Sacred Hawaii

December 5, 2006

I have never been able to think of Hawaii as simply a vacation place where one goes to get away from it all. For me, Hawaii is a place where the forces of nature are so dynamic that I have to confront what the ancients knew as sacred powers. I can imagine a time with a sense of the sacred rooted in nature. Hawaiians call spiritual energy mana, and for them it is present in people, animals, plants, and even rocks. And it demands respect. a The ancient Hawaiians, who brought their beliefs from the Marquesas and Society Islands, were guided by a complex hierarchy of gods and ancestral spirits who entered into all aspects of daily life. Sacred stories, some taking more than a year to tell, conveyed the history of ancestors to a community, and chants carried prayers and offerings to gods and guardian spirits. As contemporary as much of Hawaiian life has become in recent years, the echoes of the old beliefs can be heard everywhere in the islands.

Once, on a visit to Molokai, I was cautioned by a ten-year-old girl not to go to the high school after dark because it had been built on the site of a battlefield and the “marchers of night” often returned there. If these returning warriors cast their glance upon you, it could mean death. She said people heard them in the typing room – no one in the building, no cars in the parking lot, but all the typewriters going.

Another time, on Oahu, I was taught by a young Hawaiian to understand that the wilderness meant something different to him than it did to me.


“Do you see that place above the green where the mountains go into the clouds?” he asked. “That’s what we call the home of the gods. We ask their permission to go there, then go in silence. We meet our ancestors in the sounds of wind and birds. We don’t go there to play.”

But even a visitor with little knowledge of Hawaiian beliefs and legends can be moved to her bones by the place, so commanding is the botanical beauty of these islands, so powerful is their presence, sitting like a cluster of pelagic birds out in the middle of the Pacific, and so explosive is their ongoing geologic formation.

The Big Island of Hawaii is home to Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, where one can witness the earth giving birth to itself. It is also home to several of the most historically significant and revered sites in the islands.


These features combine to make it one of the most magnetic places on the planet, and I was drawn to spend a couple of weeks hitting the hot spots, so to speak, bent on savoring the intensities of such experiences and teaching myself something about the nature of the sacred.

I am not an expert on either the old beliefs or contemporary interpretations of them. And I know that even among native Hawaiians one finds serious disagreement about spiritual matters. But I also know that in the islands I have seen and heard things that reveal how powerfully place can convey sacred meaning to people.

When I arrived at Halema¿uma¿u in late morning, I found the parking lot lined with tour buses and rental cars. A short trail led across bleak terrain, a waste of hardened lava pocked with fissures and fumaroles venting sulfurous steam, stained with white and yellow mineral seepages. At trail’s end stood a small fenced observation area on the very lip of the caldera’s firepit.


When Mark Twain came here in 1866, he looked down into “bursting, gorgeous sprays of lava¿a ceaseless bombardment of unapproachable splendor.” But now the half-mile-wide crater within the larger Kilauea Caldera was quiet. I joined the crowd to look out at the chalky precipice on the far side of the pit.

Hundreds of feet below lay a stony floor that had formed in 1924, when steam blew out a huge plug of solidified rock and everything collapsed into the steep hole lying before me. It was as stark and lifeless a place as I had ever seen. It seemed like another planet – not our lush and verdant earth but a place where life would never take root, an apocalypse of rocky sterility. As unlikely as it seemed, this was a treasured, sacred place – home of Pele, the volcano goddess, the most visible of all the old Hawaiian deities.

Everyone has a Pele story, and they are told not with the twinkling eye and smirk of the nonbeliever but with an utterly sober knowledge based in fact. Pele, famous for her polymorphous manifestations and her volatile character, makes frequent appearances on the Big Island. She may appear as a ravishing young beauty on the beach or as an old crone in the mountains. Whatever her appearance, one must treat her with respect, for her wrath can turn rivals to stone.


Historically, Pele is honored with an elaborate cycle of stories centering around her family and its arguments. Among the many legends (this one told to me by a ranger at Volcanoes National Park) explaining the plants that have emerged in the caldera’s lusher areas is that of the ¿ohi¿a lehua, the lovely, slender, red-flowered tree that grows so vigorously out of volcanic rock:

One day Pele is walking on the beach when she sees the handsome young man, ¿Ohi¿a, and instantly they are attracted to each other. ¿Ohi¿a does not know who Pele is, until he looks into her eyes and sees red fire. Still, he resists her out of love for his betrothed, Lehua. Pele is enraged. “You have a heart of wood,” she says and turns him into a tree.

