Fornander writes that prior to the period of Pā‘ao “… the kapus (forbidden actions) were few and the ceremonials easy; that human sacrifices were not practiced, and cannibalism unknown; and that government was more of a patriarchal than of a regal nature.”
Pā‘ao is said to have been a priest, as well as a chief and navigator, who arrived in the island of Hawai‘i as early as in the twelfth or thirteenth century (many say he was from Tahiti.)
Pā‘ao is reported to have introduced (or, at least expanded upon) a religious and political code in old Hawai`i, collectively called the kapu system. This forbid many things and demanded many more, with many infractions being punishable by death.
One of the most fundamental of this type of prohibition forbade men and women from eating together and also prohibited women from eating certain foods – ʻaikapu (to eat according to the restrictions of the kapu.)
The ʻaikapu is a belief in which males and females are separated in the act of eating; males being laʻa or ‘sacred,’ and females haumia or ‘defiling’ (by virtue of menstruation.)
Since, in this context, eating is for men a sacrifice to the male akua (god) Lono, it must be done apart from anything defiling, especially women. Thus, men prepared the food in separate ovens, one for the men and another for the women, and built separate eating houses for each.
The kahuna suggested that the new ʻaikapu religion should also require that four nights of each lunar month be set aside for special worship of the four major male akua, Ku, Lono, Kane and Kanaloa. On these nights it was kapu for men to sleep with their wahine. Moreover, they should be at the heiau (temple) services on these nights.
Under ʻaikapu, certain foods, because of their male symbolism, also are forbidden to women, including pig, coconuts, bananas, and some red fish. (Kameʻeleihiwa)
“The custom of the tabu upon free eating was kept up because in old days it was believed that the ruler who did not proclaim the tabu had not long to rule. If he attempted to continue the practice of free eating he was quickly disinherited.”
“It was regarded as an impious act practiced by those alone who did not believe in a god. Such people were looked upon as lower than slaves. The chief who kept up the ancient tabu was known as a worshiper of the god, one who would live a long life protected by Ku and Lono.”
“He would be like a ward of Kane and Kanaloa, sheltered within the tabu. The tabu eating was a fixed law for chiefs and commoners, not because they would die by eating tabu things, but in order to keep a distinction between things permissible to all people and those dedicated to the gods.”
“The tabu of the chief and the eating tabu were different in character. The eating tabu belonged to the tabus of the gods; it was forbidden by the god and held sacred by all. It was this tabu that gave the chiefs their high station.” (Kamakau)
If a woman was clearly detected in the act of eating any of these things, as well as a number of other articles that were tabu, which I have not enumerated, she was put to death. (Malo) (Sometimes surrogates paid the penalty.)
Certain places were set apart for the husband’s sole and exclusive use; such were the sanctuary in which he worshipped and the eating-house in which he took his food.
The wife might not enter these places while her husband was worshipping or while he was eating; nor might she enter the sanctuary or eating-house of another man; and if she did so she must suffer the penalty of death, if her action was discovered. (Malo)
Early visitors to the Islands also wrote of times that the ʻaikapu was broken (but not with consent – it was broken as a practice of some women.)
Ellis, on Captain Cook’s voyage noted, “The women were not averse to eating with us, though the men were present, and would frequently indulge themselves with pork, plantains and coco nuts, when secure from being seen by them.” (Ellis’s Authentic Narrative, 1788)
Likewise Samwell (also on Cook’s voyage) noted, “While they (women) were on board the ships with us they would never touch any food or ripe plantains except privately & by stealth, but then they would eat very hearty of both & seemed very fond of them”. (Samwell; Sahlins)
But there were times ʻaikapu prohibitions were not invoked and women were free to eat with men, as well as enjoy the forbidden food – ʻainoa (to eat freely, without regarding the kapu.)
“In old days the period of mourning at the death of a ruling chief who had been greatly beloved was a time of license. The women were allowed to enter the heiau, to eat bananas, coconuts and pork, and to climb over the sacred places.” (Kamakau)
“Free eating followed the death of the ruling chief; after the period of mourning was over the new ruler placed the land under a new tabu following old lines. (Kamakau)
Following the death of Kamehameha I in 1819, Liholiho assented and became ruling chief with the title Kamehameha II and Kaʻahumanu, co-ruler with the title kuhina nui.
Kaʻahumanu, made a plea for religious tolerance, saying: “If you wish to continue to observe (Kamehameha’s) laws, it is well and we will not molest you. But as for me and my people we intend to be free from the tabus.”
“We intend that the husband’s food and the wife’s food shall be cooked in the same oven and that they shall be permitted to eat out of the same calabash. We intend to eat pork and bananas and coconuts. If you think differently you are at liberty to do so; but for me and my people we are resolved to be free. Let us henceforth disregard tabu.”
Keōpūolani, another of Kamehameha I’s wives, was the highest ranking chief of the ruling family in the kingdom during her lifetime. She was a niʻaupiʻo chief, and looked upon as divine; her kapu, equal to those of the gods. (Mookini) Giving up the ʻaikapu (and with it the kapu system) meant her traditional power and rank would be lost.
Never-the-less, symbolically to her son, Liholiho, the new King of the Islands, she put her hand to her mouth as a sign for free eating. Then she ate with Kauikeaouli, and it was through her influence that the eating tabu was freed. Liholiho permitted this, but refrained from any violation of the kapu himself. (Kuykendall)
Keōpūolani ate coconuts which were tabu to women and took food with the men, saying, “He who guarded the god is dead, and it is right that we should eat together freely.” (Kamakau)
The ʻainoa following Kamehameha’s death continued and the ʻaikapu was not put into place – effectively ending the centuries-old kapu system.
Some have suggested it was the missionaries that ended the kapu that disrupted the social/political system in the Islands; that is not true. The American Protestant missionaries did not arrive in the Islands until the next year (April 4, 1820.) The Hawaiians ended their centuries’ long social/political system.