Hawaiian religion encompasses the
indigenous religious beliefs and practices of the Native Hawaiians. It is
polytheistic and animistic, with a belief in many deities and spirits,
including the belief that spirits are found in non-human beings and objects
such as animals, the waves, and the sky. Hawaiian religion originated among the
Tahitians and other Pacific islanders who landed in Hawaiʻi between 500 and
1300 AD. Today, Hawaiian religious practices are protected by the American
Indian Religious Freedom Act. Traditional Hawaiian religion is
unrelated to the modern New Age practice known as “Huna.”
Hawaiian religion is polytheistic, with four deities most prominent: Kāne, Kū,
Lono and Kanaloa. Other notable deities include Laka, Kihawahine, Haumea,
Papahānaumoku, and, most famously, Pele. In addition, each family is considered
to have one or more family guardians known as ʻaumakua.
One breakdown of the Hawaiian pantheon consists of the following groups:
the four gods – Kū, Kāne, Lono, Kanaloa the forty male gods or aspects of Kāne
the four hundred gods and goddesses the great multitude of gods and
goddesses the spirits
the guardians Another breakdown consists of three
major groups: the four gods, or akua: Kū, Kāne, Lono,
Kanaloa many lesser gods, or kupua, each
associated with certain professions family gods, ʻaumakua, associated with
One Hawaiian creation myth is embodied in the Kumulipo, an epic chant linking
the aliʻi, or Hawaiian royalty, to the gods. The Kumulipo is divided into two
sections: night, or pō, and day, or ao, with the former corresponding to
divinity and the latter corresponding to mankind. After the birth of Laʻilaʻi,
the woman, and Kiʻi, the man, the man succeeds at seducing and reproducing
with the woman before the god Kāne has a chance, thereby making the divine
lineage of the gods younger than and thus subservient to the lineage of man.
This, in turn, illustrates the transition of mankind from being symbols
for the gods into the keeper of these symbols in the form of idols and the
like. The Kumulipo was recited during the time of Makahiki, to honor the god
of fertility, Lono. =Kahuna and Kapu=
The kahuna were well respected, educated individuals that made up a social
hierarchy class that served the King and the Courtiers and assisted the
Maka’ainana. Selected to serve many practical and governmental purposes,
Kahuna often were healers, navigators, builders, prophets/temple work, and
philosophers. They also talked with the spirits.
Kahuna Kūpaʻiulu of Maui in 1867 described a counter-sorcery ritual to
heal someone ill due to hoʻopiʻopiʻo, another’s evil thoughts. He said a kapa
was shaken. Prayers were said. Then, “If the evil spirit suddenly appears and
possesses the patient, then he or she can be immediately saved by the
conversation between the practitioner and that spirit.”
Pukui and others believed kahuna did not have mystical transcendent experiences
as described in other religions. Although a person who was possessed
would go into a trance-like state, it was not an ecstatic experience but
simply a communion with the known spirits.
Kapu refers to a system of taboos designed to separate the spiritually
pure from the potentially unclean. Thought to have arrived with Pāʻao, a
priest or chief from Tahiti who arrived in Hawaiʻi sometime around 1200 AD, the
kapu imposed a series of restrictions on daily life. Prohibitions included:
The separation of men and women during mealtimes
Restrictions on the gathering and preparation of food
Women separated from the community during their menses
Restrictions on looking at, touching, or being in close proximity with chiefs and
individuals of known spiritual power Restrictions on overfishing
Hawaiian tradition shows that ʻAikapu was an idea led by the kahuna in order
for Wākea, the sky father, to get alone with his daughter, Hoʻohokukalani
without his wahine, or wife, Papa, the earth mother, noticing. The spiritually
pure or laʻa, meaning “sacred” and unclean or haumia were to be separated.
ʻAikapu included: The use of a different ovens to cook the
food of male and female Different eating places
Women were forbidden to eat pig, coconut, banana, and certain red foods
because of their male symbolism. During times of war, the first two men
to be killed were offered to the gods as sacrifices.
Other Kapus included Mālama ʻĀina, meaning “caring of the land” and
Niʻaupiʻo. Tradition says that mālama ʻāina originated from the first child of
Wākea and Hoʻohokukalani being deformed so they buried him in the ground and
what sprouted became the first kalo, also known as taro. The Hawaiian islands
are all children of Papa, Wākea and Hoʻohokukalani so basically meaning that
they are older siblings of the Hawaiian chiefs. Second child of Wākea and
Hoʻohokukalani became the first Aliʻi Nui, or “Grand Chief”. This came to be
called Niʻaupiʻo, the chiefly incest to create the “godly child”.
Punishments for breaking the kapu could include death, although if one could
escape to a puʻuhonua, a city of refuge, one could be saved. Kāhuna nui mandated
long periods when the entire village must have absolute silence. No baby
could cry, dog howl, or rooster crow, on pain of death.
Human sacrifice was not uncommon. The kapu system remained in place until
1819.=Prayer and heiau=
Prayer was an essential part of Hawaiian life, employed when building a house,
making a canoe, and giving lomilomi massage. Hawaiians addressed prayers to
various gods depending on the situation. When healers picked herbs for medicine,
they usually prayed to Kū and Hina, male and female, right and left, upright and
supine. The people worshiped Lono during Makahiki season and Kū during times of
war. Histories from the 19th century describe
prayer throughout the day, with specific prayers associated with mundane
activities such as sleeping, eating, drinking, and traveling. However, it has
been suggested that the activity of prayer differed from the subservient
styles of prayer often seen in the Western world.