Meanwhile, Lehua wanders the forest searching for her lover, not knowing what has become of him. Passing a certain tree, she feels his mana. Lehua falls to the ground, cries, and pleads with the gods. They take pity on her and, because they do not have the power to bring ¿Ohi¿a back as a man, they turn Lehua into the red flower that blossoms on his tree. Which is why one must never pick a lehua flower; it would mean pulling the lovers apart.

Pele stories are not only old legends. When I asked a Hawaiian friend, a university instructor, about the village of Kalapana and how it had been swallowed by lava in the eruption that began in 1983 and has not yet stopped, he told me he knew of one house that had been spared.

“How so?” I asked.

He replied, shrugging as if this were a fact too obvious to mention, “Well, that family is very closely related to Pele.”

By the time the crowd at the Halema¿uma¿u was thinning, I began to think that Pele had lent a generous hand in arranging my day. It seemed unlikely that after a morning of minor mishaps – lost trail map, empty canteen, abandoned plans – I would land in the one place at the one time where I most needed to be in order to witness how real the worship of Pele continues to be.

As the other tourists threaded back to the parking lot, I found myself alone behind the railing. On the other side a family of women and young girls gathered right on the edge of the precipice. The oldest, matronly and well-dressed as if for church, was laying food on the ground where she had spread sheets of newspaper like a tablecloth. She placed three roasted ducks side by side, then a roasted chicken and mounds of papayas, apples, and purple grapes. Bundles of burning incense had been stuck in the ground, and they filled the air with a smoky fragrance that cancel-ed out the volcano’s acrid stink. An open pint of rum stood amid the bounty. A dozen leis were gently draped over the cliff’s edge – orchid, tea rose, carnation, and waxy maile leaf garlands.

The older woman continued arranging the items, while the three youthful ones – wearing jeans and T-shirts, with bright lipstick and sunglasses – stood back, watching two toddlers who fidgeted and tried to contain their urge to play. The older woman was intent and serious, fully engaged in the act, while the younger ones looked nervous and self-conscious, willing to go along with the ritual but not convinced.

Eventually the older woman picked up the rum, whispered words I could not hear, and poured the golden liquid in sweeping arcs first over the food, then the dirt, and finally into the pit. She picked up a duck and heaved it into the abyss, then another, then a papaya. One by one the items flew down to Pele, and then the younger ones took their turns, even the tiniest girl who teetered up to the edge and dropped an apple into the emptiness.

The place grew silent and still. I tried not to blink or move, wanting to hold onto their reverence and my own good fortune to be touched by it. I wanted to know everything about these women’s lives but knew it would be wrong to ask. I cannot say whether they were native Hawaiians, recent immigrants from Southeast Asia, or some culturally braided combination of the two. But clearly their ritual was a solemn matter, Pele a force whose blessing they sought. Ritual deserves privacy, and my presence had been intrusion enough.

They did not linger but gathered up the newspapers and the packaging from the fruits, stuffing all the refuse into plastic bags marked with supermarket logos. As they walked toward the parking lot, they passed the next wave of tourists heading onto the trail, cameras hanging off their shoulders, some with handkerchiefs pressed to their noses and mouths to protect themselves from the fumes. The newcomers would each take a picture or two at the lookout, then go on down the road. And I suppose Pele, busy satisfying herself on those delicious offerings, would not mind.

Two historical sites on the Big Island are among the most revered places in the islands, and they could not be more different from one another, both in terms of their cultural significance and their current condition. They are Pu¿uhonua o Honaunau (Place of Refuge) on the south Kona shore and the Mo¿okini Heiau, a temple on the farthest tip of north Kohala.

The lives of ancient Hawaiians were governed by a rigid caste system and by kapu, sacred laws governing all aspects of life. Since chiefs were descended from gods, the places where they lived – even where they walked or spit or left their nail clippings – were sacred. To get too close to a ruler with such power was kapu; even to cross his shadow was a violation that might so offend the gods they would respond with a volcanic eruption or famine. The penalty for breaking kapu was often death; by sacrificing one offender, the well-being of the community might be preserved.

