Mānoa Heritage Center



What kind of rituals were conducted at Kūkaʻōʻō?

It is unfortunate that there is no documentation on the rituals that were conducted on agricultural heiau or who may have conducted them. Westerners who first came to Hawai‘i wrote much about the luakini heiau, being fascinated by the sensationalism of its rituals even though agricultural heiau were said to have been more numerous. Hawaiian historians of the 19th century were educated through the missions and sometimes chose to record material that they had been taught was important by Western scholars. As in many other cultures, recorded history has become a history of “important” events and people. In the one account we have of an agricultural ritual from Hawaiian historian, David Malo, it is unclear as to where the ceremony actually took place, and from the description of the ritual activities, it does not seem likely that it occurred in a heiau. However, we do know that in general, rituals involved certain elements that may have included chant (accompanied by percussion), prayer, offerings, and proscribed ritual action.

Hawaiian religious practices were complex and sites of worship varied. Larger heiau were sacred spaces where acts of worship were usually formal, ritualized and often excluded the larger community from participation. Families maintained sites of worship dedicated to their ʻaumakua, or family gods. A single stone pillar or other monument served as the sacred place in which all family members might commune with the ʻaumakua or other gods. This space was often surrounded by ti plants. In contrast, the family mua, or men’s house was the exclusive territory of males. Here men made daily offerings to the family gods in the ipu o Lono, a gourd suspended by four cords. Many small shrines, sometimes consisting of a single stone or image, were used in individual worship of personal gods. The fisherman’s kuʻula stone is an example, although there were many other varied gods that were worshipped with or without an image on an individual basis through prayers and offerings.

In 1819, Kamehameha I died. During his lifetime, he had maintained the kapu and traditional religious practices. However, Hawaiians had been seeing foreigners since 1778, and after nearly forty years of the presence of outsiders, perhaps their views on their own religious practices had somewhat altered. After Kamehameha’s death, a contingent of chiefs, primarily Kamehameha’s widows, especially Keopuolani and Kaʻahumanu, decided to bring an end to the kapu and traditional religious practices. It is unclear as to their exact motivation. It is likely that these female chiefs found the kapu restrictive and somewhat outdated in view of their growing knowledge of the outside world. From a purely political standpoint, it was to their advantage that these traditional rules be abolished, particularly when seen in the light of their role in maintaining control of the power base which Kamehameha had established.  

A few months after the abolition of the kapu, in an event which can only be described as synchronistic, American Protestant Missionaries arrived in Hawai‘i, unannounced. Some historians have written about this event as if there was an instant turn around in Hawaiian religious practice, and that the coming of Christian missionaries automatically filled some kind of religious “vacuum.” The missionaries, in fact, were somewhat ignored by the chiefs in their first few years and did not have much influence in the islands until the chiefs, particularly Ka‘ahumanu, decided to take up Christianity as the new state religion. 

The abolition of the kapu directly circumvented the powers of the priestly class and their influence on the chiefs. This act would have virtually discontinued the formal rituals of the larger heiau in which the chiefs took an active part. With the adoption of Christianity, the old religious ways not only fell apart but were reviled by the missionaries and the newly converted. There has been some speculation that the milder heiau rituals at smaller heiau such as Kūkaʻōʻō may have extended past 1819. We would do well to remember that Hawaiian religious practice existed on several levels from the formal rituals on the luakini heiau to the individual prayers between ordinary people and their personal gods. Common sense tells us all of this probably did not disappear overnight and while the chiefly class may have refrained from all traditional religious practice, the farmers, fishermen, and others who worked the land in outlying districts may not have changed their habits and beliefs so quickly. However, as Christianity took over, and Hawaiians were taught to reject many elements of the past, heiau were looked upon with disapproval and often outright disgust as many writings of the nineteenth century reveal. Many heiau were dismantled or destroyed during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Historian Donald Mitchell reported that of the 139 known heiau on Oʻahu, 117 (84%) were destroyed, and today 22 (16%) remain.