In the spirit of Halloween, which is coming up in just a few days, I thought I’d relate a Hawaiian ghost story. This story comes from More Vignettes of Old Hawaii, by David Free (copyright © 1994 Crossroads Press, Inc.)
[ed. note: Kahili (kah-HEE-lee) are feathered standards used in ancient times by, and as symbols of, Hawaiian royalty. Just as the royal families of Europe display banners with coats of arms, Hawaiian nobility used kahili to show status, lineage, and family ties.]
Many old Hawaiian superstitions, myths and legends have over the years become intertwined, resulting in a hazy definition of the factual and the mythical. As a result, today we have believers and scoffers — those who choose to religiously follow the way of Hawaii’s old legends and those who are skeptical, who stand back in agnostic disbelief.
This is an account of a mysterious and inexplicable episode in Hawaii’s history when everyone became believers.
In 1928, Iolani Palace, the capitol of the territorial government, no longer served as home to royalty. The only remnant from the monarchy was the palace guard, which continued to act as the building’s protectors and caretakers. The captain of the guards was a handsome Hawaiian, Mokumaia — a handsome specimen of the old Hawaiian, more than 6 feet tall and possessing the strength of three normal men.
It was Mokumaia who, out of duty to his government, gave birth to an idea to brighten things up a bit around the territorial government building. Mokumaia commented: “Our governor all the same as alii [chiefs],” and therefore decided to make a number of kahilis to be used in the palace in the same fashion they were once used by royalty.
With full respect for the traditions of the past, Mokumaia and his staff set out to construct the kahilis. In the absence of the brilliant feathers of Hawaiian birds, long since extinct, they dyed the feathers of ducks in shades of red, yellow, and gold and fashioned two attractive kahilis. Had they stopped there, perhaps all would have been well and the ancient gods would have found no reason for offense. But the kahili makers carried on their art, committing an unforgivable desecration. Discovering some black feathers that had once been part of a kahili belonging to the last ruler of the kingdom, Queen Lili`uokalani, they made a third.
The kahilis were constructed in the basement of the bandstand on the palace grounds and, when finished, they were carried in ceremonial manner, under the careful supervision of Mokumaia, to the throne room of the palace.
Observing proper formalities of royalty, the black kahili was carried by the first guard and led the procession. Directly behind came guards bearing the two duck feather standards. All went well until the procession reached the foot of the palace steps. The black kahili mysteriously slipped from the hands of the bearer and fell to the ground. The morning paper reported the next day that “Its black feathers were ruffled in the fall.”
The following day the kahilis were presented to the governor of Hawaii in a ceremony marked by reverence for the sacred traditions of the past and were placed in what was once the throne room, but at the time was serving as chambers for the legislature.
On the night following the ceremony, the guard who had carried the black kahili was stricken with paralysis. A doctor was called, but the guard grew steadily worse. His wife, knowing of the black kahili incident, called a kahuna whose diagnosis was that her husband was being punished for an act of disrespect to the ancient gods. The kahuna intervened and the man was well in a short time.
Meanwhile, Mokumaia was stricken with a mysterious illness and confined to a hospital bed for several weeks. While he was still ill, the legislature went into session. Immediately, death began to stalk the home of members of the House of Representatives and the deep apprehensions of the community began to solidify.
First, the wife of a member died, then the mother of another and the child of a third, until by the end of 33 days, six people, all close relatives of legislature members, were laid to rest. Then a member of the House broke two ribs in a fall; another was taken seriously ill. Feelings ran high and, in near panic, the members of the house demanded that the speaker order the immediate removal of the black standard, known by now as the Death Kahili as far away as Washington, one of the daily newspapers took note of the hysteria taking place in the territory.
The speaker of the House talked to Mokumaia and together they worked out a plan for the removal of the black kahili. Protesting that he meant no wrong, but with full understanding of thee implications of recent happenings, Mokumaia set about to reverse the tragic events. Together with several attendants he came to the palace in the still of the night and exactly at midnight — the only hour when the royal dead may be moved — the black kahili was carried, reverently, from the palace.
The skeptical may jeer, the practical disbelieve, but the fact remains that following the removal of the Death Kahili, the grim reaper seemed to vanish from the legislative halls.
This is the twenty-eighth post in my series, 31 Days of Life in my Hawaii. Click here to get the links to the other posts in the series.