Hawaiian Religion

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HAWAIIAN RELIGION . The traditional religion of the Hawaiians was based on that of their Polynesian ancestors, who as fishermen and horticulturalists became long distance navigators and explorers. These were the first to settle, perhaps between the first and the seventh centuries ce, the fertile and geographically isolated Hawaiian Islands. Although inhabitants of the islands from Hawaiʻi to Kauaʻi had altered some of the ancestral beliefs and practices, the similarities between Hawaiian and other Polynesian religions impressed Captain James Cook, who in 1778 was the first European to visit the islands.

Believing that supernatural forces filled sea, sky, and earth, the Hawaiians personified them in countless named and individualized deities, who controlled nature and humankind through their mana, or supernatural power. The people retained cosmogonic gods from the homeland, such as Kāne, Kanaloa, Kū, Lono, and goddesses like Hina and Haumea, but they added aspects to these gods and included the deified dead, beings like the volcano goddess Pele, and temperamental local spirits in their pantheon of supernatural beings. This pantheon provided the inherited or acquired guardian gods, or ʿaumakua, of each individual, family, occupation, and profession. A god communicated its will through dreams, images, something in nature such as a shark or thunder, or a human prophet.

Priesthoods and Worship Places

The priests, or kahuna, who mediated between gods and people, were professional specialists trained in the material techniques and rituals essential for success in their calling. Upon the arrival of Captain Cook, there had evolved two major and competing priestly orders to guide the ruling chief in temple worship. The priests of the order of Kanalu were dedicated to the god Kū (moʿoKū), and their rituals were considered to be strict and demanding. The other priestly order of Paliku was dedicated to the god Lono. Their rituals were considered more flexible and relaxed. The principal god of each order was a national god upon whose favor the expansion and prosperity of the kingdom depended. Each order's high priest, the kahuna nui, was considered to be its founder's direct descendant and an expert in every branch of religion. The high priest wielded political power by advising the ruler on how to win divine support. Failure was attributed to errors in worship, to counter-magic, or to hidden infractions of kapu (taboo). A system of religiously sanctioned permanent and temporary kapu controlled every phase of society and everyone's life regardless of rank. The system began, tradition states, when Wākea got away from his wife Papagiving Wākea the opportunity to seduce their daughterby having a kahuna declare that the gods had made kapu two nights, during which husband and wife were required to separate.

Public worship took place at heiau, or open-air religious centers. The form, size, equipment, and location of a heiau depended on a chief's power to command labor and on the kahuna -architect's traditionalism or creativity. A simple unwalled rectangular heiau had an altar, images, and a raised platform. A complex type excluded the populace with stone or palisaded walls that enclosed several terraces, an altar, consecrated images, refuse pits, burial grounds, an oracle tower covered by a kapa or bark cloth (an architectural feature unique to these islands, as Captain Cook observed), and houses for a drum, other sacred objects, an earth oven, andduring kapu periodsfor the ruler and important priests. Outside the walls was a structure called the "house of Papa," where the highest-ranking female chiefs, who were themselves considered to be earthly goddesses, worshiped the prolific and ever-reborn Haumea (often identified with or as Papa) and the water-spirit form of a deified female chief from Maui (who was called Kihawahine), as well as other divine beings.

The walled, exclusive type of heiau was introduced, tradition states, by the high priest Pāʿao, probably a Tahitian who arrived in about the twelfth century. Pāʿao also introduced the practice of human sacrifice, a strict priestly order and ritual for Kū, and his personal god Kāʿli, who as Kū-kā'ili-moku ("Kū the island-snatcher") became Kamehameha I the Great's (1758?1819) inherited ʻaumakua and war god. Pāʻao widened the existing gap between chiefs and commoners by introducing new sacred royal symbols, such as the red-feather girdle, taboo standards (tapa-covered balls on sticks that were carried before chiefs as insignia of taboo), and compulsory prostration (kapu moe ) before those male and female chiefs who were believed to be directly descended from the gods.

