The prayers offered in the hula were, as a rule, uttered by kahuna, specially consecrated or appointed for that office. The consecration of a house or of a waʻa (canoe) was done with the aid of a kahuna; and the common people did resort to kahuna of different classes. (Malo)
According to Lorrin Andrews, author of the first Hawaiian dictionary published in 1865, ‘kahuna’ is a contraction of ‘kahu’ (to cook, especially in an earth oven) and ‘ana’ (a particle that adds ‘ing’ to a word). So the base meaning by this idea is ‘a cooking.’
This doesn’t make much sense until you recognize that ‘kahu’ also means ‘to tend an oven, or to take care of the cooking.’ Ancient Hawaiian thought was very symbolic or figurative and a word for one type of activity or experience could be applied to other symbolically related activities or experiences.
So ‘kahu,’ originally referring to taking care of an oven, became a general word for taking care of anything. Another possible origin for the word ‘kahuna,’ however, is that it is simply a combination of ‘kahu’ (to take care of) and ‘na’ (a particle that makes words into nouns). In that case, a basic translation of “kahuna” would be ‘a caretaker.’ (King)
Kahuna is a general name applied to such persons as have a trade, an art or who practice some profession; some qualifying term is generally added. (Lorrin Andrews, Dictionary of the Hawaiian Language, 1865)
‘Kahuna’ was a title, like MD or PhD, and additional descriptive words were used to designate the field of expertise. Just as the modern use of the word ‘doctor’ by itself is generally taken to mean a medical doctor, so the use of ‘kahuna’ by itself generally designated a priest or healer. (King)
Pukui lists various kahuna: kahuna aʻo – teaching preacher, minister, sorcerer; kahuna haʻi ōlelo – preacher; kahuna hoʻoula ʻai – agricultural expert; kahuna hui – priest for deification of kings; kahuna kālai – carving expert, sculptor; kahuna kālai waʻa – canoe builder; kahuna kiʻi – caretaker of images; kahuna lapaʻau – medical doctor; kahuna nui – high priest, councilor to a high chief; kahuna poʻo – high priest; kahuna pule – preacher, minister, as well as others.
Different kinds of kahuna in traditional Hawaiʻi are put into three broad categories, namely: (1) kahuna pule, the kahuna who officiated in the temples of the aliʻi; (2) ‘professional’ kahuna, a large category that includes ‘specialists in different ritualized activities … and medical priests;’ and (3) the kāula, or prophets. (Nimmo)
At the height of ancient Hawaiian civilization there were dozens of classes of kahuna. Each was trained in a specific aspect of ancient culture and they were considered to be among the wisest in society. They also had inherent spiritual gifts and special abilities to communicate with the ancestors. (Winter)
With respect to ritual worship, kahuna is used in Hawaiian to signify one who is an expert; this knowledge may range from approaching the highest gods on the most important ceremonial occasions to knowing the proper chant to ensure the success of fishing. The religious specialists who contacted the gods reflected the hierarchy of the gods as well as that of Hawaiian society. (Nimmo)
Many myths have grown up around kahuna. One is that kahuna were outlawed after the white man came to Hawaiʻi. Craft kahuna were never prohibited; however, during the decline of native Hawaiian culture many died out and did not pass on their wisdom to new students. Liholiho, in abolishing the kapu, effectively eliminated the need for ritual Kahuna.
Under the Monarchy the term ‘kahuna’ began to be used for foreigners who were recognized experts in their fields, especially for ministers and health professionals. In the 1845 laws doctors, surgeons and dentists were called kahuna. (Pukui)
The native Hawaiian concepts of disease were largely magical although quite perceptive in linking melancholy to physical ailments. Illness required the intercession of a kahuna and some of the herbal remedies used were of value.
King Kamehameha IV sought to restrict the practice of native Hawaiian medicine by kahunas. (nih-gov) His Queen (Queen Emma) in her early years held the kahuna and associated beliefs in contempt (not until her later years did she acknowledge some positive values in the native pharmacopoeia.) (Kanahele)
However, the King’s older brother (in about 1861 – he later became Kamehameha V,) “caused to be issued more than 300 printed licenses to as many native medicine-men, with schedules of prices for their services to the sick.” (The Friend, July 1888)
Secret societies formed, such as the Ahahui Lā‘au Lapa‘au of Wailuku (an association of Native healers known as kahuna) who challenged the efforts of King Kamehameha IV to restrict the practice of Native Hawaiian medicine by kahunas. It asserted the benefits of the traditional plants and medicinal practices in treating diseases such as smallpox. (nih-gov)
Later, Kalākaua, as King, formed the Hale Nauā (also known as Ualo Malie (Malo,)) a secret royal society who according to its constitution was “the revival of Ancient Sciences of Hawaii in combination with the promotion and advancement of Modern Sciences, Art, Literature, and Philanthropy.” (Daws)
In Territorial times, when Hawaiʻi became a tourist destination, visitors discovered that the best surfer on the beach was called ‘kahuna nui heʻe nalu,’ the ‘principal master surfer. He was called ‘kahuna nui’ for short, and this soon became the phrase ‘big kahuna.’ (King) (Artwork by Herb Kane.)