The Hawaiian temple system developed over many centuries before being shut down in 1820. It was the arrival of Christianity on the islands that spelled the end for the old gods, but the beliefs associated with them were not forgotten. These had once been passed from generation to generation as part of a rich oral tradition, but with Christianity came literacy. In the decades after the closure of the temples, some islanders were encouraged to write down accounts of their history and culture. The result is a wealth of information about pre-Christian rituals, which is supplemented by earlier European voyagers’ accounts. Captain James Cook, for instance, visited in the late 1770s, when temple worship was still in full swing.
Drawings made by these early explorers capture the original appearance of the monuments, which generally featured timber fencing, a thatched house, and wooden idols, with an offering platform set in front of them. Today, it is only the stone foundations that survive, and these display very different designs. Although general styles are apparent, archaeologists examining temple sites in the early 20th century struggled to develop a typology, with one despairing that ‘no two… are alike’. It was also accepted that the temples were not laid out according to a consistent orientation. Despite this, we know from the written records that there were functional differences between certain types of temples, while offerings to the gods could range from the root of the ‘awa plant all the way to human sacrifice. This role seemingly inspired the traditional name for the temples – heiau – which probably came from the root ‘hai’, meaning ‘to sacrifice’.
Written accounts also identify the beneficiaries of such offerings, by describing the four main Hawaiian gods. Of these, Kū was the god of war and also linked to high mountains; Lono the god of dryland agriculture, rain, thunder, fertility, and birth; while Kāne was the deity associated with flowing water and male procreation; and Kanaloa presided over the sea and death. Despite this invaluable information, the surviving records do not disclose everything. Four times a month, local men would spend a night or two at some temples, for instance, but what they did there is glossed over. Now, a new book (see ‘Further information’ below) documenting a survey of 78 heiau sites on the Hawaiian island of Maui has filled in some of these gaps in the historical records by revealing the remarkable range of roles the temples fulfilled.
An arid area
‘Maui is very different from what people normally think of when they imagine Hawaii, with its white-sand beaches, palm trees, and verdant valleys,’ explains Patrick Kirch, professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i and co-author of the book. ‘That is because it is one of the youngest Hawaiian Islands in geological terms. It takes about 3 to 5 million years for weathering and erosion to carve out deep valleys, and Maui was created by volcanic activity too recently for that to have happened. Parts of the island are also very arid, which makes the land less desirable. Maui is formed of two volcanoes with an isthmus in between. The largest summit rises to about 10,000 feet at the eastern end of the island, creating a rain shadow on the side normally sheltered from the wind. This means the area only receives rain when the wind changes direction, which normally happens in the winter months. It is in this part of Maui that we conducted our survey of heiau sites, and also where I’d been working since 1995 on a larger project looking at settlement patterns.’
‘This region was part of two districts known as Kahikinui and Kaupō, which were once ruled by separate chieftains. By the beginning of the 17th century, the districts on Maui had been united into a single kingdom. Today, this part of the island is essentially unique in Hawaii, because it has had almost no development in the post-contact era, which is to say the period following the arrival of Europeans. Cattle ranching is the only activity that has gone on there since the region was abandoned by Native Hawaiians. While cattle may knock over a few walls and things like that, it’s on a very different scale to the destruction that was caused elsewhere by plantation agriculture, and then in more recent times by urbanism, tourism, and golf courses. Kahikinui, in particular, presents an opportunity to study an entire intact former traditional district. So, I was working away mapping this landscape, and doing some excavations. These were mostly at residential sites, but I was also interested in the temples and their place in the landscape. Then, by coincidence, along came Clive Ruggles, who had also heard about Kahikinui.’
‘Being an archaeoastronomer, I’m interested in possible astronomical associations at sites around the world,’ says Clive, emeritus professor of archaeoastronomy at the University of Leicester and book co-author. ‘Polynesia has always fascinated me, because there is an obvious cultural connection with the stars, which comes from their use for navigation. It was the Polynesians’ mastery of that, which allowed them to settle Hawaii in around AD 1000. I first had the opportunity to work in the islands in 1999, and started to look at the temple sites to see if there were any patterns of orientation that had been missed by earlier investigators, which might have some sort of astronomical purpose. Obviously, archaeoastronomers are well aware that any such connections are only one part of a much bigger picture. It’s clear the Hawaiian temples weren’t exclusively associated with astronomy, meaning there are many different possible explanations for any particular orientation, which need to be carefully considered.’