Only a paramount chief could build the most sacred type of heiau, where burned human sacrifices were offered to the highest Kū gods. This functional type of heiau, called a luakini ("many refuse pits") or poʻokanaka ("men's heads"), was used at times to pray for royal health and national prosperity; but essentially it was a war temple (if a subordinate chief built one, it was a sign of rebellion). The general term waihau referred to "comfortable" heiau where less complex rituals, without human sacrifice, were conducted. Most heiau had economic functions relating to farming, fishing, healing, rain, tapa-making (which was women's work), and so on. A chief had a religious duty to build these heiau in which to pray for divine aid for his chiefdom or to give thanks. Each deity had specific requirements as to size, number, and color of offerings. Dissatisfied gods sent drought and disease, and commoners would then abandon the chief to seek one who was more religious. But if all went well, people built smaller heiau on their allotted land to further enliven the earth.

Major Deities and Associated Rites

Dominating the pantheon for chief and commoner alike were Kanaloa, Kāne, Lono, and Kū. Each, in particular but overlapping ways, fostered health, abundance, rain, and fertility. Only Kū had a destructive side. To each name, except that of Kanaloa, Hawaiians attached dozens of descriptive phrases to signify the god's varied aspects or his subordinate gods.


Called Tangaroa or one of many other cognate names (e.g., Tangaloa, Taʻaroa) elsewhere in Polynesia, Kanaloa was Kāne's younger brother. For Hawaiians he was the god of squid and, because of a play on words, also sometimes associated with healing (the Hawaiian word heʻe means both "squid" and "to put to flight"). Kanaloa rarely had his own shrine or heiau, but in prayers he was often named along with Kāne, Lono, and Kū, and like them he was assigned a period in the lunar month during which he was due special homage. His precise role and function in Hawaiʻi is obscure, partly due to some synchronistic writings of scholarly nineteenth-century Hawaiian Christian converts.


Called Tane in southeastern Polynesia, Kāne, whose name connotes "male," was the most approachable, forgiving, and revered of the four major gods. One worshiper in his prayer would chant, "You and I warm to each other, Kāne," and other worshipers would often say, "Life is sacred to Kāne." According to more than one myth, Kāne, while dwelling on earth with Kanaloa, had plunged his digging stick into the ground to release springs of fresh water to mix with his and Kanaloa's ʻawa or kava (a narcotic drink made from the pounded root of the shrub Piper methysticum ). The release of fresh water by Kāne-of-the-water-of-life, as he was frequently called, was a symbolic sexual act, for the gesture served to fructify the earth. Before ritually consuming their offering of pork and ʻawa, men prayed for forgiveness of broken taboos or for revenge for sorcery at their family's phallic "stone of Kāne," a single, high, conical stone situated near a stream. Sweet potato farmers prayed to their Kāne ʻaumakua -of-the-rain-filled-clouds; grateful fishermen left fish for Kāne and sometimes for Kanaloa at a shrine, which was usually only a rock or a pile of rocks. And after prescribed rituals that took place during an earth-shaking storm, the dead of a ruling family of the island of Maui, who considered themselves descendants of Kāne-hekili ("Kāne-thunder"), were transfigured by their ancestors and ʻaumakua into thunder and lightning.

Early in the twentieth century, Robert Luahiwa, an elderly Hawaiian from the island of Kauaʻi, described a ceremony that called on Kāne to bring rain and life to the land, and Luahiwa recited the prayers used by the high priest. The congregation sat silent and motionless on a heiau terrace until Kāne's high priest (on a higher terrace) had, after five long prayers, lifted the taboo. The priest had invoked some seventy forms of Kānein clouds, rain, and forest growthas well as the other three great gods and the goddesses of hula and of the forest greenery that decorated the heiau (Laka, Hiʻiaka, the latter's sister Kapo, and their oldest sister Pele, who became violent if ignored). The priest's last prayer, heard only by the chief at his side, was delivered on the third, highest, and most sacred stage of the oracle tower, where the god revealed his will. Earlier nineteenth-century Hawaiian scholars reported that the commoners were gathered outside of the central temple, where they could only hear the prayers of the kahuna. The congregation would be seated in single-file rows and during certain prayers, which were voiced in unison, they would raise their right hands, remaining in that position until the prayer was completed. These scholars emphasized that the carved images of the luakini/heiau were never worshiped, for the images were considered to be only representations of the god.


