November 16th, 2021 marked the 185th birthday of King Kalākaua. King David Kalākaua, who is known as Hawaii’s last king, was nicknamed the Merrie Monarch for his love of life and the arts. Writer Robert Louis Stevenson described Kalākaua as “a cultured intellectual of unusual mental powers.” These attributes led him to work for the rights of native Hawaiians and to spark a resurgence of Hawaiian culture. Under his reign, the Hawaiian art form known as hula, which was formerly suppressed by Christian missionaries, again came to prominence. It is because of his revival of hula, that King Kalākaua is memorialized each year at the week-long Merrie Monarch Festival, an annual celebration of Hawaiian culture in Hilo. The festival, which includes an internationally acclaimed hula competition, a Hawaiian arts fair, and a grand parade, attracts dancers, traditional practitioners, and spectators for across the archipelago. King Kalākaua also encouraged greater appreciation for native Hawaiian beliefs, knowledge, and cosmology by penning a book of traditional lore.
Today the sacred beings King Kalākaua wrote about are still honored annually by hula dancers participating in the Merrie Monarch Festival. Some dancers honor the goddess Laka, patroness of the arts. Ceremonies honoring Pele, the fiery goddess of the volcanoes, are also customarily held at the Halema’uma’u Crater, her legendary home, prior to performances. The dancers and their teachers make offerings, chant, and dance for Pele. It isn’t unusual for dancers and teachers to look on Pele as a revered ancestor. After the festival, dancers and their teachers return, casting natural adornments, like grass skirts and leis, worn during performances into the crater to give back the spiritual energy, or mana, given to them by the goddess Pele.