History of the Heiau

The Ancient Hawaiian heiau tradition is preserved through restoration and talk story

By  M. Keala Milles, Jr.

Some of my fondest memories are talking story with my aunts, who tell stories of old Hawaii. They remember legends, folklore and ancient traditions like the heiau, a Hawaiian sacred temple. Although most heiau have been abandoned, their remnants represent one of the most important parts of Hawaiian history, religion.

Hawaiian Spirituality

Hawaiians have a spiritual connection with the aina (land) and the kai (ocean). We consider the land, “righteous” and sacred.  As such, Hawaiian spirituality reveres the land and sea—and all the creatures and plants—much like other indigenous communities all over the world.
Ancient Hawaiians also tell stories of gods and demi-gods, who inhabited the islands long ago.  Just as the Greeks worshiped Zeus as the leader of the Gods, Ancient Hawaiians observe Kāne as the main figure of worship. 

Talk Story

My mom’s elder sisters, Donna and Karen, so eloquently take me to Hawaii of a different age.   They passionately relate memories of magical encounters they had while living near Ulupo Heiau in Kailua. They tell tales of  mischievous menehune,  mystical dwarf-like craftsman of Hawaiian mythology. In fact, it is said that menehune built Ulupo Heiau, which is now a state monument.

Ulupo Heiau

Ulupo Heiau was originally constructed for agricultural rituals but later reserved for luakini—human sacrifice.  This could be the reason my parents recommended I not take pictures inside. 

Today Ulupo Heiau is now home to a taro farm, but it is still important to respect the kapu (taboos) of our ancestors and refrain from “taking” too much away from the site that was intended for offering gifts.

I'm just outside of Ulupo Heiau
Photo courtesy of M. Keala Milles, Jr.

History of the Heiau

When I say “temple” I want you to disavow the image of Indiana Jones running from boulders and swinging from vines.  Ancient Hawaiian temples were not elaborately constructed buildings with torches and labyrinthine rooms. 

Heiau are simple places of worship—often a clearing on a hillside or near the beach—chosen specifically because of their spiritual energy.  Once this spot has been dedicated, the boundary of the temple would be constructed out of lava rock, usually in a rectangular shape or on a raised platform, for a more complex structure. 

Types of Heiau

·    Heiau po'o kanaka:  used for human sacrifices, luakini, in honor of Kūkā'ilimoku, the God of War

·    Heiau waikaua: also used in times of war in honor of the God of War

·    Heiau ho'oūlu:  usually erected near a bay or overlooking reef to perform rituals to improve  fishing

·    Heiau ho'oulu ua:  offerings for rain

·    Heiau ho'oulu 'ai:  offerings for food or crops

·    Heiau hō'ola:  offering for treating the sick

Agricultural sacrifices might include both plants and animals:

·    Bananas
·    Coconuts
·    Taro or Ti Leaves
·    Pigs
·    Fish
·    Stones

The 1819 abolition of the kapu system resulted in the closure—and often destruction—of the original heiau temples. The Hawaiian renaissance of the 1970s helped begin the preservation and restoration of what was left.

While we may never fully go back to the practices of ancient Hawaii, the time and work that goes into restoring our culture unites us as a people. Preserving sites with our hands and passing down history with our stories, perpetuates Hawaiian traditions for generations to come.

What stories of the heiau have you heard?

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