A Cultural History of Three Traditional Hawaiian Sites
on the West Coast of Hawai'i Island
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Overview of Hawaiian Prehistory


E. Major Aspects of Traditional Hawaiian Culture (continued)

6. Religion

     a) Gods

Religion was the paramount aspect of Hawaiian life, permeating every daily activity, every aspect of secular affairs, and every significant event, such as birth, marriage, death, house construction, fishing, agriculture, and war. Also important were the regular calendrical celebrations to ensure the peoples' prosperity and well-being. All activities were accompanied by appropriate rites, religious ceremonies, and prayers to establish and maintain proper relations with the spirits. The ancient Hawaiians believed these spirits, who pervaded the world and shaped events, had the power to inflict injury if directed or if angered by the breaking of their kapu, but could be approached and persuaded to act in one's behalf. The Hawaiians worshipped a vast number of deities, of which there were two main categories. Akua represented nature's elements — they were the personifications of great natural forces. The 'aumakua mentioned earlier were the familiar ancestral protective gods.

All parts of nature were thought to be manifestations or particular functions of one of these gods. A distinct difference in their "personalities" was reflected in the kind of phenomena and natural processes with which they were associated. A particular manifestation of one of a god's functions was regarded as a separate being. One god, in his different aspects, could be a patron of various crafts and activities and was usually referred to with an epithet attached to the name describing the particular aspect being invoked (e.g., Ku-of-fishing, Ku-of-war). These aspects of the major gods were worshipped as separate entities. The war god Ku-ka'ili-moku, the special god of the kings of Hawai'i Island, became of great importance during the latter era of Hawai'i's ancient history, especially in the reign of Kamehameha. At that time Ku-ka'ili-moku (Ku-the-snatcher-of-islands), Kamehameha's personal god, was established as the principal deity of the realm, a kind of state god. Demigods such as Pele, the volcano goddess, were less powerful than the four major ones and were associated with definite places, forces, or beings, as they are today. Their worship was mainly a private affair, while that to the great deities was publicly carried out in large temples by noble priests and their superiors. [129] The four all-powerful cosmic deities, or akua, in Polynesian mythology were Kane, the primary god, representative of the supreme being, creator of nature and men, concerned with life and procreation; Kanaloa, associated with the sea and death but of little importance in the hierarchy; Ku, who assisted in strenuous activities, generally controlled the fruitfulness of the earth, politics, and, as the power behind war, was a special god of the chiefs; and Lono, god of rain and agriculture and hence of fertility, the most benevolent of the four.

The general welfare of the land, its occupants, and the chiefdoms was considered dependent on the careful and proper observance of the several calendric cycles of temple ritual. The strength and prosperity of a chiefdom, in other words, was directly related to the religious fervor the paramount chief displayed. Although the paramount chief exerted the ultimate political authority of the chiefdom, the resting place of supreme power and authority lay with the gods, or usually one specific god, who provided the paramount chief with the mana to rule. This divine mandate was considered revoked if there were a successful coup d'etat or victorious invasion resulting in a reassignment of political authority. The successful defeat of an invasion, on the other hand, was interpreted as divine confirmation of the status quo. [130]

     b) Priests

The ancient Hawaiians considered themselves always in the midst of gods, spirits, and supernatural beings who frequented the mountains, woods, shores, and the sea, and who entered into objects, stone and wood images, and living things such as birds and sharks as well as people. According to Hawaiian belief, the success of all human activities depended on maintaining the proper relations with these spirits, and the vehicles for accomplishing this included shrines, temples, and images as well as rituals and prayers. The latter work was carried on by kahuna. In family worship, the male head of the family acted as priest, but at the elaborate, prescribed rituals in the temples of the chiefs, professional priests presided. It was they alone who knew the proper rituals for winning the favor of the gods and obtaining the purity necessary to survive the ever-present dangers in life. Closely associated with the ruling chiefs, and next in rank and authority to them, stood the kahuna pule, a distinct group of officiating priests that presided over each facet or cult of the religion. Although the chiefs were more closely descended from the gods, these kahuna were also very powerful because of their direct contact with the gods and could best determine ways to gain or perpetuate power, maintain rapport with the major gods, and intercede with them for a particular purpose.

The worship of the gods named earlier comprised a state religion characterized by large, influential cadres of priests, complex rituals, and specific places where ceremonies took place. Each major god had his own hereditary priesthood, distinct ceremonies, and specific temples (heiau) where the appropriate rituals were performed and offerings made. Each priestly family was, by tradition, devoted to the service of a particular god and could not officiate at the temple of any other deity. Only the king had free access to all sacred enclosures. In addition to their religious duties, the priesthood had charge of the chronologies, historical songs, traditions, and legends of Hawaiian society. On the island of Hawai'i, at least, two hereditary hierarchial orders of priests existed, those of Ku and those of Lono, with the former being of highest rank and therefore most powerful. The high priest (kahuna nui), one of the supreme chief's two senior advisors, headed the cult of the war god Ku. The KG rituals were only held in luakini (a sacrificial heiau) of the independent ruling chiefs, which will be described later, and were held in connection with war and other national emergencies. The Lono rituals were for maintaining peace and the fruitfulness of the land. [131]

     c) kapu

          (1) Purpose of System

The ancient Hawaiian culture's system of law, derived from religious authority, influenced social organization by dictating an individual's appropriate behavior within this highly rigid and ranked society. As Apple and Kikuchi state,

The universe of the native Hawaiian can be viewed as having been a delicately balanced, tri-state system composed of the supernatural, the natural, and the cultural. . . . Hawaiian culture demanded that the balance be maintained in order for the universe to function smoothly, efficiently, and abundantly. [132]

The kapu system was based in part on a dualistic conception of nature that

separated the things which were believed to be inferior (the common and unsacred, the physical, passive, female, darkness, destruction, and death, ignorance, westerly direction, left side) from the things which were believed to have a superior nature (the sacred, the psychic, mana, male, light, life, occult knowledge, easterly direction, right side). [133]

