Mānoa Heritage Center



What are heiau?

Hawaiians conducted many rituals to their gods at sites called heiau. A cultural definition of heiau is a place of worship where mana (divine energy) is transferred and concentrated through ritual and prayer. Simple rituals could take place at any suitable location. A shrine, consisting of a single stone or small altar might also serve as a place where a single person or small group performed a ritual. Larger heiau met the requirements for more elaborate religious rites conducted by priests and often included enclosures, terraces, or platforms. Because there is a tremendous variation in places and styles of worship, there is a tremendous physical diversity in heiau sites. In former times there were innumerable heiau scattered throughout the islands. Today, a few heiau ruins remain and even fewer are preserved in a more or less complete state. On Oʻahu, there were 139 known heiau recorded and today only 22 sites exist many of which are in poor and unstable condition. Furthermore, because archaeologists tended to define heiau sites using ethnographic analogies (comparing one site to a similar site already classified as a heiau by another researcher) many smaller, and in the eyes of Western scholars, less “typical” sites were probably overlooked (Cachola-Abad 11).  

Heiau vary in size, design, and purposes. Each heiau has an individual proper name and is usually classified by a predominant function. However, the issue of function becomes unclear when Hawaiian oral tradition is considered. Oral traditions sometimes relate that heiau were multi-functional and often crossed class boundaries. This is consistent with not only the Hawaiian worship of innumerable deities but also with the genealogies and relationships of the involved worshippers (Cachola-Abad 14). The following heiau types should therefore only be considered in the broadest sense and as a simple map to a much more complex territory. Furthermore, in the context of a long history of habitation, these heiau types are most likely products of the Expansion Period.

The luakini or poʻokanaka heiau are the largest and most impressive. These heiau received much attention from the early visits of foreigners, and much has been written, drawn and documented about luakini heiau. It is said that luakini heiau could only be built by the aliʻi nui and required a large investment of labor. A kahuna kuʻikuhipuʻuone designated the site and designed the heiau for the chief. Many archaeologists refer to this type of heiau as sacrificial because its rituals included human sacrifice. Only chiefs of high rank and priests presided over rituals at these heiau. These large heiau directly reflected chiefly power and the ideology of the aliʻi class.

Kūkaʻōʻō Heiau is thought to be of either the māpele or waihau class. The distinction between these two types of heiau is somewhat unclear as both were concerned with agriculture and productivity. Their rituals did not include the sacrifice of human life and were said to be mild and comfortable. Rituals at heiau associated with agriculture were to increase crops and to call for rain. The offerings at these heiau were plants, fish, and sometimes pigs. Some waihau were said to have been erected near fishponds for the moʻo (female deities) who were guardians of certain ponds or for akua moʻo the major gods of the female chiefs. Kūkaʻōʻō Heiau is thought to be an agricultural heiau based on its relatively small size, the agricultural associations of its name, and its proximity to the fertile taro and sweet potato fields of Mānoa. Unfortunately, there is very little documentation about heiau devoted to agricultural rites, even though these kinds of heiau vastly outnumbered heiau of the luakini class. Though we may be able to make educated guesses, we have no clear documentation describing who conducted rituals at these heiau, what kinds of rituals may have taken place, or on what occasions they were performed.

Other heiau include hoʻola, temples dedicated to healing, and smaller shrines.  Smaller religious shrines, unu, kuʻula, and koʻa were associated with fishing.  Pūhaku o  Kāne were single stones set up by a member of a family as indicated by their ʻaumakua, or family gods. They were for the purpose of communion with the ʻaumakua, or other gods.  Puʻuhonua were important sites which functioned as places of refuge for lawbreakers and those who had offended the gods or the chiefs. Sometimes they were walled enclosures, but a puʻuhonua could also be a designated land area, a person or a god image.

Again, it is important to remember that because of the long occupation of the Hawaiian Islands by Polynesians, heiau, their use and construction went through many changes over time. The information and the above classifications are based on the information gathered after contact, and our knowledge of the past declines rapidly the further back we try to travel from that fateful day in 1778. Settlers who arrived in the islands at later periods may have introduced some changes in heiau use and construction. Hawaiian oral tradition includes the story of a priest, Pāʻao, arriving after several centuries of occupation and introducing a more stratified social system, more complex temple rituals, human sacrifice, and the temple form we now consider to be Hawaiian. This story implies that a simpler temple form and perhaps simpler temple rituals once existed. Archaeologist Kenneth Emory pointed to Necker and Nihoa Island ruins as examples of simpler heiau construction. These heiau, according to Emory bear a striking similarity to those constructed by the Manahune, the original settlers of Tahiti. The Manahune of Tahiti were believed to be of Polynesian racial stock. Tahiti was subsequently invaded by the Raiateans, and the Manahune were driven inland where they built temples similar to those found on the tiny Necker and Nihoa Islands of Hawaiʻi (Hiroa 530).