The Pleiades

by Veronica S. Schweitzer

The Royal Court appearing at the ancient Hawaiian village, Pu'uhonua o Honaunau (Place of Refuge) during the Aloha Festivals. photo credit: Ric Noyle

At the end of October, perhaps early November, over the eastern horizon during the magical hour of sunset the Pleiades rise to greet the Hawaiian land. In ancient times both commoners and chiefs eagerly awaited the appearance of this constellation, the Makali'i. It marked the start of the great Makahiki Festival.

For four months Hawaiians, throughout the Island chain, would participate in elaborate and complex religious rituals. It was a long period of enforced peace in a land where warfare dominated the day.

Why the Makahiki? Why peace? To explain it in the simplest terms, the festival was dedicated to the god of rain and agriculture. A healthy agriculture meant survival in ancient Hawaii. But plants only flourished when would-be warriors worked their land, and when the gods were thoroughly pleased.

Who were the Gods?
The Hawaiian people worshipped four principal male gods: Kane of the sun and the heavens, in white; Kanaloa of the underworld, prince of darkness; Ku, god of the people, of justice, canoe building, and of warfare, his color red; and Lono, god of the land and of peace, of the rain, the thunder, the winds, in black.

Ku reigned eight months of the year. Chiefs pursued power and politics. The common people worked at whatever was required by their superiors. But the four months of harvest and long, dark nights, were dedicated to Lono, the rainmaker who brought the fertile thunder clouds.

Lono, like other gods, could take on many different forms (kino lau), such as the kukui tree, many plant and sea forms, the rain clouds, and the pig (pua'a), whose black bulk resembled the dark skies. For farmers, the rites of the Makahiki festival guaranteed the rain. For chiefs and landlords, the Makahiki offered a natural and most practical opportunity to get paid.

Yet more than a simple tax payer time, the Makahiki was a time of rest, fun, games, and thanksgiving. A break from the other gods. Here was a religious drama for all people that followed a strict set of rules. Welcome the return of Lono at Kealakekua, "the Path of the god", where it's said the festival first took place.

The Makahiki Schedule
Before the actual rituals could start, the high chief demanded full payment of taxes from all the land divisions (ahupua'a) and their many subdivisions (ili).

Aware of the path of the Pleiades, people had had enough time to prepare their gifts. They were ready. They honored the chief as the representative of Lono who naturally required abundant offerings, in the form of food, kapa cloth, gourds, woven lau hala, root crops, or hula drums.

The collection itself changed hands through a complex hierarchy of land owners until it reached the chief. He then looked over the bounty, gave his approval, and redistributed the goods, as was the custom. During that time, the common people cooked and roasted, fished and harvested until their houses were stocked up. Then they bathed themselves and got out their finest clothing.

As soon as all payments were made, the decoration of the image of Lono could begin. A wooden staff, at least 12 feet long, was mounted with a small carved head. From an even longer cross piece, tied to the upper part of the staff, dangled leis and feathers symbolizing potential starvation. A piece of white tapa, measuring 150 to 200 square feet, billowed from the cross bar, like the sails of a boat. This was the akua loa, the "long god", the idol that would be carried around the island in the official procession.

Simultaneously each ahupua'a (land division) created its own "short god", the akua poko, which would accompany the akua loa for its distance across the land.

At sunrise, the following day, the Makahiki kapu (taboo) started: For four days no one was allowed to do anything but rest and relax. After those four days, for four moon cycles, the Hawaiian people were allowed no other work than necessary for survival.

The procession carried the akua loa clockwise around the island, so that each person could individually pay respect to Lono. At the same time, in each district, in opposite direction, the akua poko traveled around. Everyone was required to leave a second series of taxes at the boundary of their division on an altar also named ahupua'a. The offerings mainly served to nourish and sustain the traveling priests. As soon as these men had accepted the gifts, the strict kapu on activities was lifted for that district and the Makahiki games would start.

