Hawaiian Kahuna

One of the most abused Hawaiian words and concepts is the word kahuna. Nowadays, the word is used in slang to mean an expert surfer, an influential person (“the big kahuna”), a shaman, and a large hamburger. However, none of these definitions are correct. However, The Hawaiian Dictionary as edited by Mary Kawena Pukui and considered the standard dictionary on the Hawaiian language lists the following definitions:

1. Priest, sorcerer, magician, wizard, minister, expert in any profession (whether male or female); in the 1845 laws doctors, surgeons, and dentists were called kahuna. See kahu and many examples below; for plural see kāhuna. hoʻo.kahuna To cause to be a kahuna or pretend to be one; to ordain or train as a kahuna. (PPN tufunga, PCP t(a, o)funga.)

Note how surfing, shamans, and hamburgers are not listed. According to the observations of Captain Cook in 1778, he noted that there were several types of kahuna and several kahuna priesthoods each one headed by a kahuna nui. There was one particular type of high ranking kahuna who was considered so sacred that not even Captain Cook could meet with. Captain Cook compared this high official “….like the Delai Lama of Thibet”. French and later English explorers mention the same observations. Captain Vancouver in 1790 goes on to talk about several existing kahuna nui.
In 1819, a power struggle began between the practitioners of the old Hawaiian religion and the new regime of Ka`ahumanu. With the defeat of Kekuaokalani, a kahuna nui of the Kū line of priests and kahu (guardian) the Kūka`ilimoku temples at the Battle of Kuamo`o, the Hawaiian religion was systemically destroyed and many of the kahuna were killed, burned, or forced to give up their religion thus ending a power struggle between the priests and the nobility that began a thousand years earlier. In stories of Moloka`i, over 800 kahuna were burned alive in a single day. Later in 1824 when Ka`ahumanu had adopted Christianity and later imposed it throughout the Hawaiian Kingdom, even claiming to be a kahuna was declared illegal. Under King Kamehameha V, certain kahuna were allowed to be licensed under the Board of Health. With the reign of King Kalākaua, the laws against the kahuna were not heavily enforced and some of the lines were resurrected. After 1893, the kahuna again became illegal and later this began to be repealed in court cases in the 1960s and finally in 1978 with the new state constitution.

The Ancient Hawaiian Religion

According to certain legends, the very ancient ancestors had a very simple devotion. Normally this revolved around female and male elements known as Hina and Kū respectively. Sometimes the Kū element–which should not be confused with the war god of the same name–was also called Kūhiwa or simply Hiwa which means “Shining One” particularly on the island of Moloka`i. Hina could mean fall or to wane and is one of the roots for the word wahine (possibly from wai and Hina or water of Hina) meaning woman. Gradually, other akua or deities began to emerge bsuch as Kane, the sun god and who on some islands was considered an deity of certain lands (particularly of flat lands and paddies) similar to Malagasy mythology, and Kanaloa, the god of the ocean. However, with each god, there was a complimentary opposite and a complete opposite. Kūs female complimentary opposite was Hina and his male opposite was Lono.

Slowly a pantheon of deities emerged called the Nā Kini Akua (the 40,000 deities) coinciding with the increase in the Hawaiian population. What is interesting about that term is that Kini also could mean body or body-form implying that the deities were parts of the same single body, similar to Balinese Hindu concept of the many gods that was one or “one god many faces”. According to the Hawaiian scholar Kepelino, the last god to brought into the Hawaiian Nā Kini Akua was Lono who came via the island of Lana`i and is one of the reasons why Kamehameha I after his conquest of the entire Hawaiian Islands made pilgrimages to Lana`i. In addition to these deities, there were a number of deified persons including Kihāwahine and in some accounts, Wakea.

