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Kahuna is a Hawaiian word that refers to an expert in any field. Historically, it has been used to refer to doctors, surgeons and dentists, as well as priests, ministers, and sorcerers.[1]


A kahuna may be versed in agriculture,[2][3] canoe building, or any other skill or knowledge area. A kahuna may be called on by the community to bless new buildings and construction projects, as well as to officiate weddings.[4][5]

Forty types of kahuna are listed in the book Tales from the Night Rainbow, twenty in the healing professions alone, including "Kahuna lapaʻau, medical priest or practitioner", and "Kahuna hāhā, an expert who diagnoses, as sickness or pain, by feeling the body".[6]

There are two main categories of kahuna; craft kahuna, such as the kālai waʻa – an expert canoe maker, and hoʻokele – an expert navigator; vs sorcery kahuna, such as kahuna ʻanāʻanā and kahuna lapaʻau (healer).[7]

Kahuna nui[edit]

There are ten colleges or branches of the Hawaiian priesthood.[8]

  • ʻAnāʻanā: one who "practices evil sorcery by means of prayer".[9]
  • Hoʻopiopio: a "[m]alevolent sorcerer, as one who inflicts illness by gesture, as rubbing his own head to give the victim a severe headache or head injury. Sometimes the victim might imitate the gesture and send the affliction back to the sorcerer."[10]
  • Hoʻounāunā: one who can send spirits to cause an illness.
  • Hoʻokomokomo:
  • Poʻi ʻUhane: one who can catch a spirit and force it to do its bidding.[11]
  • Lapaʻau: one who practices procedures of medicinal healing.[12]
  • Kuhikuhi puʻuone (literally "to direct divination"): one who locates the site for the construction of heiau, or temples.[13]
  • kilokilo: one who divines and predicts future events, a prophet.[14]
  • Nānāuli: one who studies natural signs, like clouds, rains, and winds.[15]

To master all ten made one a kahuna nui or high priest.[8] Kahuna nui usually lived in places such as Waimea Valley, which is known as the "Valley of the Priests". They were given slices of land that spanned from the mountain to the sea.[16][17] Hewahewa, a direct descendant of Paʻao, was a kahuna nui to Kamehameha I. A contemporary, Leimomi Mo'okini Lum is a Kahuna Nui.[18][19] David Kaonohiokala Bray was a well-known kahuna.[5]

King Kamehameha IV, in his translation of the Book of Common Prayer, used the term Kahuna to refer to Anglican priests, and Kahunapule to refer to both lay and ordained Anglican ministers.

Legal status[edit]

Craft kahuna were never prohibited; however, during the decline of native Hawaiian culture, many died and did not pass on their wisdom to new students. As an example, when the Hōkūleʻa was built to be sailed to the South Pacific to prove the voyaging capabilities of the ancient Hawaiians, master navigator Mau Piailug from Satawal was brought to Hawaii to teach navigation to the Hawaiians.[20]

After American missionaries went to Hawaii in 1820, they reportedly prohibited kahuna practices. But, in the 100 years after the missionaries arrived, all kahuna practices were legal until 1831, some were illegal until 1863, all were legal until 1887, then some were illegal until 1919. Since 1919, all have been legal, except sorcery. It was initially declared illegal, but it was decriminalized in 1972.[21]

The first Christian missionaries arrived in 1820. Kaʻahumanu, one of the most powerful people in the Hawaiian nation, did not convert until 1825. Eleven years after missionaries arrived, she proclaimed laws against hula, chant, kava, and Hawaiian religion.[22]

Non-Hawaiian uses[edit]

The term was used in the 1959 film Gidget, in which "The Big Kahuna", played by Cliff Robertson (Martin Milner in the TV episode), was the leader of a group of surfers. The figure of the Big Kahuna became commonplace in Beach Party films of the 1960s, such as Beach Blanket Bingo, in which the "Big Kahuna" was the best surfer on the beach. Hawaiian surfing master Duke Kahanamoku may have been referred to as the "Big Kahuna", but he rejected the term as he knew the original meaning.[23]

