Ancient Hawaii's Makahiki: Lono's Season of Peace

Lono, the tiki god of fertility and peace, was one of four gods in Hawaiian mythology who existed before the creation of the world. The other three were Kane- the god of light and life, Ku- the god of war, and Kanaloa- the god of the sea. Ancient Hawaiians honored each god differently, and Lono’s celebration was called Makahiki (mäkəˈhēkē). Makahiki was a four month long celebration from October to February that marked the beginning of the new year and new farming cycles. Hawaiian’s enjoyed this time as a season of offerings, games, rest, and peace.

Makahiki began with the appearance of a set of stars called Makali’i (the constellation Pleiades). Priest watched the sky, waiting for Makali’i to rise at sunset. When it did, Makahiki officially started at the next new moon. Many of the religious rituals revolved around carrying the "Long God," a portable representation of Lono, around the circumference of the island. Made new every year, the Long God consisted of a tall wooden post topped with a carving of Lono, and a cross piece from which Kapa (bark cloth), and feathers hung down. After its creation, a select group of Hawaiians carried the Long God counterclockwise around the island, stopping at different districts along the way. 

When the Long God reached a new district several things happened. First of all, all work stopped. No one hunted, fished, or farmed when the Long God was in their district. Then, prayers and offerings were given to show gratitude for the return of Lono’s fertility. Some of the offerings were saved in case of emergencies, such as hurricanes, but many of them were redistributed to make sure that every district had enough for feasting. Finally, the chief and his family were in charge of housing and feeding those carrying the Long God during their stay. Makahiki continued until the Long God returned to its starting district.

Also during the season of Makahiki, war, politics, and working on large projects were Kapu, or forbidden, for everyone. This was a big deal, especially the ban on warfare. Fighting was an integral part of ancient Hawaiian society, as it was the primary way the district chiefs could expand their land. Battles and skirmishes took place often, and included a wide variety of impressive stone, wood, lava rock, and shark toothed weapons. However, as a way to honor the god of peace, Hawaiians spent four months every year abstaining from battle. Instead, all Hawaiians, not just the warriors, participated in competitive games. Not only were the games a way to keep warriors in shape during their break, but games were also a way for everyone to build comradery and win honor. The games included racing, challenges of wit, and Hawaiian versions of bowling, wrestling, checkers, and boxing.

The season of Makahiki also impacted the arrival of British Captain James Cook when he first made contact with Hawaiians in January 1779. Some historians argue that the Hawaiians mistook Captain Cook for the returning Lono when he first approached the island. Not only did Captain Cook and his crew arrive during the middle of Makahiki, but the masts on his ship resembled the construction of Long God- a tall staff with a cross piece, and the captain sailed his ship counterclockwise around the island as well. During their stay, Captain Cook and his crew were treated with respect and honor and there was little conflict. However, shortly after the captain left a month later, he had to return to the island to repair a damaged mast. 

Unfortunately for the captain and his crew, this time they landed on Hawaiian beaches after Makahiki. No longer in a season of peace, the Hawaiians responded much differently to the strangers in their territory. In fact, the Hawaiians started stealing the crew’s tools and even one of their small boats. Then, when the crew attempted to take their stolen items back, the Hawaiians engaged in skirmishes that resulted in five crew member deaths-including Captain James Cook himself- as well as four Hawaiian chiefs and thirteen warriors. Even so, the Hawaiians still treated Capt. Cook’s remains with the highest of respect. They performed the death rituals reserved for a high chief before returning the remains to the remaining crew.

Many ancient traditions were abandoned as western influences took hold in Hawaii, including Makahiki. However, starting in the 1970s, several organizations and non-profits began to re-establish Makahiki festivals as a way to honor Hawaiian history and culture. Today, many sporting events, races, and competitions are held all over the Hawaiian Islands in January for schools aged children and adults alike.

 banner Photo by Braden Jarvis on Unsplash