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Kahuna is a Hawaiian word, defined in Pukui & Elbert (1986) as a "priest, sorcerer, magician, wizard, minister, expert in any profession". (See also Ancient Hawaii.)

Forty types of kahuna are listed in the book Tales from the Night Rainbow. Kamakau lists more than 20 in the healing professions alone, including for example "Kahuna la'au lapa'au" (an expert in herbal medicine) and "kahuna haha" (an expert in diagnosing illnesses).

With the revival of the Hawaiian culture beginning in the 1970s, some native Hawaiian cultural practitioners call themselves kahuna today. Others, particularly devout Christians, disdain the term. In the New Age spiritual system known as Huna, which is loosely based on Hawaiian tradition, kahuna similarly denotes someone of priestly or shamanic standing.


  • Legal status of kahuna 1
  • Non-Hawaiian uses 2
  • See also 3
  • Notes 4
  • Bibliography 5

Legal status of kahuna

Many myths have grown up around kahuna. One is that kahuna were outlawed after the white man came to Hawaii. It is known that there were many different types of kahuna. Kahuna can be divided into two categories: "craft" kahuna, such as kālai waʻa, an expert canoe maker, and hoʻokele, an expert navigator; "sorcerers" including kahuna ʻanāʻanā and lapaʻau (healer). According to one source, there were 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.
  2. kilokilo: one who divines and predicts future events, a prophet.
  3. Hoʻounāunā: one who can send spirits to cause an illness.
  4. ʻAnāʻanā: one who can pray someone to death.
  5. Nānāuli: one who studies natural signs, like clouds, rains, and winds.
  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.
  9. Lapaʻau: one to practices procedures of medicinal healing.
  10. Oneoneihonua: one who performs the human sacrifices at the luakini heiau.

It is said that the one who can master all of the ten types, becomes a Kahuna Nui (Great Kahuna). It is known that Hewahewa, a direct descendant of Paʻao, was the Kahuna Nui to Kamehameha I.

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.

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.[1]

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.[2]

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

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.[3]

Interestingly, the word "kahuna" also means priest in Hebrew, referring to the priests of the Holy Temple described in the Bible. The word most often appears in the form Kohen (or Cohen). The clothing ("beged") of the priest are called "bigdei kahuna".[4] The Arabic word for priest, kahen, is probably borrowed from Hebrew.

In popular culture, the 1999 movie The Big Kahuna has a scene where lead actor Kevin Spacey, in native headdress, is revered as 'the big kahuna'.

See also

  • Ho'oponopono, ancient Hawaiian forgiveness process, often practiced by a kahuna
  • Maven, a term from a different tradition with similar connotations
  • Morrnah Simeona, regarded as a kahuna la'au lapa'au
  • Tohunga, a cognate term and title in Māori tradition
  • Big Kahuna Burger, a fictional chain of Hawaiian-themed fast food restaurants that appears in the movies of Quentin Tarantino


  1. ^
  2. ^ Kamakau, Ruling Chiefs, p. 298-301.
  3. ^
  4. ^


  • 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 (, 1976, English, ISBN 0-89610-330-7
  • Kahalewai, Nancy S. Hawaiian Lomilomi - Big Island Massage, ISBN 0-9677253-2-1 [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 [2] 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
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