Levels of Sacredness in Hawaiian Thought

In traditional Hawaiian religion, there’s different levels of sacredness. For example there’s laʻa, ano, ʻihi, ʻiu, poʻiu, ʻula and kapu levels of sacredness. Often times we will hear some say “such and such is sacred” or “the entire mountain is sacred” without much explanation. Some of this is due to the lack of real education on the topic and the fact that the concept itself is a bit tricky to explain in English. For example, during the Mauna Kea protests there was also “protect the sacred mountain” slogan. Some tied that idea with the idea of kapu–which one shouldn’t. A place that is kapu is sacred and sanctified. It is also restricted to a few select people and there are specific ki’i (tiki) and mo’olelo attached. Traditionally these kapu places also placed restrictions on food and gender. In ancient Hawaiian thought, the idea of sacred, kapu, and restricted access are tied together because wahi kapu (sacred places) were at points that was believed to have significant mana. The restrictions were claimed by practitioners as being necessary to channel that mana towards the mokupuni. Heiau for example are always wahi kapu. They were sanctified by rituals. Mauna Kea is not kapu in that sense. It was traditionally was a pilgrimage site particularly Lake Waiau. It’s ʻihi or wahi laʻa, a holy place. Wahi laʻa or wahi ʻihi on the other hand are places that should be treated with reverence but there was no particular need for restricted access, sanctification rituals and ki’i. The same would be true also of Kilauea. You would not find ki’i at Kilauea because everyone knows the mo’olelo of Pele. One might say that that makes it “even more sacred” but in ancient Hawaiian thought, they were not concerned about that because whether one is less or more sacred than another place. What was important was the connection one had with that place (which in turn would dictate the obligations, etc). For example, someone from O’ahu may feel a deeper connection to Kamapua’a than Pele therefore sites to Kamapua’a would have a feeling of having more “mana”. To navigators, Kaho’olawe would be a wahi laʻa of great significance. To kahuna of the Mo’o o Lono (Order of Lono), the island of Lana’i would be a wahi laʻa while Kaho’olawe would be simply another island. Wahi kapu like heiau on the other hand would be of significance to both the navigators and the priests of Lono because of its ritual importance but also out of civic duty as heiau also places of political power especially after the 1600s.

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