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Heiau: Wikis


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Hale O Pi'ilani Heiau, near Hāna on Maui
Pu'u O Mahuka Heiau
An illustration of a heiau at Kealakekua Bay at the time of James Cook's third voyage, by William Ellis.

A heiau is a Hawaiian temple. Many types of heiau existed, including heiau to treat the sick (heiau hōʻola), offer first fruits, offer first catch, start rain, stop rain, increase the population, ensure health of the nation, achieve success in distant voyaging, reach peace, and achieve success in war (luakini). Only the luakini was dedicated through human sacrifice.[1]

Heiau were made in different architectural styles depending upon their purpose and location. At the official end of Hawaiian religion in 1819, many were deliberately destroyed, while others were allowed to fall into disrepair. Some structures have been fully restored today.



Heiau were made in different shapes depending upon their purpose. They could be rectangular, square, or rounded.[2] Some consisted of simple earth terraces, while others were elaborately constructed stone platforms. They could be placed on hills, cliffs, level earth, valleys and on the coastline touching the sea.[2] Some koʻa or fishing shrines were built underwater.

American missionary Hiram Bingham described a heiau he saw on route hiking between the summits of Mauna Kea and Hualalai. Made of piled lava rock, it was a square of 100 feet, with walls eight feet high and four feet thick. A doorway led through the middle of the north wall. Eight pyramids surrounded the outside of the temple. Made of piled lava rock, they were 12 feet in diameter and 12 to 15 feet high.[3]

Preserved Sites

The heiau most commonly preserved are war temples of the later period of history (e.g. Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site). They are composed of large stone platforms with various structures built upon them. The structures were used to house priests, sacred ceremonial drums, sacred items, and cult images representing the gods associated with that particular temple. There were also altars (Ahu) on which to offer sacrifices (plant, animal and human). The heiau were sacred places; only the kahuna (priests) and certain sacred ali'i (high chiefs) were allowed to enter.

The largest heiau currently known to exist, Hale O Pi'ilani Heiau, is a massive, three-acre platform with fifty foot retaining walls located in Hāna on Maui. Built for Pi'ilani, it dates back to the 1200s.[4]

Agricultural heiau, called generally Hale-o-Lono for the god of fertility, can be found today on Oʻahu at Makaha (Kaneaki heiau - fully restored) and in Hawaii Kai (Pahua heiau - partially restored). The ruins of a healing heiau, Keaiwa ("the mysterious") are located at the entrance to Keaiwa State Park in ʻAiea.[5]

Puʻuhonua o Honaunau, in South Kona on the island of Hawaiʻi, itself is a place of refuge, but it includes a heiau complex within it.

Because the land of heiau was sacred, it was not unusual for successive generations to add to original structures and for the purposes of the heiau to change over time. An example is Ulupo heiau in Kailua on Oʻahu, which is said to have been built by the menehune, that is, a long time ago, and is thought to have been used first as an agricultural heiau and later as a luakini.[6]


The kapu or 'ai kapu system was abolished in October, 1819 by Liholiho, Kamehameha II. The abolition of the kapu system ended the use of heiau as places of worship and sacrifice. A period referred to as the 'Ai Noa or "free eating" followed. Missionaries arrived in 1820, and most of the aliʻi converted to Christianity, including Kaʻahumanu and Keōpūolani, but it took 11 years for Kaʻahumanu to proclaim laws against ancient religious practices. All heiau were officially abandoned; most were destroyed over the years. Often they were broken up and plowed under to make way for fields of sugar cane. However, some of the families who were responsible for the heiau have continued the tradition of caring for them to this day.


  1. ^ Kamakau, Samuel. The Works of the People of Old, pp. 129-134
  2. ^ a b Kamakau, p. 135
  3. ^ Bingham, Hiram. A Residence 21 Years in the Sandwich Islands, Tuttle (1981) p. 397
  4. ^ Engledow, Jill (May, 2009). "A Heiau in the Garden". Native Soul - The Culture and Aloha of Maui, Hawaii (Maui No Ka 'Oi Magazine) 13 (3). Retrieved 2009-08-17.  
  5. ^ "> Parks > Oahu > Keaiwa Heiau State Recreation Area". Hawaii State Parks. Retrieved 2009-09-27.  
  6. ^ "> Parks > Oahu > Ulupo Heiau State Historic Site". Hawaii State Parks. Retrieved 2009-09-27.  


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