…the usual posture for prayer – sitting upright, head high and eyes open
– suggests a relationship marked by respect and self-respect. The gods might
be awesome, but the ʻaumākua bridged the gap between gods and man. The gods
possessed great mana; but man, too, has some mana. None of this may have been
true in the time of Pāʻao, but otherwise, the Hawaiian did not seem
prostrate before his gods. Heiau, served as focal points for prayer
in Hawaiʻi. Offerings, sacrifices, and prayers were offered at these temples,
the thousands of koʻa, a multitude of wahi pana, and at small kuahu in
individual homes. History
=Origins=Although it is unclear when settlers
first came to the Hawaiian Islands, there is significant evidence that the
islands were settled no later than 800 AD and immigration continued to about
1300 AD. Settlers came from the Marquesas, Samoa, Easter Island, and
greater Polynesia. At some point a significant influx of Tahitian settlers
landed in the Hawaiian islands, bringing with them their religious beliefs.
Early Hawaiian religion resembled other Polynesian religions in that it was
largely focused on natural forces such as the tides, the sky, and volcanic
activity as well as man’s dependence on nature for subsistence. The major early
gods reflected these characteristics, as the early Hawaiians worshiped Kāne, Kū,
Lono and Kanaloa.=Early Hawaiian religion=
As an indigenous culture, spread among eight islands, with waves of immigration
over hundreds of years from various parts of the South Pacific, religious
practices evolved over time and from place to place in different ways.
Hawaiian scholar Mary Kawena Pukui, who was raised in Ka‘ū, Hawaii, maintained
that the early Hawaiian gods were benign. One Molokaʻi tradition follows
this line of thought. Author and researcher Pali Jae Lee writes: “During
these ancient times, the only ‘religion’ was one of family and oneness with all
things. The people were in tune with nature, plants, trees, animals, the
‘āina, and each other. They respected all things and took care of all things.
All was pono.” “In the dominant current of Western
thought there is a fundamental separation between humanity and
divinity. … In many other cultures, however, such differences between human
and divine do not exist. Some peoples have no concept of a ‘Supreme Being’ or
‘Creator God’ who is by nature ‘other than’ his creation. They do, however,
claim to experience a spirit world in which beings more powerful than they are
concerned for them and can be called upon for help.”
“Along with ancestors and gods, spirits are part of the family of Hawaiians.
“There are many kinds of spirits that help for good and many that aid in evil.
Some lie and deceive, and some are truthful … It is a wonderful thing how
the spirits of the dead and the ‘angels’ of the ‘aumākua can possess living
persons. Nothing is impossible to god-spirits, akua.”
=Contemporary=Kamehameha the Great died in 1819. In
the aftermath, two of his wives, Kaʻahumanu and Keōpūolani, then the two
most powerful people in the kingdom, conferred with the kahuna nui, Hewahewa.
They convinced young Liholiho, Kamehameha II, to overthrow the kapu
system. They ordered the people to burn the wooden statues and tear down the
rock temples. Without the hierarchical system of
religion in place, some abandoned the old gods, and others continued with
cultural traditions of worshiping, them, especially their family ‘aumākua.
Missionaries arrived in 1820, and most of the aliʻi converted to Christianity,
including Kaʻahumanu and Keōpūolani, but it took 11 years for Kaʻahumanu to
proclaim laws against ancient religious practices. “Worshipping of idols such as
sticks, stones, sharks, dead bones, ancient gods and all untrue gods is
prohibited. There is one God alone, Jehovah. He is the God to worship. The
hula is forbidden, the chant, the song of pleasure, foul speech, and bathing by
women in public places. The planting of ‘awa is prohibited. Neither chiefs nor
commoners are to drink ‘awa.” Although traditional Hawaiian religion
was outlawed, a number of traditions typically associated with it survived by
integration, practicing in hiding, or practicing in rural communities in the
islands. Surviving traditions include the worship of family ancestral gods or
ʻaumākua, veneration of iwi or bones, and preservation of sacred places or
wahi pana. Hula was outlawed at one time as a religious practice but today is
performed in both spiritual and secular contexts.
Traditional beliefs have also played a role in the politics of post-Contact
Hawaiʻi. In the 1970s the Hawaiian religion experienced a resurgence during
the Hawaiian Renaissance. In 1976, the members of a group “Protect Kahoʻolawe
ʻOhana” filed suit in federal court over the use of Kahoʻolawe by the United
States Navy for target practice. Charging that the practice disturbed
important cultural and religious sites Aluli et al. V. Brown forced the Navy to
survey and protect important sites, perform conservation activities, and
allow limited access to the island for religious purposes. Similarly, outrage
over the unearthing of 1,000 graves dating back to 850 AD during the
construction of a Ritz-Carlton hotel on Mauʻi in 1988 resulted in the redesign
and relocation of the hotel inland as well as the appointment of the site as a
state historic place. Along with the surviving traditions,
some Hawaiians practice Christianized versions of old traditions. Others
practice it as a co-religion. In the 1930s, non-Hawaiian author Max
Freedom Long created a philosophy and practice he called “Huna.” While Long
and his successors have misrepresented this invention as a type of ancient,
Hawaiian occultism, it is actually a New Age product of cultural misappropriation
and fantasy, and not representative of traditional Hawaiian religion.
References Further reading and resources
Beckwith, Martha Warren . The Kumulipo: A Hawaiian Creation Chant.
University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-0771-5.
Malo, David . Hawaiian Antiquities. Bishop Museum Press. ISBN
0-910240-15-9. “Figure Marae 12, Mokumanamana,
Hawai’i”. In Timeline of Art History. Metropolitan Museum of Art. April 2008.
Retrieved 2008-06-29. “Stick God Hawai’i”. In Timeline of Art
History. Metropolitan Museum of Art. April 2008. Retrieved 2008-06-29.