Ahupua'a, by the way, means "pig's altar". Made out of kukui, in the shape of a pig, with red coloring for snout and nose, the ahupua'a' symbolized Lono, often represented as a pig. So important was the god's presence and benevolence, that Hawaii's agricultural districts themselves, pie-like wedges of land stretching out from the ocean to the mountains, were known and named after the pig-god-rainmaker and his altar.

Have you ever heard of the pig-god Kamapua'a who reigns over the fertile mountains of Kohala? He too is a form of Lono.

Makahiki Games
Boxing was the favorite. Its origins are linked to the "return" of Lono, during one of the early migrations, in the form of a mortal man.

It wasn't unusual in ancient Hawaii for mortals to enter the world of legends and feats of the gods. The name Lono was a common name at first and in legend originated from one man who suspected that his wife had slept around. After killing her in his grief he roamed the islands enraged, tackling any man on his way. His story evolved and becoming one of the highest ali'i the power of his name in chants connected him to the gods. He thus became a god.

Other games were just as important like wrestling, running, surfing, and board games like konane. Even the hula dance played a part in the festivities. Laka, goddess of hula, was said to be Lono's sister and wife. In dedication to the harvest of the land, the soft treading of hula feet on the ground resembled work in the taro patch.

Closing of the Ceremonies
After many days the akua loa reached the house of the head chief, the mo'i, who personally fed the carrier, sacred as long as he held the image.

Afterward, the chief took a bath in the sea and endured a test of spears, proving himself worthy of the land, before taking a sacrifice to Lono in the temple.

Another ritual now honored the mythical hero Kahoali'i who symbolized darkness and the underworld and was said to be able to withhold the light of the sun. Even on the islands, where the change of the seasons seems so mild, the return of the light was as important as the rains. In addition, dark Kahoali'i might announce the soon-to-be-honored-again war-god Ku.

It was now time for Lono 's departure: The chiefs were more than ready to return to warfare and fights! The net of the Makali'i was tied together, filled with foods, then lifted to the skies so its abundance would "rain down" from the heavens. Lono was set adrift on a canoe to return to Kahiki, the foreign land.

Captain Cook: Lono or Disappointing Visitor?
One of the greatest of all tales has been spun around Captain Cook who arrived in Kealakekua on January 17, 1779, and was killed less than a month later, on February 14, 1779. Here lay the "Path of the god" where Lono had once returned, and where the Makahiki started. Most historians believe that Cook, arriving with white sails at the height of the Makahiki, was mistaken by the Hawaiians for the true god Lono. New research indicates that this is not true.

For one thing, a mortal man had already returned with the migrations to become the god. There was no need for another Lono to return, other than symbolically in the rituals. And the temple, Hikiau, where the Hawaiian people took Captain Cook was a temple for the war god Ku. The color of the ceremony was red.

According to historian, Herb Kawainui Kane, the Hawaiian people were fully aware of his arrival. Their respect reflected the high chief's desire to gain him as an ally in impending warfare against the isle of Maui. They treated him like ali'i (chief), but not like a god.

Cook refused the alliance. In addition, he had no idea how to participate in the religious rituals. He didn't share the gifts he received, as was customary. When, finally ready to sail off, he took the sacred wood of the temples for firewood supplies, the already disappointed islanders turned angry. Hospitalities had definitely worn thin.

Then Cook was forced to return because of a broken mast. But the Makahiki had come to a closure soon after Cook had set out, and the longing for war and fight thickened the air. After a vessel had been stolen violent fights and gunfire broke out and Cook was killed. He was buried with the respects due to ali'i, which seemed like a savage ritual to the white sailors who had nothing to do with gods.

So why the deification of Captain Cook? Perhaps the British people needed to justify the death of a less than agreeable captain. Maybe the missionaries needed to simplify a religion and culture too complex and sophisticated to understand.

Today's Aloha Week
Like the solstice festivals in other countries, the Makahiki is alive, even today, although the format has changed. The Aloha Festival, a week-long celebration at the end of October, honors the ancient traditions and crafts with gratitude, games, and abundance. It's still harvest time. Here's the prayer for the fertility of the land and the survival of the Hawaiian people. That is what Lono and Makahiki were about.

The Pleiades still rise in the eastern sky.

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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.