The god of two related sources of abundancepeace and seasonal winter stormsLono (called Rongo or Roʻo in southeastern Polynesia) was also a god of healing. He had numerous heiau, called "houses of Lono," devoted to rainmaking and medical purposes. There was a chief with the same name, Lono, who established the Makahiki, the longest ceremonial period, which involved everyone in celebrating Lono's annual (makahiki ) return for four months of the rainy season to preside over rituals for health and ample rain, and over the ritualized collection of taxes, recreation, and release from work. The celebration became a focal point for the order and rituals of the priest dedicated to the god Lono, resulting in a merging or confusion of Lono the god and Lono the chief. When Captain Cook arrived in 1778, he was greeted as Lono-i-ka-makahiki the god/chief because he arrived during this period and anchored at the bay called Kealakekua ("the path of the god," i.e., Lono), and because his masted sails resembled the Lono symbol that led the procession of tax collectors and celebratory sports on their coastal circuit of the island.

The reexamination of both native and nonnative primary sources has been reopened by anthropologists Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere to focus upon how Hawaiians interpreted Cook's presence and divinity. Although the rhetoric of their arguments developed into a larger issue about research and indigenous peoples, this reexamination has nonetheless brought intriguing and valuable analyses and insights not considered before about the first cultural encounter between the foreigners and natives.

The Lono symbol was a long staff topped with a carved human image across whose neck a crosspiece supported a rectangular white tapa flag and other sacred objects. A shorter staff led a procession in the opposite direction. The principal procession stopped at each district boundary to collect taxes placed near an altar that held another Lono symbol, a carved wooden head of a pig, representing fertility. If the collectors were satisfied with the proffered amount of pigs, dogs, vegetables, ʻawa, and the like, the Lono priest blessed the district, and the party moved on. At the ruler's compound the party was given a feast. Rites included the ruler putting a valuable whale-tooth necklace on the Lono figure, and the ruler's wife draping it with fine white tapa. Later the ruler redistributed the taxes to his subordinate chiefs who supported him in battle and who held land as a reward for their service.

While the ruler, the Lono priests, and their attendants were busy with numerous rituals for the general welfare, the populace engaged in hula, sports, and games, each activity having its guardian gods. Wrestling and boxing matches recalled that when Lono the chief learned, after killing his human wife, that she had not been unfaithful, he became for a time insane and fought violent matches. Finally he left the islands in his canoe, promising to return. To signal that the Makahiki was over and that people should return to work and chiefs could go to war again, the priests dismantled the Lono staffs and set adrift a canoe full of gifts to ensure Lono's return the next year. The ritual functions were then turned over to the priests of the order of Kū, now personified in the local ruling chief, rather than the departed god/chief.

Each morning and evening the head of a family took down the net-covered "gourd of Lono" encircling the neck of the image on the altar in the men's eating house. He prayed for his family, the commoners, and the chiefs, and he ritually ate from the gourd, the bowl of which represented the earth and its bounty; the cover, the heavens; and the handle, the rainbow. To lift the taboo on eating a new crop, he or a kahuna performed first-fruits rites, then put the gourd of Lono in the midst of the male guests invited to feast. He invited them again when, after weaning, his son entered the men's house, never again to eat with women. Placing a roasted pig's head on the altar and a pig's ear in the gourd of Lono (so Lono would listen), the kahuna prayed that the boy would thrive and bear fruit like the gourd vine. Later the boy would be subincised and ceremonially initiated into eating pork, which was men's food and taboo to women.

Kū and Hina

There were many gods in the class called Kū (Tu was the southern Polynesian cognate of the name). Hawaiians regarded the Kū gods either as independent gods or as aspects of a single Kū. Usually, an epithet attached to the name suggested the special function or distinctive trait of each particular Kū god. The same principle applies to the class of goddesses called Hina (cognates of the name elsewhere in Polynesia are Hine, Sina, and ʻIna). Some Hinas had more than one name. Hina-of-the-moon is also known as Maimed Lono because, according to myth, her husband tore off her leg as she fled to the moon. Pele's sacred name is Hina-of-the-fire, and Lea's other name is Hina-of-the-ʻohiʻa -growth. (The ʻohiʻa is a kind of tree.)