This system, a "sanctioned avoidance" behavior conforming to specific rules and prohibitions (kapu), prescribed the type of daily interactions among and between the classes, between the people and their gods, and between the people and nature. By compelling avoidance between persons of extreme rank difference, it reinforced class divisions by protecting mana (spiritual power) from contamination while at the same time preventing the mana from harming others. Kapu not only separated the nobility from the lower classes, but also prevented contact with such spiritually debasing or defiling things as corpses and evil spirits. The kapu system preserved the Hawaiian culture not only by maintaining social control through the prevention of chaos caused by the confusion of societal roles and by reinforcing political power, but also by providing environmental controls through the conservation of natural resources, which maintained a balance in nature and enabled maintenance of a subsistence [134]

          (2) Origin and Enforcement

The kapu system was practiced throughout Polynesia, indicating that the early Hawaiians brought its basic tenets from their homeland. Certain religious kapu were permanent and unchangeable, relating to customary rites, observances, ceremonies, and methods of worship, and to the maintenance of the gods and their priests. They were familiar and understood by all, having been practiced from childhood. Civil kapu were more capricious, erratic, and often temporary, depending on the whims of the chiefs and priests. [135] The kapu system comprised a vast number of prohibitions with dire penalties for infractions, intentional or not, that included execution by being stoned, clubbed, strangled, drowned, or burned alive. The strict observance of the kapu system and its punishments were necessary to preserve the power and prestige of the priesthood and the rulers. This intricate system that supported Hawai'i's social and political organization directed every activity of Hawaiian life, from birth through death, until its overthrow by King Kamehameha II in 1819. [136]

          (3) Foreign Perceptions

According to Kuykendall, the kapu system was

the feature of the Hawaiian culture which made the deepest impression upon most of the early foreign visitors, who saw only the outer manifestations of the system and who in their descriptions emphasize its bizarre restrictions and cruel sanctions. [137]

One of these early visitors, the Reverend William Ellis, noted that

an institution so universal in its influence, and so inflexible in its demands, contributed very materially to the bondage and oppression of the natives in general. The king, sacred chiefs, and priests appear to have been the only persons to whom its application was easy; the great mass of the people were at no period of their existence exempt from its influence, and no circumstance in life could excuse their obedience to its demands. The females in particular felt all its humiliating and degrading force. [138]

And Professor William Bryan of the College of Hawaii remarked in 1915 that the kapu system

was fastened on every act of the daily life of the people to such an extent that it was ever present, dominating their every thought and deed. It oppressed their lives, curtailed their liberties, and darkened and narrowed their horizon beyond belief. [139]

Whether or not the Hawaiians believed the kapu restrictions to be bizarre, inflexible, humiliating, or oppressive is questionable. Certainly it was a system that impressed all foreign Visitors as being shocking and cruel in the context of their experiences.

          (4) Categories

Many things were kapu under Hawaiian culture. Anything connected with the gods and their worship was considered sacred, such as idols, heiau, and priests. Because chiefs were believed to be descendants of the gods, many kapu related to chiefs and their personal possessions, such as clothes, mats, and houses. Certain objects were also kapu, and to be avoided, either because they were sacred or because they were defiling. Seasons and places could also be declared kapu. [140]

The Hawaiian kapu can be grouped into three categories. [141] The first evolved from the basic precepts of the Hawaiian religion and affected all individuals, but were considered by foreign observers to be especially oppressive and burdensome to women. One of the most important and fundamental of this type of proscription forbade men and women from eating together and also prohibited women from eating most of the foods offered as ritual sacrifices to the gods. For example, it was kapu for women to eat pork, pigs being a frequent sacrificial offering, and they could only eat dog meat or other kapu foods on special occasions. They also could not eat fowl, coconuts, bananas, turtle, shark meat, or certain kinds of fruits or fish that were offered in sacrifice, these being kapu to anyone but the gods and men. In addition, foods for husbands and wives had to be cooked in separate ovens and eaten in separate structures. [142] During the four principal kapu periods of each month, women were forbidden to ride in a canoe or have intimate relations with the other sex. During her pregnancy, a woman had to live apart from her husband. [143]

A second category of kapu were those relating to the inherited rank of the nobility and were binding on all those equal to or below them in status. Regarding kapu relative to the ruling class,

The kapus of prerogative associated with the high chiefs were in effect safeguards to their mana. They took several forms, but all were designed to prevent loss of a chief's mana through contact with "common" things, on the one hand, and to protect ordinary mortals from the dire consequences of exposure to his god-like radiations of mana, on the other. The kapus of prerogative were inherited, and were observed in recognition of the degree of mana inherent in the chiefs who held them. [144]

These kapu posed enormous difficulties for the high ali'i because it restricted their behavior and activities to some degree. As Cox and Davenport state:

An individual of high rank could have considerable mana, but it was extremely dangerous to a commoner or an outcast when, by contagion, he contracted a supercharged amount of mana from an exceptionally high ali'i. For this reason those chiefs who were the direct descendants of the great deities and who were thought to be in some ways the incarnation of these gods, were so charged with mana that in some situations they could not even walk about the land without rendering all they touched, or upon which their shadows fell, prohibited to commoners. [145]

Because these kapu prohibited the highest-ranking chiefs from easily walking around during the day, some of them traveled in disguise to protect the people and themselves from the difficulties presented by this custom. [146]

This category included the deferential behavior patterns that lower-ranking people had to follow in the presence of those of higher rank. Commoners had to prostrate themselves with their faces touching the ground before the most sacred chiefs when they ventured out in public, and neither the king nor priests could touch anything themselves. [147] All personal possessions of a person of the highest chiefly rank (resulting from a brother-sister marriage) were definitely kapu, and contact with them by a commoner meant certain death.

