“ʻAwa was the food of the gods, just as poi was to the Hawaiians. No religious ceremony was complete without the ʻawa.” (Pukui, Maly)
E hanai ʻawa a ikaika ka makani.
Feed with ʻawa so that the spirit may gain strength.
(One offers ʻawa and prayers to the dead so that their spirit may grow strong and be a source of help to the family.)
Outside of water and drinking coconut, no other drink was known. ʻAwa was “a sacred drink of importance in many phases of Hawaiian life. … Its effect is to relax mind and body and it was used by farmer and fisherman for this purpose. Medicinal Kahunas (learned men) had many uses for it. It was essential on occasions of hospitality and feasting, and as a drink of pleasure for the chiefs.” (Titcomb)
ʻAwa is a canoe crop, one of the plants brought by the earliest Polynesian voyagers arriving in Hawaiʻi. It is a member of the pepper family. In other parts of the Pacific it is known as Kava or Kava Kava. It is a shrub growing about four to eight feet high.
There are several native traditions regarding the origin of ʻawa in Hawaiʻi. Perhaps the most significant narratives describe ʻawa as having been brought to Hawaiʻi from Kahiki (the ancestral homelands) by the akua (gods) Kāne and Kanaloa.
These two akua Kāne, a Hawaiian god and ancestor of the chiefs and commoners, a god of sunlight, fresh water, verdant growth, and forests; and Kanaloa, a god of the ocean, marine life, healing, and a companion of Kāne – planted ʻawa at various localities throughout the islands. In places where no water could be found with which to prepare the ʻawa, Kāne even caused water to appear, thus forming many springs and streams in the islands. (Maly)
In the discovery of Hawaiʻi by Hawaii-loa, ʻawa is noted in the find, “One time when they (Hawaii-Loa and his company) had thus been long out on the ocean, Makaliʻi, the principal navigator, said to Hawaii-Loa: ‘Let us steer the vessel in the direction of Iao, the Eastern Star, the discoverer of land … There is land to the eastward, and here is a red star … to guide us … So they steered straight onward and arrived at the easternmost island … They went ashore and found the country fertile and pleasant, filled withʻ awa, coconut trees … and Hawaii-Loa, the chief, called that land after his own name … (Fornander)
It is valued as an intoxicating drink and as a medicine. ʻAwa is also a sedative, used as a sacred plant for prayer, as well as appreciated for pleasure, especially in the south Pacific islands. It assists in opening communication channels with others and with the elements.
The drink is made from the root, which is woody, slightly spongy, toughish and roughly gnarled. The root was scraped and washed, then reduced to small pieces. It was then ready to chew (mama) and mix with water to make a cold water infusion. In later days, chewing was replaced by grinding or pounding. (Titcomb)
It is prepared by pulverizing the root in a mortar; if it is the dry article of commerce it is kept sufficiently moist to prevent its scattering and forming dust. When well pulverized, water is mixed with the mash to bring it to a proper dilution, when it is strained. (Emerson)
The favorite ʻawa strainer of the Hawaiians is made of the stem of the ahu-awa plant. The stem is split up and the fiber separated from the pulp by being combed between two sticks. It is then taken up from the bowl and the dripping liquor wrung out of it. The bits of ʻawa root which were caught in it are shaken out and it is again used as a strainer, this time being formed into a kind of funnel, something like a bird’s nest, through which the awa drink is poured into the separate cups of those who are to partake. (Emerson)
An 1899 article on Molokaʻi Archaeology in the Evening Bulletin notes, “At Pakaikai is found a large stone lying by the bank of the stream, in which are dug four holes each eight inches in diameter and six inches deep. They are finely polished inside. The holes dug in this large stone are claimed to have been used as awa cups (apu awa) for Kamehameha-ai-luau (a descendant of Kamehameha the Great.)”
“They were chiseled with stone implements by the ancients during the stone age of Hawaiʻi nei, a task which no native of the present generation will dare undertake. Nearby is another hole dug in another rock and much larger and deeper than the four. This last one is said to be the kānoa ʻawa (or kā ʻawa, large bowl in which ʻawa is mixed and strained,) or place where awa is cleaned and purified, fit to drink.”
The beverage is not attractive to the eye. If dried ʻawa is used, the liquid is greyish, if green ʻawa is used it is greenish. The liquid is never clear in spite of straining. In Hawaiʻi it was a fairly thick liquid, this being preferred to “the dishwater drunk in the south” according to an old saying remembered by Kinney. Ellis termed it “like thick calcareous water.” (Titcomb)
The ʻawa-drinking house was like a chief’s house, there must be no gaiety, no talking, no jollity, lest one vomit. The candlenut torch was the only thing one desired – one or two torches would produce warmth – then there was a sound in the ear like the chirping of land shells and of fiddles that teased the ear pleasantly, or like the roaring of the strong wind that changed to stillness. Such was the custom of the planter; he would sleep till morning and the pains and soreness would be gone. (Kamakau, Titcomb)
Their general drink is water or the milk of the coconut, but all the chiefs use the ʻawa, and some of them to excess, as was very evident from their skins, which were rough and parched as can well be conceived, and their eyes red and inflamed. (Kotzebue, Titcomb)
There is a deep cultural-historical relationship between the Hawaiians and ʻawa. The poʻe kahiko (ancient people) identified many varieties, cultivation techniques, values and uses of the ʻawa. (Maly)
I have had ʻawa once, it was part of an ʻawa ceremony we participated in to commemorate the signing of the Kaʻawaloa Curator Agreement between DLNR and the Royal Order of Kamehameha I. (It was a moving experience; I was proud and honored to be there. The descendant families, members of the Order and others sat on one side; I sat by myself (representing the State) on the other side.)
The image shows the Kaʻawaloa ʻawa ceremony. In addition, I have added related images in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook and Google+ pages.