The Place of Refuge stands as a monument to the fact that within this harsh system there was forgiveness. If a kapu breaker, refugee, or defeated warrior could make it there, a priest would absolve him, and he could return safely to his home. It is thought there were once six such sanctuaries on the Big Island, but only one has survived to be meticulously restored. At Pu¿uhonua o Honaunau, grass huts and canoe sheds, made of sun-bleached wattle woven together with blond cordage, cluster beneath grand palms inside a narrow, sheltering cove. Some of the buildings stand on platforms of black volcanic stone; each joint is laced with the same practiced turns of twine, so that the simplest of shacks looks like a work of art.

A remarkable wall of black stone built in the 1500s borders the sanctuary, a thatched temple surrounded by a spiked stake fence and menacing carved akua totems. This building is a replica of one that once housed the bones of 23 high chiefs. Since bones contain the mana of the man they inhabited, interring the bones of powerful men in the temple enhanced the site’s sacredness.

On the day I visited Pu¿uhonua o Honaunau, I relished the bounty of tourist resources – park ranger talk, interpretive brochure, craftmaking demonstration, audiotape presentation. A sign warned, “Because this area is considered sacred, no picnicking, smoking or sunbathing please.” I followed the trail a mile or so along the coast, beyond the interpretive signs, and there found the more subtle signs of human history poking out of the weeds – an old grinding stone, petroglyphs, a game board chipped in stone, the remains of a holua slide where chiefs once rode sleds down a grassy track. It was easy to imagine the noise of human habitation here: poi being pounded, children and dogs making a ruckus, the splash of canoe paddles, and the flutter of village voices engaged in idle talk.

What I could not get my mind around was a notion of the sacred that embraced human sacrifice as necessary and godly. The beautifully restored site, so calm and picture perfect under majestic palms, was a refuge not only for kapu breakers, but also for us who follow and who long for a respite from the painful legacies of human history.

Mo¿okini Heiau, by contrast, is a remote outpost on the far northwest extremity of the Big Island that few visitors reach. Restoration has been more modest, and no one makes it easy to get to the place. I managed to find the single-lane road on my map and eased down from highway to seacliff past sloping meadows where tall grass and stray sugarcane tossed in the wind. Mo¿okini was built in the year 480, according to the oral tradition of the Mo¿okini family, who have been its care-takers for 16 generations.

Legend has it that the heiau was built in a single night, its water-worn basalt stones carried from the Pololu Valley 14 miles away, passed hand to hand along a chain of 15,000 men. Here the highest order of kings and ruling chiefs fasted, prayed, prepared for war – and offered thousands of human sacrifices under a brutal system of beliefs said to have been imported by a Samoan priest called Pa¿ao, who arrived in the tenth century.

I had come early in the morning, meaning to be alone to soak up whatever energy still inhabited the stony emptiness. I was not disappointed. The day was cool and clear, the thin, high mackerel sky all that remained of the night’s turbulent rains. Birdsong twittered out of the weeds, and the breeze sifted dryly through the grasses. The surf hammered onto rocks below, echoing against the seacliff. I hiked the last couple of miles down the rutted, red dirt road until I spotted a dark mound on the inland rise and climbed the lane to the temple’s lichened walls, black stones heaped 30 feet high, stout at the base and narrowing on top. The compound was framed with a low wall of the same stone.

In front of the temple stood a broad, flat stone, eight feet long and nearly as wide, the depression in its center filled with pristine rainwater. This was the pohaku-holehole-kanaka, the stone where human flesh was stripped from bone. I had expected to feel horrified in the place, but I did not. It was truly one of the most peaceful places I have ever been. It seemed to me that the violences committed here had been born of beliefs that these acts might help to keep at bay the terrible dangers of living in a remote land, might harmonize conflicts and restore a balance to life that would insure the community’s future.

The temple ruin was open to the sky, its rough stone altar de- corated with recent offerings – flower and shell leis, verbena in a foil-wrapped pickle jar, braided maile holding snug a ti leaf package, and starbursts of wilting pandanus stuck in the cobble wall. I did not want to stay long within those walls, where centuries of ritual had laid claim to the place, where great priests and kings had obeyed without question. I walked uphill to sit in the grass hut overlooking this precinct of priestly and political power, and I sat for so long that I began to see stones move.

