Cross-posted from: Suppressed Histories Archives
Originally published: 01.01.14

I spend a lot of time digging around for cultural records of women. This information is not yielded up easily, and the sources are often problematic for their bias, whether masculine or Euro-racialist and colonialist. So it is gratifying to come across a source that contains very hard-to-find information, in this case historical accounts of female spiritual leadership in the Pacific Islands. I proceed on the assumption that a great deal of information is preserved in oral traditions I don’t have access to, and that documents written by missionaries and “explorers” (traveling with colonial navies) can be problematic because of their biases. Yet they sometimes contain important testimony, as shown by what follows.

The following is drawn from an article “Oral literature of Polynesia” in a book with a most unlikely title for such a subject: ‪The Growth of LiteratureThe ancient literature of Europe, by ‬Hector Munro Chadwick‬, ‪Nora Kershaw Chadwick‬, ‪Kershaw H Chadwick‬. London and NY: ‪Cambridge University Press‬, 1940 (1968). The book came to me via a roundabout search triggered by an Hawaiian oral history that set me looking for prophetic and priestly women. It was a story about the prominent kaula wahine Pao.

Kapa (painted barkcloth) from Hawaii
Kapa (painted barkcloth) from Hawaii

The prophetess Pao was consulted by chief Kihapiilani, whose elder brother had forced him into exile from Maui. Before he could set out on the long voyage to Hawaii, he had to first get his wife’s permission to leave: “As soon as he was allowed to go [!] Kihapiilani started for Waikapu where the prophetess [ke kaula wahine] by the name of Pao was living.” Before his arrival, Pao had already predicted to her entourage that a chief was coming to petition her for assistance.

Later in the story, the chief’s sister prevailed upon her husband to assist him in his war against the oppressive older brother. “At this, Umi decided that he must obey his wife’s demand and so he gave his consent.” [Fornander, Abraham, Collection of Hawaiian Antiquities and Folklore, 1917, pp] This story from one of the early written collections of Hawaiian history offers a unique perspective on women’s authority—and it also gives an important name for tracking that.

Kaula wahine translates as prophet-woman, priestess, seeress. But I’ve found it difficult to locate more information on the female kaula. Fornander, like so many other early recorders of the traditions, used the European masculine default, which makes it impossible to tell whether he is talking about all-male “priests.” In one place he does mention male and female. This male-default language is a major structural barrier that conceals women of power.

So in searching for the kaula wahine, and not finding much in libraries or online, it occurred to me that there might be another angle to research. Southern Pacific languages use taula because of the regular sound shift Tahitian T > Hawaiian K. A whole range of island traditions attribute spiritual powers and priestly authority to the taula(also taura or taua). And a web search for taula wahine did pay off by turning up this valuable article, “Oral literature of Polynesia.” One of the things I appreciate about the authors is their genuine respect for the Pacific cultures and their willingness to acknowledge the gaps in their knowledge:

“Our information relating to saga-telling in the Pacific is not very extensive, considering the wealth of saga texts. The most important of the historical and antiquarian sagas were recorded from the recitation of the tohungas, who were undoubtedly the chief specialists in this class of literature. … But saga-telling was by not means confined to the priesthood. It was a very general accomplishment among men and women of all ranks, and in Hawaii seems to have been something of a profession in itself. The prominence of saga-telling in the intellectual life of the Cook Islanders will have been observed from what has been said already…”

The Chadwicks tell us that women were often custodians of historical knowledge: “Among the Maori also saga-telling was a favorite form of intellectual entertainment, particularly among the women[emphasis added]. Graham refers to the sagas which he heard in particular from an old lady, a certain ‘old Mereri,’ who, he tells us, was well versed in ancient lore. Not infrequently the wife of a chief enjoyed a reputation as a saga-teller.” [411]

