The Ancient Hawaiian Religion

The Gods and Goddesses

The ancient Hawaiians had a polytheistic religion. Over the years, they developed a complex system of gods and goddesses of various rank and form. This system of gods and goddesses is similar to the Hawaiian class system. The Hawaiians had main gods, local gods, demi-gods, and other various types of gods.[1]

The Hawaiians had six male gods and two female gods.[2] Included in the six male gods is the chief god, Teave. Teave is believed to be the original spirit present at the beginning of the world. Teave is ancestor of all of the gods. Tane is his son, who is a conduit for his father's power in the world and Lord of the West. Na'Vahine, daughter of Teave in female form, is the wife of Tane and the Holy Mother of Heaven or the Moon Goddess. Tane and Na'Vahine produced three sons: Rono, Tanaroa, and Tu. Rono was the God of the East and fertility. Tanaroa was the God of the South Pacific Ocean. Tu was the God of the North and War. The Goddess Papa and God Vatea were the rulers of nature. Teave, Tane, Na'Vahine, Rono, Tanaroa, Tu, Papa, and Vatea composed the sacred eight. Through devotion to the eight a person could gain entrance to the gates of heaven. A person's actions on Earth were reported to the Court of Heaven which rules on entrance through each of the eight gates. Angels, avaitu, observed human actions and presented unbiased reports to the Court for judgment. [3]

Each Hawaiian region had individual gods or goddesses. For example Lilinoe, Goddess of Haleakala, and Poliahu, Goddess of Mauna Kea were worshipped by the Hawaiians in their region. These local gods often received offerings at sacred stones or sacred sights.

Each Hawaiian profession had their own gods. For example Hula dancers worshipped Laka and poisoners worshipped Kalaipahoa. Often, the priests of the particular gods or goddesses of each profession would set elaborate tapus. A fisherman would have to follow elaborate rituals before, during, and after in order to ensure the capture of his fish and to prevent the priesthood from seizing his catch.

The Hawaiians also had volcano gods or goddesses. The personification of volcanoes allowed for explanation of their actions. When one of the volcano gods or goddesses became angry, began to erupt, offerings were thrown into their lava streams in order to appease their anger.

Each Hawaiian family had their own Aumakua, family god. This family god is usually an deified ancestor. It was believed that sickness or bad luck is caused by displeasing the family god.

There were a group of humans who were considered demigods. These humans were men that had magic that had some effect on the gods, such as Maui. Maui was believed to have formed the islands, captured the sun, and brought fire to mankind.[4]


The Kahuna

The rank of kahuna was the second highest rank in Hawaiian society, which employs a class system based on connection to the divine. Within the rank of kahuna, there were several different classes: priests, kahuna lapaau, necromancers , sorcerers, and diviners.

The priests lived within the heiau, temples made of lava rock. Priests of various gods and goddesses were the only ones allowed in to the tapu or inner court. A Hawaiian priest had the power of declaring tapus, forbidden acts or land. Hawaiian priests also had the power of choosing victims for human sacrifices. The priests of the gods and goddesses passed down prayers and beliefs through an oral tradition. Often each priest was responsible for flawlessly reciting a certain part of a ceremony. On very important occasions, the head chief would present a human sacrifice and pronounce the conclusion.[5] Chiefs offered human sacrifices in the cases of grave illnesses, for the birth of a first born son, success in war, and to prevent natural disasters. Their religious rituals were governed by the position of the stars, moon, and sun in the sky. For example, the rise of the constellation maka , the Pleiades, at sunset signaled the return of the sun's warmth. At this time the festival honoring Rono, god of fertility, was held. [6]

The kahuna lapaau, medicine men, were called to treat illnesses. The medicine man would dream and search for omens. He would use that information to find a way to please the Aumakua, family god.

Necromancers came in several different varieties, but they operated on the same principle. Necromancers employed spirits often called unihipili . The ways in which the spirits were used determined the type of necromancer. For example, a kahuna hoounauna used his spirits to find the cause of an illness and exact revenge.

Sorcerers, like necromancers, also had various divisions according to the methods they used. The anaana performed their rituals at night in secret. The kuni performed their rituals in public during the day. Both the anaana and kuni used a part of their subject in their rituals, a piece of hair for example. They would bury the part of the victim. An anaana would cause the death of his subject. A kuni `s subject was already dead. The kuni determined the cause of death and then killed the murderer. The hoopiopio and pahiuhiu , classes of sorcerer, operated in the same manner. They would mark a spot in the road with a death spell, over which the intended victim would pass. Another class of sorcerer practiced apo leo . These sorcerers would strike up a conversation with their victim and steal his voice.

The diviners, kilo kilo, came in several different varieties: kilo uhane, po'i-uhane, and astrologers. The kilo uhane and po'i-uhane worked using the same basic principle. The ancient Hawaiians believed that the human had two souls. One soul resided in the body. The other soul was free to roam about and return to it again. The kilo uhane could see the free soul. He would inform a potential client that his free spirit was troubled, then prescribe an elaborate set of rituals and prayers. The po'i-uhane could capture the free spirit within a calabash, or gourd. Astrologers studied the heavens to predict the fortunes of various chiefs.[7]



The ancient Hawaiian religion is structured similarly to their society. Ancestry determines the amount of power a god or goddess wields. Teave is at the top of the heirarchy. He was the original spirit from which all of the other gods and goddesses descended. The structure of the kahuna or priesthood also reflected this trend. Within the kahuna, there were different classes, which were further divided by jobs.


Written by Emily Morishima