Many visitors to Hawaii are curious about the ancient and traditional religion of the Hawaiian people. They want to know where it is practiced, how it was formed, who the gods are, and what the rituals are. The first thing to know is that the ancient religion of Hawaii was overthrown and abandoned by Queen Ka’ahumanu in the years 1819 and 1820. She overthrew the religion (called the Kapu System) and adopted Christianity when missionaries showed up – not because she was in love with Christianity, but because she understood that the overthrow of the Kapu System would never work unless she could fill the void created with a new system of belief. Christianity showed up at an opportune moment. Since that time, the Hawaiian religion has been dead as a coshesive societal force.
The Kapu System was both polytheistic and animistic with belief in a wide range of gods and a number of nature spirits and forces in animals and natural phenomenon like waves and wind. The religion was born from an even more ancient Polynesian set of beliefs but during one thousand years of isolation in Hawai’i developed many unique characteristics. It’s important to note that there are modern Hawaiian religions which claim descent from the ancient practices of the Kapu System, but which are very different in both practice and belief. Most notable among them in Huna, which is a new and modern invention which many claim as cultural misappropriation.
The four main gods of Hawaiian religion were Ku – the god of war, Kane – the god of the sky, Lono – the god of peace and fertility, and Kanaloa, the god of the ocean. In addition there were the ‘parent’ or ‘creation’ gods of Papa (Mother Earth) and Waikea (Father Sky) as well as elemental gods and goddesses such as Madam Pele of the volcano and the demi-god Maui. Families, clans, villages,and other groups had protector spirits called ‘aumakua and there were literally hundreds upon hundreds of lessor gods and goddesses.
The ‘priests’ of the ancient system were known as kahuna. They were learned men, healers, and scholars. Kahuna played a large part in all aspects of ancient Hawaiian life including birth, mating, death, and burial practices.
The entire kapu system was a prohibitive system, meaning that it was more about what you could not do than what you could or should do. The word kapu comes from the tahitian word ‘taboo’ which literally means forbidden. The things forbidden were vast – everything from women not eating bananas or pork to men and women not eating together to times and places when fishing or hunting were prohibited. There were literally tens of thousands of things forbidden. The punishment was most often death but there was a relief valve built in which allowed for escape and exile for a set amount of time into a city of refuge, a pu’uhonua. There was an element of human sacrifice in ancient Hawaiian religion and ritual cannibalism was practiced (as it was in many other times and places such as ancient Scotland).
Among the forbidden things were a few practices that were proscribed, chief among them was Malama Aina – or caring for the land. The world land in Hawaiian is aina and it means ‘that which provides for us’. Hawaiians considered kalo (taro) as their older brother. Much of the ancient Hawaiian system revolved around an invisible force called mana. Mana came from the land, was strong in pohaku (stones) and was distributed to living things, it was passed to the people and then given to the chiefs or kings. The leaders would use the power of mana to take care of the land and the cycle would begin anew. The motto of the Hawaiian kingdom was translated as ‘The life of the land is perpetuated in the righteousness of the leaders’.
Prayer played a huge role in ancient Hawaiian religion and constructed many stone temples (heiau) on the islands. In addition there was the practice of hula which was considered sacred. Many of the practices and beliefs of the ancient Hawaiian religion are still with us – though with the meaning and context changed.