The third category were governmental edicts issued randomly by a paramount chief or his officials that were binding on all subjects and included such acts as the placing of kapu on certain preferred surfing, fishing, or bathing spots for the chief's exclusive use. Any place or object could be declared kapu by the proper person affixing near it or on its perimeters a pole or stakes bearing a bit of white kapa cloth or a bunch of bamboo leaves, signifying that the locality or thing should be avoided. [148] The most important temples and the permanent housing complexes of high chiefs were surrounded by dry-laid masonry walls or wooden palings that created a sacred stockade. However,

not all of the stockades were physical. Some were invisible lines that were as effective as rock walls or picket fences. Walls and fences apparently marked lifetime or permanent taboo areas. Invisible lines marked enclosures guarded by temporary taboos. Real or invisible, they excluded commoners. [149]

In addition, the chiefs proclaimed certain kapu seasons as conservation measures to regulate land use and safeguard resources. These had the same force as other kapu, but pertained to the gathering or catching of scarce foodstuffs, such as particular fruits and species of fish; to water usage; and to farming practices. [150] These kapu were designed to protect resources from overuse. Through the kapu system, Hawaiian chiefs played a major role in controlling the food supply by restricting consumption of certain types of food to certain classes and sexes. The restriction on the types of food women could eat, for example "would have moderated demand for domesticated mammal meat and may have played a major role in preserving herds." [151] At certain times, also, particular fruits, animals, and fish were kapu for several months to both sexes. Other kapu seasons observed were at the approach of a great religious ceremony, before going to war, or when a chief was sick. [152]

          (5) Effects on the Population

High officials declared general kapu and had them publicly announced. On specific nights of every lunar month, rituals and sacrifices took place at the temple of each major deity. During a strict kapu period, when the ruler especially needed the favor of the deities, absolute silence was mandated in order not to break the sacred spell of the rites. All human activity ceased, no fires were built, domestic animals were shut away or muzzled, and everyone except priests remained indoors. Common kapu only required males to stop their work and attend temple ceremonies, while the time it lasted was considered a holiday. [153]

The Hawaiian kapu system not only hindered the freedom of the commoners and women in general, but also restricted the activities of the highest ranking chiefs. It was also open to periodic abuse. [154] The kapu system was, nonetheless, enforced throughout Kamehameha's reign. According to William Ellis, "Tamehameha always supposed his success, in every enterprise, to be owing to the strict attention he paid to the service and requirements of his god." [155] According to Lt. George Peard, crewman on the H.M.S. Blossom, who visited Hawai'i in 1826-27,

Tamaamaah [Kamehameha] himself had even been averse to a change [in religious practices], and refused several applications to allow the Missionaries to settle on his estates, although he was well aware of the absurdity of Paganism. When questioned by [Gov. John] Adams [Kuakini] about it, and more particularly concerning human sacrifices. 'You don't think me such a fool said he as to put any faith in their efficacy. I only suffer them, because I find them useful in keeping my people in subjection.' [156]

          (6) Sanctioned Violations of System

The only time the ancient Hawaiians could violate kapu occurred upon the death of a paramount chief. Mourning customs then allowed the deliberate violation of several kapu accompanied by a variety of excessive behaviors:

In addition to the usual signs of grief, people went naked, women entered temples and ate prohibited foods, property was plundered, and some individuals begged to be buried with their ruler. Although these excesses were rationalized as due to unreason from grief, the license also seems to have symbolized the temporary state of anarchy and suspension of the divine mandate to rule. During these revelries the successor removed himself from the place of death and the scenes of kapu violation to avoid contamination by them. Upon his return from his retreat to be installed in the chieftainship, one of his initial acts of rule was to reinstate the law of the kapu. By this he declared his assumption of the divine mandate. [157]

The Reverend William Ellis, landing on the island of Hawai'i soon after the death of Kamehameha, noted:

When we landed on Owhyhi, signs of desolation met our eyes everywhere and were proof of the excesses that had been committed at the recent death of Tamehameha. During such a crisis, anarchy reigns in all its horror: laws and tabou restrictions are violated with effrontery; forbidden foods are devoured without scruple, especially by women; rights of ownership are disregarded; force becomes the supreme law; the voice of the chiefs is powerless; old offenses are revenged with blood or pillage — in a word, unbelievable scenes of disorder, cruelty, and debauchery take place all over, encouraged by lack of punishment. Calm is gradually restored only when the heir has been definitely invested with royal power. Such is the manner in which the common people, momentarily free of all restraint, express the sorrow that one is expected to feel at the death of one's sovereign. [158]

The only individuals who did not take part in this period of licentiousness were the heir to the throne and his family, who immediately removed themselves from the district that had been defiled by death. The heir returned after fifteen days, after the dead ruler's bones had been preserved and a priest had cleansed the area of all pollution. [159]

     d) Heiau

          (1) Types and Construction

Because Hawaiian life focused on propitiating the gods, the various islands contained many kinds of temples invoking peace, war, health, or profitable fishing and farming. Families and individuals conducted daily worship services at home, either in the men's eating house, in a family heiau, or at small improvised altars or shrines. More formalized worship by chiefs and specific occupational groups, such as fishermen, took place in temples, or heiau. These structures ranged in complexity from single houses surrounded by a wooden fence to stone-walled enclosures containing several houses to the massive open-air temples with terraces, extensive stone platforms, and numerous carved idols in which ruling chiefs paid homage to the major Hawaiian gods. [160]

sketch of reconstructed Hale o Lono
Illustration 10. Reconstruction of a Hale o Lono by Paul Rockwood. From I'i, Fragments of Hawaiian History, p. 57.

There were two major orders of heiau: the agricultural or economy-related ones dedicated to Lono, referred to as mapele (heiau ho'ouluulu), at which offerings of pigs, vegetables, and bark cloth hopefully guaranteed rain and agricultural fertility and plenty (Illustration 10); and the large sacrificial government war temples, luakini (heiau po'okanaka), upon whose altars human lives were taken when assurance of success in combat was requested or when a very grave state emergency, such as pestilence or famine, dictated that the highest religious authority — Ku — be approached for help. The nobility, land division chiefs, or priests could construct agricultural temples, whose ceremonies were open to all. War temples dedicated to Ku could only be built by the ali'i-'ai-moku, and could only be entered by the king, important chiefs and nobility, and members of the Ku priesthood. Dedication of this type of temple by anyone else was considered treason. In addition, only the high chief could undertake the rituals involving human sacrifice — the highest form of offering to propitiate the gods. [161] Because only a high chief could order the construction of a war temple and conduct the rituals necessary for assuring victory, the process clearly designated him as the correct person to wage war and the only one who would have the backing of the gods. These obvious distinctions served also to gain him the full support of his people in this endeavor. [162] Cox and Davenport elaborate on this point:

Erecting temples was the prerogative and responsibility of the ali'i, for only they could command the necessary resources to build them, to maintain the priests, and to secure the sacrifices that were required for the rituals. Though temple worship was primarily an affair of the nobility, the whole land depended upon the effectiveness of these rituals. . . . Actually, the temple worship was a form of ancestor worship, since the gods were looked upon as also being direct ancestors of the ali'i and progenitors of all Hawaiians. [163]