And again: “The composers [of poems and songs] are frequently women. In Hawaii, to judge from the repertoire of the hula dancers, and the evidence of the sagas of the Pele Cycle, the composition of poetry by women was especially common in the past.” Two women composed the mele of the Huala Pua’a, about Hama-pua’a, for example. This pattern was not unique to Hawaii: “Among the Maori the composition of poetry was especially common among women, and in Samoa the songs of the siva are said to have been frequently composed by women.” [413]

Taula Wahine

Punaei Valley, Hiva Oa, Marquesas
Punaei Valley, Hiva Oa, Marquesas

Now we come to the taula wahine. The Marquesans had “three classes of priestly and mantic persons—the atua, the taua (kaula), and the tuhuna (tohunga) [kahuna in Hawaii].” In the late 1700s, Crook wrote that the atua were regarded as divine persons. “These atua… were few in number, not more than one or two on an island at most, and they lived in great seclusion.” [448] (“Divinity” or “numinous person” are ways that atua could be translated.)

“Evidence of human atua in Hawaii [or rather, akua] appears to relate exclusively, or at least principally, to women.” But now the authors counterpose to that statement an implication that the entire prophetic class was male: “There was, however, a class of men known as kaula (‘seers’)” who went into states of divine inspiration, in which a deity warned them of important future events. “Their utterances during their periods of ecstasy were known as wanana, the word by which the Hawaiian translators of the Bible translate our word prophecy, but which appears to have reference any ‘inspired’ utterance of a sustained and formal character.” [446]

Having declared the kaula “a class of men” as distinguished from the mostly female group of living akua, on the next page they contradict themselves: “The kaula might be either a man or woman, if we may judge from the evidence of the sagas. A legend of Kalunuiohua, a chief of the royal line of Hawaii about three generations after the Migration Period, associates a prophetess or kaula called Waahia with his expeditions, or with the negotiations for his release out of captivity.” [447] They add that the Hawaiian kaula are included among the kahunas but are more powerful, “owing to their prophetic gifts.” [447]

The authors also express skepticism about the existence of priestesses in the Pacific Island: “In general our authorities do not distinguish between the priestess, or temple official, and the female seer. We have not found any satisfactory ground for supposing that any women of the former class have existed in Polynesia in historical times, except possibly in Samoa. On the other hand, women claiming possession by a divine spirit are by no means rare.”

The authors footnote their claim of no real evidence for priestesses in Pacifica by admitting to “[a] number of instances” in the written record, “but we are inclined to suspect that these have reference in reality to women of prophetic class, or to rare instances in which women’s names have become attached to the priestly class, owing to some other circumstance, such as the descent of a priestly line from a female, or because a woman has become for some other reason the repository of the lore of the priests.” This rather labored explanation shows no awareness of Hawaiian traditions assigning ceremonies of the female akua to priestesses and of the male to priests, as knowledgeable Hawaiians have told me.

On the preceding page the authors have already mentioned, but with the same unwarranted skepticism, that “A number of notices of priestesses have been recorded in the Tahiti Group, and in the Marquesas and elsewhere.” [452] All this after having already given dramatic accounts of the priestesses of Pele, who were regarded as “divine beings, the living and permanent incarnations of the goddess.” [445] Let’s look at those.

The priestesses of Pele

The authors write that the akua “are represented in Hawaii by certain women who lived in the craters of Mount Kilauea and neighboring volcanoes. Early missionaries speak of these women as the priestesses of the volcano goddess Pele…” [444-45]

Pele's cauldera at Kilauea, Hawaii
Pele’s cauldera at Kilauea, Hawaii

The missionary Ellis recounted an 1825 meeting of Oani the priestess of Pele with a group of early missionaries. She declared to them, “Pele is my deity,” and sang and danced her story before them, “pronounced in a rapid and vociferous manner accompanied by ‘extravagant gestures’.” [445] This description betrays the missionaries’ assumptions and judgments that rendered them incapable of understanding what the priestess was about, as she entered into an inspired state.