Kū and Hina, as well as their varied aspects, functioned as man and wife in daily rites performed by the populace. With his sister-wife Hina (whose name means "prostrate"), Kū (meaning "upright") united the people into a single stock, for Kū and Hina represented the male and female reproductive principles. Kū also symbolized the east, the sunrise, and the right hand; while Hina symbolized the west, the sunset, and the left hand. Such antithesis was common. The couple was invoked in pregnancy and child care; their subordinate gods or aspects presided over many activities on land and sea. Kūʻula-kai (red Kū of the sea) was the fishermen's chief god, and fishing heiau were named kūʻula for him. His wife was Hina-the-sea-fossicker. Their siblings lived on upland farms and in forests. The chief forest god was Kū-moku-hāliʻi (Kū the island spreader), the husband of Lea, who warned woodsmen of decayed trees by taking the form of an ʻelepaio (a flycatcher) and pecking at trees to look for insects. Kū-moku-hāliʻi was also the chief god of canoe makers, whose kahuna conducted rites at the foot of a chosen tree, usually a koa (Acacia koa ). Farmers venerated Kū-of-the-digging-stick. Each occupation had numerous Kū gods.

The highest form of Kū gods was invoked during national criseswar, famine, diseaseafter the king had first built or rebuilt a luakini where harsh and complex rituals called upon the Kū gods for aid. Kū-nui-ākea ("the supreme Kū") manifested himself in the ceremonies as the Kū gods of war, sorcery, and the binding of conquered chiefdoms into a kingdom. A ten-day, four-part luakini service required numerous men and pigs as sacrifices, and additional pigs to feed the highborn worshipers and priests. If kapu -breakers, war captives, or slaves were unavailable to be used as burned sacrifices, large ulua fish (Carangidae ) were substituted.

The first set of rites, held in the presence of chiefs and workmen in the refurbished luakini, centered on a stylized parade led by a kahuna with a kapu -standard (followed by a naked man who impersonated the god Kahoaliʻi) and by feather-covered wicker images of gods (a Hawaiian innovation) carried by their keepers. The workers then went home. The second set of rites took the king, the "feather gods" (as the wicker images were called), and the kahuna to a forest, where they ritually cut ʻohiʻa trees for new images. A kapu -breaker was sacrificed in rites that accompanied the cutting of the first tree, and from this tree came a block of wood that would represent Kū on the altar. Marching back to the heiau with their logs, the members of the procession shouted loudly and seized human victims along their route. After the images had been carved, dressed in red malo (loincloths), and consecrated, the kahuna, in the ceremony's third phase, chanted all night long while worshipers listened. In the fourth part of the rite, a kahuna prayed for an hour while the motionless worshipers, arranged in rows behind the images, sat with bowed heads and sometimes with upraised arms. The concluding rites were held in the "house of Papa," where a kahuna and the highest female chiefs freed the worshipers from taboo before they returned to secular life.

Gender Taboos, Illness, and Death

Women were considered to be polluted from menstruation, and thus were excluded from all men's heiau and shrines. Although history includes three female chiefs of the highest rank and status, they were exceptions. One was Keakea-lani-wahine, who, upon succeeding her mother as ruler of Hawaiʻi, had charge of all its heiau and in each luakini made human and pig sacrifices and other offerings. Nevertheless, she took her ritual meals apart from the men and ate no pork, bananas, coconuts, or other foods taboo to women. Food-related kapu were associated with the separation of Wākea and Papa and required all men and women to take meals separately and to eat food proper to their sex. All cooking was performed by men, who used separate ovens for men's and women's food. Kapu -breakers were slain or mutilated. (Persons threatened with death for any reason were spared, however, if they reached certain heiau or sites designated as places of refuge.)

Medical kahuna were specialists in treating particular diseases through different forms of diagnosis. They believed that an illness that proved resistant to ordinary treatment, such as by herbs, was due to an ʻaumakua 's anger at broken kapu and therefore required prayers and offerings. Most kahuna, however, specialized in problems related to infertility and pregnancy and in the treatment of children's diseases.

