The Temple or Heiau

Posted by Dr. Waterhouse on April 23, 2011

(1)  The temple structure. The Hawaiian temple was usually an elaborately constructed stone platform;– although some temples of a more simple type, were earth terraces. The heiau was built to express both mana,–power derived from the gods–, and authority. For religion intertwined with politics. At times a chief would consecrate or dedicate a heiau to promote his position or to seek spiritual aid before engaging in warfare.

Hale o Lono Heiau

Some heiaus were devoted to treating the sick. At the heiau the worship of the gods would be associated with offerings of fruit, vegetables, pigs, fish, and even enemy prisoners. There were heiaus that specialized in the type of offering received.  If the temple was an important center, used by ranking chiefs, its enclosure would include a three-floor oracle tower (the lana-nu’u-mamao). This was a tall scaffold structure made of large poles, but not thatched. On the lowest floor (lana [an abbreviation of ’alana]), offerings, or the sacrifice of a defeated enemy, were brought and placed,  The second floor (nu’u) was reserved for a more sacred worship;– a higher platform where the high priest with his attendants conducted services.  In the third, uppermost floor (mamao), considered the most sacred spot within the heiau, was where only the high priest and the king were allowed. The three ascending platforms were considered a microcosm of the cosmos;–a representation of the three heavens.  The lowest level symbolized the atmospheric heaven, where birds fly.  The second level of ascent represent the abode of the deified star-gods; who dwell above the atmosphere.  The third and highest level was held to be symbolic of where the highest ranking gods who ruled above the universe resided.  In front of the oracle tower was where the temple altar (the lele) usually was located, surrounded by standing idols (Malo 1951:176, note 1; Emerson 1965:196, note b),

(2) The luakini was the highest grade of heiau; a large sacrificial temple where ruling chiefs prayed and human sacrifices were offered.  A major feature was a sacred refuse pit called the: luakini (“pit [of] many [bodies]”), located (as an emblem of the underworld) beneath the oracle tower.  Only high chiefs had the right to sacrifice humans.  These were either captives in war, kapu breakers, or malcontents who threatened the establishment. The victims were never killed within the walls of the heiau because it was considered sacrilegious for blood to flow there.  The sacrificial rite was performed on a large stone slab on a separate area of the temple grounds. The bodies subsequently were laid face down in a row within the temple.  They stayed in place until the next batch of sacrifices.  The remains (which had been cleaned of flesh) would then be cleared away and deposited into the luakini. When the pit was full, skulls and bones would be heaped-up alongside the heiau wall.  Women who broke the kapu were killed, but their bodies could not be brought into the temple. Papa-enaena Heiau, a luakini that once was located on the Ewa-side of Diamond Head, is reported to have had a pile of human skulls that reached half way to the top of a six foot high stone wall.  Mo’okini Luakini is the name of a very large temple of the luakini class that is still standing in North Kohala.  Its huge stone walls rise to a height of 30 feet, with a width of 15 feet at its base and a width of 13 feet on the top.  The total area of the temple exceeds 10 acres (Apple 1977:23-24; Kanahele 1992:33; Fullard-Leo 1986:24; Malo 1951:162, 176, note 6).

Birthplace Kukaniloko Heiau

(3)  Sacred places for the birth of chiefs. Two famous birthplaces for the ali’i of the highest rank are to be found at Kukaniloko Heiau, near Wahiawa, O’ahu, and at Holoholo-ku Heiau at Wailua River, Kaua’i.  Royal princesses would resort to both of these places at the time of childbirth, that their offspring might have the distinction of being a chief with a kapu sanctity.  On Kaua’i, drums and “bell stones” (that gave off a loud ringing sound when struck) were employed by priests of the heiau at Poli’ahu and Malae to signal the approach of expectant mothers to the birthstone at Holoholo-ku.  Both the name Ku-kani-loko (“inner sounding [of the drums of the god] Ku”) and the name Wahi-a-wa (“place of [drumming] noise”), refer to the sounding of ceremonial drums that signaled the birth of a true “blue blood” child of royalty (Thrum 1923: 89; Kanahele 1992:279; Pukui 1973: 33). The most sacred, taboo drum used  by the priests of Ku-kani-loko bore the prestigious name Hawea, and was believed to have been brought over by “La’a from Tahiti” (La’a-mai-Kahiki); the drum being his most precious cargo (Kanahele 1979:288: Thrum 1923:89).