“Toward the close she appeared to the missionaries to lose all command of herself. Nevertheless, she was able immediately afterwards to carry on a logical and balanced argument in discussion with them.” The ministers revered the biblical prophets, the ecstasies of David or of the Pentecost Christians, but they could not recognize a similar attainment in a Hawaiian priestess, any more than they were able to understand her attempts to reason with them about the value of her culture. They  fixated on her declaration that she was Pele, which she reaffirmed when Ellis questioned her, and could not see anything further. [445]

The same missionary also described “an official visit of a different priestess of a priestess of Pele, arrayed in her prophetic robes, having the edges of her garments burnt with fire, and holding a short staff or spear in her hand, preceded by her daughter, who was also a candidate for the office of priestess. On this occasion the priestess claimed that ‘in a trance or vision she had been with Pele’ who had charged her to lodge certain complaints against the foreigners who had violated her sanctuary.” [445]

C.S. Stewart, another of these missionaries, described an encounter with a different priestess leading a procession across the land. I am going to quote from him in spite of his disrespectful account of the Hawaiian priestess, while taking note of his discounting of her spiritual ecstasy according to a well-worn European pattern of viewing such states as madness, delusion, and even demonic possession. Still, reading across and through his prejudices, we can catch sight of the spiritual potency of this priestess, and her defiance:

”I unexpectedly met her in an evening walk, followed by a considerable company…. She was dressed in a fantastic manner, with disheveled hair—her eyes flashing in a half-frenzy, from the degree of excitement to which she had wrought herself—and appeared altogether like a maniac: such as I supposed her in reality to be, til undeceived by the exclamations of the crowd, ‘it is a goddess—it is a goddess!’ As if to intimidate, she approached me with a fierce and daring look; and waving before her a small flag of tapa, appended to a light staff, supported the claim by the declaration, ‘I am a goddess—a goddess indeed’.” [445-46. Kapa, rather than tapa, is the Hawaiian name for bark-cloth.]

The last chief priestess of Pele visited this same Stewart after her conversion to Christianity (still accompanied by her retinue). He coughed up a short description of her ceremonial leadership for us: “At the time of the sacrifice the priestess had been accustomed to descend into the depths of the volcano, and approaching the place most accessible and most active with fire, she had cast the gifts into the flames, with the exclamation: ‘Here, Pele, is food for you.’ Her father was the hereditary kahu, or steward, as she was the priestess of Pele. His duty was to provide the materials for the general sacrifices [her food and raiment] – and to have all things in readiness for the offerings at the appointed seasons.” [446]

The authors claim that the oral traditions offer “no clear instances” of female temple officials, “though instances are not lacking of women gifted with second sight, and described as ‘prophetesses’ [here probably translating kaula wahine] and ‘sorceresses.’ An early Hawaiian saga refers to a renowned seeress of this class called Kukelepolani as having been employed by Kila in Tahiti to help him find his brother La’a-ma-i-kahiki. We are also told in the same saga that Olopana had been wont to consult her.” [453]

Recognizing Pacific priestesses

Here’s another reference to taula wahine: “In general the distinction between the priest and the prophet that we have noted for the northern and eastern Pacific seems to underlie the systems in Samoa and Tonga also. In Samoa there were at least four classes of priestly and mantic persons who were known as taula-aitu. Here also the god was supposed at times to enter into the taula, and here also female taula are not unknown. Indeed, according to Stair, certain aitu, or gods, are said to have been served by women priests…” And then once again the authors go on to minimize that fact.

