By Erika Scafuro
One of the most fascinating aspects of the history of surfing concerns the ancient culture of Hawaii islands where, before the arrival of European colonizers, surfing was deeply part of the culture and regarded as a kind of religion.
Surfing was closely connected to the spirituality of the whole community that practiced it; everyone was involved, from the inhabitants to the royalty, from young people to old, even women were allowed to surf.
Thanks to the abundance of food available in the blooming Hawaii, the natives used to spend most of their pastime gliding over the ocean doing he’enalu, the hawaiian word for surfing.
A spiritual conception developed around surfing that everything that had to do with surfing was considered sacred.
Hawaiian people looked at the ocean like a god. Along the shore there were kind of temples, named heiau, for surfing too. These structure made of stone were used to invoke the waves through prayers and chants, but also to observe surfers compete since they were games and festivals too.
The practice of surfing foresaw many rituals starting from the construction of the boards: making a surfboard was very much a ritualized process. Hawaiians people were making offers to the soul of the tree to be cut down, the choice of wood fell on the most precious, as Koa tree from which the master craftsmen produced surfboards.
The whole life of the native Hawaiians revolved around surfing until European missionaries broke the idyll when, in the early 1800, they began arrive on Hawaii islands with the intention of evangelizing the native people. The colonial period marks as very dark for Hawaiians who risked extinction due to the diseases brought by the Europeans. Moreover surfing suffered a brake also. The missionaries, who looked at natives as savages, didn’t look kindly to surfing and they wanted to stop this community pastime which also included gambling.
Despite all, a century later, some natives kept the ancient practice of he’enalu in Hawaii islands, like George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku. They allowed modern surfing to come to life and to spread it outside the Hawaiian Islands to become an international practice.