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Hawaiian Royal Incest

A Study in the Sacrificial Origin of Monarchy
Joanne Carando

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1When early navigators reported on Hawaii, its practices and customs, one of the most often mentioned features of the archipelago was the practice of incest among members of the royal families. Though it was restricted to a limited number of people, it was such an openly practiced tradition that it could not go unnoticed, all the more so as it concerned the rulers of the islands. What struck these first observers was also the fact that it was not considered as a sin nor as a peculiar custom by the natives, although the taboo of incest is almost universal. The historic specificity of incest in Hawaii is thus dual: it was not allowed except for a handful of people—but for these people it was not only accepted but even encouraged.

2What historians call “modern Hawaiian history,” that is written accounts concerning the history of Hawaii, began when Captain James Cook’s expedition made its first contact in 1778 with the Hawaiian people of the islands of Kauai and Niihau. In modern Hawaiian history one can distinguish three main groups of sources: 1—the accounts of European voyagers, who from the time of Cook visited the Hawaiian archipelago; 2—the writings of missionaries who set foot in Hawaii in 1820; 3—the traditions or eyewitness accounts recorded in their own language by the Hawaiians who had received a Christian education. These works have provided general information concerning Hawaiian royal incest but no interpretation. For this purpose, anthropoligical or psychoanalytical tools could be summoned. However, the anthropological explanations of incest are for the most part related to its prohibition in primitive societies, its practice being presented as a most rare phenomenon attributed only to the extraordinary status of the king. On the other hand psychoanalysis propounds an approach linked to a patriarchal family structure, not found in Hawaii. It is René Girard’s theory which allowed the most relevant reading of incest, bringing to light a connection between the practice of royal incest and a general comprehension of the sacrificial origin of our societies.

Social Hierarchy and Kapu System

3Ancient Hawaii was a strongly stratifie