In death a person's soul was prevented from falling into Milu (the underworld), a realm of eternal darkness, by its ʻaumakua, who ushered it to its ancestors' part of a happy realm in Pō (darkness or night). A soul without an ʻaumakua wandered homeless on earth, ate spiders and moths, and became a malevolent ghost. A soul with an ancestral god from the Pele family might be transfigured into a volcanic flame if a priest, having prayed and made offerings, cast the corpse or part of it into the crater. Other souls might be transfigured into embodiments (kinolau ) of their godsa shark, thunder, a water spirit, a bird, or something else. Transfigured male and female chiefs became their descendants' gods. The deification and transfiguration of ancestors is a primary example of the power of the nonpriest-based religious system that coexisted with the state or national religion that was headed by the ruling chief and the priestly orders. The nonpriest system was also manifested in family prayers, rituals involving the pohaku o Kāne (stone of Kāne), rituals and prayers for farming and fishing, and other religious expressions that did not require a specialized and trained kahuna.

Dead commoners were buried wherever it was convenient. The cleaned bones of some royalty were hidden in caves to prevent enemies from using them for fishhooks; the bones of other royalty were encased in plaited sennit caskets (kaʻai ) of humanoid shape and deposited in the mausoleum Hale-o-Keawe on the island of Hawaiʻi. Sorcery was always suspected when a highborn person died. A kahuna trained to identify sorcerers held a kuni ("burn") ceremony in which he burned part of the victim's corpse. When the kahuna's god had revealed the sorcerer's name, the accusedeven if a chiefwas killed and burned.

The State Religion and Its Demise

At his death in 1819, Kamehameha I, who believed his many gods had made him head of a unified feudal kingdom, left a state religion based on the kapu system that protected the mana and authority of the gods and their chiefly descendants from spiritual contamination and consequent weakness. That same year, however, Kamehameha's son Liholiho (17971824) took power, adopted the title Kamehameha II, and abolished both the kapu system of restrictions and rank and the official religion without replacing it with another. This decision, which was only reluctantly accepted by Liholiho, had principally been made by the most politically powerful of his father's wives, by his mother who was herself a sacred chief, and by the highest priest of the Kū order. Liholiho signaled the overthrow of the kapu system by publicly sharing a meal (consisting of food cooked in one oven) with his father's wife and his mother. Later, the Kū priests, after consulting with Liholiho, began destroying heiau and images. Some adherents of the traditions hid their images and worshiped in secret. Not all customs and beliefs vanished: even today, faith in the ʻaumakua, for example, lingers on. The only military resistance to the abolition of the religion came from Liholiho's cousin, who had inherited the god Kū-kāʻili-moku, but the resistance ended when the cousin lost his life in battle.

The reasons, still debated, for the overthrow of the religion have ranged from weariness of the burden of kapu on chiefs and commoners and on men and women, and, of course, the changes that had been wrought by Europeans and Americans. Particularly instrumental had been the introduction of a market economy, which was hampered by the chiefs' religious, social, and economic obligations to their peoplea system of obligations that was based on the ancient and successful subsistence economy. Arguments have also been made that the practitioners themselves became disenchanted with the religious system when the death of Kamehameha I could not be prevented. A few months after Liholiho's act, the first band of American Protestant missionaries arrived from Boston; they were unaware of Liholiho's abolition of the traditional kapu system and religion until their ship was off Hawaiʻi's shore.

See Also

Polynesian Religions; Tangaroa.


