Ancient Oahi Ritual Used to Celebrate Important Hawaiian Events
In ancient times Hawaiian royalty celebrated special occasions with the oahi (fire-throwing) ceremony which involved throwing flaming embers from high atop the seacliffs on Kauai’s north shore.
The lit firebrands were thrown out over the ocean into the strong seaward winds where they would be caught in the updrafts. The pithy hau and papala woods soared through the air as they were lifted and carried by the winds, all the while showering sparks into the Kauai night air.
Catching the Flaming Embers Considered Heroic
When the flaming wood finally made its way to the ocean’s surface far below, waiting there were spectators in canoes who attempted to catch the fiery embers. It was considered heroic to catch one, and those who succeeded would sometimes tattoo themselves with the hot firebrands to commemorate the royal event.
Kauai North Shore Locations Used for Oahi Ceremony
One of the very few places this oahi fire-throwing ceremony took place was from atop the mountain of Makana, now often referred to as Bali Hai from its role in the 1957 movie South Pacific. The other places the fire-throwing ceremony was performed was from atop the nearby seacliff peaks of Makua and Kamaile.
A Westerner Experiences the Ancient Ceremony
After Western contact this oahi fire-throwing ceremony continued. Theophilus Davies, a guardian of Princess Kai’ulani, recalled his 1860 visit to Haena to see the oahi fire-throwing ceremony with Queen Emma.
Davies wrote that he joined the “Royal Cavalcade” from Hanalei to Haena and “rode with the Queen most of the way” as “various traditions and legends of places we passed were narrated to me by the Queen.”
Davies watched several Kauai natives “climb to the summit of a stupendous and almost perpendicular peak” where they ignited wood at both ends and threw it off the cliff where it flew “backwards and forwards until they reached the sea.”
Davies recalled that, “Mats were laid on the sand and there we sat, hosts of natives grouped near us – the perpetual pulsation of the ocean in its vesper of praise at our feet – the strange falling flakes of fire far off in the high air, and over all the clear white light of the moon.”
As this occurred the royal party sang, their “voices blended musically in various part songs. The two young ladies sang soprano, Queen Emma alto, the chronicler tenor, and Henry Dimond bass.”
A Hawaiian saying about the oahi ceremony is found in Mary Kawena Pukui’s book of Hawaiian proverbs:
Pulelo ke ahi ha’aheo i na pali.
The firebrand soars proudly over the cliffs.
Said as an expression of triumph referring to the firebrand hurling on Kauai’s northern seacliffs.