Why Luaus Were Prohibited


The Hawaiian luau has been made world famous by films, television, and music. Everyone has seen images of a roasted pig being lifted from an underground imu oven, tables heaping with fresh fruit, and beautiful hula dancers in traditional Hawaiian costume. When arriving on Kauai and getting ready to attend a Kauai luau, we have the wonderful feeling we are participating in an ancient Hawaiian tradition. Would you believe that in ancient Hawaii the best Kauai luau as we know it today could not have occurred? In fact, to have participated in Kauai luau prior to 1819 would have been punishable by death.

The period of Hawaiian history before King Kamehameha unified the islands into one kingdom in 1810 is referred to as ancient Hawaii. In ancient Hawaii all aspects of life were shaped by the kapu system. The meaning of the word kapu is very close to how we understand the English word taboo. If an action is kapu, it is not just frowned upon – it is deeply shameful and completely forbidden. Committing a kapu action in ancient Hawaii was to risk being shunned by society or even the ultimate punishment of death. So, what does an ancient code of conduct have to do with throwing a festive Hawaiian luau? Well, an entire section of the kapu code, the ai’kapu, covered food and how it was eaten. Let’s consider what a luau on Kauai would have been like if the ai’kapu were still practiced in the island.

You and your husband or wife, your daughter or son or your mother or father arrive for the luau feast in your best aloha wear, ready to enjoy all that a Kauai luau has to offer. Unfortunately, under ai’kapu, you will not be enjoying it together. Mom, daughter, and sister will now be heading in one direction while Dad, son and brother go in another one. That’s right, the main reason a modern Kauai luau would be impossible under ai’kapu is that men and women were absolutely not allowed to eat together. One luau would be held in the hale mua, or men’s house. At this best Kauai luau like feast, ancient Hawaiian men enjoyed each and every delicacy offered at a Hawaiian luau today. So how about the ladies? You are off to the hale aina, or women’s house. Your luau feast, however, is missing a few things. There is no pork, bananas, coconuts, or taro anywhere. Now, this is hardly a Kauai luau without the taro leaves and chicken dish steamed in coconut milk that gave the Hawaiian luau its name!

Today we have all experienced countless images of luaus in Kauai with men and women eating together in one place and women enjoying all the delicacies of the luau. We know that no harm comes from it. However, ancient Hawaiians must have had a compelling reason for their codes of behavior and punishment surrounding food. Ancient Hawaiians would have been horrified by a modern Kauai luau because they would have believed all the men present were in grave danger of having their mana, or spirit, stolen by the women while being close to them in such a vulnerable state. The luau delicacies that were forbidden to women were off-limits because for these ancient Hawaiians they represented the bodies of different gods they believed in, like pork, considered to be the earthly manifestation of the god Lono. So if the ai’kapu system was so closely tied to sacred religious beliefs, how did we come to have the modern Kauai luaus of today?

In 1819 newly crowned King Kamehameha II agreed to rule side by side with his stepmother, the famous Queen Ka’ahumanu. When they sat together to eat a Kauai luau like feast and the people observed Ka’ahumanu eating the traditional forbidden delicacies associated with the luau today, an unprecedented cultural shift took place. This feast was the birth of the Kauai luaus we enjoy today. King Kamehameha II and Queen Ka’ahumanu invited hundreds of their loyal subjects to eat together and enjoy the luau chicken, coconuts, pork and other dishes forbidden to women under ai’kapu. We now consider this the first Hawaiian luau. King Kamehameha II’s motives in shattering kapu and giving birth to the luau are not fully understood. There is speculation it may have been connected to his new commitment to Christianity, or simply at the urging of Queen Ka’ahumanu. Whatever their reasons were, they changed the world of Hawaii forever and the ripples have spread to all of us who have enjoyed a luau. When you arrive at the best Kauai luau of your choice and sit down next to A friend or relative of the opposite sex to enjoy all of the foods available, remember the bold choice of Kamehameha and Ka’ahumanu and enjoy your Hawaiian luau experience in their memory.