The influence on the culture of Hawai‘i attributed to the high priest Pā‘ao is so great that it seems appropriate to take a closer look.
Since ancient Hawai‘i did not have written records and had only a spoken language, exact historical accounts are uncertain.
Fornander writes that prior to the period of Pā‘ao “… the kapus (forbidden actions) were few and the ceremonials easy; that human sacrifices were not practiced, and cannibalism unknown; and that government was more of a patriarchal than of a regal nature.”
Pā‘ao is said to have been a priest, as well as a chief and navigator, who arrived in the island of Hawai‘i as early as in the twelfth or thirteenth century (many say he was from Tahiti.)
Pā‘ao is reported to have introduced (or, at least expanded upon) a religious and political code in old Hawai`i, collectively called the kapu system. This forbid many things and demanded many more, with many infractions being punishable by death.
Pā‘ao’s period saw a greater rigidity of the kapus, the introduction of human sacrifices, “the hardening and confirming of the divisions of society, the exaltation of the nobles and the increase of their prerogatives, the separation and immunity of the priestly order, and the systematic setting down, if not actual debasement, of the commoners”.
Many believe the expansion and rigidity of the kapu were established as a result of the migrations from Tahiti and elsewhere, (and with the arrival of Pā‘ao,) bringing to Hawai‘i a system of laws and rituals protecting the mana (spiritual power or energy) which existed in all living things.
In establishing this strict religious system, Pā‘ao also introduced the custom of kapuō (prostration before kapu chiefs,) the pūloʻuloʻu (sign of kapu) and the walled heiau (previously, heiau had been open courtyards.)
He introduced several changes to Hawaiian religious practices and social structure that affected temple construction, priestly ritual and worship practices.
The large sacrificial government war temples, luakini heiau, contained altars where human lives were taken when assurance of success in combat was requested or when there was a very grave state emergency, such as pestilence or famine.
Prior to the Pā‘ao’s arrival, the Hawaiians worshipped unseen deities. Reportedly, Pāʻao provided the people with something tangible to worship, through the introduction of wooden temple images as representations of the gods.
These images were not worshipped as gods themselves, but it was thought that the mana or spirit of a god would occupy the carved statue and could be consulted in times of need.
Many things were kapu under Hawaiian culture.
Anything connected with the gods and their worship was considered sacred, such as idols, heiau and priests. Because chiefs were believed to be descendants of the gods, many kapu related to chiefs and their personal possessions, such as clothes, mats and houses.
Certain objects were also kapu, and to be avoided, either because they were sacred or because they were defiling. Seasons and places could also be declared kapu.
Certain religious kapu were permanent and unchangeable, relating to customary rites, observances, ceremonies and methods of worship, and to the maintenance of the gods and their priests.
Likewise, Pā‘ao reportedly initiated a lineage of kings, starting with Pili Ka‘aiea (the 1st “Aliʻi ʻAimoku” for the Big Island – the first ruler (sometimes called the “king”) of the island.)
The descendants of this king ruled the island of Hawai‘i until 1893, while Pā‘ao himself became the high priest of an order which he established and which continued until 1819.
The form of the heiau was changed by Pā‘ao and his successors, and the general population mingled less freely in the ceremonies of sacrifice and other forms of worship. The high-priesthood became more mysterious and exclusive.
This intricate system that supported Hawaiʻi’s social and political organization directed every activity of Hawaiian life, from birth through death, until its abolition by King Kamehameha II (Liholiho) in 1819.
The image shows Moʻokini Heiau in North Kohala; it is believed Pā‘ao built or greatly expanded this luakini heiau.