This page was started in response to the lack of academic sources regarding the hula kahiko, or traditional hula dance of Hawaii. Presented here are various mele and their updated translations, based on the original transcription and translation by Nathaniel Emerson between 1878 and 1909 in his book The Unwritten Literature of Hawaii. I have made an occasional correction or addition, but the translations stay true to Emerson’s work; however, I have not included Emerson’s commentary or footnotes. Emerson was a gifted translator and had a deep respect for the Hawaiian people, but his work is not without flaws. Emerson often contradicted the viewpoints of the nā kumu hula he interviewed, and was often hesitant to acknowledge the erotic overtones and metaphors present in many of these rituals. Furthermore, these traditions were recorded nearly eight decades after the first missionaries arrived in Hawaiʻi, and over 130 years after the first European contact. Emerson’s work cannot therefore be said to represent purely traditional Hawaiian hula. Emerson’s own ideas regarding race are also present in some of the commentary. Despite its flaws, ULH is perhaps the definitive text on the hula kahiko because of the extensive background of mythology, society, culture, and ecology, which are necessary for a full contextual understanding of the Hawaiian hula tradition.
Some may question the necessity of studying these ancient texts due to their relative obscurity and the abundance of post-contact Hawaiian mele, of which there is more complete information on. Why not embrace the multifarious influences of other cultures and celebrate the modern practice of the hula? The preservation and study of the ancient hula is not a rejection of contemporary influences, nor an attempt to assert the superiority of traditional over progressive. Rather, the hula kahiko serves as a window back to what Emerson referred to as the “Polynesian Arcadia,” the prototypical pre-literate society from which all of humanity originated. While one studies the Iliad and Mahabarata to glean knowledge on the fundamental essence of humanity, it is almost more appropriate to study the hula Pele or the hālau to get a glimpse of these original societies. As the Iliad and Odyssey have undergone countless revisions and adulterations during the several thousand years they have been removed from their original context, the songs of Hawaiʻi remain almost untainted by time. The isolation of Hawaiʻi has preserved the integrity of its lyric canon, giving the close reader a wealth of insight into antiquity. More than anything, these texts illuminate the great themes of life and death and hearken back to a golden age of humanity . To modify a quotation of Nietzsche: “There is no place where one really feels at home anymore. So the thing that one longs to get back to, before anything else is whatever place there may be where one could feel at home, and that is because it is in that place– and in that place alone– where one would really like to feel at home. That place is the world of the Hawaiians.”
The full original text of ULH is available through Amazon, or online for free at Sacred Texts (Although this scanned version contains typos).