Sanctuaries of Hawaii

by Veronica S. Schweitzer

Hawaiian Tikis. photo credit: Herb Kawainui Kāne

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 capital punishment.

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 battles outside.

Tiki carver at Pu'uhonua Park. photo credit: Veronica S. Schweitzer

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 rule.

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