Hawaiian Feather Capes Or Birds of War

King Kamehameha’s feather cape. Mamo and ʻOʻo feathers. It was once calculated that there were over 450,000 feathers in the cape.

Kamehamehaʻs cape is a magnificent cape if not a magnificent piece of Art. The yellow of the feathers have a rich golden hue to them because of the fact that under the layer of yellow feathers is a complete layer of red feathers. You can just see the red feathers by double clicking on the photo and checking out the edge where the yellow feathers have come off.

In the time of King Kamehameha  these capes not only served as a sign of status they were also functional when going to war. In my mind’s eye it must have been a magnificent sight to see. Though these warriors were fierce and a force to be reckoned with you can almost imagine it like a parade.  Though a very frightening  one.

Kamehamehaʻs god of war Ku-kaʻili-moku

In front of the army and near the King came the high priest carrying, elevated on a staff the war-god Ku-kaʻili-moku. This feathered god with pearl shell eyes and 94 dogs teeth in its mouth, it was said, would scream. The sound could  be heard emanating from it during times of war. At one time the god or kiʻi had a crest of feathers that would bristle and point the way into battle. The standing feathers was considered a favorable sign.

Next you could see the king heading up the front of the army with his long cape and a woven high crested helmet.

Feathered Cape (ʻahuʻula) Each chief had his own unique design

Another design for a chief

The function of these capes besides their beauty and designation of social order was itʻs ability to serve as protection. I have read that with its folds it made it hard to tell where the chiefs vital organs were also it could help deflect the aimed  spear. The front of the cape would be above the chiefs knees so as to enable him to maneuver better.

The red in the cape may have come from the ʻiʻiwe which supplied most of the red feathers. The yellow came from the ʻoʻo and the mamo.

These two species had a small amount yellow feathers. Iʻve read between 5 and 7. The feathers were plucked when the bird was molting and the let go to grow more.

The feathered helmet called a mahiole. This is a low crested helmet. This would have been a full feathered helmet but has withered through time.

On the chiefʻs head would have been a woven, feathered covered high crested helmet that would have protected him from the slings of rocks that were part of the weapons of war.

Shoulder cape

The lesser chiefs would follow the high chief surrounded by their own warriors. He would have worn a shoulder cape and usually did not wear a helmet.

Then came the koa or soldiers who wore malos or loin cloth. Some wore nothing at all but rubbed themselves down with oil that might have come from the Kukui nut-tree.

Chiefs had been known to go to war with their wives who would take up the fight if the husband was engaged or fallen in battle. Women warriors were called Koa Wahine which meant brave women.

The following are some of the weapons the warriors  would have used.

Sling with carved rocks. These would have been the preferred weapon of the women

Bludgeon daggers. Some of these clubs had a dual purpose. A cordage was place in the middle of the instrument and it could be manipulated to either be a club or a dagger. Some were just daggers and others were just clubs.

Shark tooth implements worn on the fingers. Gives a whole new meaning to brass knuckles.

Spears made of a hard wood called Kauila. The long spears were pikes and the short ones were used as javelins.

The beautiful sound of birds, the breathtaking sight of the black Mamo with itʻs scant yellow feathers, the rich texture of Kamehamehaʻs cape would be forgotten as the parade of feathers headed off to battle. Hmm. Beauty is as beauty does.

All of these artifacts can be seen at Bishop Museum. Well with the exception of King Kamehamehaʻs cape which will be on loan to Iolani Palace for a while.

If you would like to read a very good book about how these artifacts are made and used check out the book, “Arts and Crafts of Hawaii” by Sir Peter H. Buck. A lot of the information that I use for my blog and tours comes from this book.

The work written here is that of Kareninhonolulu and not that of Bishop Museum.


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