Kapu refers to the ancient Hawaii
Hawaii is the newest of the 50 U.S. states , and is the only U.S. state made up entirely of islands. It is the northernmost island group in Polynesia, occupying most of an archipelago in the central Pacific Ocean, southwest of the continental United States, southeast of Japan, and northeast of...

an code of conduct
Code of Conduct
A code of conduct is a set of rules outlining the responsibilities of or proper practices for an individual, party or organization. Related concepts include ethical codes and honor codes....

 of laws and regulations. The kapu system was universal in lifestyle, gender roles, politics, religion, etc. An offense that was kapu was often a corporal offense, but also often denoted a threat to spiritual power, or theft of mana
Mana is an indigenous Pacific islander concept of an impersonal force or quality that resides in people, animals, and inanimate objects. The word is a cognate in many Oceanic languages, including Melanesian, Polynesian, and Micronesian....

. Kapus were strictly enforced. Breaking one, even unintentionally, often meant immediate death, Koo kapu. The concept is related to taboo
A taboo is a strong social prohibition relating to any area of human activity or social custom that is sacred and or forbidden based on moral judgment, religious beliefs and or scientific consensus. Breaking the taboo is usually considered objectionable or abhorrent by society...

 and the tapu
Tapu, tabu or kapu is a Polynesian traditional concept denoting something holy or sacred, with "spiritual restriction" or "implied prohibition"; it involves rules and prohibitions...

or tabu found in other Polynesia
Polynesia is a subregion of Oceania, made up of over 1,000 islands scattered over the central and southern Pacific Ocean. The indigenous people who inhabit the islands of Polynesia are termed Polynesians and they share many similar traits including language, culture and beliefs...

n cultures. The Hawaiian
Hawaiian language
The Hawaiian language is a Polynesian language that takes its name from Hawaii, the largest island in the tropical North Pacific archipelago where it developed. Hawaiian, along with English, is an official language of the state of Hawaii...

 word kapu is usually translated to English as "forbidden", though it also carries the means of "sacred", "consecrated", or "holy".


As these examples might suggest, the sense of the term in Polynesia carries connotations of sacredness as much as forbidden-ness. Probably the best way to translate kapu into English is as meaning "marked off" or ritually restricted. The opposite of kapu is "noa" meaning "common" or "free".


Most famous are the Kapuhili restrictions placed upon contact with chiefs (kings), but these also apply to all people of known spiritual power. Kapu Kū mamao means prohibited from a place of the chief, while Kapu noho was to assemble before the chief. It was kapu entering a chief's personal area to come in contact with his hair or fingernail clippings, to look directly at him and to be in sight of him with a head higher than his. Wearing red and yellow feathers (a sign of royalty) was kapu, unless you were of the highest rank. Places that are kapu are often symbolized by Pahu Kapu, two crossed staffs, each with a white ball atop.

Ai Kapu

The Ai kapu was the kapu system governing contact between men and women. In particular, men and women could not eat meals together. Furthermore, certain foods such as pork
Pork is the culinary name for meat from the domestic pig , which is eaten in many countries. It is one of the most commonly consumed meats worldwide, with evidence of pig husbandry dating back to 5000 BC....

 (the body form of god Lono) , most types (67 of the 70 varieties) of banana
Banana is the common name for herbaceous plants of the genus Musa and for the fruit they produce. Bananas come in a variety of sizes and colors when ripe, including yellow, purple, and red....

s (body form of the god Kanaloa), and coconut
The coconut palm, Cocos nucifera, is a member of the family Arecaceae . It is the only accepted species in the genus Cocos. The term coconut can refer to the entire coconut palm, the seed, or the fruit, which is not a botanical nut. The spelling cocoanut is an old-fashioned form of the word...

s (body form of god Ku) were considered kapu to women. In fact, women could not even make coconut rope. Taro (body form of god Kane) was also kapu for women to eat. Some large fish were also kapu for women to eat. Isabella Abbott, a leading ethnobotanist of Hawaii theorizes that because of the limited "noa" (free) diet for Hawaiian women, seaweeds were relied upon more heavily for Hawaiians than other pacific islands.

The kapu system was used in Hawaii until 1819, when King Kamehameha II
Kamehameha II
Kamehameha II was the second king of the Kingdom of Hawaii. His birth name was Liholiho and full name was Kalaninui kua Liholiho i ke kapu Iolani...

, acting with his mother Keopuolani
Kalanikauikaalaneo Kai Keōpūolani-Ahu-i-Kekai-Makuahine-a-Kama-Kalani-Kau-i-Kealaneo was a queen consort of Hawaii and the highest ranking wife of King Kamehameha I.-Early life:...

 and his father's queen Ka'ahumanu
Elizabeth Kaahumanu was queen regent of the Kingdom of Hawaii and a wife of Kamehameha I. She was the king's favorite wife and also the most politically powerful, and continued to wield considerable power in the kingdom as the kuhina nui during the reigns of his first two successors.-Early...

, abolished it by the symbolic act of sharing a meal of forbidden foods with the women of his court.

Aloha Aina

"Kapu" restrictions were also used to regulate Hawaiian fishing in order to maintain the long term viability of ocean life in the 1700 and 1800s. Certain fishes and/or designated areas were forbidden (or kapu) at the times when overfishing
Overfishing occurs when fishing activities reduce fish stocks below an acceptable level. This can occur in any body of water from a pond to the oceans....

 could damage the environment. This is similar to the modern regulation of monitoring and regulating fishing and hunting through licensing but was well before the "modern" era and showed great insight into sustainable living
Sustainable living
Sustainable living is a lifestyle that attempts to reduce an individual's or society's use of the Earth's natural resources and his/her own resources. Practitioners of sustainable living often attempt to reduce their carbon footprint by altering methods of transportation, energy consumption and diet...

. Also the Kapu ōhia
Metrosideros polymorpha
The ōhia lehua is a species of flowering evergreen tree in the myrtle family, Myrtaceae, that is endemic to the six largest islands of Hawaii. It is a highly variable tree, being tall in favorable situations, and much smaller when growing in boggy soils or on basalt...

chant was needed before harvesting an Ōhia tree.

Modern usage

The ambiguities in the Polynesian concept (from the English point of view) are reflected in the different senses of the word in different national Englishes: In modern usage in Hawaii, "KAPU" is often substituted for the phrase "No Trespassing" on private property signage. In the movie Lilo and Stitch, Lilo has a sign on her door that says "Kapu" for privacy. Although kapu can transmit the meaning "stay out", kapu still means much more to most residents of Hawai‘i. By contrast, in New Zealand
New Zealand
New Zealand is an island country in the south-western Pacific Ocean comprising two main landmasses and numerous smaller islands. The country is situated some east of Australia across the Tasman Sea, and roughly south of the Pacific island nations of New Caledonia, Fiji, and Tonga...

, the comparable word "tapu" is almost always used to mean "sacred".

In 2006, Her Interactive
Her Interactive
Her Interactive is the leading mystery-maker and pioneer of fun and inspiring interactive entertainment. The company, with 24 awards to its name, designs, develops and publishes high-quality, mystery adventure games and apps, and is the world leader in the mystery games category. Her Interactive's...

 released a computer game based on the Nancy Drew
Nancy Drew
Nancy Drew is a fictional young amateur detective in various mystery series for all ages. She was created by Edward Stratemeyer, founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate book packaging firm. The character first appeared in 1930. The books have been ghostwritten by a number of authors and are published...

 series of books, titled The Creature of Kapu Cave.
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