The relationship between Hawaiians and their gods

Which role did religion play in ancient Hawaiian society?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

19 Pages, Grade: 1,3



I Introduction

II The various Hawaiian gods

III Different kinds of worship

IV The influences of religion on the Hawaiian society

V The relationship between Hawaiians and gods in legends

VI Conclusion

VII References
VII.1. Internet
VII.2 Books and other publications

I Introduction

The development of a people is based on three categories which contain the quality of food supply, the relationship to other peoples and the religion whereas the latter probably most influences the intellectual advancement. This is because man's intelligence increases when he observes the different aspects of nature and life which have an effect on him. To understand natural phenomena and to gain a relation to those he creates gods, ghosts and supreme beings. Thus his fancy and imagination develop expressed by songs and legends in which the people combine facets of life, death and nature with supernatural creatures. Literature and art evolve by and by indicating cultural progress. Although the Hawaiians had an oral culture and therefore no written language, their intellectual advancement developed fast because of their uncountable songs and legends they repeated at fireplaces and feasts.1

What kind of religion did the Hawaiians create that made them develop so fast? Which gods and ghosts did they invent to explain the natural phenomena they didn't understand or they filled with their imagination? Through summarizing the main Hawaiian gods and godesses below, I will give the necessary basis of knowledge to analyse the interpendent relationship between them and the Hawaiian people. This mutual influence abounds mainly in legends and songs, in worship and in the structure of the Hawaiian society. In conclusion, the results are brought together to decide how much the religion influenced ancient Hawaiian society and how distinctive the relationship between men and gods was. In doing so I will basically refer to Martha Beckwith‘s book Hawaiian mythology from 1940.

II The various Hawaiian gods

Like in ancient Greece, the Hawaiians didn't worship one God for everything on earth and in heaven but had many specific gods and supreme beings of different ranks.2 Each of them represented one special aspect of life or nature. For example, the deity Laka was the goddess of the Hula dance. According to E.S.C. Handy, “the gods of the Polynesians were personified concepts that, on the one hand, embodied the desires and needs, the hopes and dreads of their worshippers and on the other hand, individualised the elements and forces that they observed in nature.”3

There was an infinite number of these gods that were separated in subordinate and main deities. The Hawaiians worshipped eight important gods, six male and two female, whereas four male were the main gods called Kane, Ku, Lono and Kanaloa. The other four were Keawe, the ancestor of all of the gods, his daughter Na Wahine and the goddess Papa and the god Wâkea who ruled over heaven and earth.4

The scholars have different opinions about the roots of these main deities. On the one hand the gods could have been once predominant chiefs who were apotheosised after their death so that the gods would have had human origin. On the other hand they could also have been conceived at first as nature deities like the goddess Pele who represented the volcano.5 Through the ancient Hawaiian songs and myths the legendary creation of the divine generations can be observed. They tell us that Keawe s spirit was the only living being in Hawaii in the beginning. The land is described as a vast and vacant land so that the god started to evolve order creating the sky and the sun and then the two gods, Na Wahine and Kane. These two deities whose names mean woman and man were then parents to Ku, Lono and Kanaloa and the other important Hawaiian gods.6 Kane also formed the upper heaven of the gods and the lower one above the earth. Furthermore he was, according to the late edition of the Kumuhonua legend, the creator of the earth which he filled with living beings like animals in the sea and on land, plants and of course man and woman to inhabit the garden of mankind. So the Hawaiians worshipped him as the god and the symbol of life and everything that was aligned or associated with life like forests, water and the sunlight.7 The following legend shows a similar structure to the Genesis in the Bible in which Kane even replaces Keawe as the origin, because it is told about Kane as the deity who lived alone in the darkness.

