Mānoa Heritage Center



What is mana?

Mana is a concept that is vital to the understanding of Hawaiian religious beliefs and the structure and functioning of Hawaiian society. Mana is inextricably tied to the concept of kapu. Mana has been defined by Western and Hawaiian scholars as supernatural power, divine power, miraculous power, spiritual power, but for our purposes, we will think of it as spiritual energy and the universal life force as mentioned by Piʻianaiʻa, knowing that it may include the other definitions as well. The respect of mana, the enhancement of mana, and the protection of great mana from pollution gave rise to many rules and protocols in Hawaiian society. Anything with great mana was special, set aside, holy, sanctified, sacred, and kapu. This word, kapu, can be defined as sacred but is also used as a word that indicates law.  

While mana may have been thought of as permeating all living things, some persons, places, and things were thought to have more mana than others. Persons, places, or things that possessed a great deal of mana were kept sacred or kapu. Gods, demi-gods, and other spiritual beings had mana. Because the many chiefs could trace their lineage back to the gods, those who were able to make the most direct connections were the highest chiefs and possessed the greatest mana. Because some of the chiefs possessed such great mana, they had to be treated in special ways by others and different kinds of kapu laws had to be observed with respect to their physical person, the objects they came into contact with, including their physical excretions. This is why in the presence of some chiefs, people prostrated themselves and never let their head rise above a certain chief, or avoided a chief’s shadow. 

Heiau were places that possessed great mana. As mentioned before, sites for heiau were carefully selected places. As rituals, prayers, and offerings occurred in this same space over hundreds of years, its sense of sacredness and mana would increase. This is evident in that successive chiefs chose “sites of old” to rebuild or renovate temples for new religious purposes. Today, for Native Hawaiians and other residents of Hawaiʻi, these places are still regarded as sacred space and are highly respected as a visible link to the past, and for many, a link to the gods of old Hawaiʻi.