‘I should add that one issue in archaeoastronomy, which has sometimes made it controversial in archaeology more widely, is a tendency to select data that fit a particular theory. So, if you have 50 monuments and one of them points towards a solstice, that’s the one you make a song and dance about, while ignoring the other 49. One of the ways archaeoastronomers tried to get over this, back in the 1970s and ’80s, was to look at groups of similar monuments. That works well when you can spot orientation patterns that are so strong they could only have related to the skies. One example is the ‘seven-stone antas’, a distinctive group of 4th-millennium BC dolmens found in Portugal and Spain. We know of over 175 of them whose orientations can still be measured, and they are all orientated eastwards, without exception, within the span of horizon where the sun rises at some point in the year. It’s quite evident that those burial monuments are relating strongly to the sun.’
‘Given the importance of stars to Polynesian navigators, I arrived on Hawaii with great hopes and spent the first few seasons immersing myself in the culture. But I also became quite disillusioned, as the island I was working on had seen a lot of post-contact destruction, and there were very few heiau left in a state suitable for surveying to establish what the principal axis of orientation was. Even in those cases where it was possible to survey them, so far as I could see there was no consistency. Because of that I started exploring a couple of other islands and, in 2002, I arrived on Maui. There I came across the exciting landscape of Kahikinui, relatively untouched since the arrival of the Europeans, and discovered that Pat had been doing an archaeological landscape survey there for several years. That could give me the context I really look for to do meaningful archaeoastronomy, so I got in touch with Pat, and found that he was also interested in orientations. On my next trip we visited a few sites together, and found out we had a lot of common interests.’
Patrick’s work had already revealed a number of new temple sites. ‘Some of the Kahikinui heiau had been recorded by Winslow Walker,’ says Patrick, ‘who went through the area very quickly in 1929. He had Native Hawaiian informants who showed him about 30 sites, and the remainder were found by us. One of the things that intrigued me from the beginning was this view from the 1920s and ’30s that there was no consistent temple orientation and the layout was all determined by the local topography. But by the time I’d mapped about 40 of these sites, I realised that there were some very consistent orientation patterns, which could be divided into three clusters: facing north, east-northeast, and east. From that I developed a hypothesis that they corresponded to three of the main gods. These deities had particular attributes, so for example Kāne was strongly associated with the sun, making it plausible that the group of temples orientated due east were associated with him. Those angled north, meanwhile, faced the high volcano, fitting Kū’s association with mountains.’
When Patrick and Clive teamed up, Clive applied a systematic technique to the temple sites. The first step was to use the archaeological remains to establish the axis of the temple. Because the most sacred part of a heiau was typically more architecturally elaborate and featured elements such as an altar platform, it was normally possible to build up a strong case for the direction the monument faced. Even with that information, though, establishing the precise orientation of the temples was not straightforward, as Maui’s volcanic landscape can have a powerful effect on compasses. Iron – especially magnetite – in the rocks can draw a compass needle up to 20° away from its real bearing. To overcome this, Clive used a theodolite to take a very precise measure of the angle of orientation and establish true north. No one had ever taken such a painstaking approach before on Hawaii, but it paid off by showing that of the 66 temples for which an orientation could be determined, 54 – or 82% – fell into one of the three main directional clusters. In other words, the existence of heiau alignment groups held up.
‘This is where the ethnohistory is a fantastic help,’ notes Clive. ‘If you think about those Spanish and Portuguese dolmens – where the consistency of the eastern orientation was key to establishing a connection with the sun – looking for that kind of uniformity wouldn’t work in the Hawaiian Islands because of the different directional clusters. It is only our knowledge of the gods and the existence of certain categories of temples that allows us to start to interpret them in this way.’