“In the first era Kane dwells alone in continual darkness (i kapo loa); there is neither heaven nor earth. In the second era light is created and the gods Ku and Lono, with Kane, fashion the earth and the things on the earth. In the third era they create man and woman, Kumu-honua (Earth beginning) and Lalo- honua (Earth below). In the fourth era Kane, who has lived on earth with man, goes up to heaven to live and the man, having broken Kane's law, is made subject to death.”8

In general the Hawaiians ascribed Kane the thunder as his form of appearance but if the god came to the worshippers in their dreams, he would have a human body with one white and one black side standing with his feet on earth and touching the sky with his head.9 One of Kane s sons mentioned before was Ku who represented men, war and fishing. Whereas Kane was a friendly and peaceful god with a modest request of worship, Ku arrogated an elaborate adoration which included human sacrifices. He controlled the fruitfulness of earth with the goddess Hina with whom he represented the generations of mankind. Ku was associated with the male or husband {kane) and beyond that, coming out of one single origin, he was a symbol of the male fertility and power of the first parent. Hina stood for the female or wahine and was an expression of female fecundity, the power of growth and production. Because of their names which mean “rising upright” for Ku and “leaning down” for Hina, the rising of the sun - the morning - was referred to Ku, and its setting - the afternoon - to Hina. To follow this imagery, prayers which were addressed to Ku were held toward the east and prayers to Hina toward the west so that together, they included the whole earth and heaven from east to west.10

Lono was associated with peace and wisdom, fertility and harvest. He was represented by many symbols, especially different nature phenomena of the atmosphere like dark clouds, rainbows, wind and rain. Furthermore he was a patron of culture particularly of music, who was married to Laka, the goddess of the hula dance. Every year from October to February the Hawaiians and some other Polynesian islands celebrated the great Makahiki-festival to honor Lono. During this time it was forbidden to do unnecessary work or to wage war so that the chiefs could regroup their forces. During the ritual ceremonies, a festivity similar to the Olympic Games was held. The Hawaiians prayed for good fishing captures and for rain and sunshine to let the crops grow well. The Makihiki was also the time for paying the taxes. An idol of Lono standing on a long post was brought to every district (alupuaa) on the island to collect the taxes from the commoners.11

In 1778, James Cook arrived during the time of the Makahiki-festival so that he was taken for the god Lono who landed on the shores ofHawaii. Between Marshall David Sahlins, Gananath Obeyesekere and other scholars there is a serious discussion whether Cook had really been seen as the deity Lono by the Hawaiians or just as one of several historical or legendary figures referred to Lono-i-ka-Makahiki (Lono got this name affix from his mother at his birth).12 The fourth of the main gods was Kanaloa symbolised by the squid who ruled over the sea and in later legends over the underworld. Originally he was a Tahitian god who was very similar to Kane and was considered as the creator of men and the world as well. The Hawaiians adopted him as the brother of Kane however without being one of the creators. In various chants he and Kane acted as complementary powers whereas Kane mainly represented the good and Kanaloa the ill. In the legend of Hawaii-loa, a part of the kumu-honua legend, Kanaloa fought against Kane leading the spirits that had been sat on earth by the main gods after the separation of earth and heaven. As they weren't allowed to drink awa, a beverage that causes various effects on the psyche like euphoria, they rebelled against the great gods. But they didn't succeed and were banished to the underworld where their leader Kanaloa, also known under the name Milu, became the ruler over the dead. This legend is redolent of the banishment of Satan from heaven to hell, meanwhile other myths show also obvious similarities to the Old Testament. They tell for example that Kane once drew a figure of a man in the earth that became then alive whereas Kanaloa did the same without success. He became angry and punished mankind with all kinds of bad things. Furthermore he seduced the wife of the first man and led the couple out of the garden which was dedicated for them by the other gods. Thus the legends turned Kanaloa into the evil wisher of mankind whereas Kane was considered as the benefactor. The similarities to biblical motives led to Kanaloa's association with Satan by the Christian missionaries who arrived in Hawaii from Boston in 1820. They compared the four Hawaiian gods with the Christian trinity and Satan whose place took Kanaloa. 13

Besides the main gods the ancient Hawaiians worshiped uncountable subordinate gods like sorcery gods, children of the gods with supreme powers and dead ancestors called aumakua who protected their living families after becoming divine.14

