Saturday, April 17, 2010

Heiaus (temples) of Hawaii

When I saw the farmer working in his yard, I was happy to see another human soul. I'd been driving on a rough, remote road for quite some time and thought I might be lost.

"Is this the road to the Mo'okini Temple?" I asked him.
"Yes," he replied "You are about a mile away".
"Is the road good enough that I can drive it in this car?", I queried.
"I don't know." he responded. "I've never been there. There are too many ghosts around there, so I stay away."

The Mo'okini Heiau was a place of human sacrifice. I pondered the farmer's words, but decided to continue on, since I had come to the northern tip of the Big Island specifically to see this heiau. It is one of the oldest on the Big Island (built around 400 BC), and also one of the most sacred, being off limits to commoners clear until 1978.

So I continued down the rough dirt road running along the rocky shoreline, hoping that there wouldn't be a tsunami while I was there because I knew it was going to take a very long time to get back out again.

At this place, I decided to give up on driving and hiked the rest of the way.
Soon, I saw this sign. The Mo'okini Heiau is only about 1000 yards away from the birthplace of Kamehameha I, the warrior-king who united the Hawaiian islands into a single kingdom.

The Mo'okini Heiau is a large, rectangular structure with high stone walls. Here's a photo of it from a distance:


Between the heiau and the coast sit these altars:
I was there alone, and there were no signs to help me interpret or understand the site. But I definitely felt a unique and powerful spirit there. In fact, you could say that I was downright spooked, at one point even thinking I heard music. I knew that couldn't be, because I was a mile away from the last farmhouse I'd seen, and several miles away from anyone else, so I told myself it was probably just the sound of the cows and the wind turbine farm I had passed on my way there.

I kept thinking the episode of the "Brady Bunch" television show I had watched as a child. The family had taken a vacation to Hawaii, and while I couldn't remember the details of the program, I DID remember that Greg brought an ancient curse upon himself which caused the whole family to spend an entire two-hour episode trying to get rid of it. So, I was trying my darndest to be respectful and not bring a curse upon myself like poor Greg.

Later, I asked someone if those were the sacrificial altars, and he said they were. He said that the Hawaiian war god "Ku" was a bloodless god, and so people were usually strangled or drowned in offerings to him.

"How do they decide who gets sacrificed?" I later asked one of the National Park Service rangers at another heaiu. He smiled and told me that they often sacrificed people who were in opposition to them, such as other warriors. They'd also sacrifice people who broke a kapu, or a law. They took their kapus very seriously--breaking one would result in death unless you could travel to a special place of refuge, where a priest could absolve you of your sin so you could return to your normal life.

If they had no opposing warriors and no kapu breakers to sacrifice, they would sacrifice one of the outcasts, meaning someone who was mentally ill or physically deformed.

I had a hard time wrapping my head around all of this. Gradually, over my trip, I realized that the Kapu system was largely based on fear. Living there in the face of tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, close to the raw power of nature, it's understandable that people would fear that breaking a law would bring upon them the judgment of the god of nature. Their protection was in keeping the kapu, and killing anyone who broke it, to avoid displeasing the gods.

As I walked away from the Mo'okini Temple, I prayed in my heart, saying "Heavenly Father, thank you so much that I live in a time when we don't do human sacrifice." But then I realized what an ironic thing that was to pray...because Heavenly Father has first-hand experience with sacrifice. He allowed his first-born Son, Jesus Christ, to be sacrificed, and somehow, that pays the debt to justice that I have incurred with my sins. Being there at that sacrificial temple made the cost of the atonement of Jesus Christ very real to me. So, instead, I offered a prayer of gratitude that Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ were willing to pay such a high price to provide me and you and everyone else the opportunity to change and repent and become reconciled with them.

I had intended to visit Kamehameha's birthplace, but as I started down the path, a large dog stood in my way and began to bark menacingly. I stood there for a long time, considering what to do. I knew I'd probably never have another opportunity to see the birthplace, but I also knew that if that dog bit me, I'd have a very difficult time hiking back to my car and driving along the rough road to get help. It was also getting late in the day, and I didn't want to be on the rough road in the dark, and so I turned back and headed to the car. Along the way, I saw this beautiful double rainbow.

The next heiau I visited, Pu'ukohola heiau, was built much more recently, in 1790-1791. Kamehameha I built it in order to fulfill a prophecy: a promise that if he would build this heiau according to strict standards, he would be enabled to unite all the Hawaiian islands into a single kingdom.

Among the strict standards he was required to follow was that the temple must be built of water-worn lava rocks. Since this type of rock was not in the area, workers stood in a human chain, 20 miles long, passing the rocks hand-to-hand to the hill upon which the temple was built.

When the rival chiefs of the other islands learned of the prophecy and of Kamehameha's efforts to fulfill it, they believed it, and so attacked, hoping to stop construction and prevent the prophecy's fulfillment. But Kamehameha was able to push them back and complete the building. His primary rival for power, however, was his cousin who also lived on the Big Island. On the day the heaiu was dedicated, his cousin attended the ceremony, and there was a scuffle, resulting in the cousin's death and causing the prophecy to be fulfilled that very day.

Here's a photo of Pu'ukohola Heiau, where the prophecy was fulfilled:

Because of damage done in a 2006 earthquake, you cannot visit the temple itself. These crossed sticks with gourds on each end mean that it is forbidden.

Because some native hawaiians still bring offerings to the temple, a tower was constructed, and this is where they place their offerings of food or flowers in lieu of placing them in the temple itself.

Just down the hill from this temple are two other temples. One of them is now submerged in the sea, and is dedicated to the shark god. Because sharks like to hang out in that area, the National Park Service has put up signs suggested that you NOT swim there.

The heiau which is in downtown Kona, Ahu'ena Heiau, is a much happier place. It is dedicated to Lono, the god of peace. It is significant because it is the place where the kapu system ended, just after King Kamehameha's death. Kamehameha's son Liholiho chose to eat dinner with his mother there, breaking the kapu that forbade women and men from eating together. This eventually resulted in the end of the entire kapu system, just about a year before the first Christian missionaries visited Hawaii.

Here are a few photos of the Ahu'ena Heiau.



Finally, the last heiau I visited was the one at Pu'uhonua, which was the place of refuge where people could come to be forgiven for breaking the law. I kayaked near this area, and my guide pointed out many sea caves where people hid as they traveled to the place of refuge, hoping to make it there before those that pursued them could catch and kill them.

The bones of many of the Hawaiian chiefs are here in this heaiu. Hawaiians believed that their leaders had special "mana", or spiritual power, and so this repository of their remains was an especially powerful place. This was the place where people could find sanctuary, and could get a second chance at life.

As Tracy and I walked through it, she commented on the beautiful symbolism of people making a physical journey to change and repent, and how it is similar to the spiritual journeys each of us take when we change and start over in our lives.

Here's another image from Pu'uhonua:

The place of refuge is right next to the royal grounds where the kings lived. Here you can see the wall that separates the two compounds:

The royal grounds are called Honaunau, and are beautiful, with palms over a white sand beach.


So, anyway, visiting the Hawaii's heiaus was a very unique and interesting part of my trip. I'm still not sure that I've completely wrapped my head around the experience, but I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to be exposed to this very unique part of the world's history.

1 comment:

Lori said...

WOW!! See, an I probably would have stuck to the beach and the hotel gift shop. That was amazing!!