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The Feathered War God of Hawaii

March 18, 2010

Modern representation of Kamehameha’s war god Kuka`ilimoku (Photo Courtesy David Boyle/NPS).

When the ruler of Hawaii Island Kalani`opu`u died in 1782 his son Kiwalao became the ali`i nui, or high chief over the island. At the same time, his young nephew, Kamehameha, inherited land on the northern part of the island and was given custody of their family’s war god, Kuka`ilimoku. This relationship between Kamehameha and “the feathered war god” would ultimately define his future over the entire Hawaiian archipelago.

Ku, the war god in the Hawaiian religious system, was considered, among other things, the god of war. Different manifestations and designations of the god were manufactured, with Kuka`ilimoku being one important manifestation, especially for Kamehameha. The name Kuka`ilimoku literally translates as “Ku the grabber of islands”. When you understand Kamehameha’s ambitions to conquer all the islands of Hawaii, it is understandable to see why he would be drawn to this particular manifestation of Ku.

His devotion to his family’s war god came to a climax with the construction of the mighty war temple Pu`ukohola Heiau. Kamehameha, seen by some to be the promised “Killer of Chiefs” from an ancient prophecy, dedicated the temple in 1791. Offering his cousin and rival Keoua Kuahu`ula, Kamehameha declared his belief that Kuka`ilimoku would give him the mana or spiritual power necessary to conquer all his enemies. Within a mere 4 years, Kamehameha had successfully conquered all the major islands with the exception of Kauai. Then, a few years later, in 1810, Kamehameha successfully finished his work of uniting all the islands under his control.

Kamehameha dedicated Pu`ukohola Heiau to his war god in 1791. (Photo Courtesy David Boyle/NPS).

Although ceremonies would have continued at his war temple, Pu`ukohola Heiau, in his later years Kamehameha built another temple in Kailua-Kona dedicated to the god Lono. Finally, a few months after his death in 1819, Kamehameha II ended the traditional religious system, destroying all the major temples in Hawaii. It is said that the image of Kuka`ilimoku that is on display in the Bishop Museumon Oahu is the original image that was once on Pu`ukohola Heiau.