Hawaiians had many forms of worship and places where they practiced; invoking peace, war, health or successful fishing and farming, etc.
Families and individuals conducted daily worship services at home, typically at small family improvised altars or shrines.
Small, common places of worship were the ko‘a (fishing,) ‘aumakua (family god) and other shrines.
More formalized worship, offerings and/or sacrifice by chiefs took place in heiau (temples.)
There are many types and forms of heiau, which served as temples and ceremonial sites. Some were used for state worship -where only the paramount ruler of the island and priests were allowed to enter.
Other heiau were used by lower chiefs and priests who controlled smaller political land divisions, and still others were used by individual families who resided in a given area.
Whatever the purpose, heiau are considered sacred and are places where material offerings and prayers in the form of formal supplications were tendered to the gods.
These structures were typically stone-walled enclosures containing several structures and open-air terraces, stone platforms and carved idols in which chiefs paid homage to the major Hawaiian gods.
Some heiau were built for special purposes and were dedicated to spirits or gods: including, agricultural, economy-related, healing or the large sacrificial war temples (as well as others.)
The agricultural or economy-related heiau were dedicated to Lono, where it was believed that offerings would guarantee rain and agricultural fertility and plenty. The ho‘oulu ‘ai heiau were devoted for a successful season for growing crops to increase the general food supply.
The lapa‘au heiau dealt with healing. Herbal remedies and spiritual healing treated illnesses by trained healers. The surroundings served as the natural pharmacy for plant remedies of all kinds.
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.
Reportedly, oral traditions trace the origin of Hawaiian luakini temple construction to the high priest Pāʻao, who arrived in the islands in the late-thirteenth century.
He introduced several changes to Hawaiian religious practices and social structure that affected temple construction, priestly ritual and worship practices.
Pā‘ao’s period are attributed 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 “
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.
Images used at heiau were manifestations of one of the four major Hawaiian deities Kū (god of war,) Kāne (god of life, a creator, associated with freshwater,) Lono (god of fertility, peace and harvest,) Kanaloa (god of the ocean and voyaging.)
Heiau were constructed under the direction of the ali‘i nui (high chiefs) and kahuna (priests) and were dedicated to different gods for various purposes.
Heiau could change over time with a new ali‘i. It was not unusual for a heiau to be expanded and modified by a new ruling chief.
Though temple worship was primarily an activity of the royalty, the general population depended upon the effectiveness of these rituals.
Since the gods were looked upon as also being direct ancestors of the ali`i and creators of all Hawaiians, this reverence was a form of ancestor worship,
At the time of European contact, a multitude of heiau functioned in the islands, and early visitors noted many of these:
“They [the Hawaiians] have many temples, which are large enclosures, with piles of stones heaped up in pyramidal forms, like shot in an arsenal, and houses for the priests and others, who remain within them during their taboos. Great numbers of idols, of the most uncouth forms, are placed round within, in all directions: to these they offer sacrifices of hogs, cocoa nuts, bananas, and human victims: the latter are criminals only; formerly, prisoners of war were sometimes sacrificed.”
(William Shaler, “Journal of a Voyage between China and the North-Western Coast of America, Made in 1804”)
Hawaiians looked to the heiau and their kahuna for order, spiritual help, understanding and guidance. This was for practical matters, such as, when to plant and harvest, fishing and fishing kapu, healing, giving thanks and going to war.
The image is Ahu‘ena Heiau at Kamakahonu in Kailua Kona (drawn by Choris in 1816.)