Hawaiian temples and shrines, according to Patrick Kirch,

are part of a wide-spread tradition of temple construction found throughout Eastern Polynesia, with roots that can be traced to Ancestral Polynesian Society. In most of East Polynesia such temples are called marae . . . and all of them, including the Hawaiian heiau, have certain architectural features in common. [164]

Oral traditions trace the origin of Hawaiian luakini temple construction to the high priest Pa'ao, who arrived in the islands in about the thirteenth century. He introduced several changes to Hawaiian religious practices that affected temple construction, priestly ritual, and worship practices. Prior to his coming, the prayers, sacrifices, and other ceremonial activities that the high chief and his officiating priest performed could be observed by the congregation, who periodically responded as part of the ceremony. After Pa'ao's arrival, temple courtyards, which were sometimes built on hillsides to add to their massiveness, were enclosed with high stone walls, preventing the masses from participating as freely in the worship ceremonies. In addition, new gods; stronger kapu; an independent, hereditary priesthood; wooden temple images; and human sacrifices became established parts of the religious structure. Pa'ao erected the first luakini (Wahaula) at Puna, Hawai'i, followed by Mo'okini Heiau at Pu'uepa, Kohala. These structures signalled a new era in Hawaiian religious practices. [165]

          (2) Early Descriptions

At the time of European contact, a multitude of temples still functioned in the islands, and early visitors noted many of these:

They [the Hawaiians] have many temples, which are large enclosures, with piles of stones heaped up in pyramidal forms, like shot in an arsenal, and houses for the priests and others, who remain within them during their taboos. Great numbers of idols, of the most uncouth forms, are placed round within, in all directions: to these they offer sacrifices of hogs, cocoa nuts, bananas, and human victims: the latter are criminals only; formerly, prisoners of war were sometimes sacrificed, but that inhuman practice was abolished by the present sovereign [Kamehameha]. [166]

John B. Whitman was also impressed by these structures:

. . . of their morairs [maraes (temples)], or churches, and the terrible rites . . . were I to give but a partial account . . . it would be . . . of such length. . . . Hundreds of these Slaughter houses, are still standing on various parts of the Islands, each distinguished by the Symbols of the high taboo. Several long poles with a round ball of white tarpen [kapa] on the top of them, are placed round the house, and mark the boundaries of the sacred spot, these buildings [structures on the heiau] are mostly of the same materials as the dwelling houses. [167]

Early missionaries noted that

Their morais, or places of worship, consist of one large house or temple, with some smaller ones round it, in which are the images of their inferior gods. The tabooed or consecrated precincts are marked out by four square posts, which stand thirty or forty yards from the building. In the inside of the principal house there is a screen or curtain of white cloth, hung across one end, within which the image of Etooah [principal god] is placed. When sacrifices are offered, the priests and chiefs enter occasionally within this space, going in at one side, and out at the other. On the outside are placed several images made of wood, as ugly as can be well imagined, having their mouths all stuck round with dogs [sic] teeth. [168]

In regard to their sacrificial customs, Jules Remy clarified that

The Hawaiians are not cannibals. They have been upbraided in Europe as eaters of human flesh, but such is not the case. They never killed a man for food. It is true that in sacrifice they eat certain parts of the victim, but there it was a religious rite, not an act of cannibalism. So also when they eat the flesh of their dearest chiefs, it was to do honor to their dearest chiefs, it was to do honor to their memory by a work of love: they never eat the flesh of bad chiefs. [169]

The early Hawaiians did cut up bodies as a part of their mortuary customs of stripping the flesh from bones of their chiefs before they were hidden. According to Ethnologist Peter H. Buck, however, "Cannibalism was never customary among the Hawaiians." [170]

          (3) Luakini

               (a) Origin and Use

The ruins found in Hawai'i illustrate the wide variety of temple types built. Although many of their features have been found at other sites in Polynesia, according to an early study of Hawaiian heiau, "there is nothing to show that the heiau reached Hawaii as a complex of established form and features," and certain features "seem independent and . . . were doubtless evolved locally." [171] According to Historian Samuel Kamakau, heiau in the Hawaiian Islands "varied in shape, being square, oblong, and round in form; of no uniform plan . . . but each according to the design of the kaula, or prophets." [172] The large luakini were the most impressive of the Hawaiian temple structures in terms of size and associated religious activities. Their rituals dramatized the ali'i-'ai-moku's spiritual, economic, political, and social control over his dominion and his authority over the life and death of his people. As Davenport states,

the purpose of that worship was to promote the integrity and continuity of the chiefdom by keeping the covenants between the gods and the ruling chief strong. It can be regarded, in some ways, as a maintenance activity of the government. [173]

Whenever a chief unseated a rival in war, the process of takeover was not complete until all the luakini temples of the defeated chief had been reconsecrated to the victor's gods. Often the defeated paramount chief and his followers were among the first sacrificed to signify his loss of the supernatural mandate to rule. [174] The services that occurred in these state heiau, conducted by priests of the order of Ku were either related to the personal life of the king, such as at the birth and maturity of his sons, or due to emergency needs of the nation — to increase the population, to improve the public health, to bring peace, to ask for success in war, or to prepare for defense.

               (b) Design and Construction

These temples could not be constructed randomly, but only on sites formerly used by the "people of old." Kuhikuhi pu'uone (an order of the priesthood) were the only persons with knowledge of the plans and sites of abandoned heiau, and they furnished this information when construction of a new temple was planned. [175]

Luakini stood in or near villages, on prominent hills or ridges, on cliffs with a good view of the sea, or on plateaus between the coast and the mountains. Because of the variety of topography, the form and size of these structures depended on the ground contours (Illustration 11). In some cases the apparent massiveness of the temple foundation was deceiving, because the builders took full advantage of the contours to give the structure height without using much stone. The aim during construction of a luakini class of heiau was to create as imposing a structure as possible, and they often formed a very conspicuous part of the landscape. Luakini varied in form and outline but contained platforms (high or low, simple or tiered), a terrace of one or more tiers, walled enclosures, or any combination of these (Illustration 12). Terraces produced the same effect as a platform of more than twice the size. A structure with all three types of features, such as Pu'ukohola on the island of Hawai'i, was considered the zenith of Hawaiian temple construction. It not only intimidated the people, but was considered extremely potent in securing the favor of the gods. [176] As Kirch states, "such temples reflect the power of the late prehistoric and early historic Hawaiian paramounts, and their ability to command the labor necessary to raise such monuments." [177]

Heiau construction techniques
Illustration 11. Heiau construction techniques for terraces and walls. From Haas, "Hawaiians as Engineers," p. iv.
ground plan drawings
Illustration 12. Ground plan drawings of luakini on Hawai'i Island. Figure 32 in Ladd, Excavations at Site A-27, p. 75.

