by Veronica S.
The Royal Court appearing
at the ancient Hawaiian village, Pu'uhonua o Honaunau
(Place of Refuge) during the Aloha Festivals.
At the end of October, perhaps early November, over
the eastern horizon during the magical hour of sunset
the Pleiades rise to greet the Hawaiian land. In ancient
times both commoners and chiefs eagerly awaited the
appearance of this constellation, the Makali'i. It marked
the start of the great Makahiki Festival.
For four months Hawaiians, throughout the Island chain,
would participate in elaborate and complex religious
rituals. It was a long period of enforced peace in a
land where warfare dominated the day.
Why the Makahiki? Why peace? To explain it in the simplest
terms, the festival was dedicated to the god of rain
and agriculture. A healthy agriculture meant survival
in ancient Hawaii. But plants only flourished when would-be
warriors worked their land, and when the gods were thoroughly
Who were the Gods?
The Hawaiian people worshipped four principal male gods:
Kane of the sun and the heavens, in white; Kanaloa of
the underworld, prince of darkness; Ku, god of the people,
of justice, canoe building, and of warfare, his color
red; and Lono, god of the land and of peace, of the
rain, the thunder, the winds, in black.
Ku reigned eight months of the year. Chiefs pursued
power and politics. The common people worked at whatever
was required by their superiors. But the four months
of harvest and long, dark nights, were dedicated to
Lono, the rainmaker who brought the fertile thunder
Lono, like other gods, could take on many different
forms (kino lau), such as the kukui tree, many plant
and sea forms, the rain clouds, and the pig (pua'a),
whose black bulk resembled the dark skies. For farmers,
the rites of the Makahiki festival guaranteed the rain.
For chiefs and landlords, the Makahiki offered a natural
and most practical opportunity to get paid.
Yet more than a simple tax payer time, the Makahiki
was a time of rest, fun, games, and thanksgiving. A
break from the other gods. Here was a religious drama
for all people that followed a strict set of rules.
Welcome the return of Lono at Kealakekua, "the
Path of the god", where it's said the festival
first took place.
The Makahiki Schedule
Before the actual rituals could start, the high chief
demanded full payment of taxes from all the land divisions
(ahupua'a) and their many subdivisions (ili).
Aware of the path of the Pleiades, people had had enough
time to prepare their gifts. They were ready. They honored
the chief as the representative of Lono who naturally
required abundant offerings, in the form of food, kapa
cloth, gourds, woven lau hala, root crops, or hula drums.
The collection itself changed hands through a complex
hierarchy of land owners until it reached the chief.
He then looked over the bounty, gave his approval, and
redistributed the goods, as was the custom. During that
time, the common people cooked and roasted, fished and
harvested until their houses were stocked up. Then they
bathed themselves and got out their finest clothing.
As soon as all payments were made, the decoration of
the image of Lono could begin. A wooden staff, at least
12 feet long, was mounted with a small carved head.
From an even longer cross piece, tied to the upper part
of the staff, dangled leis and feathers symbolizing
potential starvation. A piece of white tapa, measuring
150 to 200 square feet, billowed from the cross bar,
like the sails of a boat. This was the akua loa, the
"long god", the idol that would be carried
around the island in the official procession.
Simultaneously each ahupua'a (land division) created
its own "short god", the akua poko, which
would accompany the akua loa for its distance across
At sunrise, the following day, the Makahiki kapu (taboo)
started: For four days no one was allowed to do anything
but rest and relax. After those four days, for four
moon cycles, the Hawaiian people were allowed no other
work than necessary for survival.
The procession carried the akua loa clockwise around
the island, so that each person could individually pay
respect to Lono. At the same time, in each district,
in opposite direction, the akua poko traveled around.
Everyone was required to leave a second series of taxes
at the boundary of their division on an altar also named
ahupua'a. The offerings mainly served to nourish and
sustain the traveling priests. As soon as these men
had accepted the gifts, the strict kapu on activities
was lifted for that district and the Makahiki games
Ahupua'a, by the way, means "pig's altar".
