A heiau is a Hawaii
Hawaii is the newest of the 50 U.S. states , and is the only U.S. state made up entirely of islands. It is the northernmost island group in Polynesia, occupying most of an archipelago in the central Pacific Ocean, southwest of the continental United States, southeast of Japan, and northeast of...

an temple
A temple is a structure reserved for religious or spiritual activities, such as prayer and sacrifice, or analogous rites. A templum constituted a sacred precinct as defined by a priest, or augur. It has the same root as the word "template," a plan in preparation of the building that was marked out...

. Many types of heiau existed, including heiau to treat the sick (heiau hōola), offer first fruits, offer first catch, start rain, stop rain, increase the population, ensure health of the nation, achieve success in distant voyaging, reach peace, and achieve success in war (luakini). Only the luakini was dedicated through human sacrifice. There are two types of luakini. They were called the ohia ko and hakuohia.

Heiau were made in different architectural styles depending upon their purpose and location. At the official end of Hawaiian religion in 1819, many were deliberately destroyed, while others were allowed to fall into disrepair. Some structures have been fully restored today.


Heiau were made in different shapes depending upon their purpose. They could be rectangular, square, or rounded. Some consisted of simple earth terraces, while others were elaborately constructed stone platforms. They could be placed on hills, cliffs, level earth, valleys and on the coastline touching the sea. Some koa or fishing shrines were built underwater. Heiaus of the people varied in size. Large heiaus were built by prominant people while small heiaus were built by the humble.

American missionary Hiram Bingham described a heiau he saw on route hiking between the summits of Mauna Kea and Hualalai. Made of piled lava rock, it was a square of 100 feet (30.5 m), with walls eight feet high and four feet thick. A doorway led through the middle of the north wall. Eight pyramids surrounded the outside of the temple. Made of piled lava rock, they were 12 feet (3.7 m) in diameter and 12 to 15 feet (4.6 m) high.

Heiau types

The luakini pookanaka were large heiaus. Only the Alii nui of an island or moku could use this type of heiau. Other chiefs or the makaainana that built this type of heiau were considered rebels. This type of heiau was usually built alongside coastlines, in the interior of the land, or on mountain sides.

Preserved sites

The heiau most commonly preserved are war temples of the later period of history (e.g. Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site). They are composed of large stone platforms with various structures built upon them. The structures were used to house priests, sacred ceremonial drums, sacred items, and cult image
Cult image
In the practice of religion, a cult image is a human-made object that is venerated for the deity, spirit or daemon that it embodies or represents...

s representing the gods associated with that particular temple. There were also altars (Ahu) on which to offer sacrifice
Sacrifice is the offering of food, objects or the lives of animals or people to God or the gods as an act of propitiation or worship.While sacrifice often implies ritual killing, the term offering can be used for bloodless sacrifices of cereal food or artifacts...

s (plant, animal and human). The heiau were sacred places; only the kahuna
Kahuna is a Hawaiian word, defined in the as a "Priest, sorcerer, magician, wizard, minister, expert in any profession." Forty different types of kahuna are listed in the book, Tales from the Night Rainbow...

 (priests) and certain sacred ali'i
Alii is a word in the Polynesian language denoting chiefly status in ancient Hawaii and the Samoa Islands. A similar word with the same concept is found in other Polynesian societies. In the Cook Islands, an ariki is a high chief and the House of Ariki is a parliamentary house...

 (high chiefs) were allowed to enter.

The largest heiau currently known to exist, Hale O Pi'ilani Heiau, is a massive, three-acre platform with fifty foot retaining walls located in Hāna on Maui
The island of Maui is the second-largest of the Hawaiian Islands at and is the 17th largest island in the United States. Maui is part of the state of Hawaii and is the largest of Maui County's four islands, bigger than Lānai, Kahoolawe, and Molokai. In 2010, Maui had a population of 144,444,...

. Built for Pi'ilani, it dates back to the 13th century.

Agricultural heiau, called generally Hale-o-Lono for the god of fertility, can be found today on Oahu at Makaha (Kaneaki heiau - fully restored) and in Hawaii Kai (Pahua heiau - partially restored). The ruins of a healing heiau, Keaiwa ("the mysterious") are located at the entrance to Keaiwa State Park in Aiea.

Puuhonua o Honaunau, in South Kona on the island of Hawaii, itself is a place of refuge, but it includes a heiau complex within it.

Because the land of heiau was sacred, it was not unusual for successive generations to add to original structures and for the purposes of the heiau to change over time. An example is Ulupo heiau in Kailua on Oahu, which is said to have been built by the menehune, that is, a long time ago, and is thought to have been used first as an agricultural heiau and later as a luakini.


The kapu
Kapu refers to the ancient Hawaiian code of conduct of laws and regulations. The kapu system was universal in lifestyle, gender roles, politics, religion, etc. An offense that was kapu was often a corporal offense, but also often denoted a threat to spiritual power, or theft of mana. Kapus were...

 or ai kapu system was abolished in October, 1819 by Liholiho, Kamehameha II
Kamehameha II
Kamehameha II was the second king of the Kingdom of Hawaii. His birth name was Liholiho and full name was Kalaninui kua Liholiho i ke kapu Iolani...

. The abolition of the kapu system ended the use of heiau as places of worship and sacrifice. A period referred to as the 'Ai Noa
'Ai Noa
The Ai Noa , was a period of taboo-breaking which convulsed the Hawaiian Islands in 1819. Women were allowed to eat forbidden food and to eat with men; the priests were no longer to offer human sacrifices; the many prohibitions surrounding the high chiefs were relaxed.Kamehameha I, the conqueror of...

 or "free eating" followed. Missionaries arrived in 1820, and most of the aliʻi converted to Christianity, including Kaʻahumanu
Elizabeth Kaahumanu was queen regent of the Kingdom of Hawaii and a wife of Kamehameha I. She was the king's favorite wife and also the most politically powerful, and continued to wield considerable power in the kingdom as the kuhina nui during the reigns of his first two successors.-Early...

 and Keōpūolani
Kalanikauikaalaneo Kai Keōpūolani-Ahu-i-Kekai-Makuahine-a-Kama-Kalani-Kau-i-Kealaneo was a queen consort of Hawaii and the highest ranking wife of King Kamehameha I.-Early life:...

, but it took 11 years for Kaʻahumanu to proclaim laws against ancient religious practices. All heiau were officially abandoned; most were destroyed over the years. Often they were broken up and plowed under to make way for fields of sugar cane. However, some of the families who were responsible for the heiau have continued the tradition of caring for them to this day.

Further reading

au Hawaii: Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants
| publisher = Bishop Museum Press
| year = 1992
| location = Honolulu
| isbn = 0-930897-62-5}}
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