Back in the day, if Hawaiians violated kapu, (the sacred laws), they had 24 hours to reach a refuge, confess to the kapuna, and duly receive absolution. Sounds a lot like purgatory to me, but this one comes with a view.
On the south coast of the big island of Hawaii sits Pu’uhonua o Honaunau. The refuge was used for centuries until 1819 when King Kamehameha II did away with traditional religious practices. Up until then, it had offered sanctuary to defeated warriors and noncombatants in times of war as well as those in fear of their lives. The pu’uhonua (refuge) was separated from where the ali’i (the royal chiefs) lived. The area is still considered sacred – so sacred that you cannot set your bag on the ground. You can just stand or walk. No seats, coolers, chairs. No smoking, eating, or sunbathing. It’s like one massive outdoor church.
The royal grounds had about ten or so thatched buildings lying in the middle of a coconut grove. Some of the huts were storerooms, others communal areas. Servants went about their business tending to the kings. Warriors stood on guard to protect the royals. And those who had sought refuge did their chores. No commoner could enter the royal enclosure or even let their shadow fall inside. The penalty? Death. A little drastic methinks but then, them were the days.
Dotted around the refuge are old papamu, large rock boards on which the game of Kōnane is played – for all the world like a Hawaiian version of checkers. Some papamu have been discovered with as many as 100 indentations and legend has it that King Kamehameha could defeat his opponent in just one move. I’ve looked the rules and that particular story had to have had a lot to do with him being king.
The Keono’ele cove is still home to the turtles who stop by – yet back in the day, commoners were forbidden to enter the water. I heard, firsthand, of a Hawaiian hula instructor who entered the usually calm water. It started to churn for no apparent reason and he exited, chanted to appease the gods, and all calmed down. Now science can explain a lot of things, but some things are simply beyond human reason.
The refuge and the royal grounds are separated by a great wall that is about 10 feet high and 17 feet thick. What’s so fascinating about this great wall is that the stones are packed so tightly, no mortar was needed to build it. The heleipalala – a springwater and saltwater pond – was home to the fish that the ali’i would eat. Between the fish and the poi and the fruit, a healthy diet was pretty much assured.
Over by the reconstructed temple and mausoleum, the Ki’i (wooden images) stand guard. And one particularly eerie one standing in the water warned the people that the canoe landing was reserved for the chief and his attendants only.
Curiously, kapu in Hungarian means gate. But the sacred laws in Hawaii include everything from not looking at, or approaching the chief, letting your shadow fall in his path or on his grounds (wouldn’t that make you pay attention to the position of the sun?) or touching any of his possessions. And if you did get a little careless, then death could be the only answer. Because if you didn’t die, then the gods might stir up a volcano, or send a tidal wave, or famine or even an earthquake – and to be responsible for any of this would be worse that dying. My mother is right in saying that there are worse things than death. If you mistakenly did break kapu, then all you could do was run… and run… and run until you were caught and killed or until you found a refuge. Once in the refuge, the kahuna pule (priest) would work his wonders, perform his magic, and absolve you of your sin. All this makes the common confessional a little more attractive.
Regular readers might remember a blog post about Maltese churches drawing a line and posting signs outside that say ‘no sanctuary offered’. They had so many offenders wanting to hide behind the skirts of the church that the churches were full – of sinners. mmmm…. isn’t that a regular Sunday in most churches?
It really is a special place. There’s a peace there that is different to the usual sense of tranquillity found on Hawaii. If you’re on the island, it’s worth dropping by and when you’re done making sure that your shadow doesn’t fall on the wrong spot, you can nip around the corner to Two Steps, a famous snorkelling spot, so named because the volcanic rock has been neatly worn away into a convenient two-step entry point for snorkelers and divers. Beneath the water lies a kaleidoscope of colour with hundreds of types of fish and, if you’re lucky, you might get to swim with the turtles. There are good days, and there are great days. And then there are those days that memories are made of.