Ko ke akua haʻi ʻāmio.
The gods reveal through narrow channels.
The gods reveal to the priests, and the priests declare it to the people.
— ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #1818

[Kāhuna] Image of various kāhuna. Artwork by Brook Kapūkuniahi Parker.

What is something you’re really good at? Maybe swimming, or pounding kalo, or studying science? When you spend a lot of time and get really good at something, you become an expert. Being an expert means people respect you for what you do. You may even be paid for your expertise. You could become famous for it. In Hawaiian, an expert is called a kahuna.

Different types of kāhuna

‘O ke kahua ma mua, ma hope ke kūkulu.
The site first, and then the building.
Learn all you can, then practice.
(‘Ōlelo No‘eau #2459)

Kāhuna were experts in many different aspects of life. Some were experts in spiritual advising. Some were experts in prophesying things to come. And some were experts in other fields. Advisers were important to the ali‘i (chiefs). They helped the ali‘i make important decisions to keep the nation pono (in order). For example, before an ali‘i declared war, he would first seek the approval of the kāhuna. This would ensure the favor of the akua (gods). Kāhuna ensured that proper protocol and practices were followed. This maintained the relationship between ali‘i and akua.

[Ulupō Heiau] Kailua, Oʻahu. Photo by Joel Bradshaw.Kāhuna helped the chiefs increase their own mana (spiritual power) and the mana of the land. A productive land governed by a good, strong leader was good for everyone. So the kāhuna had an important job.

Kuhikuhi pu‘uone were experts in selecting sites for heiau (temples) and hale (structures). Kāhuna lā‘au lapa‘au were experts at healing sickness by using lā‘au (plant medicine).

Here are several types of kāhuna:

kahuna pulespiritual/religious adviser
kilokilo laniseer of omens in the sky
kilo ‘ōpuaseer of cloud omens
kilo hōkūastronomer
kilo honuaseer of signs on the earth
‘ōlohe huli honualand expert
kuhikuhi pu‘uonedesigner of sites
‘ōlohe ku‘ialuaexpert in lua arts
kahuna lonomakaiheexpert in spear throwing
kahuna ‘anā‘anāexpert in sorcery


Pule, or prayer, was the foundation for all kāhuna. Pule was a common practice in Hawaiian society. The kāhuna prayed and did protocol related to their expertise. Kāhuna also advised others on prayers and protocol. Just as there are many types of kāhuna, there are many types of pule. There are prayers for life, new structures, planting, building, canoe-making, and everyday practices.

Noi‘i noelo

Kāhuna pule are classified into different groups based on their akua. For example, kāhuna pule of the Mo‘o Lono order were priests of the Lono lineage. Activities of this order include the healing and harvesting of crops. The kāhuna pule of the Mo‘o Kū order were priests of the Kū lineage. Some of their activities included cultivating crops and constructing heiau. The different orders of kāhuna pule provided a network of skilled spiritual leaders.


[Kiʻi at Keʻekū Heiau] Keauhou, Hawaiʻi. Photo by Ruben Carillo. 

‘Ike nō i ka lā o ka ‘ike; 
mana nō i ka lā o ka mana.
Know in the day of knowing;
mana in the day of mana.

(‘Ōlelo No‘eau #1212)

Mana is spiritual power. Everybody has mana. There are two types of mana—the mana we are born with and the mana we gain throughout life. Mana can be acquired, and mana can also be taken away. 

The role of kāhuna in changing times

By nature, kāhuna were skilled at anticipating change and adapting to new situations. Western contact, however, dramatically changed the role of kāhuna. Foreigners brought new diseases and a new god who, perhaps, could cure their diseases. With the new religion came new advisers and experts. Many of the traditional akua, kāhuna pule, and spiritual practices were dismissed and replaced. Traditional places of worship were brought down.

[Puʻukoholā Heiau] Kawaihae, Hawaiʻi. Photo by Ruben Carillo.In 1845, doctors and dentists were called kahuna. Their businesses appealed to people who would have gone to kāhuna lā‘au lapa‘au and other traditional healers. In 1868, an act was passed to create a Hawaiian Board of Health. This board licensed Hawaiian practitioners. It also required a written record of all treatments. Kāhuna quickly became constrained to practice new methods that often clashed with their traditional training and sensibilities.

Today, ‘Ōiwi are reconnecting to our spiritual past. We are singing the songs of our ancestors. We are praying the old prayers. We are taking care of the old places of worship. ‘Ōiwi are also creating new songs, new prayers, and establishing new places of worship. There has been a movement to bring back practices such as lā‘au lapa‘au. There has been a reestablishment of some kāhuna orders. As cultural knowledge and practices continue to grow, the role of kāhuna will increase.

[Hoʻokupu at Puʻukoholā Heiau] Kawaihae, Hawaiʻi. Photo by Tom Whitney.