What is the Soul Surfer?
First coined in the 1960s, it denotes a surfer with an apparent ability to merge with the wave. They surf for sheer joy, revering the ocean and living a simple life.
All who look upon the Soul Surfer’s sweet style are healed. He or she may not be the most radical shredder, but all are moved and influenced by their somatic expressions.
The concept can be applied to various other arts where the practitioner is recognized for having that “something special”. Even a marathon runner can be a Soul Runner if form and spirit are emphasized.
But surfing is special. It has overtly spiritual roots.
All surfers would be Soul Surfers had the original Hawaiian tradition been passed on intact. Alas, the X-treme! sportsman flaunts a grotesque mutation of the founding spirit.
The kahuna’s of Hawaii used surfing as a religious tool, paddling out to honor the god Lono and others, expressing gratitude, and demonstrating spiritual power through extraordinary feats.
The kahunas were shamans, wizards, and experts of art and healing. They chanted spells to christen new surfboards, beckon swells, and invoke courage.
Ancient Hawaii was ruled by a code, kapu—denoting sacred, holy, marked-off or forbidden. Kapu regulated eating, cultivation of food crops, weather prediction, surfboard building, surf conditions prediction, and even surf condition manipulation through calling on the gods. If there were no waves, you made them—with a little divine assistance.
Indeed surfing was called The Sport of Kings, as chiefs were the ones riding the biggest waves. There were certain reefs and breaks “marked-off” for royalty, while others were for the people. If by chance your were surfing near those of royal blood, it was the gravest of offenses to drop in on them. (For non-surfers that means catching a wave that someone else is already riding, a real no-no to this day.)
Commoners had boards that were about 12 feet long, while those of chiefs and royalty were often up to 24 feet. (Size mattered, as did the motion in the ocean.)
Colonization brought a gradual end the kapu system. By the 1800's Calvinist missionaries were insisting that the Hawaiians wear restrictive clothing, go to western schools, and get serious. Surfing was discouraged, although missionaries claimed that native Hawaiians simply lost interest in it after living modest Christian lives. Bullshit!
James D. Houston and Ben Finney writes in Surfing: A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport:
“For surfing, the abolition of the traditional religion signaled the end of surfing’s sacred aspects. With surf chants, board construction rites, sports gods and other sacred elements removed, the once ornate sport of surfing was stripped of much of its cultural plumage.”
But the Soul Surfer carries the almost extinguished torch towards the horizon, reminding us what all surfers could be, or already are—wave-riding wizards, killer kahunas, gnarly nobles, and shredding shamans.
From Polynesia With Love
The History of Surfing From Captain Cook to the Present
By Ben Marcus