Strategies for Constructing Religious Authority in Ancient Hawai'i

By McCoy, Mark D.; Ladefoged, Thegn N. et al. | Antiquity, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Strategies for Constructing Religious Authority in Ancient Hawai'i


McCoy, Mark D., Ladefoged, Thegn N., Graves, Michael W., Stephen, Jesse W., Antiquity


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Introduction

Temples, monuments, shrines and religious precincts are among our most valuable material markers of how authority was constructed and dispatched in the rise of hierarchical societies. The way archaeologists view these structures has in large part changed from one in which they are seen as 'passive measures ... of political developments' to gateways for understanding 'how ritual action functioned to define, empower, divide and transform' social actors (Swenson 2006: 256). This insight does not negate earlier work, such as the classic observation that the size of religious buildings can be linked to the rise of state societies. Rather, it reflects how different communities use symbols and monumentality to create and maintain a hierarchical social order, so enhancing the understanding of political economy. By the time of European contact in 1778, Hawai'i had undergone a fundamental shift from small chiefdoms to several large independent polities with a shared state religion and an archaic state society distinct from the rest of Polynesia (Figure 1; Kirch 2010). Kolb (2006: 657) notes that Hawaiian temples (heiau) were part of a 'network to provide the proper infrastructure for expressing the ideology of kingship, feudalizing land tenure practices, imposing ritual taboos on labor and production, and engaging in internecine warfare over territory'. The political elites commissioned the construction of temples and this was overseen by members of formal priestly classes (Malo 1951; Kamakau 1961, 1976). In Hawai'i the question of how different strategies were employed to create religious authority has proved challenging. There is wide stylistic variation in Hawaiian temples that resists straightforward classification (Kirch 1985: 257-65; Cachola-Abad 1996), and there is some question as to when on the path to political unification the greatest effort was invested in the creation of monumental scaled structures (Kirch & Sharp 2005; Kolb 2006). Archaeologists have tried to infer changes in strategies by analysing architectural elements, layout and the size of temples (Table 1). Here we expand on the earlier work of Mulrooney and Ladefoged (2005) which investigated a sample of eight temples within the Leeward Kohala Field System (LKFS) on Hawai'i Island, and present the results of an analysis of a larger dataset of 19 temples and 15 radiocarbon dates. We define when strategies such as exclusion, elaboration, symbols of priestly order membership and monumentality were executed, and delineate how this sequence of temple development provides insights into a priestly class who are well attested through ethnohistory (Kirch et al. 2010).

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Hawaiian religion and temples

Ritual authority in ancient Hawai'i was divided among several classes: the political elite (ali'i or chiefs), the formal priests and other experts (kahuna), and informal part-time ritual practitioners (Valeri 1985). The chiefs, who inherited their status, held authority over the initiation of new architectural projects such as temple construction, but the size of these structures was dictated by the participating chief's level in the political hierarchy. The priests and other experts held wide-ranging authority over temple design and location as well as officiating at ceremonies before, during and after construction. There were a number of religious sects, including an order of the war god Ku and an order of Lono, a major god associated with agriculture and other activities (Malo 1951: 159). Informal ritual specialists also existed and were associated with a kind of religious authority not necessarily sanctioned by the formal priestly class.

Locating and interpreting archaeological sites as heiau or other ritual structures has relied heavily on ethnohistorical information and surface architecture. Surveys were completed over much of the Hawaiian Islands within about 100 years of the abolition of traditional Hawaiian religion by royal decree in 1819 (Walker 1930; Bennett 1931; Stokes 1991). …

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