What of the mana of all those lives – tens of thousands sacrificed here, according to one guidebook? The sounds I am hearing, I thought, are the sounds they heard – wind, birdsong, dull thunder of surf. What is missing is the sound of prayer, chanting, drumming, and clubbing. If sounds, real or imagined, bring the memory of the victims to mind, perhaps they are manifestations of mana. The place remains sacred. A family tends its walls, mows the grass, leaves flowers and shells out of sorrow for the worst of what happened here and praise for the best of it.

Beliefs in and practices of the sacred are always changing. One of the most interesting sites for contemplating such changes, and their inherent contradictions, is the snowcapped, 14,000-foot summit of Mauna Kea.

I want to know, I explained to my Waimea host, what happens to people who visit a place held sacred in a tradition not their own. My host con-sidered the question a moment. He had worked as a park ranger and wilderness tour guide. I could see him thinking, picturing the faces of tourists he had shepherded to such experiences.

“Something happens to them, that’s for sure,” he replied.

That “something,” I had come to feel, was inherent in the land itself. Whatever powers of the landscape had led the dwellers of a place to invest it with sacred belief, these powers still could move any astute visitor.

The summit of Mauna Kea is home to Poli¿ahu, goddess of snow-covered mountains – and Pele’s rival. The two goddesses fought with weapons that guaranteed no lasting victory for either side – Pele with fiery lava, and Poli¿ahu with snow and ice. Mauna Kea is now also home to a cluster of the world’s finest telescopes, the newest of which, at the W. M. Keck Observatory, can see 14 billion light-years back into the mysteries of space.

I joined a sunset tour led by Buck Pelkey, a wildlife biologist who recently had been laid off from a government job and retrained to lead eco-tours. He bantered with unchecked exuberance about matters geologic, natural, and cultural as he drove our van of seekers from the tropical resorts of the seacoast up into the forbidding zone of cinder, snow, and cold. He cautioned that we would all feel the lack of oxygen. Mauna Kea’s summit is located above 40 percent of the earth’s atmosphere, and our minds would not work quite so well up there. Yet with new technology, on good nights, viewing from the summit is almost as good as from aboard the orbiting satellite carrying the Hubble space telescope.

We stopped at the Onizuka astronomy center at 9,000 feet to acclimate to the thinning air, suiting up in parkas and gloves for the final stretch of road. After resting for an hour, as dusk settled into early dark, we piled back into the van and zigzagged our way up the last seven-odd miles of gravel-skidding switchbacks across the sheer face of the mountain. Headlights are forbidden on vehicles making the ascent, in order to prevent polluting the night sky with light. We were entering the precinct of darkness, and the hush of it fell on us like snow.

We rose above the clouds and emerged on an island in the sky. The sun glow turned the cloud cover below us into golden soup. My heart was pounding. The earth was red and bare, rolling like dunes and dotted with dead volcanic cones. This is the only place in the tropical Pacific that was covered with ice in the last Ice Age, and the ground looks scraped and scoured from that ancient assault. Scattered among cones was a futuristic community of chrome-and-white domes that looked like a space station on Mars. As the sun sank lower, the horizon grew coral tinged, and the domes glowed with reflected gold.

To enhance our oxygen-deprived state of dreaminess, Buck popped a tape into the van’s cassette player, some synthesized New Age hums and wails inspired by sacred sites around the globe. Our little party of hooded and shivering strangers stood on the summit while the night deepened into purplish blue and then black, music swirling around us like cosmic wind.

A few hundred feet below us, one red volcanic cone lay barren. Its north face was coated with snow so smooth it looked like frosting on a cake. This was Pu¿u Poliahu, left pristine by the astronomers out of respect for an earlier belief in the sacred. As the blackness came on, the domes began to hum and slowly rotate, making soft mechanical cries in the night as their apertures slid open like eyelids, each focusing on some distant question. For all their steel and calibration, they looked like temples, and their purpose seemed no less an expression of reverence than those other, ancient structures.

Each of us took our turn at a little portable telescope through which we watched the planets rise. We saw five lined up in a row – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn – each named after the gods of another ancient culture. None of the gods in this place were ours – not Venus, not Poli¿ahu, not Keck. Still the sight of the planets made each of us exclaim in wonder and then fall silent, looking up at a sky more thickly mottled with possibilities than we could see anywhere else on this beautiful blue planet.


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