The Ancient Hawaiian View of the Universe

The Cosmology

The ancient Hawaiian view of the universe is a multi-tiered system similar to their class system. In order to understand the Hawaiian cosmology, it is necessary to understand their version of creation.

The ancient Hawaiians believed that the world Po occupied an empty ocean of space. The world of Po was a dark, cold, world with swirling clouds of mist. In empty space, there existed Teave. Teave is the eternal spirit, the creator. Teave breathed manna, vital force, and commanded the confusion of Po to cease. Teave pronounced the word Ora, the spirit of life, and life began on Po. Teave waved his flaming cross, Tau Tahi, commanding the forces of Creation into motion. Teave decided to create a royal family to rule on earth and heaven. Teave created a son, Tane, who became the conduit for Teave's power. Teave bore a daughter, Na'Vahine. Tane became the male force behind creation. Na'Vahine became the female force behind creation and mother of the sun. Their three sons Rono, Tanaroa, and Tu and Tane became known as the four pillars of creation. A great white bird appeared, on a mission of creation sent by Tane and Na'Vahine, she flew over the still dark ocean. Finding a suitable place, she dropped an egg made out of flame. Once the egg collided with the sea, it burst into pieces. The pieces bobbed around until they anchored themselves to the bottom of the sea. The four gods then molded the islands, forming mountains, valleys, and plains. Tane's sons scooped out the river beds. Tane commanded springs to appear and send their water down through the waiting beds. Tane assigned jobs to each of his sons. He assigned the job of lighting the day to Rono. He assigned the job of Lord of Harvest to Tu. Tanaroa became the God of Night. Tane decided that his world needed a roof, so he formed a magic egg in the earth. He called this egg his creative calabash. He infused it with his spirit. Then he summoned the elements to decorate the heavens and placed them inside. He removed the lid of the calabash and threw it into the air. The cover expanded until it covered the earth. Tane plucked an orange disk from the container and placed it into the sky, to light the day. He took some bubbles and placed them in the sky and clouds formed. He took a crescent from the calabash and the moon was formed. He took some sand and threw it into the sky to form stars. Then he drew forth a great star, Taero . Taero wandered around the night sky, until Tane ordered Tanaroa to guide its course. Taero became the guiding star for the Hawaiian people.

The Hawaiian cosmology, view of the universe, consisted of more than the earth covered with a dome. Heavens were layered between the worlds. There are two different versions of the heavens. In the beginning before the sky, Teave established seven heavens at the zenith of space above the Earth. The second version names Tane as the creator of a heaven, after creating the sky. It is unclear at first whether both sets of heavens are the same or even located in the same place. But an alternate name for the heavens that Teave created, Reva, means sky so the heavens are most likely located in the sky.[1] There was also an indication that paradise lay to the West, the cardinal direction associated with Tane.[2] Whether a soul reached a heaven or paradise depended on the judgment given by the Court of Heaven. Devotion to the sacred six male gods and two female goddesses, or sacred eight, was noted by the angels, avaitu, and reported to the Court of Heaven. Souls that did not meet the standards went to the underworld. The nature of the ruler of the underworld differs between Mimu, and Wakea and Milu. One view of the underworld was that of a crater at the bottom of the spirit world which surrounds and penetrates the earth.[3] Another view was a two tiered underworld ruled by two different rulers Wakea and Milu. The higher underworld was ruled by Wakea. It was believed to be a quiet peaceful place for those who followed most of the tapus . The lower underworld was ruled by Milu, an ancient wicked chief of Hawaii. This underworld is a place of punishment where it was never peaceful. [4]

A side view of the Hawaiian cosmology would look like the following.

  • sky
  • heaven (seven or eight)
  • paradise spirit world
  • earth spirit world
  • underworld/underworlds

Hawaiian Use of the Stars

The Hawaiians used the stars in three different manners navigation, astronomy, and astrology.

The Hawaiians used the stars to navigate between the islands and from their origin. Besides knowledge of the winds, currents, and movement of the sun, knowledge of the stars was vital to finding the way in the middle of the ocean without any landmarks. After the astronomers had observed the stars for many years it was deduced that the fixed stars follow the same curved course. By keeping track of a few stars that run along the same track, a seafarer could keep moving in the same direction.

Hawaiian astronomers were very aware of the movements of the stars, moon, sun, and planets. They based their calendar on the movements of the moon and the sighting of the Pleiades at sunset. They were also responsible for gathering much of the knowledge used for navigation. The Hawaiians distinguished between stars and planets. The planets, hoku-ake, were named according to their place in the sky east or west. Some planets were given special names because of their regular patterns, color, and brightness. The Hawaiians also named the patterns of stars they saw in the sky.[5] The most important of these being the Pleiades, maka, which signaled the beginning of the growing season. The Hawaiian calendar began with this event.[6]

The Hawaiian astrologers used the knowledge of the ancient navigators and astronomers to predict the future. They would watch the constellation of their patrons, usually a family of chiefs, to predict changes that would occur such as deaths or wars.[7]



The ancient Hawaiian view of the universe was a system of layers, with the sky as the pinnacle. The divisions between the layers are based on the idea that the divine power rests in the sky. All of the other layers vary according to their distance from the sky. The idea of divinities resting in the sky lead the Hawaiians to closely observe the movements of the celestial bodies, not only for navigational purpose but for the purpose of foretelling the future.


Written by Emily Morishima