In the New Age spiritual system known as Huna, which uses some Hawaiian words and concepts appropriated from Hawaiian tradition, kahuna denotes someone of priestly or shamanic standing.[24] The prevalence of these works in pop culture has influenced English dictionary definitions such as Merriam-Webster. It defines "kahuna" not only as "a preeminent person or thing", but gives a secondary definition of "Hawaiian shaman".[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Kahuna". Ulukau Hawaiian Electronic Dictionary. Retrieved 27 May 2018.
  2. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Waipi'o Valley with Kia Fronda 1992". YouTube. Rusty Wright. Retrieved 31 May 2018.
  3. ^ "The Three Kahunas". Kathy Long Artist. Kathy Long. Retrieved 31 May 2018.
  4. ^ "David "Daddy" Kaonohiokala Bray" (PDF). US Census. US Census. Retrieved 27 May 2018.
  5. ^ a b Ruth-Inge Heinze (1991). Shamans of the 20th Century. Ardent Media. p. 44. ISBN 978-0-8290-2459-3.
  6. ^ "Hawaiian Dictionary: Page 46 haʻe – hahau.hia" (PDF). Ulukau: The Hawaii Electronic Library. Retrieved 28 May 2018.
  7. ^ "Ulukau: The Hawaii Electronic Library" (PDF). ulukau.org. Retrieved 28 May 2018.
  8. ^ a b Abraham Fornander (1920). Fornander collection of Hawaiian antiquities and folk-lore ... Bishop Museum Press. p. 323.
  9. ^ "Page 24 āna – ʻana.puʻu". Ulukau: The Hawaiian Electronic Library. Retrieved 27 May 2018.
  10. ^ "kahuna hoʻopiʻopiʻo - Wehe²wiki² Hawaiian Language Dictionaries". Wehewehe Wikiwiki. Retrieved 10 October 2022.
  11. ^ E.S. Craighill Handy; Davis (2012-12-21). Ancient Hawaiian Civilization: A Series of Lectures Delivered at THE KAMEHAMEHA SCHOOLS. Tuttle Publishing. pp. 252–. ISBN 978-1-4629-0438-9.
  12. ^ "About Laʻau Lapaʻau, and Lapaau.org". lapaau.org. Retrieved 27 May 2018.
  13. ^ "Page 173 kū.hala.kai – kū.hipa" (PDF). Ulukau: The Hawaii Electronic Library. Retrieved 27 May 2018.
  14. ^ "Page 446 fond – founder". Ulukau: The Hawaiian Electronic Library. Retrieved 27 May 2018.
  15. ^ "Page 261 nana.au – nani". Ulukau: The Hawaiian Electronic Library. Retrieved 27 May 2018.
  16. ^ "Waimea Valley". Hawaii.com. Retrieved 30 May 2018.
  17. ^ "History of Waimea Valley". Waimeavalley.net. Retrieved 29 May 2018.
  18. ^ "Paʻao From Thrum, Emerson, and Kamakau". Hawaiian Voyaging Traditions. Retrieved 27 May 2018.
  19. ^ "Big Island heiau to host celebration of stewardship". Bizjournal. June 20, 2004. Retrieved 28 May 2018.
  20. ^ Perez, Christina; George KO, Brendan (September 22, 2017). "hawaii hokulea canoe polynesian sailing/". Vogue. Retrieved 27 May 2018.
  21. ^ Chai, Makana Risser (2005), Na Mo'olelo Lomilomi: The Traditions of Hawaiian Massage and Healing, Bishop Museum Press, pp. 34, 177–178, ISBN 1-58178-046-X
  22. ^ Kamakau, Ruling Chiefs, pp. 298–301.
  23. ^ Hall, Sandra Kimberly (2004), Duke: A Great Hawaiian, Bess Press, ISBN 1-57306-230-8
  24. ^ Serge Kahili King (2014-05-27). Kahuna Healing. Quest Books. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-8356-3107-5.
  25. ^ Merriam-Webster. "Kahuna". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 19 April 2018.


  • Chai, Makana Risser Na Mo'olelo Lomilomi: Traditions of Hawaiian Massage & Healing; ISBN 1-58178-046-X
  • Hall, Sandra Duke: A Great Hawaiian; ISBN 1-57306-230-8
  • Gutmanis, Jane: Kahuna La'au Lapa'au – Hawaiian Herbal Medicine [Medical Kahuna], Island Heritage (www.islandheritage.com), 1976, English, ISBN 0-89610-330-7
  • Kahalewai, Nancy S. Hawaiian Lomilomi – Big Island Massage, ISBN 0-9677253-2-1
  • Kamakau, Samuel Tales & Traditions of the People of Old; ISBN 0-930897-71-4
  • Kupihea, Moke: Kahuna of Light – The World of Hawaiian Spirituality, 2001, Inner Traditions International, ISBN 0-89281-756-9
  • Lee, Pali Jae Hoʻopono and Tales from the Night Rainbow
  • Malo, David: Hawaiian Antiquities (Moʻolelo Hawaiʻi), Bishop Museum Press, 1951 (1903)
  • The Kahuna: Versatile Masters of Old Hawaiʻi von Likeke R. McBride, ISBN 0-912180-51-X
  • Nana I Ke Kumu (Look to the source), by Mary K. Pukui, E. W. Haertig, Catharine A. Lee; # Publisher: Hui Hanai; (1980); ISBN 0-9616738-2-6
  • Pukui, Mary Kawena; Elbert, Samuel H. (1986), Hawaiian Dictionary, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, ISBN 0-8248-0703-0