And what about those temples that do not slot neatly into the three orientation groups? In at least some cases it seems that a more earthly concern may have been in play. ‘There are two temples in particular,’ says Patrick, ‘that are in Kaupō district. They very clearly face west, and they are very close to the boundary between Kaupō and Kahikinui districts, which were probably once politically independent and controlled by separate chiefs. So, we could think of these as boundary temples, which are symbolically saying “you stay away”. Given both their orientation towards a district boundary, and their scale, it seems reasonable to associate them with the war god Kū.’
Written in the stars
If two of the groups of temple alignments can be explained by divine associations with both the sun and the volcano that dominates this part of Maui, what of the third set, facing east-northeast? This seems to have been linked to a distinctive cluster of stars known in the West as the Pleiades or Seven Sisters. On Hawaii, this constellation is called the Makali‘i, which translates as ‘little eyes’. Because of the way that the Native Hawaiians organised their calendar, the appearance of this constellation in November would have been of great significance to the inhabitants of Kahikinui.
‘There are lots of ways to tell the seasons,’ says Clive, ‘and societies around the world do this in many different ways. The most obvious cycle in the sky, though, is the phase cycle of the moon, and very many people have calendars that are based on 29- or 30-day months counted from one new moon to the next. We know from the ethnohistory that the Polynesians were one such group. The problem with that approach is that there are not an exact number of lunar months inside a solar year, which is the length of time it takes the Earth to make a full circuit of the sun. Instead, there are roughly 12.5 lunar cycles in a solar year. Because the seasons keep pace with the sun, you have a problem regardless of whether you think there are 12 lunar months in a year or 13 lunar months in a year: either way, your calendar will very quickly get out of sync with the seasons. One solution is to find something you can use to reset the calendar: it doesn’t have to be astronomical, and there are some pretty natty ways that people have found to do this around the world. One way is to track the sunrise or sunset. But you can also use the stars.’
‘Although the pattern of the stars in the sky does shift position gradually over time, for any one person in a single lifetime, a given star will always seem to rise in the same spot. What changes is that it rises about four minutes earlier each day. For half of the year, then, that star will be rising in the night, and for half the year it’ll be rising during the day. At the time of year when a star rises around sunset, it’ll spend all night moving through the sky, before setting around sunrise, give or take. When the star is seen to rise just after sunset, that marks a fixed time in the seasonal year. Equally, about six months on, that same star would rise around sunrise and set around sunset, so because it is daylight, it wouldn’t be visible at all. As the star keeps rising earlier and earlier, a day will eventually come when it is possible to catch a glimpse of the star in the morning, before the sky brightens so much it becomes invisible. That first rising of a star after it has been invisible for a while marks another important point in the year. In the case of Hawaii, we know that New Year was marked by the Pleiades rising at sunset in November.’
‘Using the rising of the Pleiades to reset the Hawaiian calendar would have become more important during the later stages of the occupation of the islands. In the first few centuries after the Polynesians arrived, life would have been comfortable in the western islands, where they could grow crops all year around. But as the population expanded and they began to move out to the geologically younger, eastern islands like Maui, people became reliant on more marginal terrain. There, they really had to work. Successfully growing food was much more dependent on the seasons, and so the calendar was also much more important.’
This was especially true of Kahikinui district, because it lies on the side of the volcano where rain usually only falls in the winter months. ‘The Hawaiians living there were growing sweet potatoes, which their ancestors had acquired from South America,’ says Patrick. ‘Some varieties have a growing time of four to five months, so they could get a crop out in the winter months when they had enough water. The winter rains would normally begin around November, so this made the rising of the Pleiades in late November critical for setting the calendar and allowing a dry part of the island to make full use of its wet season. It was in the lead up to that, in September and October, that the inhabitants would need to be preparing the fields in anticipation of the rain.’
