The native religion of the Hawaiian Islands probably originated with Polynesian immigrants who made their way to the archipelago hundreds of years ago. Hawaiian religion is polytheistic, meaning there are many Hawaiian gods of varying importance, and it also incorporates strong animistic beliefs: spirits are believed to reside in the land, sea, volcanoes and other non-human objects. Animals and plants are also imbued with spirit in native Hawaiian belief systems, including the healing plant kava kava.
Hawaii’s pantheon includes several tiers of Hawaiian gods, as well as spirits that different families claim as their protective familiars. Like other aspects of traditional Hawaiian society, the gods exist in a structured hierarchy in which certain deities are at the top, as the ultimate regulators and protectors of the cosmos, with tiers of lesser deities below. Ironically, some of the most well known Hawaiian gods and goddesses belong to these lower ranks: for instance, you’ve probably heard of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes! Another famous minor deity is Laka, goddess of the hula dance. Below these deities are the ancestral guardian spirits of families and clans, called aumakua, which often appear in the guise of animals such as owls and other birds, lizards, sharks, fish, and sometimes stones. More than a few Hawaiian families can still identify their aumakua today.
Although the structures that determine the major Hawaiian gods vary from island to island, one hierarchy states that there are four main gods: Kane, Ku, Lono, and Kanaloa, all with specific roles in maintaining the balance of the Hawaiian cosmos:
Kane is the highest of the four deities, and is sometimes considered a creator god in Hawaiian mythology. Legend has it that Kane was the first Hawaiian god to become self-aware and separate himself from Po, the chaos of formless creation. Kane’s emergence allowed two more deities, Ku and Lono, to also become self-aware. Between the three of them they brought sound and substance to the universe, created the minor deities to be their servants, and created the Earth (or at least the Hawaiian Islands). Kane is also called the god of procreation and the ancestor of the human lineage; in one myth, he creates the first man out of red clay with a magical white clay for the head.
Ku is known as the god of warfare and the “Seizer of Land”. Like the other major Hawaiian gods, a specific season of the year was reserved for his worship, in this case during the active summer months of the Hawaiian year. During this time, native Hawaiians observed elaborate kapus including dietary restrictions, and held ceremonies to honor the god. The worship of Ku reportedly included human sacrifice, something not seen with the other principle Hawaiian gods.
At the opposite end we have the Hawaiian god Lono, who represents peace, music, fertility, and agriculture. According to indigenous Hawaiian myth, Lono descended to earth on a rainbow to marry Laka, goddess of the hula dance. The seasonal period between October and February when Lono was honored coincides with winter storms that bring fertilizing rain to leeward areas of the Hawaiian Islands, reflecting Lono’s association with agriculture. During this ritual period, there were corresponding kapus in place against conducting warfare and unnecessary work.
Finally, there’s Kanaloa, who is often represented as a complementary power to Kane, and sometimes as another aspect of Kane. European contact with Hawaii resulted in a muddled impression of Kanaloa’s role in the pantheon, as Christian missionaries tried to cast Kanaloa as the god of evil and the underworld, similar to the Christian devil. A more accurate interpretation is that Kanaloa is a balancing force in the universe who shares power with Kane and governs realms complementary to Kane’s. For instance, Kane holds sway over the northern hemisphere while Kanaloa governs the southern. Kanaloa also appears in Hawaiian mythology as the ruler of the underworld and the teacher of magic.
The drinking of brewed kava played a big part in native Hawaiian religious ceremony and also in mythology; for example, Kane and Kanaloa often drink kava together in ancient Hawaiian myth. Kahuna, the priestly class of the Hawaiian Islands, considered certain varieties of kava especially useful for communing with the gods and spirits. The black hiwa variety was prized by kahuna as a divinatory aid that let them bring back knowledge from the spirit realm. In pre-modern times, several kapus restricted who could drink kava, so for a long time, kava could only be consumed by kahuna and ali’i, or the royal lineage of Hawaiian kings. As a plant imbued with its own spirit, there were and are protocols surrounding how to prepare and drink kava in a way that honors the spirit of the kava. The next time you have a relaxing bowl of brew, try taking a moment to thank the spirit of the humble root that makes it possible; you’ll appreciate it all the more!