Ill Different kinds of worship “Invoke we now the 40,000 gods, the 400,000 gods, the 4,000 gods” (E ho'oulu analkini о ke akua, Ka lehu о ke akua, Ka mano о ke akua ): [ 15 ] with these words Hawaiians customarily began their invocations to the gods in order to avoid affronting any of the uncountable deities by forgetting them. Kepelino classified these gods into “the gods who made heaven and earth” and the “millions upon millions” [ 16 ] of spirits called uhane which he assigned to two different kinds of bodiless spirits: The first were the ghosts of the air named uhane lewa that had been created by Kane to serve the higher gods. Secondly, Kepelino speaks of the spirits of the dead called aumakua who were guardian gods for their descendants on earth. [ 17 ] Comparable to the variety of gods there were many different kinds of worships. Each of the main deities asked for its own priests, form of worship and special symbols of ritual distinction. They had also their own temples named heiau in which the public worship took place like on twenty feet high oracle towers where the Hawaiians practised sacrifices on wooden platforms far above the ground. [ 18 ] To the district of a temple which stood on a stone platform belonged several houses, idols and other structures having all their special use during the rituals. The worship of the gods didn't take place only in the heiaus, but also in everyday life. The Hawaiians had to practise religious ceremonies while they built houses or canoes, worked in the fields or did other activities. The rituals should please the particular god to ensure successful work. [ 19 ]

There were different ways of worship. Some people would adore idols whereas others didn't have a tangible form of their gods.20 Commoners didn't require implicitly a priest for blessing their family and personal gods; they could worship them with their own simple rituals meanwhile the royalty (ali'i) needed a priest to carry out the ceremonies in large heiaus.21 There were friendly gods who didn't ask for human sacrifices or laborious rituals like Ku did. The creator Kane was one of them because of the saying “Life is sacred to Kane”


1 Westervelt, W. (trans./com.): Hawaiian legends of ghosts and ghost-gods, Boston 1916, p. X.

2, unknown author: The gods of ancient Hawaii, 26.09.09; Beckwith, M.: Hawaiian Mythology, New Haven 1940, p. 1-5.

3 Handy, E.: Polynesian Religion, Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 34, Honolulu 1927, p. 87-88.

4, Morishima, E.: the ancient Hawaiian religion, 26.09.09.

5 Beckwith, M. (trans./com.): Hawaiian mythology. New Haven 1940, p. 4.

6, unknown author: The gods of ancient Hawaii, 26.09.09;, Morishima, E.: the ancient Hawaiian religion, 26.09.09;, Fullard-Leo, B.: In the beginning Hawaiian gods, 26.09.09.

7, unknown author: Hawaiian gods, 26.09.09; Beckwith 1940, p. 42.

8 Beckwith 1940, p. 42-43.

9 Beckwith 1940, p. 48.

10 Beckwith 1940, p. 12-16.

11, unknown author: The gods of ancient Hawaii, 08.09.09; Kuykendall, R.: 1778-1854. The Hawaiian kingdom 1, Honolulu 1938, p. 8; Beckwith 1940, p. 31-36.

12 Beckwith 1940, p. 31-36; Beckwith, M. (trans./com.): The Kumulipo. A Hawaiian creation chant, Chicago 1951, p. 19; Sahlins, M: How “natives” think. About Captain Cook, for example, Chicago 1995.

13 Beckwith 1940, p. 60-62.

14, unknown author: Hawaiian legends, 26.09.09; Beckwith 1940, p. 81-83.

15 Beckwith 1940, p. 82.

16 Beckwith 1940, p. 81-82.

17 Beckwith 1940, p. 82.

18, Fullard-Leo, B.: In the beginning Hawaiian gods, 26.09.09.

19 Kuykendall 1938, p. 7.

20 Beckwith 1940, p.81.

21, Fullard-Leo, B.: In the beginning Hawaiian gods, 26.09.09.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


The relationship between Hawaiians and their gods
Which role did religion play in ancient Hawaiian society?
University of Constance
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Dozent: Well done!
Hawaii, Götter, Religion, ancient society, gods, relationship, Beziehung, Rituale, Reisen, Kultur, worship, Verehrung, Legenden
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Elisabeth Yorck (Author), 2009, The relationship between Hawaiians and their gods, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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