Made out of kukui, in the shape of a pig, with red coloring
for snout and nose, the ahupua'a' symbolized Lono, often
represented as a pig. So important was the god's presence
and benevolence, that Hawaii's agricultural districts
themselves, pie-like wedges of land stretching out from
the ocean to the mountains, were known and named after
the pig-god-rainmaker and his altar.
Have you ever heard of the pig-god Kamapua'a who reigns
over the fertile mountains of Kohala? He too is a form
Boxing was the favorite. Its origins are linked to the
"return" of Lono, during one of the early
migrations, in the form of a mortal man.
It wasn't unusual in ancient Hawaii for mortals to
enter the world of legends and feats of the gods. The
name Lono was a common name at first and in legend originated
from one man who suspected that his wife had slept around.
After killing her in his grief he roamed the islands
enraged, tackling any man on his way. His story evolved
and becoming one of the highest ali'i the power of his
name in chants connected him to the gods. He thus became
Other games were just as important like wrestling,
running, surfing, and board games like konane. Even
the hula dance played a part in the festivities. Laka,
goddess of hula, was said to be Lono's sister and wife.
In dedication to the harvest of the land, the soft treading
of hula feet on the ground resembled work in the taro
Closing of the Ceremonies
After many days the akua loa reached the house of the
head chief, the mo'i, who personally fed the carrier,
sacred as long as he held the image.
Afterward, the chief took a bath in the sea and endured
a test of spears, proving himself worthy of the land,
before taking a sacrifice to Lono in the temple.
Another ritual now honored the mythical hero Kahoali'i
who symbolized darkness and the underworld and was said
to be able to withhold the light of the sun. Even on
the islands, where the change of the seasons seems so
mild, the return of the light was as important as the
rains. In addition, dark Kahoali'i might announce the
soon-to-be-honored-again war-god Ku.
It was now time for Lono 's departure: The chiefs were
more than ready to return to warfare and fights! The
net of the Makali'i was tied together, filled with foods,
then lifted to the skies so its abundance would "rain
down" from the heavens. Lono was set adrift on
a canoe to return to Kahiki, the foreign land.
Captain Cook: Lono or Disappointing Visitor?
One of the greatest of all tales has been spun around
Captain Cook who arrived in Kealakekua on January 17,
1779, and was killed less than a month later, on February
14, 1779. Here lay the "Path of the god" where
Lono had once returned, and where the Makahiki started.
Most historians believe that Cook, arriving with white
sails at the height of the Makahiki, was mistaken by
the Hawaiians for the true god Lono. New research indicates
that this is not true.
For one thing, a mortal man had already returned with
the migrations to become the god. There was no need
for another Lono to return, other than symbolically
in the rituals. And the temple, Hikiau, where the Hawaiian
people took Captain Cook was a temple for the war god
Ku. The color of the ceremony was red.
According to historian, Herb Kawainui Kane, the Hawaiian
people were fully aware of his arrival. Their respect
reflected the high chief's desire to gain him as an
ally in impending warfare against the isle of Maui.
They treated him like ali'i (chief), but not like a
Cook refused the alliance. In addition, he had no idea
how to participate in the religious rituals. He didn't
share the gifts he received, as was customary. When,
finally ready to sail off, he took the sacred wood of
the temples for firewood supplies, the already disappointed
islanders turned angry. Hospitalities had definitely
Then Cook was forced to return because of a broken
mast. But the Makahiki had come to a closure soon after
Cook had set out, and the longing for war and fight
thickened the air. After a vessel had been stolen violent
fights and gunfire broke out and Cook was killed. He
was buried with the respects due to ali'i, which seemed
like a savage ritual to the white sailors who had nothing
to do with gods.
So why the deification of Captain Cook? Perhaps the
British people needed to justify the death of a less
than agreeable captain. Maybe the missionaries needed
to simplify a religion and culture too complex and sophisticated
Today's Aloha Week
Like the solstice festivals in other countries, the
Makahiki is alive, even today, although the format has
changed. The Aloha Festival, a week-long celebration
at the end of October, honors the ancient traditions
and crafts with gratitude, games, and abundance. It's
still harvest time. Here's the prayer for the fertility
of the land and the survival of the Hawaiian people.
That is what Lono and Makahiki were about.
The Pleiades still rise in the eastern sky.
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