The Torch of Light

The nut of the kukui may be strung into a lei and given to a beloved one. Here is a plastic representation of a lei kukui.

Every year, on or about March 16, the Big Island Press Club honors the person, organization  or government entity that did the best job of supporting the purpose and goals of the Sunshine Law with the Torch of Light award. This honor has usually been eclipsed by its more famous antipode, the dunning Lava Tube dishonor (more on this in a later post).

We can’t reveal yet who won the Lava Tube or the Torch of Light, but I would like to enlighten you (sorry) as to why we call it the Torch of Light, and some of the symbolism behind the name.

This is an immature kukui tree. Adult specimens may reach 50 to 70 feet in height.

When the first waves of Polynesians migrated to Hawaii they brought with them a most important plant — the kukui tree (the Candlenut tree, Aleurites moluccana). The uses of this tree, and in particular its nut, are many. It was used as medicine and for cleansing, but most importantly for light.

The kukui nut contains a fair amount of oil. In the days before HELCO, Hawaiians needed a way to find a way to the lua at night (I assume) or to store na iwi of their kupuna someplace safe. To do this they used the kukui nut.

According to Maui Magazine, when several of the shelled nuts were skewered on a coconut frond and lit from the top, the oil in the kernels caused them to burn for several minutes. In time several variations of this basic torch were developed — the lama, ti-leaf sheath torches, kalikukui, candles, pohokukui, stone lamps, and the kind that was stuffed in bamboo shafts for torch fishing at night.

The word for light, or lamp, is “kukui.” It’s no wonder, then, that the kukui torch developed tremendous spiritual significance. Kukui is a symbol of light and a symbol of wisdom.

Modern cultural practitioners will use kukui in their offerings as a way of seeking wisdom.

The Academy of Hawaiian Arts, the renegade halau under the direction of kumu hula Mark Kealii Hoomalu, claims the motto “Ke Kukui Nana i Luna,” or “The light looked up to.”

The nut of the kukui tree, when crushed and roasted, becomes a delicious poke seasoning called inamona.

As one of its first official acts, the Hawaii Legislature designated the kukui tree as the state tree.

And of course, the students of Honolulu’s Kukui High School honor this remarkable tree in name and logo. OK, if you want to get picky, this school doesn’t officially exist, but you have to admire their mascot.

Who do you think will get the Torch of Light this year?