Six Sacred Sites of Hawaii
Take a tour of the idyllic sites across the many islands where native Hawaiians have longstanding spiritual connections
- By Megan Gambino
- Smithsonian.com, November 16, 2011
(Robert Harding Picture Library Ltd / Alamy)
While attempting to unify the Hawaiian Islands in the late 18th century, Kamehameha the Great sent his aunt to seek advice from a prophet named Kapoukahi. The message relayed from the priest was that if Kamehameha built a heiau, or temple, on the hill called Puukohola in Kawaihae, on the northwest coast of Hawaii, he would gain the power of the gods and overcome his enemies.
In 1790, thousands of men went to work building the temple. As the story goes, the workers formed a line over 20 miles long to hand-pass smooth lava rocks from a valley to the site. Without mortar or cement, the crew stacked the rocks in a neatly prescribed way and completed the structure within a year.
“The fact that it has been standing over two centuries is a testament to their skill,” says Greg Cunningham, a park ranger at Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site, where visitors can see the 224- by 100-foot temple platform still intact.
The heiau was primarily a place to perform human sacrifices. “When a victim was prepared, they would actually cook the body and remove the bones,” says Cunningham. Certain bones were thought to contain mana, and those bones were offered to Kamehameha’s war god Kukailimoku. “That sometimes puts people off,” says Cunningham, who notes that, as far as he knows, Puukohola Heiau is the only human sacrificial temple under the auspices of the National Park Service.
Yet to quite a few native Hawaiians, the site is a symbol of Hawaiian unity. By 1810, Kamehameha had taken control of all the islands, and he ruled the Kingdom of Hawaii for nine years. As one of the last major temples built in Hawaii, Puukohola Heiau represents the end of ancient ways and the ushering in of a new age. “It was where Hawaii’s greatest king, its first king actually, really began to consolidate his power. It was here that centuries of warfare basically came to an end,” says Cunningham. “This is where modern Hawaii really began.”