Many of the volumes listed below are classics. Although David Malo, Samuel Kamakau, John Papa 'I'i, and Kepelino became Christian converts whose adopted religion sometimes colors their views of the indigenous culture, they were personally familiar with the tradition, and they also learned a great deal from their elders. 'I'i, for example, as a boy had been an attendant of Liholiho (later Kamehameha II) and as an adult he held important positions in the government of the kingdom. Malo was born during the transitional period after arrival of Captain Cook and before the death of Kamehameha I. He was trained primarily as a genealogist or historian. Kamakau traveled extensively throughout the islands, interviewing elders and eyewitnesses of various events. The translators and editors of these works have added important explanatory notes. Martha Warren Beckwith's translation and chapters of annotation of the Kumulipo, the creation and genealogical chant of King Kalakaua and his sister Queen Liliʻuokalani, help make the magnificent but cryptic chant comprehensible. It presents different interpretations by modern Hawaiians and discusses the importance nobility placed on descent. Beckwith's Hawaiian Mythology is irreplaceable as a comprehensive reference to the pantheon, and for many years it established the prevailing overview of Hawaiian religion, with its descriptions of demigods, romantic characters, and others. This work has the additional value of containing comparisons with other Pacific traditions, putting the material into cross-cultural perspective. Abraham Fornander, a nineteenth-century judge who married a Hawaiian chief, gathered an unparalleled collection of myths, traditions, tales, poems, prayers, and descriptions of religion; Thomas G. Thrum's notes shed light on obscure references. E. S. Craighill Handy's Polynesian Religion brilliantly discusses the interrelationships of indigenous Polynesian religions, including the Hawaiian, and illustrates the major concepts they share.

June Gutmanis published a major collection of ancient Hawaiian prayers selected from previously published and unpublished sources. Hawaiian texts are accompanied by English translations (and retranslations) and by commentaries. Mary Kawena Pukui's book is written for social workers and other "members of the helping professions." Pukui, a Hawaiian, draws on her other published writings, her personal experiences, and her wide reading; with the psychiatrist E. W. Haertig, she discusses Hawaiian customs, beliefs, and rites as they relate to interpersonal relationships and the life cycle. The book includes modern case histories. The structural analysis of Marshall Sahlins and Valerio Valeri of Cook's arrival, the Makahiki celebrations, and temple worship provide provocative interpretations from primary source materials and suggest a reevaluation of the how Hawaiian religion functioned.

Beckwith, Martha Warren, ed. and trans. Kepelino's Traditions of Hawaii. Honolulu, 1932.

Beckwith, Martha Warren. Hawaiian Mythology (1940). Reprint, Honolulu, 1970.

Beckwith, Martha Warren, ed. and trans. The Kumulipo: A Hawaiian Creation Chant (1951). Reprint, Honolulu, 1972.

Chun, Malcolm Nāea. "Wākea and Papa: Ancestral Tradition when 'Religion' Began." First Peoples Theology Journal 1, no. 1 (2000): 1724.

Fornander, Abraham, comp. Fornander Collection of Hawaiian Antiquities and Folklore. 3 vols. Translated by John Wise and edited by Thomas G. Thrum. Honolulu, 19161920.

Gutmanis, June. Na Pule Kahiko (Ancient Hawaiian Prayers). Honolulu, 1983.

Handy, E. S. Craighill. Polynesian Religion. Honolulu, 1927.

'I'i, John Papa. Fragments of Hawaiian History. Translated by Mary Kawena Pukui and edited by Dorothy B. Barrere. Honolulu, 1959.

Johnson, Rubellite Kawena. Kumulipo: The Hawaiian Hymn of Creation. Honolulu, 1981.

Kamakau, Samuel M. Ka Poʻe Kahiko: The People of Old. Translated by Mary Kawena Pukui; arranged and edited by Dorothy B. Barrere. Honolulu, 1964.

Malo, David. Hawaiian Antiquities (Moolelo Hawaii) (1903). 2d ed. Translated by Nathaniel B. Emerson and edited by W. D. Alexander. Honolulu, 1951.

Malo, David. Ka Moolelo Hawaii: Hawaiian Traditions. Translated by Malcolm Nāea Chun. Honolulu, 1996.

Obeyesekere, Gananath. The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific. Princeton, 1992.

Pukui, Mary Kawena, E. W. Haertig, and Catherine A. Lee. Nānā i Ke Kumu (Look to the source). 2 vols. Honolulu, 1972.

Sahlins, Marshall. Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities: Structure in the Early History of the Sandwich Islands Kingdom. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1981.

Sahlins, Marshall. How "Natives" Think: About Captain Cook, for Example. Chicago, 1995.

Valeri, Valerio. Kingship and Sacrifice: Ritual and Society in Ancient Hawaii. Chicago, 1985.

Katharine Luomala (1987)

Malcolm NĀea Chun (2005)

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