Heiau: Hawaiian Sacred Places

Heiau: Hawaiian Sacred Places

[Illustration: Heiau]


            In ancient Hawai‘i there were many sacred places of worship known as heiau, including shrines to gods and places of refuge.  These structures included stone enclosures and platforms as well as earthen terraces. 

Heiau were also places where offerings and prayers were made to ‘aumākua, personal or family gods, and sacred guardians and protectors that should be respected and even fed.  Some heiau included an ‘anu‘u, or oracle tower, which might be covered with white kapa (tapa) barkcloth.

According to tradition, sometime before the year A.D.1200, a Tahitian kahuna (priest) by the name of Pā‘ao founded a high priest line, known as kahuna nui.  Pā‘ao returned to Tahiti and brought back a chief named Pili [Kaaiea], who ruled the island of Hawai‘i and sired the royal line leading to King Kamehameha I, beginning a 700-year dynasty. 

Before the arrival of Pā‘ao the Hawaiians had built various heiau, but Pā‘ao constructed the first temple of human sacrifice, Waha‘ula Heiau at Puna on the island of Hawai‘i.  Pā‘ao also introduced the war god Kūkā‘ilimoku, and Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes. 

Pā‘ao initiated the social order that separated ali‘i (royalty), kāhuna (priests and experts in a given profession), maka‘āinana (commoners who were mostly farmers), and the kauā (or kauwā) class, who were the lowest outcast members. 

There was a system of laws (kānāwai) that determined if something was kapu (sacred or forbidden).  Commoners fell prostrate to the ground in the presence of chiefs, who possessed more mana (divine power).


Types of Heiau

There were many kinds of heiau in ancient Hawai‘i.  Heiau po‘o kanaka, where human sacrifices took place, were also known as luakini, and honored Kūkā‘ilimoku, the god of war.  Also honoring Kūkā‘ilimoku were war heiau known as heiau waikaua. 

There were many other types of heiau, including: heiau ho‘oūlu (for offerings to insure good fishing); heiau ho‘oulu ua (to insure rain); and heiau ho‘oulu ‘ai (for increase of food crops). 

There were once many heiau hō‘ola (for treating the sick) throughout the Hawaiian Islands, signifying the Hawaiians’ advanced state of medicinal healing knowledge, said to be the highest among Pacific people.  One of the only surviving heiau hō‘ola is Keāiwa on ‘Aiea Heights.


Many heiau were dedicated to Lono, the god of agricultural fertility.  Waihau and unu were agricultural heiau where gifts such as pigs, bananas, or coconuts were offered.  Fishermen often placed a kū‘ula, or fish god, atop a stone altar near the coast as a shrine, just as bird catchers in the mountains made offerings at a stone platform, known as a ko‘a.

The kahuna kuhikuhi pu‘uone was the master architect of a heiau, and chose the site on which it was built.  The site was chosen for the mana, or spiritual power it possessed.  A heiau was usually constructed of lava rock walls built into a rectangular formation on the ground, or raised terrace platforms forming a more substantial structure.

Structures were sometimes built within the heiau, and often were constructed using the wood of ‘ōhi‘a lehua (Metrosideros species) and thatched pili grass (Heteropogon contortus, twisted beardgrass), with cordage woven from olonā (Touchardia latifolia).  Wooden carved figures representing gods were known as ki‘i, and were placed in and around heiau.  Ki‘i were often carved from the wood of ‘ōhi‘a lehua (Metrosideros species).

There were also images named for particular kāhuna (priests).  The proverb “Ho‘okāhi no Hāwa‘e, lauhue Kona,” (“Only one Hāwa‘e, and poisonous gourds grow all over Kona,”)[i]is said to refer to a kāhuna named Hāwa‘e. 

According to Mary Kawena Pūku‘i, “In Kona on Hawai‘i Island, a priest named Hāwa‘e lived during the reign of Ehukaipo.  In every important heiau in that district, an image named for this priest was kept. Many people were sacrificed to these evil namesakes of Hāwa‘e.”[ii]


Heiau on the Island of Hawai‘i

In ancient Hawai‘i, the strict sanctions of the kapu system ensured the separation of the classes (see above), and prescribed much of the daily lives of the islanders. 

Kapu breakers and defeated warriors were subject to immediate death unless they could reach a pu‘uhonua, a place of refuge, where a priest could absolve them.  One such place was Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau on the island of Hawai‘i.

On the South Kona coast, Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park encompasses an ancient Hawaiian area that contains royal grounds and heiau as well as a pu‘uhonua (place of refuge).  The ancient heiau and pu‘uhonua have now been reconstructed, along with carved images of ancient gods (ki‘i). 

Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau also has a 10-foot (3-m) high, 1,000-foot (305-m) long stone wall, a petroglyph site, a loko ‘ia (fishpond), lava tree molds, and a canoe that was hand-carved from koa (Acacia koa). 

A heiau on the coastal point nearby holds the bones of 23 chiefs.  The bones are said to hold the mana (spiritual power) that is imparted to those that come near.

Pu‘ukoholā Heiau overlooks the Pacific Ocean about 30 miles (48 km) north of Kailua-Kona on the island of Hawai‘i.  The rising warrior Kamehameha constructed this luakini heiau (sacrificial temple) as a result of a prophecy that it would allow him to unite all of the Islands under his rule. 

Kamehameha had thousands of his men work to construct the 224-foot (68-m) long, 100-foot (30-m) high structure.  A human chain 20 miles (32 km) long passed stones from hand-to-hand all the way to the site. The stones were laid by hand, without mortar. (See Pu‘ukoholā Heiau in Hawai‘i Island section, Chapter 2.)

Also found at the Pu‘ukoholā Heiau National Historic Site are the ruins of Mailekini Heiau, which was used by King Kamehameha‘s ancestors.  Hale o Kapuni Heiau, dedicated to a shark god, is now submerged offshore.


Other Heiau of the Hawaiian Islands

Many other heiau are found throughout the main Hawaiian Islands as well as on the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, particularly Necker Island, 310 miles (499 km) northwest of Ni‘ihau. 

Necker Island has an extensive heiau complex.  Nihoa, 130 miles (209 km) from Ni‘ihau, has agricultural terraces and house sites, and likely also heiau.  Both Necker and Nihoa were uninhabited when Cook established Western contact in 1778. 


Chapter 3 of this book describes numerous heiau throughout the Hawaiian Islands, including:

Ø      Keaīwa, Kānē‘ākī, Ulopō, and Pu‘u-o-mahuka on the island of O‘ahu.

Ø      Hō‘ai, Hauloa, Hikina-a-ka-lā, Māla‘e, Holoholokū, Poli‘ahu, Hōkū‘alele, Ka-ulu-Paoa, and Ka-ulu-o-Laka on Kaua‘i.

Ø      Kawela and ‘Ili‘ili‘ōpae on Moloka‘i.

Ø      Halulu and Kahe‘a on Lāna‘i.

Ø      Haleki‘i-Pihana and Pi‘ilane-hale on Maui.

Ø      Ahu‘ena, Ke‘ekū, Hikiau, Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau, Kaloko-Honokōhau, Pu‘ukoholā, Mailekini, Hale o Kapuni, Pu‘u-o-Mahuka, and Mo‘okini on the island of Hawai‘i.


[i]p. 114, Pukui, Mary Kawena.  ‘Ōlelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings.  Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1983.  Proverb 1072.

[ii]p. 114, Pukui, Mary Kawena.  ‘Ōlelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings.  Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1983.  Proverb 1072.