Oahu: A Godly Place

Call it irony. Call it superstition. But the fact remains that even the most level-headed Hawai’ian is going to have a healthy respect for things that go bump in the night. Reverence for Madam Pele, the Goddess of Fire and titular divine queen of the islands, runs deep despite Christianity becoming the official religion in 1819.

But the conversion never sat well. It still doesn’t. I mean, a pantheon of 40,000 gods just doesn’t just up and leave…

Command and Control

Religiously speaking, 1819 is a late date and much of Hawai’i’s pagan past remains not only culturally, but physically in the form of heiau (pronounce every vowel). These temples spangle the Hawai’ian Islands and were not only seats of power for the mo’i (local rulers) and ali’i (high chiefs) who built them, but the kahuna (priests) who communicated to all the gods from great oracular towers rising within the holy enclosure.

The remains of Pu’u o Mahuka overlook Waimea Bay on O’ahu.

Not much of Pu’u o Mahuka remains today; Christianized King Liholiho, heir to Kamehameha, ordered all heiau and other heathen sites dismantled. Yet the old glory of the site remains, and it is impossible to avoid. Situated on O’hau’s North Shore, it was the island’s grandest heiau and the NORAD of its day. Overlooking the fertile Waimea Valley as well as its beachhead, and with Kauai in the distance, this was no ordinary heiau; it was a luakini heiau, a political nexus and holy of holies where sacrifices — both animal and human — were performed. In modern terms, this was the “It Place.”

Perhaps that explains the unofficial reverence Hawai’ians still have for the ruin. Sacred blood tends never to wash away completely. A triple-walled platform roughly the shape of a rectangle, the heiau probably took shape in the 1600s, with additions appearing through to the 1700s. When King Kamehameha conquered O’ahu in 1795 as part of his successful campaign to unite all the Hawai’ian islands under one ruler, Pu’u o Mahuka was in its fullest, finest form. The king was no fool and quickly brought and its denizens under his control, replacing the local priests with his own.

Locals still leave stones wrapped in leaves as prayers to the Gods at Pu’u o Mahuka.

The Veil Between Worlds

DON’T climb the stones. DON’T get too near the stones. And for all that’s sane, DON’T move the stones. As Pu’u o Mahuka is a registered historical site, I can totally get down with the rules my guide set down, but in my 21st Century haole (mainlander/non-native Hawai’ian/clueless barbaric dingbat) mind I had to wonder if the strident language was the official line or reverential caution. Probably little of both.

The walls of Pu’u o Mahuka. They stand to this day as much as the faith that built them.

In fact, the only thing one seems to be able to do and not call down divine wrath — and maybe even then — is to, paradoxically, add to the stones. As I walked around the five-acre walls of Pu’u o Mahuka, I noticed a number of small pebbles wrapped in sacred ti leaves sitting one the walls. Each, I was told, was an individual prayer. It was proof positive that whatever Liholiho did, he came up short. There was, in fact, a whole new shrine set up on the modern fence ringing the heiau, composed of leis, shell necklaces, candles, fruit, even a roasted chicken. The Gods will be eating well tonight!

The old faith lives on at Pu’u o Mahuka. That’s a chicken on the lower left!

Mortal and mystical blend here, the equivalent to Stonehenge or Serpent Mound. Hawai’ians, my guide included, would have thought me mad if I suggested going to Pu’u o Mahuka after dark. Not because the site is officially closed at sunset, but because to wander the grounds of a heiau at night is tantamount to painting a bull’s-eye on your chest for every akuamenehune, ‘aumakua, and whatever other supernatural Hawai’ian whatzit is around to aim at. This isn’t an isolated belief system confined to country bumpkins; even amid Honolulu’s smug modernity is a mindfulness of the Things That Were.

“Can I go into the enclosure?” I asked. “I wouldn’t,” said my guide.

Considering all the ruins I have scrambled over (Giza, Teotihuacan, the Parthenon), I really treated Pu’u o Mahuka with kid gloves. I walked around the walls, took photos, even left a stone prayer, but otherwise stayed a good six feet from anything that looked remotely made by man. Maybe it was because the heiau has clearly seen better days and those walls could easily topple under heavy traffic. Or maybe I was under the eye of somebody else and I didn’t want to tick them off. Or maybe it was because Lono, Kamapua’a, and Pele herself are still around, just out of sight in the trees and I didn’t want to tick THEM off. In any event, I minded my manners.

Besides, I’ve ticked off enough pantheons.



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