali’i and their kahuna priests, people of high social and spiritual standing, were allowed to partake of kava under the kapu system. However, over time the use of kava filtered down into the general population: Hawaiians of lower status began to drink kava at social gatherings for its calming effects, for relaxation, and to ease pain, muscle tension, and tissue inflammation from wounds and fevers. As one might expect, even in slightly more permissive times, there were certain strains of kava that kapu still restricted to Hawaiian royalty and priests. Mô’i, for instance, is a potent strain of Hawaiian kava that creates a distinctive cerebral buzz, possibly due to its high concentration of the kavalactone kavain. In pre-contact times, ali’i and their families were the only ones who could drink mô’i kava; commoners could be killed for drinking this forbidden brew. Another sacred brew was ‘awa hiwa, a black kava brew consumed by kahuna to help them commune with the gods. Hiwa was also frequently offered up to hula deities as a sacrament.
The kapu system was abolished by King Kamehameha II when he shared in a symbolic meal of forbidden foods with his wife and mother, thereby lifting dietary kapu restrictions for women and the restriction against men and women eating together. As kapu restrictions on everyday conduct fell away, so did the restrictions surrounding consumption of kava. Today, whether you’re native Hawaiian or foreign, you can enjoy the full range of kava varieties in a brew, tea, or whatever delivery method you prefer. Most kava drinkers today treat it as a route to deeper relaxation, stress relief, and improved mood; but if it catches you in a spirit of contemplation, perhaps you’ll find yourself lifting a bowl to the Hawaiian gods as well!