In the 12th or 13th century, there began religious movements from the South Pacific. On one hand, there was the Ari`oi movement in Tahiti and Borabora which placed an emphasize on the deity Oro or known as Lono in Hawai`i. The ari`oi movement also placed a strong attachment to ritualism, blood offerings, and loyalty to a secret society–similar to the Greek mystery cults–called the ari`oi. The ari`oi were open to individuals regardless of a person’s class provided that they were sponsored into the society. This was revolutionary in the society at that time. The society of Tahiti (and most of Eastern Polynesia) at the time consisted of three tier society consisting of ariki (ali’i or nobility), raatira (free persons, artists, offspring of mixed nobility, etc), and the manahune (farmers, fishermen, etc). The term manahune in Hawaiian became menehune and both terms have the same root words: mana (inheritance or power) and hune (pitiful, little, impoverished or diminished). So for many of the raatira and manahune classes, to be a member of the ari`oi was a way for upward social mobility. Gradually the ari`oi enjoyed immunity from most taboos and became a class unto themselves.

On the Western side of Polynesia in Samoa, a complex political and social class system was put in place. This class system placed a heavy emphasis on blood lines, monument building, veneration of royalty, and spiritual purity. This coincided with the rise of power of the Tu`i Manu`a (“Paramount King/Emperor/High Lord of Manu`a”), which was based in what is now American Samoa. The political influence of the Tu`i Manu`a extended from Samoa to Fiji, Tonga, and Rarotonga. From these two movements within Polynesia came Pa`ao.
Pa’ao was a priest and navigator who according to most sources was Samoan but had studied religion in Ra`iatea (the seat of learning in the South Pacific in that era) or in Tahiti. After a period of traveling around the Pacific, he came to Hawai`i and saw what he believed was the lack of religiosity among Hawaiians. Hawaiian society at that time was far less rigid than Tahiti and Samoa and religion was kept simple. According to the Hawaiian historian David Malogion in Ra`iatea (the seat of learning in the South Pacific in that era) or in Tahiti. After a period of traveling around the Pacific, he came to Hawai`i and saw what he believed was the lack of religiosity among Hawaiians. Hawaiian society at that time was far less rigid than Tahiti and Samoa and religion was kept simple. According to David Malo:

We are informed (by historical tradition) that two men named Paao and Makua-kaumana, with a company of others, voyaged hither, observing the stars as a compass; and that Paao remained in Kohala, while Makua-Kaumana returned to Tahiti. Paao arrived at Hawaii during the reign of Lono-ka-wai, the king of Hawaii. He (Lono-ka-wai) was the sixteenth in that line of kings, succeeding Kapawa. Paao continued to live in Kohala until the kings of Hawaii became degraded and corrupted (hewa); then he sailed away to Tahiti to fetch a king from thence. Pili (Kaaiea) was that king and he became one in Hawaii’s line of kings (papa alii).
Hawaiian Antiquities, p. 6.
At the same time he returned with Pili, he introduced major reforms into the Hawaiian religious system including adopting certain features of the ari’oi, more complicated religious practices (including the use of blood offerings), and monumental temple building. However, in making reforms to the priestly line, Pa`ao subjected the priests to the nobility by bringing an emphasize on the Papa and Wakea mythology. At the time of Pa`ao’s arrival, the priestly lines were for all purposes independent of the chiefs. All lands that had the word “Wai” in their names were previously governed by priests. The priests or kahuna had developed a monastic way of life and in many ways distant from the chiefs and the common people. Pa`ao brought the kahuna out of their lands and incorporated them into the life of the royal court. However, the kahuna were able to regain some independence after Pa`ao including having permanent lands and tributes for their temples and shrines. Overtime, the strict reforms made by Pa`ao was loosened by Hawaiians themselves but the changes made by Pa`ao shows that Polynesian societies, like all societies, change with time and are not stagnant museum pieces.   

One thought on “Hawaiian Kahuna”

  1. My husband is Hawaiian but no one in his family speaks Hawaiian. He loves the name Kūhiwa for a girls name. Is this an appropriate use for the word?


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