Pu'ukohola Heiau

Kamehameha's Cornerstone of Rule and Once The Site of Human Sacrifices

by Steve Graves

Overlooking the village of Kawaihae in North Kohala sits the ancient religious structure called Pu'ukohola Heiau, meaning, "hill of the whale". The massive rock structure which is the last temple to be built by the ancient Hawaiians in the islands, was constructed by Kamehameha I between the years of 1790 and 1791. The heiau was built due to a prophecy received by Kamehameha that is he built the temple for his war god, Ku-ka'ili-moko, his goal of conquering the islands would be met. So from the careful placement of smooth waterworn lava rocks handed up from hand to hand from the ocean's edge the raised rock platform was erected within a year's time. Prayer towers, altars, wooden images of Hawaiian gods and other temple furnishings were also put up in honor of he different gods. note: (The print on the front cover, first drawn by William Ellis in 1779, is a good example of the wooden images carved for the gods. The scene in all probability was taken from a point near Kealakekua Bay, if not the Place of Refuge.)

In the years leading up to and during the construction of the Pu'ukohola heiau Kamehameha was able to ward off attacks by conspiring chiefs from the islands of Maui, Lanai, Molokai, Oahu and Kauai who were attempting to break Kamehameha's rise to power. In the summer of 1791 the temple was completed and in an effort to make peace with his enemy and cousin Kaoua Ku'ahu'ula, who controlled the other half of Hawaii, Kamehameha invited him to the dedication of the temple. Keoua Ku'ahu'ula, who saw the completion of the temple as a sign from the gods that Kamehameha would become the ruler of the islands, prepared to offer himself for sacrifice not knowing that Kamehameha's intentions were to bring peace between the two. Upon the ceremonial arrival an altercation broke out between the rival parties, which resulted in the death of the Keoua Ku'ahu'ula. The body of the chief was then offered up as the principal sacrifice to Kamehameha's war god.

With the fall of Kamehameha's long time enemy on the island of Hawaii and the completion of the temple Kamehameha was compelled by these good omens to set out in his attempt to conquer the other islands and become Hawaii's first sole ruler. By 1795 Kamehameha, through extensive battles had gained control of the islands of Maui, Lanai, Molokai and Oahu. Through a peace accord in 1810 with the king of Kauai, Kamehameha united the islands for the first time under the king.

In 1819 Kamehameha became ill and at his death refused the offering of a human sacrifice, which was ceremonial practice after the death of a great chief. Because of Kamehameha's plea of no sacrifice, his son Liholiho abandoned the religious traditions and ordered the destruction of Pu'ukohola and all other heiaus as well as the wooden structures in honor of the Hawaiian gods.

In the years following the abandonment of the temples and religious beliefs Westerners such as Isabella Bird began arriving in Hawaii to document the stories left behind by the rituals that took place in these Hawaiian temples of worship. In her 1875 writing of Six Months in the Sandwich Islands, Bird makes these remarks about the Pu'ukohola Heiau, which she came upon during a horseback exploration from Kaiwaihae to Waipio Valley.

The chief object of interest on this ride is the great heiau, which stands on a steep hill above the sea, not easy of access. It was the last heathen temple built on Hawaii. On entering the huge pile, which stood gaunt and desolate in the thin red air, the story of the old bloody heathenism of the islands returned to my memory. The entrance is by a narrow passage between two high walls, and it was by this that the sacrificing priests dragged the human victims into the presence of Tairi, a hideous wooden idol, crowned with a helmet, and covered with red feathers, the favorite war-god of Kamehameha the Great, by whom this temple was built, before he proceeded to the conquest of Oahu.

The shape is an irregular parallelogram, 224 feet long, and 100 wide. At each end, and on the mauka side, the walls, which are very solid and compact, though built of lava stones without mortar, are twenty feet high, and twelve feet wide at the bottom, but narrow gradually towards the top, where they are finished with a course of smooth stones six feet broad. On the sea side, the wall, which has been partly thrown down, was not more than six or seven feet high, and there were paved platforms for the accommodation of the alii, or chiefs, and the people in their orders. The upper terrace is spacious, and paved with flat smooth stones which were brought from a considerable distance, the greater part of the population of the island having been employed on the building. At the south end there was an inner court, where the principal idol stood, surrounded by a number of inferior deities, for the Hawaiians had "gods many, and lords many." Here also was the anu, a lofty frame of wickerwork, shaped like an obelisk, hollow, and five feet square at its base. Within this, the priest, who was the oracle of the god, stood, and of him the king used to inquire concerning war or peace, or any affair of national importance. It appears that the tones of the oracular voice were more distinct than the meaning of the utterances. However, the supposed answers were generally acted upon.

On the outside of this inner court was the lele, or altar, on which human and other sacrifices were offered. On the day of the dedication of the temple to Tairi, vast offerings of fruit and dogs were presented, and eleven human beings were immolated on the altar. These victims were taken from among captives, or those who had broken Tabu, or had rendered themselves obnoxious to the chiefs, and were often blind, maimed, or crippled persons. Sometimes they were dispatched at a distance with a stone or club, and their bodies were dragged along the narrow passage up which I walked shuddering; but oftener they were bound and taken alive into the heiau to be slain in the outer court. The priests, in slaying these sacrifices, were careful to mange the bodies as little as possible. From two to twenty were offered at once. They were laid in a row with their faces downwards on the altar before the idol, to which they were presented in a kind of prayer by the priest, and, if offerings of hogs were presented at the same time, these were piled upon them, and the whole mass was left to putrefy.

The only dwellings within the heiau were those of the priests, and the "sacred house" of the king, in which he resided during the seasons of strict Tabu. A doleful place this heiau is, haunted not only by the memories of almost unimaginable terrors, but by the sore thought that generations of Hawaiians lived and died in the unutterable darkness of this ignorant worship, passing in long procession from these grim rites into the presence of the Father whose infinite compassions they had never known.

The remains of Pu'ukohola heiau are now a National Historic Site in Kawaihae. To learn more about this ancient Hawaiian temple, visitors are welcome to a self-guided tour of the grounds around the heiau. A wealth of information also exists with the curators at the park, who are in daily attendance at the visitor's center.

Readers may submit editorial comments to any of our stories by sending an email to les@lbdcoffee.com. We would be happy to attach your comments and feedback to anything we publish online. Thank you for your interest.

Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.