‘The rising of the Pleiades was also the beginning of a four-month period called the Makahiki, which was sacred to the god Lono. This was a time when warfare was forbidden, so that nothing could mess up the growing of the sweet potato. At the beginning of this period there were a series of complicated rituals, when the king would symbolically turn the kingdom over to Lono. The sweet potato was his special crop, and he was also associated with rain. Lono was believed to arrive from overseas, so at the end of this four-month period he would symbolically be sent out in a canoe and the king was put back in charge. Because of all this, being able to observe the first rising of the Pleiades was of major social importance. As this occurred towards the east-northeast, it can explain the cluster of temples orientated in that direction. In some cases, the rising of the Pleiades would even coincide with a distinctive feature of the landscape on the horizon, from the perspective of a viewer in the temple. As well as suggesting a connection with the god Lono, this indicates that these temples were places of observation as well as sacrifice.’
Stargazing does not seem to have been the only activity taking place in the temples that is not closely connected to religion from a modern Western viewpoint. ‘When I excavated in some of these temples,’ says Patrick, ‘we found evidence for male craft-working. This included the production of stone tools, particularly the adze, which was the main woodworking tool for Hawaiians, and also fishing gear. We found fishhooks in various stages of manufacture, as well as the tools to make them. This is something that people had not associated with heiau before. The general conception was that these were strictly places of ritual and prayer. Why would you have craft-working going on? But when you stop and think about it, in traditional societies crafts are often linked to ritual. While making a fishhook you might want to be in a temple or perhaps even chanting, so that your hook will be very efficacious and catch those big fish. There’s no fixed boundary in traditional cultures between economic / utilitarian and the ritual / religious side of things. So, it seems likely that this is what the men were doing when they went to temples four times in a lunar month, as recorded in the ethnographic histories.’
Another curious find at some temple sites was pieces of coral. ‘This is another area that we have almost no ethnohistorical information about,’ says Patrick, ‘but it is quite clear that people were going out into the ocean and knocking off branch coral heads, before bringing them ashore to place them on the temple sites. This is particularly clear at the coastal shrines, but they were also taken to inland heiau sites. We find them on what appear to be altar platforms and even incorporated into walls. Not only is it interesting that they were using coral ritually, but it is also lucky for us because it provides valuable dating evidence. This is another thing that we innovated at Kahikinui, and it was work that I did with Warren Sharp, a geochronologist at Berkeley. While coral dating is not new – it has been applied to date fossil reefs around the world – it had never been applied archaeologically. It turned out that Warren could sometimes get dates with an error margin of just two or three years, which is much more accurate than radiocarbon dating. From the coral and radiocarbon dates we can be sure that the various temple styles were being used from the late 16th to the early 20th centuries, so the patterns we’re seeing aren’t down to chronological differences.’
Patrick and Clive’s work on Maui has demonstrated what can be achieved when numerous different categories of evidence are brought to bear on a complex and confusing set of structures. Combining the historical accounts, archaeological techniques ranging from archaeoastronomy to excavation, and geochronological methods has allowed surprisingly strong patterns to be detected among a seemingly disparate group. In many ways, drawing on so many different strands could not be more appropriate, given that it is now clear just how diverse the actions occurring within these sites could be. As well as focusing attention on how much depended on mastering the calendar for the inhabitants of Kahikinui, it illustrates the range of activities that could have a religious dimension. As well as places for sacrifice and worship, the heiau could be observatories, assembly places, and centres for craft production. ‘The truth is they lived with dark skies in a way that we’ve all forgotten,’ says Clive. ‘Of course, the stars were important to the Hawaiians. But they didn’t have our Linnaean way of classifying things: if it’s above the clouds it’s astronomy, if it’s below our feet it’s geology, if it’s walking around on the earth it’s biology, and so on. All of these elements were interconnected to create a holistic world view that made sense to them. The temples reflect that.’
Listen to Professors Ruggles and Kirch discuss the Hawaiian temples in more detail on the latest episode of the PastCast.
The results of the survey and analysis of the temple sites have been published by the University of Hawai‘i Press: P V Kirch & C Ruggles (2019) Heiau, ‘Āina, Lani: the Hawaiian temple system in ancient Kahikinui and Kaupō, Maui, ISBN 978-0824878276, £82.50.
All images: Courtesy of Patrick Kirch, unless otherwise stated