Hawaiian spirituality today is founded on the religious practices of the time before the Hawaiian people had contact with the West. Hawaii was first populated some eight centuries ago by voyagers from what is now French Polynesia, at the end of a long migration eastward from the Southeast Asian mainland and then north and south across thousands of miles of ocean. They brought with them the worship of four great Polynesian gods—Kane, Ku, Lono, and Kanaloa—and innumerable lesser deities.
Traditional Hawaiian spirituality begins with the land, or aina. Land is a living thing, and all life force springs from the land. The life force in the land is related to that found in the sea, the winds, the rain, and other natural phenomena. In fact, for Hawaiians, all of creation is sentient, all is engaged in cocreation. All of what Westerners call living creatures and much of the landscape itself has life, consciousness, intention, emotion, and action. All beings—objects, animals, gods, and humans included—have greater or lesser amounts of mana, or spiritual power.
There is no radical disjunction between nature and humankind. Each aspect of nature—a rock, a volcano, a stream, a shark, the little fish called humuhumu-nuku-nuku-apu-aʻa —is associated with a god or a goddess. The gods (ʻaumakua or akua) are also human ancestors, who have moved toward deity after death. The Polynesian akua Kane, who takes several dozen forms (kinolau), is the strongest life force, the giver of sunlight, fresh water, the wind, the rain clouds. People offer Kane prayers and kapa cloth, pigs, and ʻawa (a mild intoxicant). Ku is the god of war, of fishing, forests, rain, and canoes. He is the object of prayers for the harvest and also of human sacrifice. Lono, the god of peace, agriculture, and sport, is associated with wind and rain. He sponsors the makahiki, an annual four-month festival during which people refrained from war and did little work, but instead feasted and danced ritual hula. Those who prayed to Lono offered pigs, fish, and vegetables. Kanaloa, the fourth great god inherited from earlier Polynesians, is the less well-defined companion to Kane and is associated with the sea and fishing.
The most spectacular of the native Hawaiian akua and ʻaumakua is Pele, goddess of the volcano, who often appears in the form of a beautiful woman. Other supernatural beings abound. For instance, the menehune are little people who preceded the Polynesians in the islands and are responsible for many of the very old stone walls and fishponds. Many went away when the Polynesians arrived, but some live on in the forests and come out at night to interact with spiritually sensitive individuals.
Before Western contact, Hawaiians arranged themselves in a strict social hierarchy. The aliʻi, or chiefly class, played a special role in Hawaiian religion. It was from the aliʻi class that kahuna, or religious experts, were selected. The land belonged to the akua and ʻaumakua, and the aliʻi were its guardians and caretakers, supervising the commoners. The aliʻi maintained the kapu system, a set of religiously sanctioned regulations that maintained social hierarchy and order. Because they had more mana, they had more privilege, but also more responsibility for the social order.
Europeans and North Americans began to come to the islands in the 1770s with the explorations of Captain James Cook, who died in the islands after being taken for the god Lono. In the 1820s, Congregational missionaries from New England brought Protestant Christianity to Hawaii. They were followed by other missionaries: Catholics, Mormons, Buddhists, and representatives of other faiths. The New Englanders married into elite Hawaiian families, and the United Church of Christ is today the largest Protestant denomination in the islands.
While many Hawaiians are conscientious in their pursuit of these other faiths, the ancient beliefs and practices still animate daily life. A Mormon bishop tells of seeing Pele walking in the volcano Kilauea and of leaving an offering to protect his house from a lava flow. Catholic farmers pray to Lono for a bountiful harvest. A Buddhist plants a garden in his yard to protect his home with ki energy. A Methodist minister tells of her conversations with menehune. Congregationalists invite a kahuna to pray at the groundbreaking for their new church building. These are practitioners of varied religions, but all are also practitioners of native Hawaiian spirituality.
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Cunningham, Scott. Hawaiian Religion and Magic. 1995.
Dudley, Michael Kioni. Man, Gods, and Nature: AHawaiian Nation I. 1990.
Handy, E. S. Craighill, and Mary Kawena Pukui. ThePolynesian Family System in Kaʻu, Hawaii. 1972.
Kamakau, Samuel Manaiakalani. Ka Pole Kahiko:ThePeople of Old, translated by Mary Kawena Pukui. 1964.
Malo, David. Moolelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian Antiquities), translated by Nathaniel B. Emerson. 1971.