by Veronica S.
When the first Polynesians came to the Hawaiian islands
they respected the forces of lava, sun, ocean and wind
as the rules of invisible gods. They understood that
angry gods summoned tidal waves and earthquakes. Satisfied
gods provided safe fishing and a bountiful harvest.
The ali'i (chiefs and royalty), direct descendants
from the gods, carried the gods' mana (spirit, divine
power). They were the instruments for the will of the
gods. To ensure divine support, an elaborate system
of kapu (taboo) evolved. A mistake, as seemingly insignificant
as walking in the shadow of a chief, could result in
To give the gods a tangible place for prayer and invocation,
the kahunas (priests) and ali'i carved images, according
to their own interpretations and needs. The ki'i were
wooden statues, often tall and frightening. Filled with
divine power, they watched, enforcing the kapu.
Despite his divine connections however, the chief and
his people were dependent on each other. There had to
be places where a crime against the gods could be forgiven
and where harm could not pass.
Throughout the Hawaiian islands, chiefs established
pu'uhonua (places of refuge, literally meaning 'hill
of earth' ), where a criminal could find forgiveness,
escaping death for the kapu he had broken, where a warrior
could find healing and respite, where women, children
and elderly people could find a safe haven from the
Tiki carver at Pu'uhonua
The pu'uhonua offered more than physical protection.
It was a sanctuary of supernatural power. At each pu'uhonua
the ruling chief built a heiau (temple) in his own name.
Ki'i saw to the sacredness of the land. The pu'uhonua's
greatest power was that of unquestioned forgiving. Here
was no punishment for crimes and sin, here ruled no
justice or revenge. No matter what the crime might have
been, the pu'uhonua offered refuge. A person ready to
leave, started out clean.
The Pu'uhonua O Honaunau, in south Kona, is the last
remaining historical site of a place of refuge on the
Hawaiian islands. Giant ki'i statues tower over the
indented bay just south of Kealakekua. Ruins of the
oldest platform date back to 1475. Around 1550 the A-le'ale'a
Heiau was built , replaced in 1650 by the Hale O Keawe
(the house of Keawe). Keawe and his descendants were
buried and deified here.
The massive Great Wall, the most impressive monument
of ancient Hawaii, shelters the sanctuary. This unequaled
feat of heavy lava rocks, 10 feet tall, over 1000 feet
long, and 17 feet wide, might have been constructed
as early as the first platform.
In 1819, King Liholiho abolished the system of kapu.
Christianity swept over the islands, leaving no space
for the adoration of gods. Ten years later, in 1829,
Queen Ka'ahumanu, widow of King Kamehameha I and newly
devoted Christian, ordered the destruction of all sites
centered around the system of kapu and the heathen gods.
The ruins of Pu'uhonua O Honaunau have remained. The
secluded land on which they rest resonate with a long
abandoned past. For over 300 years, chiefs and commoners
respected the laws of the land here, where the restoration
of balance in the sacred space of refuge, held the final
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