(4)  Priestly secrets. Their language. Temple priests possessed their own figurative language; a cipher-speech known only to the initiated. The use of their own secret speech enabled them to discuss any subject openly without others present comprehending. The name for the priestly asylum-center “Honaunau” (shortened from an original ho‘onaunau), referred to people hearing indistinct coded speech;–a place where the priests were thought to munch (nau) their words! (McBride 1983:68). A secret high god. The highest order of priests also knew of ’I; a secret supreme god whose worship was understood by only a chosen few.  Known also by the Maori priests of New Zealand as ’Io, the name was considered too sacred to utter in the open; except to an inner group of initiates. ’I, the Creator, the parent of all things, was thought to dwell in the uppermost heaven.  Unlike other gods, no images were made to ’I.  How this invisible deity,–with monotheistic characteristics–, was perceived by the inner circle of priestly disciples, is not fully known. Only broken fragments of tradition have survived the passage of time. Tellingly, a heiau whose name came to include nearby Poka’i Bay on O’ahu, was anciently rendered: “po-ka-’I,” meaning: “night of ‘I, (the Supreme One)” (Kanahele 1992:68-69; Kikawa 1994:56-59, 63-64; Pukui 1974:188). Also of interest in this regard is that the bird known in Hawaiian culture for its high, lofty flight was called: ’io. The ’io is a small, broad-winged hawk whose name traditionally was evoked as a symbol representing Hawaiian royalty of the highest rank.  Recording by using writing?  A single  incident of a priestess reading symbols has been recorded and authenticated by a missionary in 1824.  In that year a priestess of Pele “drew forth a piece of tapa with symbols on it and began to ‘read’ it” to a group bent on defying the venerated volcano goddess. Speculators theorize that the alleged “writing” may have been similar to, or even based on petroglyph-symbols (rock drawings), that was seemingly utilized by the kahuna as a kind of writing (McBride 1983:41). Mention may also be made of two missionaries who observed Hawaiians using knotted cords for recording tallies in tax payments.  The amount of tax gathered at each sub-district were exactly recorded by means of  the type and number of knots that trained people could decipher (Kanahele 1992:272-273).  Such knotted cords additionally were employed as an aid in remembering long genealogical lists. As the chanter would recite the many names of ancestral stock, his fingers would quietly slip over a carefully prepared cord (Beckwith 1972:143).

(5)  Asylum centers (pu’u-honua). A welcome sight to defeated warriors, noncombatants who had been displaced by warfare, and kapu breakers,–all facing death if caught–, were the “asylum centers,” popularly dubbed by an early missionary as “cities of refuge.” The pu’uhonua is where an offender could be absolved by a kahuna in a ceremony that lasted anywhere from a few hours to a few days, depending upon the nature of his infringement.   The Place of Refuge at Honaunau (Pu’uhonua-o-Honaunau) in Kona is today administered as a National Historical Park. The site covers a 6-acre shelf of ancient lava that dips into the Pacific. The area is protected by an intact great stone wall, 1,000 feet long, 10 feet high and about 17 feet in width, built circa A.D. 1550. Without using mortar, each stone is fitted perfectly. The largest stone measures seven feet high, five feet long and two feet wide. This was but one “City of Refuge” among five other refuge centers on the island of Hawai’i.  There also was an asylum center in every major district of the other inhabited islands of the Hawaiian chain. All who sought refuge were admitted–those from any part of the island or from another island.  There was no trial to establish their guilt or innocence.  War refugees stayed until the conflict was over; kapu breakers until they were purified by the priests.  When they left, the protection went with them, and they were free to return home in peace.  An important thatched-temple within the Place of Refuge at Honaunau was the Hale-o-Keawe that served as a mausoleum for the bones of deified kings and chiefs.  Each royal personage was wrapped in fine kapa and kept in an individually woven sennit casket (called a “ka‘ai”).  The bones of at least 23 rulers were removed in 1829, the time when the thatched-temple was razed.  For the benefit of today’s visitors, the famed Hale-o-Keawe, with its surrounding lama-wood palisades, along with snarling, distended-mouthed idols, have been restored by the National Park Service (LeDoux 1994: 48-55).