In addition to carefully selecting the correct site for a new heiau, the kuhikuhi pu'uone also took great care in planning its design. These kahuna studied earlier temples and learned every detail of their construction, particularly those features of heiau that they knew had brought luck or victory to their builders. According to J.F.G. Stokes, these seers then incorporated various design elements of those "successful" temples into new heiau, and this explains the variety of forms. [178]

The process involved modeling the design of a new heiau in sand for approval by the king, after which a tax in the form of building the heiau was laid on all commoners, courtiers, and chiefs. The usual plan of the luakini dictated that if the front faced the west or east, the oracle tower stood on the north end of the structure. If the heiau fronted on the north or south, the tower would be on the east side, turned toward the west or south. The audience sat in the southern or western part of the structure.

               (c) Features

The main features of a luakini (Illustration 13), enclosed by walls or wooden fences, included the:

two reconstructions of a luakini
Illustration 13. Two reconstructions of a luakini. Drawing on the left is of Papaenaena heiau on O'ahu. Drawing on the right, by Paul Rockwood, is of Waha'ula Heiau in Puna, Hawai'i. From Davenport, "Hawaiian Feudalism," p. 18, and I'i, Fragments of Hawaiian History, p. 34.

lananuumamao, or 'anu'u —a wooden framework obelisk that served as an oracle tower. It was usually more than twenty feet tall and contained three platforms. The lowest symbolized the earth, the abode of humans, and was where offerings were placed; the middle was viewed as the space of birds and clouds and was where the high priest and his attendants conducted services; the highest platform symbolized the heavens — dwelling place of the gods — and could only be ascended by the high priest and the king. This was where the high priest received inspiration and acted as intermediary with the gods. The entire structure was covered with bleached kapa. It was a highly visible component of the temple platform area and contained within a refuse or bone pit where decayed offerings and bones of victims were cast (lua pa'u).

lele — an offertorium, the altar on which offerings were left

hale pahu — the drum house, enclosed except at the front

hale mana — the largest, most sacred house on the heiau platform, used by the king and the officiating priest during kapu periods (Illustration 14)

sketch of interior
Illustration 14. Interior of hale mana in a luakini, Kaua'i. Drawing by John Webber on the James Cook expedition, plate 2, in Valeri, Kingship and Sacrifice, from 1784 publication, p. 261.

wai'ea — a small house for incantations in which the 'aha ceremony took place. Relaxing of the kapu proclaimed over the new heiau depended on obtaining an aha, a mat braided out of a rare seaweed found only in the deep ocean. Coconut fiber was combined with the seaweed in braiding the 'aha, which was used to decorate the shrine of Ku. If the seaweed was not found immediately, the search continued for months or years

hale umu — the oven house for temple fires house at the entrance to the temple

kipapa — a pavement of large stones for ceremonial use 'ili'ili — a pavement of pebbles used as flooring

Haku ohi'a — (Lord of the ohi'a tree) the chief idol. Other temple images, up to twelve feet tall, were arranged in various ways within a heiau — some were in a fence configuration and others adorned the walls.

               (d) Placement of Features

Wood for the temple houses was usually ohi'a; their thatching was loulu palm leaves and uki grass. Large pieces of ohi'a wood were used for the lananuunmamao and similar large trees for the carving of idols. These wooden images stood in a semicircular arrangement in front of the lananuumamao; in front of them was the kipapa and the place where the lele stood on which sacrifices were placed (Illustration 15). In front of the lele and below was the 'ili'ili. Also in front of the lele was the hale pahu, with its entrance facing the lele. Back of the drum house stood the long mana, also facing the lele, and another house at the entrance to the heiau. The aha service (in connection with the Makahiki festival) was performed in the wai'ea, located in the narrow passage back of the drum house and at the end of the mana house; at the other end of the mana was the oven house (hale umu) where the temple fire was kindled. [179]

drawing of luakini in the Kona District
Illustration 15. The king's luakini in the Kona District, Hawai'i Island, by Jacques Arago, artist on the de Frycinet expedition, 1817-20. The structure was abandoned at this time. Published in Voyage Autour du Monde. Courtesy Hawaii State Archives, Honolulu.

Samuel Kamakau provides some additional information on the luakini furnishings. He states that the 'anu'u, or oracle tower, as erected in the larger heiau, was square in shape, four to five fathoms high, and three or four fathoms long and wide. Pieces of kapa hung from purlins attached to the frame. [180] Kamakau described the ritual observances for obtaining the timber for the houses and for the main image within a luakini, involving the consecration of the adz; the formation of a large procession up the mountainside consisting of the ruler and his chiefs, retainers, and priests; prayers; a tree-felling feast; the leaving of the body of a lawbreaker at the stump of the moku 'ohi'a; and then the slow return to the lowlands that had to proceed in absolute silence and that no commoner could witness on pain of death. [181]

The construction, location, and configuration of the houses on the heiau was governed by prescribed rules related to the site, the kind of house, the god being honored, and the ritual ceremonies that would be performed. Of the houses within the heiau, the most sacred was the mana house, which held the mo'i image. The large umu, or oven house, was a shed-like structure within which pigs were baked for offerings. Kamakau mentions a "house to revive life" that stood in front of the 'anu'u tower and was used by the ruler and kahuna nui in the 'aha ritual (same as the wai'ea). The hale pahu housed the large and small drums played to please the gods. To the sound of their constant beat, the "god keepers" chanted formal prayers and entreated the gods. Between the hale mana and the hale pahu was the lele (altar). After the houses were built, all other items required to complete the rituals were added, including kapa garments for the priests, kapa for the houses and the scaffold structures, and kapa for covering each image. The altar was hung with fern leaves and other greenery. [182]

