Wahi Pana: Moʻokini Heiau

#107 in the Moʻolelo series

E ola nā mamo o Kohala ʻāina aliʻi

Our descendants will live forever

Martha Webb wrote a poem called “Moʻokini Heiau:”

Many died at Moʻokini

four hundred and four hundred and four hundred and on

I walked through the abandoned fields

and looked for you

I wore the helmet of forty thousand moʻo

four hundred and four hundred and on

image from moʻokiniheiau.com

Tradition says that the current temple was built by Paʻao between the 10th and 14th century on top of an older heiau. The original heiau was said to have been built by the kahuna Moʻokini in the 5th century. The National Park service notes:

Outside of the heiau, on the north side, is the stone named Papa-nui-o-leka, on which human flesh was separated from bones after the body had been used in a ritual sacrifice. According to tradition, Mo’okini Heiau was the primary place of worship in the northern part of the Island of Hawai’i.
Mo’okini Heiau was active through the early part of the 19th century and was Kamehameha I’s war temple, housing his family’s war god Ku-ka-‘ili-moku before the transfer of the god to Kamehameha’s new war temple Pu’ukohola Heiau, 21 miles down the coast near Kawaihae. Kamehameha I’s son and heir Liholiho also used Mo’okini Heiau. In 1819, after his father’s death, Liholiho ended kapu and abolished that part of the Hawaiian religion that depended on heiau. In spite of royal orders that they be destroyed, Mo’okini and several other large heiau were spared. It was believed that they had acquired mana (spiritual energy), which protected them against human destruction.

In 1978, Kahuna Nui (High Priestess) Leimomi Moʻokini Lum lifted the kapu (taboo) forbidding anyone but ali’i and kahuna from entering Mo’okini Heiau and also rededicated the heiau to the children of the land.

Puʻukoholā heiau, Kawaihae

The quote in the epigraph above becomes important when one thinks of how close this heiau is to Kamehameha’s birthsite, the threat to Kamehameha as an infant and the efforts of the Kohala chief Naeʻole to save him. Kamehameha was later made Kahu of Kūkāʻilimoku by King Kalaniopuʻu upon his death around 1782. He used this power as well as military skill to wrest control of Hawaiʻi from the ruling chief Kīwalaʻō, Keawemaʻuhili (of Hilo) and Keouakūahuʻula (of Kaʻū). The heiau is a National Historic Landmark today – appropriately Hawaiʻi’s first. The website for the heiau explains:

Originally, it was a “closed” heiau, reserved exclusively for Hawaiiʻian’s aliʻi nui (kings and chiefs) for fasting, prying, and in ancient times, human sacrifice. It is the birthsite of King Kamehameha The Great, born a scant 900 yards away, and is one of the most culturally, historically, and spiritually significant sites in all of the Hawaiiʻian Island [sic] …

The heiau (temple) measures roughly 250 feet by 125 feet, nearly the size of a football field. The wall stand 30 feet high in some places and were constructed entirely without mortar. The lichen-covered basalt rocks from Pololu Valley were carried 14 miles via a human chain from hand to hand. It was completed in a single night from sunset to sunrise.

Story of Naeʻole’s flight to save Kamehameha

Webb’s poem continues, which uses the images of “the four gods, the forty gods, the four hundred gods, the four thousand gods, the forty thousand gods” (a Hawaiian way of saying that there is no way of knowing how many gods there were, but it was some multiple of four because of the original four gods). It also dissects the name; moʻo – lizard, lineage or sequence, and “kini 1. num. Multitude, many; forty thousand” (wehewehe.org):

the sun was setting. I sat on the high walls

on the stone heaped for centuries

I added the sunsets since the last death.

Where is power?

The sun falls into the sea

the sea beats the stones

and the stones turn to crickets who

carry me away on the beat of their song,

and I am talking to you tonight.

We keep singing. The stones break beneath us.

Martha Webb, “Moʻokini Heiau,” in Fire in the Sea, Sue Cowing (ed.)

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