Hawaiʻi’s iconic landmark, Lēʻahi (Diamond Head) overlooks Waikīkī. Papaʻenaʻena heiau once stood on its western slope, overlooking the Waikīkī coastline. It was referred to by some early writers as “Lēʻahi heiau.”
“It consisted of a mana (supernatural or divine power) house approximately 50 feet long; an oven house (hale umu); a drum house; a waiea or spiritual house; an anuʻu or tower; a lele (altar) and twelve large images. The heiau was bordered by a rectangular wooden fence approximately six to eight feet tall with an eight-foot wide base, which narrowed to three feet at its apex.” (Ireland)
It is likely that the heiau was built in 1783 by Kahekili, the mōʻī (ruler) of Maui, as part of a victory celebration following Kahekili conquest of Oʻahu.
Surfing was one of the principal attractions for Waikīkī to both the chiefs and commoners who resided there. “Here at the ‘surfing heiau’ of Papaʻenaʻena, a terraced structure … is where surfers came to offer their sacrifices in order to obtain mana and knowledge of the surf.” (Kanahele)
When surf was ‘up,’ Kahuna at Papaʻenaʻena heiau reportedly flew a kite at the heiau as a signal to the people of the wave conditions. (Kanahele)
An ancient chant tells of Papaʻenaʻena and surfing:
There at Kalahuewehe is the big surf created by Papaʻenaʻena.
Arise, of ye surf of Kalahuewehe, arise! …
The kahuna of Papaʻenaʻena flies his moon kite
To proclaim the suitability of the sea for surfing.
The eager lookout on yonder highland
Anxiously scans the skies for this signal,
And relays the good news by runners;
Farmers, woodsmen, bird catchers all,
Leave their tasks and fetching their surf boards
Hurry to the beach at Waikiki.
Soon the sea is filled with natives
Sporting in the billowy surf;
Trick riding, zigging and zagging, amidst the foam,
Shouting words of defiance against the angry surf
To topple the rider if it can …. (Kanahele)
Papaʻenaʻena heiau was also a luakini heiau; human sacrifices were made at the terraced stone structure. The heiau was probably used for sacrificial or sacred purposes for 35 years.
Some historians believe that when Kamehameha I conquered ‘Oahu in 1795 at the Battle of Nuʻuanu, Kamehameha I used Papaʻenaʻena heiau to offer a sacrifice of his slain rival, Kalanikūpule, to his war god Kūkaʻilimoku.
After Kamehameha’s troops were overcome with dysentery in 1804, that stopped his attempt to conquer Kauaʻi, Kamehameha repaired Papaʻenaʻena heiau and offered in sacrifice 400 pigs, numerous coconuts and bananas and three kapu violators.
The heiau was also used for one (possibly its last) sacrifice. Kanihonui was killed and placed on the Papaʻenaʻena alter.
Kamehameha learned that Queen Kaʻahumanu had an affair with Kanihonui. He was a handsome 19-year old. Reportedly, Kaʻahumanu had seduced the boy while she was intoxicated; in addition, the boy was the son of Kamehameha’s half-sister – and, Kamehameha and Kaʻahumanu raised him.
George W. Bates, in 1854, describes a heiau at the foot of Lēʻahi (believed to be Papaʻenaʻena) as: “Just beyond Waikiki stand the remains of an ancient heiau, or pagan temple. It is a huge structure, nearly quadrangular, and is composed merely of a heavy wall of loose lava stones, resembling the sort of inclosure commonly called a ‘cattlepen.’”
“This heiau was placed at the very foot of Diamond crater, and can be seen at some distance from the sea. Its dimensions externally are 130 by 70 feet. The walls I found to be from six to eight feet high, eight feet thick at the base, and four at the top.”
“On climbing the broken wall near the ocean, and by carefully looking over the interior, I discovered the remains of three altars located at the western extremity, and closely resembling parallelograms. I searched for the remains of human victims once immolated on these altars, but found none; for they had returned to their primitive dust, or been carried away by curious visitors.”
Later (at about 1856,) Queen Emma ordered her workers to take rocks from Papaʻenaʻena heiau to build a stone wall around her property at Waikīkī.
During the Māhele the site was transferred to the future King Lunalilo. After the king’s death, this site was sold to James Campbell, in 1883. Later, Walter F. Dillingham bought the land from Campbell.
With the help of famed Chicago architect, David Adler, the Dillinghams built a home similar to the Villa La Pietra they admired in Tuscany while on their honeymoon – they named their new home La Pietra – meaning The Gem or The Rock.
After Walter’s death, La Pietra was sold to Hawaii School for Girls, who relocated their school there (1969.) The former Papaʻenaʻena heiau site is now the home for La Pietra – Hawaii School for Girls, an independent, college preparatory school for girls, grades 6 through 12.
When Papaʻenaʻena heiau stood on Diamond Head, it overlooked what is today First Break, the beginning of Kalahuewehe, a surfing spot famous for hundreds of years.