City of Refuge

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City of Refuge (Hawaii)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Scattered across the Hawaiian Islands are worship centers called heiaus that now manifest little of what made them places for religious gatherings, in spite of occasional signs that they are still minimally in use. Among the heiaus that operated on Hawaii prior to the nineteenth century, some were set aside as places of refuge. To understand their use, one must know a little about Hawaiian beliefs.

Hawaii was led by individuals who formed a royal caste—chiefs and kings—and priests. Those of royal personage were among the most notable manifestations of mana (spirit, divine power). As in other cultures, the priests were functionaries who carried out a range of religious duties. Built into the moral and religious codes was a set of rules (kapu) forbidding some activities (taboos), some serious and others fairly trivial. Violation of taboos often carried severe punishment, and even some seemingly trivial ones (such as a common person violating the space or prerogative of a royal personage) could result in death. It was also the case that many taboo violations could occur quite apart from any intentions.

Built into the Hawaiian system was a means of rectifying violations of a taboo: the places of refuge. Throughout the islands, each chief established and maintained a pu’uhonua—a place of refuge—where a person could find forgiveness, even for a violation that called for death. (The refuges also welcomed wounded warriors needing a place to heal and women and children trying to escape a battle nearby.) The sanctuary was endowed with supernatural protections. The chief saw to the building of a temple and an adjacent residence. Priests in residence carried out the specific duties assigned the sacred site. The royalty and priests together carved a number of ki’is, fierce-looking statues of deity-like creatures who enforced the sanctuaries’ rules. To add to the mana of a sanctuary site, the bones of the successive chiefs would be buried in the temple.

In 1819 Kamehameha II (1797–1824) abolished the portion of the Hawaiian religion relative to taboos; as a result, the places of refugee had no remaining function. Ten years later Queen Ka’ahumanu (1768–1832), King Kamehameha I’s (c. 1758–1819) widow, who had converted to Christianity, ordered the destruction of all of the sanctuary sites.

Today, the best place to see the history of the places of refuge is the City of Refuge (Pu’uhonua o Honaunau), located along the coast of the Big Island south of the city of Kona. This site dates at least to the beginning of the sixteenth century. Here, one may see a Hawaiian temple called the Hale o Keawe Heiau, a reconstruction of the original built around 1650. Emphasizing the seriousness of the activity that went on at the refuge, entrance for those seeking sanctuary was often by water—they swam across the bay to reach their destination. Once inside the place of refuge, the priest was charged with granting sanctuary and a form of absolution. Once the individual went through the sanctuary’s ritual, it was as if the violation never occurred. The person could leave and pick up his or her life as before.

There were three temples at the City of Refuge, though only one has been rebuilt. The role of the additional sites have been lost to history, as has much of the Hawaiian religious system, destroyed largely before its beliefs and practices were recorded.


Bennett, Wendell C. Hawaiian Heiaus. Chicago: The University of Chicago Libraries, 1932.
Emory, Kenneth P. “City of Refuge.” Paradise of the Pacific 71 (July 1959): 66–67.
Mulholland, John F. Hawaii’s Religions. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1970.
Neasham, V. Aubrey. Historic Sites Survey Report, Place of Refuge, Hawaii. San Francisco: National Park Service, 1949.