According to myth, Goddess Pele of volcanoes is referenced as one of the earliest surfers. She was taught by Kamohaoli’I, aumakua (guardian) shark god, subsequently taught her youngest sister-goddess Hi’iaka and men followed after.
With roots entwined amongst the royalty of Ancient Polynesia, surfing has been called The Sport of Kings. But to use this name alone is to deny the full and rightful history of the art of riding waves. It has always also been The Sport of Queens.
Surfing has been part of Hawaiian culture since the fourth century when Polynesians settled the islands and brought wave riding with them. In pre-contact Hawaii, surfing was for everyone; mothers, grandfathers, warriors, princesses, children. In fact, historians of Ancient Polynesia acknowledge that it was women who seemed to stand in the highest regard for their skill, grace and poise as surfers. Woven deep into the chants and lore of our surfing culture’s roots are the stories of revered women who rode waves with utmost grace and athleticism.
Back then, people knew what we have forgotten; that play is part of what makes us human. That working too hard or too often doesn’t necessarily lead to increased productivity or happiness or a sense of community. Play has been an essential part of human evolution because it opens up doors to creativity, spontaneity, and envisioning new ways of being in the world. Most human cultures have tended to have more leisure time than work.
Goddess Hiʻiaka, in all her skill with the healing arts, knew that riding waves was the perfect medicine for a broken heart.
When European notions of religiosity and alternatively rigid gender divisions came to govern Polynesia and beyond, the wild freedom of wave riding was nearly lost completely, and later assumed as an endeavour only for men.
Princess Ka’iulani, a half-Hawaiian, half-Scottish waterwoman, served as a brave liaison between the cultures she bridged and helped to keep the tradition of surfing alive amidst the radical changes of European colonisation. At only 17, she played an active role in the preservation of Hawaiian culture during colonisation.
Princess Ka’iulani is reputed to have taken surfing to England, where she rode waves in the English Channel and may have been the first woman to stand up surf in England. Despite her early death at age 23, Princess Ka’iulaini’s noble legacy of speaking truth to power is undeniable.
Before the threats of colonisation, a culture rich in aquatic lore and myth abounded in Polynesia. Surfing was part of a rich and sensuous way of life, that included hula, chanting, and outlets for play entwined with spirituality.
Nowadays, Hawai’i wahine are reclaiming their place in the waves as their ancestors did, despite a lack of representation in the overwhelmingly male-dominanted sport of surfing and cultural practice.
Many of them find their bliss across the globe - in frigid waters and wild swells, to reclaim their spirits and maintain the magic of the wave.
Happy Women's History Month from all of us here at Surf Soap -
Kayla, Melissa, Mia, Lynn, Ellie, Ben and Theo
The Ka`iulaini Project
The Twentieth Century Surfer