INTRODUCTIONHave you ever wondered what the ancient Hawaiians celebrated? In Hawaiian culture there is a festival called Makahiki that is dedicated to the god Lono. This ancient Hawaiian New Year festival starts when the star cluster Makali‘i (Pleiades or Seven Sisters) rises over the horizon in Hawai‘i at sunset. This falls around late-October or early November and lasts for four months.
In Ancient Hawai‘i this was a time for people to rest and partake in sports, dancing, feasting, and religious festivities. War was kapu (taboo) and chiefs collected offerings from the maka‘āinana (commoners). Each Hawaiian Island had its own way of observing Makahiki yet written records are primarily from Hawai‘i Island. The Makahiki tradition faded in importance after western ideology took hold in Hawai‘i, but the Native Hawaiian cultural renaissance movement revived the custom in the 1980s. We still celebrate Makahiki today.
THE GODS OF MAKAHIKILono-i-ka-makahiki or Lono is the main god associated with the Makahiki. He brings prosperity to the land and is associated with fertility, agriculture, rainfall, music, and peace. Hawaiian tradition tells that Lono travels from Kahiki (ancient homeland) to the Hawaiian Islands when it first rains during the ho‘oilo (wet season) for Makahiki.
Other gods have some connection to the Makahiki festival. There is Akua Pa‘ani who is the god of sports. Kihawahine, who was a high-ranking Maui chiefess that was transformed into a mo‘o (lizard) goddess and Kahōʻāliʻi an akua kanaka maoli (a human turned into a god, known for eating human eyeballs).
HO‘OKUPUThe maka‘āinana considered the ho‘okupu (offerings) given during Makahiki as a sort of spiritual cleansing. During the time of Kamehameha I, who united the Hawaiian Islands, ho‘okupu served as a tax to run the Hawaiian Kingdom. Offerings consisted of the best pua‘a (pigs), kalo (taro), ‘uala (sweet potatoes), hulu (feathers), moena (woven mats), and kapa (Hawaiian bark cloth). The offerings would then be distributed between the ali‘i, kahuna (priests), and other favorites of the ali‘i.
AKUA POKO and AKUA LOAAt the time of Kamehameha I, the people observed the tradition called hānaipū or the feeding of Lono. During hānaipū the priests circulated the Islands with poles that represented the Makahiki gods. There were two types of poles: akua loa (long pole representing male gods) and akua poko (short pole representing the female gods). The akua loa features a statue of Lono, and is decorated with pala fern (Marattia douglasii) and white kapa. Priests travelled the islands clockwise for 23 days with the akua loa, visiting ahupua‘a (ancient Hawaiian land divisions). Priests with the akua poko only visited certain areas of the islands.
CELEBRATIONDuring the hānaipū people celebrated by dancing hula, feasting, and playing games. Some of the games included boxing, wrestling, sliding on sleds, javelin throwing, surfing, and canoe races. These games strengthened the body and honored Akua Pa‘ani, god of sports. An ‘ulu maika, the stone used in the game of Hawaiian bowling. In the game, the player rolls the ‘ulu maika through two poles without striking them. This game is still played today as part of the Makahiki festival.
CLOSING CEREMONYAt the close of Makahiki, an ali‘i impersonating Lono would take a canoe out to sea and return to shore to participate in a mock battle. Men would throw spears at the ali‘i, which he had to dodge in order to prove his divinity. If he survived this task, someone touched a spear to his chest signifying the ritual death of Lono. The ali‘i would then sacrifice a pig in honor of Lono. A wa‘a ‘auhau (tribute canoe) was loaded with offerings and set adrift to return to the mystical land of Kahiki with Lono. This signified the end of Makahiki
Last updated: July 28, 2023