In Tonga, they tell us, the priesthood was numerous and powerful. “According to West they were divided into two classes, the taula, ‘or priests inspired by the gods,” and the feao, who offered the sacrifices, and maintained the temples in good order and repair. According to Mariner, the priests are hardly ever drawn from the chiefs, but more often from the landed class, or even the peasants; but this observation seems to have particular reference to the taula class. Such people are said to have differed in no respect in regard to their status or way of life from other people, but to have been more taciturn and given to reflection, and more observant of what was going on.” [453-54]

Sometimes Tongans who were not taula connected with ancestral spirits or deities. They refer to a young prince who “was sometimes inspired by the tutelary spirit of his family, but was not on this account regarded as a ‘priest’.” There were people “who were frequently inspired by a particular god. Such sporadic divine visitations are here most commonly attributed to females.” [emphasis added, 454]

The Maori waka or kauwaka “seem to correspond in all respects to the kaulas, acting as the medium of the god, whose oracle they received in trance or dream, and also acting sometimes as the guardian of his [sic] sanctuary. They also acted as a medium of communication between the living and the dead. The mantic gift was often hereditary, and shared alike by women and men. [emphasis added] Gudgeon refers to a great tohunga of the early European period who could boast a long line of mantic ancestors on both sides. His mother was a renowned ‘sorceress,’ and his wife even more famous, being descended from a tribe of ‘spirits’.” [454]

The areoi of Tahiti and the hoki of Marquesas

Pacific Island cultures had many forms of sacred dance, song, and theater, usually combined. In Tahiti the areoi had to try out for selection by the elders, then train for a long time, and finally give a performance (though that is surely not the right word) before being admitted with great ceremony. Wearing headdresses of feathers and flowers, they moved from place to place in canoe flotillas, singing to the music of of drum and flute. They held all night performances in brightly lit longhouses. Peace was observed during these festivals, which contained religious and origin stories. [425-27]

“The costume of the areoi, both men and women, suggests that of the dead, while they refer to themselves as maru, ‘shadows.’ The uritoy of the Caroline and Ladone islands resemble areoi in some respects, but the closest analogies to them are in the Marquesas Islands, where the hoki carried out sacred performances known as kappa. [430]

A long Marquesan narrative attributes the origin of kappa to a woman. It tells how two gods carried off the maiden Taa-po to the world of the dead. There “she sees a group of young people performing a kappa, and on her return to earth she teaches her relatives the kappa which she has heard sung by the atua in the land of the dead, and which consists

Taupou dancing in Samoa
Taupou dancing in Samoa

largely of a catalogue of islands, together with the chiefs who rule them—another indication of the serious educational character of these performances. The girl suggests to her relatives that they should set out as a ‘singing troupe in her honor’, carrying the kappawith them. They sail accordingly to Paumau in Hivaoa—a district which we are told was anciently famous for hoki.” [434]

Thus the underworld-journeying maiden Taa-po is credited with founding the entire tradition. (I wonder, too, about the similarity of her name to Samoan taupo, the title of a chiefly maiden who presides over preparation and serving of the sacred drink kava.) “The saga goes on to speak of further performances of the kappa, part of which consists of a duet between the heroine and her father. In the saga of Tona-Hai-Eee we hear of a singing festival in honor of a female chief, in which various people are represented as singing i’i as eulogies on the chief herself, partly in the form of solos, and partly in chorus, by the whole assembly. [434]


Suppressed Histories Archive – The Suppressed Histories Archives uncovers the realities of women’s lives, internationally and across time, asking questions about patriarchy and slavery, conquest and aboriginality. About mother-right, female spheres of power, indigenous philosophies of spirit– and the historical chemistry of their repression. Even more important, their role in resisting oppression. A global perspective on women’s history offers fresh and diverse conceptions of women’s power, as well as of men and gender borders. It overturns stereotypes of race and class, and the structures of domination that enforce them. It digs under the usual story of lords and rulers, looking for hidden strands, and reweaves knowledge from the divided fields of history, archaeology, linguistics and folk tradition. So we cast a wide arc, looking for patterns and gaps and contradictions which, where vested power interests are at stake, are trigger points for controversy. Some of the flashpoints are women’s power; neolithic female figurines; gender-egalitarian mother-right cultures; patriarchy; witch-hunts; “heresies” such as goddess veneration or shamans; and the rise and fall of empires, including the doctrines of supremacy and inferiority that prop up all systems of domination.