Wahaʻula Heiau

For nearly five centuries, one of the most significant cultural sites in all of Hawaii sat on the coastline of what is now Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. Wahaʻula Heiau was a luakini temple, meaning that it was used for human sacrifice. Now buried under lava, it was the first temple of its kind in Hawai'i and the last one to be dismantled when the formal religion came to an end in 1819.

Wahaʻula (red mouth) Heiau (temple) was built by Pāʻao, a great voyager and priest. Like Pele, he came to the island of Hawaiʻi from the southern islands of Polynesia, referred to in oral tradition as Kahiki. His arrival marks a sea change in the culture of the Hawaiian Islands.

Painting showing Wahaula Heiau from above
Painting by Herb Kane depicting Wahaʻula Heiau as it might have appeared late in its use, about 1817. Click to view large version. (National Park Service, Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, HAVO 686, Herb Kane, 1977)

Upon his arrival around 1400 AD, Pā'ao was received as a chief by the people of Hawaiʻi. After some time, Pā'ao told the chiefs that they had weakened and degraded their bloodlines by mingling with the commoners, forfeitting their divine right to rule. Pā'ao returned to Kahiki seeking a chief who would strengthen the Hawaiian chiefs' blood and ties with the gods. He returned to Hawaiʻi with the chief Pili, landing on the coast of Puna. Pili became established as the new chief and Pā'ao became his high priest.

It was shortly after his return to Hawaiʻi that Pāʻao determined that Pulama, in the district of Puna, would be the site of a new heiau. Women would not to be allowed to assist in its construction, nor would they be permitted within its consecrated walls.

Waha'ula changed the worshipping rituals of Hawaiian people. Before the time of Waha'ula, customs and rituals of the temples were less stringent. The new rituals that took place at Waha'ula changed that; simple rituals and offerings of fish or plants were not always enough to appease the gods. When the chiefs communed with the gods on important matters and undertakings, man became the principal sacrifice. From the district of Puna, the practices of the luakini spread throughout Hawaii.

The human sacrifices made in the heiau were made to give strength to prayers or pay penalties for breaking the gods or temple's restrictions. They might also be offered when a chief was asking for divine guidance or preparing for battle, or when natural phenomena, famine or pestilence occurred.

The mana (spiritual power) of Waha'ula lasted for five hundred years, while many other luakini temples rose and fell into disuse. By the time of Kamehameha I, Waha'ula was one of only six luakini heiau in use on the island of Hawaiʻi.

By the end of 1819, temple rituals ceased, and the heiau were abandoned. In 1824, a royal decree was issued which ordered the destruction of all objects associated with the heiau that had not already disappeared or been destroyed.

Aerial view of Hawaiian heiau
Aerial view of Wahaʻula Heiau, June 1989 (USGS/J.D. Griggs)
A visitor center on fire
Visitor center at Wahaʻula on fire in June 1989, set ablaze by encroaching flows from Puʻuʻōʻō (USGS Photo/JD Griggs)

Modern History

The Congressional Act of June 20, 1938 officially added the Kalapana Extension Lands to Hawaii National Park, now Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. In doing so, one of the most traditionally significant sites of Hawaii was added to an already geologically unique area. In 1966, the National Park Service built a visitor center located only 150 feet from the site of the heiau.

The heiau was threatened with destruction several times during the eruption of Puʻuʻōʻō (1983- 2018). In 1989, lava flowed up to the heiau walls before diverting around them, but it destroyed the national park visitor visitor center. The flow moved under the structure despite the National Park Service crews’ and volunteers’ efforts to cool it and stop its advance.

Pele finally reclaimed Wahaʻula in the late 1990ʻs. Lava from Puʻuʻōʻō covered the temple in one of the most dramatic destructions of the physical remains of Hawaiian past.


Last updated: May 4, 2021

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