The name Keaīwa has been translated as mysterious or incomprehensible. Perhaps, this name refers to the fact that one could not explain the powers of the kahuna and the herbs used in healing.
“In this old society there was also a group of intelligentsia or experts. These were experts in all fields such as canoe-building, bird experts, fishing experts, etc. These experts were known as kahunas.”
“The top expert in the healing profession was known as the kahuna lapaau. He was the best-versed in herb knowledge and the most capable of alleviating suffering of people when they were sick. Recognized in the community as a man of parts, he was one of five chosen to be on the council of the top leader, the alii aimoku.”
“His training began in some instances at the time of his birth, when in some communities if certain things happened at the time of his birth, it was decided that the gods had decreed that this individual should become a kahuna lapaau.” (John Desha; Larsen)
Keaīwa Heiau is a medicinal or healing heiau (temple) known as a heiau ho‘ola. At this site, the kahuna (priest, expert) specializing in healing would diagnose and treat various illnesses and injuries.
“The healing heiau was sacred above all others, for it gave life from God. Health was important, for without health the ‘land is worthless.’”
“The Hawaiians say that the art of the kahuna lapaau died out because ‘the sharp-tempered’ were never taught the art. Only the good and kind could be given the knowledge. There is no cure for a ‘sharp temper.’”
“The Hawaiians, in asking Ku and Hina to bless the plants being taken for medicine, always prayed aloud so the person for whom the medicine was intended would not become suspicious.” (George Kahoiwai; Larsen)
“The stones of the heiau lay in rows. Formerly the walls had measured nine feet high, but now they were only three to four feet in height and five to seven feet in width. The rocks, covered with verdant rust of time, were each a weathered gem. The time of the building of this ancient temple had long since disappeared in the mist of forgotten years.”
“The tall trees – mango, kukui, ironwood, Norfolk Island pine – stood up out of a jungled mass of hau trees like a close-formation honor guard. The rectangular enclosure of the shrine measured 168 feet in length and 94 in width. Across one end, and again along the south wall, were stone platforms about one foot high and six feet wide.”
“On these platforms had once stood certain structures, perhaps a tower, perhaps grass huts. The whole inner floor had been paved with flat stones, now showing only here and there.” (Larsen)
The kahuna would also train haumana (students) in the practice of la‘au lapa‘au, medicinal healing using plants, fasting, and prayers. Women were not allowed in the heiau but could receive training outside the heiau.
An apprentice learned the art of diagnosis by practicing on pebbles which a kahuna laid out on a mat in the form of the human body. Pupils learned in this way how to feel out with their fingers the symptoms of the various illnesses. It might take 15 years for a student to become fully trained in the art of healing.
Many of the plants and herbs were collected from the neighboring forest while others were planted around the heiau.
The heiau was badly damaged during World War II when soldiers camping nearby took many stones from the heiau to build a road. The heiau was “rededicated” in 1951 and an effort was made to re-establish the historical setting with plantings of medicinal plants.
“This medicinal temple known as Keaiwa Heiau at the top of Aiea Heights is so ancient that the history of its early construction is not known. It is called Keaiwa after the medicinal god of early times. The outer walls of the heiau were broken down when the adjacent land was subdivided into houselots. The stones were used for road-building and housebuilding.”
“Also the grass house where the god was placed was cut down for road development. What remains of this heiau is the inner platform. At one time this platform was over nine feet high. Again during World War II, much stone was removed from the heiau and used in various military constructions at that time.” (George Kahuiwai; Larsen)
Much of this area was replanted by foresters in the late 1920s. The lemon eucalyptus trees give the air a light citrus fragrance. Stands of Norfolk Island pine trees mark the lower end of the trail.
It is unknown when this heiau was built but one source suggests that it was constructed in the 16th Century by Kakuhihewa, an ali’i (chief) of Oʻahu, and his kahuna Keaīwa.
The 4-foot high stacked rock wall encloses the sacred area that measures 100 by 160 feet. Within the enclosure was a halau (large thatched structure) built for the master kahuna to store the medicinal implements and train the students. Other features might include hale (small thatched structure) and a puholoholo (steam bath).
The heiau is at the top of ‘Aiea Heights Drive at the Keaīwa Heiau State Recreation Area and the ‘Aiea Loop Trail, a 4.8-mile trail that begins and ends in the park. This trail runs along the ridge on the west side of Halawa Valley and offers views from Pearl Harbor (Pu’uloa) and the Wai’anae Range to Honolulu and Diamond Head (Le’ahi). (State Parks)
The following was published by Clarice B. Taylor in the 1950s; she got her information from several reliable sources, including Mary Kawena Pukui and Anne Peleioholani Hall.
Taylor wrote this entry entitled “Keaiwa Heiau, the Medical School.” At the time the Keaiwa heiau at the top of Aiea Heights was discovered in 1951 to be the ruins of an ancient medical center, few Hawaiians knew of its ancient usage.
Eminent anthropologists acknowledged that they had never heard of such centers but were convinced when several Hawaiians independently told of them.
In telling of these centers, Mrs. Mary Kawena Pukui, associate in Hawaiian culture at the Bishop Museum, translated the name Ke-a-iwa as “Incomprehensible.”
The thought being that no one could explain the powers of the priests or the herbs used in healing.
She said Ke-a-iwa came from an obsolete word aiwa-iwa which means the mysterios or the incomprehensible.
Further confirmation of the use of Ke-a-iwa has lately been given to me by Paul Keliikoa, a Hawaiian livingin Aiea. Mr. Keliikoa has the story from his grandmother Kamoekai.
In her day Ke-a-iwa was interpreted as “a period of fasting and meditation” and the heiau was so named because novitiates in the art of healing spent long hours in fasting, praying and meditation.
Kamoekai also told her grandson that the very young were taken to Ke-a-iwa to be trained as kahuna lapaau. There they were taight the prayers needed to compound medicines and heal the sick. They cared for the great herb gardens which lay beyond the heiau walls.
After the novice learned his first steps in the art of the kahuna lapaau, he was sent out to other medicinal centers to learn the advanced art of diagnosis and other treatments.
Mr. Keliikoa’s interpretation of the name means a change in the pronounciation. Not Ke-a-iwa,but Ke-ai-wa. Ke-ai is the Hawaiian word for fasting. (Clarice B. Taylor, “Tales About Hawaii,” The Saturday Star-Bulletin, February 28, 1959) (KS) (Information is from State Parks, Larsen, Kamehameha Schools)