               (e) Rituals

Construction of a luakini was arduous, entailing several days of protracted and elaborate ritual. Consecration for this type of temple required two series of services, one for the king and the congregation lasting ten days and one for the king only, lasting three days. The initial ceremonies occurred during the construction of the temple foundations, the erection of houses, and the preparation of the images. The main consecration ceremonies followed, with offerings to the gods of hogs, coconuts, bananas, and human sacrifices. The women's heiauHale o Papa, adjacent to the luakini — housed the final ceremonies, performed by the women in the ruler's family. [183]

David Malo surmised that "it was a great undertaking for a king to build a heiau of the sort called a luakini, to be accomplished with fatigue and with redness of the eyes from long and wearisome prayers and ceremonies on his part." [184] William Davenport states that

The most exacting and arduous rites were those performed at the temples dedicated to Ku. Hundreds of pigs and great quantities of staples might be consumed and sacrificed to mark each phase of the ritual cycle. . . . Each part of the ritual was conducted by a different priest who was specially practiced at his specific ritual role. But the paramount chief himself was always the pivotal participant, for the propitiation was directed toward his personal aspect of the god from whom he received the supernatural mandate of his office. At the completion of each ritual phase, which had to be executed without flaw lest its efficacy be marred, the environment was scanned for specific omens that indicated whether or not the god accepted the ritual communication. Only when the omen revealed favorable reception was the next ritual phase begun. Thus, the ritual and the reading of answering omens amounted to a dialogue between the paramount chief together with his priests and the godly source of their political authority. [185]

The number and types of structures that crowned the heiau platforms, the constant chanting and beating of drums that emanated from the temple during ceremonies, the smell of burnt and decaying offerings wafting through the air, and the knowledge that direct communication with the gods was taking place, endowed heiau, especially luakini, with a tremendous visual and sensual impact on the people. [186]

The most impressive feature of these huge luakini ruins is the stonework forming the foundation terraces, platforms, and walls. According to Samuel Kamakau:

The hardest work in making the heiaus of the ancient days was in laying the stones. . . . If the heiau were on a cliff or hillside, stones had to be laid and interlocked . . . until they reached the highest level. A heiau on level ground (heiau pu'uhonua) did not need as much stone covering, but many thousands of stones were needed just the same. The first thing in making heiaus was to locate a site, and then to raise up the well-fitted stones. The chiefs and those who lived in their households did the work, but if the task were extremely laborious, then it became "public work" . . . and the people . . . helped. [187]

               (f) Relationship to the People

Everything concerning luakini was hard work for commoners, including the initial conscription of their labor to build the massive stone foundations, the periodic rebuilding of structures, the production of large quantities of produce extended as tribute that was used as sacrificial offerings, and the severe restrictions imposed on the nearby population during the kapu periods when dedication services or other rituals were being conducted. In addition, there was always the possibility that inadvertent breaking of a kapu could result in a commoner ending up as the ritual sacrifice. [188] In general, both commoners and women were excluded from all heiau, although some had structures in close proximity for use by women of royal lineage. [189]

     e) Images

          (1) Function

Prior to the high priest Pa'ao's arrival, the Hawaiians worshipped unseen deities. The introduction of wooden temple images as representations of the cosmic gods provided the people with something tangible through which to worship their deities. These images were not worshipped as gods themselves, but it was thought that when invoked through certain rituals, the mana or spirit of a god would occupy the carved statue and could be consulted or supplicated in times of need. Visitors to the islands long after the abolition of the ancient religious system noted that the Hawaiians

deny that they actually worshipped the wood and the stone, and to explain to us their use of images, they refer at once to the practice of the Romanists in regard to pictures and symbols. They can discern but little difference between their ancient worship and the rites and ceremonies of the Romanists. . . . [190]

Hawaiian temple courtyard images were only one means by which priests communicated with the gods. In other instances they received messages while in the oracle tower or while in a trance. It is also thought that in some cases the paramount chief, as a direct descendant of the gods, served as the interlocutor between the deities and their worshippers during the course of a ceremony. [191]

          (2) Appearance

Priest-craftsmen, highly trained and skilled in the intricacies of both the carving of wood and the symbolism of religious ritual, served as the artisans of these powerful images. Standing within the temple courtyards or stationed around the walls of heiau, these sculptures inspired fear among the populace and vividly impressed visiting Europeans (Illustration 16). In 1823 the Reverend William Ellis

took a sketch of one of the idols [on the ruins of the heiau Ahuena at Kailua], which stood sixteen feet above the wall, was upwards of three feet in breadth, and had been carved out of a single tree. The above may be considered as a tolerable specimen of the greater part of Hawaiian idols. The head has generally a most horrid appearance, the mouth being large and usually extended wide, exhibiting a row of large teeth, resembling in no small degree the cogs in the wheel of an engine, and adapted to excite terror rather than inspire confidence in the beholder. Some of their idols were of stone, and many were constructed with a kind of wickerwork covered with red feathers. [192]

Temple of Kamehameha
Illustration 16. Temple of Kamehameha in the Kona District at Kamakahonu, showing courtyard temple images. Courtesy Hawaii State Archives, Honolulu.

A few visitors managed to catch a glimpse of these various types of images before their swift destruction upon abolition of the kapu system; others relied on secondhand information to convey the frightful aspects of the figures. In addition to fixed temple images, there were mobile ones that could be transported between temples or in ritual processions, such as during the Makahiki festival. The featherwork noted in the 1880s description below of images carried into battle is attributed to the religious tradition instituted by the high priest Pa'ao: [193]

These gods were no light burden, being great blocks of wood several feet high, with heads and necks formed of fine wickerwork, covered with red feathers so curiously wrought as to resemble the skin of a bird. The face was hideous, having a mouth from ear to ear, armed with triple rows of shark's teeth, and eyes of mother-of-pearl. The head was adorned with long tresses of human hair, and crowned with a shapely feather helmet. The priests who carried these repulsive deities uttered terrific yells, and distorted their own countenance, the better to encourage their own warriors, and alarm the foe. [194]

Despite the ethnocentric descriptions of them by early viewers, the few remaining Hawaiian temple images are regarded today as one of the finest artistic accomplishments of the ancient Hawaiians:

It is very probable that these statues were intended to be ugly. They were meant to look ferocious, and to inspire fear in all beholders. . . . There is more to it than that, however. The decorated headdresses of the idols, the staring eyes, the big heads and the scowling mouths, with tongues sticking out, have undoubted symbolic significance. . . . These features are common throughout the Pacific. . . [195]

          (3) Types

Dorota Starzecka divides Hawaiian religious sculpture into three types: temple, stick, and free standing images (Illustrations 17 and 18):

Temple images are monumental in scale and threatening in expression. Among the most distinctive are those in Kona style (from the Kona coast of Hawaii where the style developed), characterized by the elaboration of the hair with its two downward sweeps, a figure-of-eight mouth, extended nostrils, and eyes located off the face and in the hair, following its curve. The central image in the temple was the most elaborately carved and the ceremony of its setting up was marked with a human sacrifice. Stick images are small, portable images with shafts, from 3 to 24 in. in length. . . . These images . . . were also used during ceremonies in the temples. Free-standing images tend to be bigger than the stick images, and show a certain realism. Some of them have pearl-shell eyes, human teeth and human hair pegged in. [196]

temple images
Illustration 17. Stick and temple images. Plates 8 and 9 from Valeri, Kingships and Sacrifice.
temple images
Illustration 18. Temple of Kamehameha I in the Kona District at Kamakahonu. Courtesy, Hawaii State Archives, Honolulu.

          (4) Arrangement in Heiau

Idols were commonly found in association with religious structures in other areas of Polynesia, but Hawai'i was somewhat unique in terms of the arrangement of images within the heiau. [197] Temple images were either erected in holes made in the stone paved platform area of a heiau or were placed on top of the surrounding walls or fences. In the latter case, they were probably decorative features rather than ritual focuses. Some may have designated entrances to the temple and some appear to have marked boundaries of ritual spaces. Images used within the central temple area were manifestations of one of the four major Hawaiian deities (Ku, Kane, Lono, Kanaloa) but were not specifically identifiable to any one of them. The primary luakini temple image was the akua mo'i (lord of the god image), an elaborately carved statue that was the last to be placed in front of the altar. [198]

          (5) Associated Rituals

The same heavy ohi'a wood used for the oracle tower was utilized in carving the luakini images. A complicated ritual observance (haku ohi'a) existed for obtaining the timber for both the heiau houses and the main image of Ku. It involved consecration of the axes used to fell the trees, followed by a journey to the mountains by a delegation of priests and the ruler to obtain the special timber needed. Other ritual observances included prayers, feasting, and an offering of a human sacrifice. After carving the image, the priests carried it back and laid it outside the entrance of the temple. Inside, a row of carved images representing the major gods was placed in front of the oracle tower with a space left in the middle. Toward the end of the luakini ceremonies, the central idol was brought into the courtyard and set up in the hole dug for it in the midst of the other statues. A ceremony including prayers and another sacrificial victim, whose body was thrown into the cavity prepared for the main image, took place and the statue was erected in the hole. Construction of the mana house was then quickly finished and another image placed inside it. Afterwards priests awaited a sign that Ku was present at the ceremonies. The signal was the finding of the seaweed to be placed in the waiea. If it was found, a coconut fiber cord was wrapped around the principal image's belly as an umbilical cord. It was then cut and a feast held to honor the "birth" of this image. A confirmation ceremony followed. Just as a young boy was dressed in a bleached loin cloth at puberty, the new image was wrapped in bleached bark cloth and declared mo'i, lord of all the idols. The lesser images were then also wrapped in kapa. In the evening shadows they would have presented a ghostly, surreal presence. [199]

          (6) Treatment by the Hawaiians

An interesting aspect of the Hawaiian temple images is that they were considered only representations of the gods and not sacred in and of themselves. The sacredness only came after the spirits of the gods had been induced to enter them through specific rituals. As Shimizu states,

Sacredness of the physical elements of a heiau was a temporary condition. After all the labor involved in construction and the intensive ceremonies within the heiau were concluded, the heiau was virtually abandoned until the next major event. Although the central image representing the main deity of the heiau remained sacred, the supplementary images were no longer regarded with value and respect. [200]

The minor images were evidently allowed to deteriorate between important ceremonies. This gave some people, such as Captain Nathaniel Portlock, a mistaken impression about the fervity of Hawaiian religious practices when he visited there in 1786-87:

Another species of ingenuity met with amongst the natives here, is carving: they have a number of wooden images, representing human figures, which they esteem as their gods; but it is a matter of doubt, whether religion is held in any great estimation amongst them, for every god amongst the islands might be purchased for a few towees. [201]

Captain Cook also reported that the people, including the priests, seemed to have little respect for their idols, many of which his sailors carried away in full view of the people. [202] Cox and Davenport surmise that when a temple was rededicated, the central image may have been the only one replaced. That act might have symbolized the renewal of all the others, which could then just be retouched and redressed. [203] Shimizu interprets this attitude toward temple images as reinforcing the theory that "the physical form [of a heiau and its furnishings] is secondary to the ritual process." [204] Handy et al. state that although previously used images might be retained with the thought that they still possessed some elements of sacredness, "that the idols themselves were not gods is evidenced by the common custom of making a new image for every ceremony of importance." [205]

          (7) Destruction at Overthrow of Kapu System

The overthrow of the kapu system on the death of Kamehameha I entailed the destruction of temple images. W. Chapin reports that the destruction of vestiges of the old religion began in the early part of November 1819, and describeds how on "Atooi" (Kaua'i), by the end of that month, "the morais and the consecrated buildings, with the idols, were on fire, the first evening after the order arrived. The same was done in all the islands." [206] The Reverend Hiram Bingham describes how Ka'ahumanu, wife of King Kamehameha I, demonstrating her enthusiasm for the new religion of the missionaries on a tour of the islands in 1822, sought out remaining images for destruction: "On the 26th of the same month [June], one hundred and two idols, collected from different parts of Hawaii, where they had been hidden 'in the holes of the rocks and caves of the earth,' were, by her authority, committed to the flames." [207] Gilbert E. Mathison, who visited the islands during 1821-22, lamented that at the time of his visit, he made

every possible inquiry in vain for one of the ancient idols. The people expressed great astonishment at my desire to possess what they had themselves ceased to value, and seemed even affronted by my supposing that they could have preserved any such antiquated relics of pristine ignorance and superstition. [208]

