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Kahuna (c. 1890)

Kahuna is a Hawaiian word, defined as a "priest, sorcerer, magician, wizard, minister, expert in any profession".[1] Merriam-Webster defines kahuna as "a preeminent person or thing" and "Hawaiian shaman".[2]

With the revival of the Hawaiian culture beginning in the 1970s, some native Hawaiian cultural practitioners call themselves kahuna today. Others disdain the term. In the New Age spiritual system known as Huna, which uses Hawaiian words and is adapted from Hawaiian tradition, kahuna similarly denotes someone of priestly or shamanic standing.[3]


A kahuna may be versed in agriculture,[4][5] canoe building or any other talent. Blessing new buildings and construction projects, officiating weddings are some of the tasks a kahuna may be called upon to perform, by his or her community.[6][7]

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".[8]

There are two categories of kahuna; craft kahuna, such as kālai waʻa, an expert canoe maker, and hoʻokele, an expert navigator; and sorcery kahuna such as "kahuna ʻanāʻanā" and "kahuna lapaʻau" (healer).[9]

According to sources, there are ten types (or ranks) of sorcery kahuna:

  1. Kuhikuhi puʻuone (literally "to direct divination"): one who locates the site for the construction of heiau, or temples.[10]
  2. kilokilo: one who divines and predicts future events, a prophet.[11]
  3. Hoʻounāunā: one who can send spirits to cause an illness.
  4. ʻAnāʻanā: one who "practices evil sorcery by means of prayer".[12]
  5. Nānāuli: one who studies natural signs, like clouds, rains, and winds.[13]
  6. Hoʻopiʻopiʻo: one who touches a part of his own body, thereby causing injury to his victim's body in the same place (like voodoo dolls)
  7. Hoʻokomokomo: one who can send a spirit, usually evil, to possess its victim.
  8. Poʻi ʻUhane: one who can catch a spirit and force it to do its bidding.[14]
  9. Lapaʻau: one who practices procedures of medicinal healing.[15]
  10. Oneoneihonua: one who performs the human sacrifices at the luakini heiau.

Expert kahuna are called Kahuna Nui (High Priest) and Kahuna Nui 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 the 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.[7]

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 out and did not pass on their wisdom to new students. As an example, when the Hōkūle‘a 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 the Hawaiians navigation.[20]

It is often said that the missionaries came to Hawaii in 1820 and made kahuna practices illegal. 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, which was illegal at first, but was decriminalized in 1972.[21]

The first Christian missionaries arrived in 1820. The most powerful person in the nation, Kaʻahumanu, did not convert until 1825. But it was not until 11 years after missionaries arrived that she proclaimed laws against hula, chant, ‘awa (kava), and Hawaiian religion.[22]

King Kamehameha V came to power in 1863. He disdained the law and encouraged the revival of native practices. (Chai) Many kahuna who had been quietly practicing came forward. On Maui, a group of eight Hawaiians founded the 'Ahahui La'au Lapa'au in 1866. They were not only kahuna; several were also members of the Hawaiian Legislature. They interviewed twenty-one kahuna to compile a complete resource of prayers and remedies for the Legislative record. (These interviews have been republished in the book Must We Wait in Despair? by Malcolm Naea Chun.)

Both Kamehameha V and his successor, King Kalakaua, invited kahuna to come to Honolulu to share their wisdom. They compiled oral and written histories and documented the prayers, chants, hulas, and remedies for healings. Kalakaua convened groups of kahuna to consult with each other to preserve their heritage. This and many other moves by Kalakaua outraged the Christian residents. In 1887 they forced the Bayonet Constitution upon the King, stripping him of most of his personal authority.

While all this legal maneuvering has been going on, many traditional practitioners have continued to practice as they and their ancestors have always done.

Non-Hawaiian uses[edit]

The use of the term in reference to surfing can be traced back to 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 term then became commonplace in Beach Party films of the 1960s such as Beach Blanket Bingo, where the "Big Kahuna" was the best surfer on the beach. Eventually, it was adopted into general surfing culture. Hawaiian surfing master Duke Kahanamoku may have been referred to as the "Big Kahuna" but rejected the term as he knew the original meaning.[23]

In the 1999 movie The Big Kahuna salesmen are trying to get a lucrative contract with a manufacturer they refer to as the "great kahuna". In a fantasy scene, Kevin Spacey's character wears a headdress and is revered as "the big kahuna".[24]

The term was also used by Wally Amos in his cookie business, The Cookie Kahuna.[25]

In popular culture, the island leaders in Pokémon Sun and Moon are called Kahunas.

See also[edit]

Notes and References[edit]

  1. ^ "Kahuna". Ulukau Hawaiian Electronic Dictionary. Retrieved 27 May 2018.
  2. ^ Merriam-Webster. "Kahuna". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 19 April 2018.
  3. ^ Serge Kahili King (2014-05-27). Kahuna Healing. Quest Books. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-8356-3107-5.
  4. ^ "Waipi'o Valley with Kia Fronda 1992". YouTube. Rusty Wright. Retrieved 31 May 2018.
  5. ^ "The Three Kahunas". Kathy Long Artist. Kathy Long. Retrieved 31 May 2018.
  6. ^ "David "Daddy" Kaonohiokala Bray" (PDF). US Census. US Census. Retrieved 27 May 2018.
  7. ^ a b Ruth-Inge Heinze (1991). Shamans of the 20th Century. Ardent Media. p. 44. ISBN 978-0-8290-2459-3.
  8. ^ "Hawaiian Dictionary: Page 46 haʻe - -hahau.hia" (PDF). Ulukau: The Hawaii Electronic Library. Retrieved 28 May 2018.
  9. ^ "Ulukau: The Hawaii Electronic Library" (PDF). ulukau.org. Retrieved 28 May 2018.
  10. ^ "Page 173 kū.hala.kai - kū.hipa" (PDF). Ulukau: The Hawaii Electronic Library. Retrieved 27 May 2018.
  11. ^ "Page 446 fond - founder". Ulukau: The Hawaiian Electronic Library. Retrieved 27 May 2018.
  12. ^ "Page 24 āna - ʻana.puʻu". Ulukau: The Hawaiian Electronic Library. Retrieved 27 May 2018.
  13. ^ "Page 261 nana.au - nani". Ulukau: The Hawaiian Electronic Library. Retrieved 27 May 2018.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ "About Laʻau Lapaʻau, and Lapaau.org". lapaau.org. 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. ^ "Pa'ao 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, p. 298-301.
  23. ^ Hall, Sandra Kimberly (2004), Duke: A Great Hawaiian, Bess Press, ISBN 1-57306-230-8
  24. ^ Rosen, Steven. "'Kahuna' no more than guys talking". Denver Post. Retrieved 2016-07-22.
  25. ^ "The Story". The Cookie Kahuna. Retrieved 1 March 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 Ho'opono and Tales from the Night Rainbow
  • Malo, David: Hawaiian Antiquities (Mo'olelo Hawai'i), Bishop Museum Press, 1951 (1903)
  • The Kahuna: Versatile Masters of Old Hawai‘i 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; (May 1, 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

External links[edit]