According to Cox and Davenport, there are only about thirty-five of the large Hawaiian temple images remaining, probably because they were so visible and therefore extremely vulnerable to destruction, while smaller images could be easily hidden away for furtive worship. [209]

     f) Mortuary Practices

          (1) Burial Customs and Places of Interment

Hawaiian death and mortuary practices were as filled with meaning as every other aspect of life. Elaborate rituals revolved around preparation of the body, burial processes, mourning procedures, and purification of the living who had come in contact with the corpse. These deliberate and well-defined behaviors not only allowed full expression of grief, but also reaffirmed the unity of the family group and assured solace and peace for the dead in the hereafter. [210]

Several different burial places and methods of interment were used, depending to a great extent on the deceased's status in society as well as on local geographical conditions. Locations of burials included the earth, sand dunes, under monuments and cairns, beneath houses, in heiau platforms, and in lava tubes, natural caves, rockshelters, and niches in steep cliffs. Burials in these last areas usually are well preserved, as is artifactual material interred with them. Burials marked on the surface by stone monuments were common in the historic period. Many have been found at Pu'uhonua o Honaunau and near Kawaihae. Sacrificial victims, priests, and kapu breakers, as well as high chiefs were interred in temple platforms. The most famous sepulchre of high chiefs was the Hale-o-Keawe at Honaunau, the burial place of a long line of deified chiefs. [211] Other well-known burial places on the island of Hawai'i included the Waipio Valley, the cliffs surrounding Kealakekua Bay, and the caves of Kaloko. [212] Cave sites, usually located near a living area, were frequently used in both the prehistoric and historic periods for either the combined dead of a village or as individual family resting places. [213]

          (2) Morning Rituals and Burial Practices

As mentioned earlier, corpses were considered to be defiling, extremely kapu in ancient Hawaiian culture. All clothing in the vicinity of the dead person, all furnishings items, and all food utensils had to be burned after removal of the body. Those relatives who remained in the vicinity of a dead person for any length of time had to undergo a purification ceremony before they could again interact in society. While prolonged weeping and sorrowful wailing marked the death of a loved one, distress upon the death of a respected leader was demonstrated by knocking out one's teeth, cutting one's flesh, tatooing one's tongue, or cutting a section of one's hair. During the mourning ritual for royalty, chiefs and commoners might also commit suicide in front of the corpse. Bodies of commoners were often preserved and wrapped in layers of kapa cloth before being buried, in a variety of locations and positions, along with their valued personal possessions, food, mats, and other things needed to make them comfortable. [214]

The ancient Hawaiian's overriding concern with mana guided burial customs for the ali'i concerning time of interment and extent of reduction of the body. It was believed that in order to prevent their former enemies from finding their bones and gaining possession of their power, the skeletal material of chiefs, after removal of the flesh, had to be secretly interred. There are, therefore, many secret burial caves on the islands whose entrances are hidden from view. [215] Fornander found that

This extreme solicitude of concealing the bones of defunct high chiefs was very prevalent in the Hawaiian group. . . . The greatest trophy to the victor, the greatest disgrace to the vanquished, was the possession of the bones of an enemy. They were either simply exhibited as trophies, or they were manufactured into fish hooks, or into arrow-points wherewith to shoot mice. Hence various expedients were resorted to to effectively prevent the bones of a high chief ever becoming the prey of any enemies that he may have left alive when he died. One of the most trusted friends of the deceased chief was generally charged with the duty of secreting the bones . . . and the custom prevailed till after the time of Kamehameha l. This custom applied, however, more particularly to prominent warrior chiefs. . . . Generally the custom in chief families was to strip the flesh off the corpse of a deceased chief, burn it, and collect the skull, collar- bones, arm and leg bones in a bundle, wrap them up in a tapa cloth, and deposit them in the family vault. . . . [216]

According to Reverend Ellis, burial practices changed after the abolition of idolatry:

. . . all ceremonies connected therewith have ceased; the other heathenish modes of burying their dead are only observed by those who are uninstructed, and are not professed worshippers of the true God: those who are, inter their dead in a manner more resembling the practice of Christians. The corpse is usually laid in a coffin, which . . . is borne to the place of worship . . . where a short service is performed; it is then carried to the grave. . . . [217]

Current information on ancient burial practices, as on other aspects of early Hawaiian life, derives mainly from descriptions by nineteenth-century Hawaiian historians and from accounts by European visitors. The English surgeon Frederick Bennett notes that a resident of O'ahu, C.B. Rooke, related to him that he had visited several "sepulchral caves" on various of the Hawaiian islands: "The bodies they contained were numerous, mostly in a mummy state, and placed in a sitting posture, with their limbs flexed; they were enveloped in bark-cloth, and some of them had portions of sugar-cane in their hands, and calabashes, which had contained poe [poi], by their sides." [218] An additional important source of data are archeological discoveries found during survey and excavation work.

     g) Places of Refuge

The last aspect of ancient Hawaiian religion important to the scope of this report concerns pu uhonua, or places of refuge. The authority of the high chief and the priests to regulate the patterns of ancient Hawaiian society, especially as they related to social and religious customs, was unquestioned. Those who disregarded the traditional restrictions were susceptible to the most extreme punishment. One avenue of succor was available to them, however, consisting of escape to a place of refuge. These were the only checks to the king's absolute power of life and death over his subjects.

Pu'uhonua were sacred areas, not necessarily enclosed, to which murderers, kapu-breakers, and other transgressors who had incurred the wrath of the ruler could hastily retreat to gain sanctuary from reprisal. Upon reaching the entrances of these compounds, often enclosed by extensive and massive stone walls, the refugee immediately gave thanks to the guardian deity. Theoretically, no one pursuing this person, including a high chief, the king, or enemy warriors, could enter the enclosure without risking death at the hands of the resident priest or his attendants. The one seeking asylum usually remained several days and then returned home, absolved of his misdeeds by the gods. Fugitives from battle also fled to these places; during times of war white flags waved from tall spears placed outside the walls at each end of the enclosure. Because these refuge areas were quite large, during wartime, women, children, and the aged were often left within the walls while the men went off to battle. The person of the mo'i was also pu'uhonua and could provide asylum. Ten pu'uhonua existed on the island of Hawai'i, the one at Honaunau being the largest in the Hawaiian Islands. [219]

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Last Updated: 15-Nov-2001