Photo: Claire Kuʻuleilani Hughes

Many natural phenomena represented our ancestors’ gods. These aspects of nature surrounded and embraced our ancestors with their mana. And those natural wonders continue to embrace us today. Rain clouds, heavy rain and thunder represent Lono, the god of plants and planting. Our ancestors depended on rain to water the māla (gardens). Thus, in old Hawai‘i, prayers to Lono for adequate rainfall, abundant harvests and protection from droughts and famine were constant. In old Hawai‘i, prayers to Lono for rain and crops were offered at community heiau māpele, built by maka‘āinana (citizen, commoner). Prayers offered during Makahiki, the annual festival that welcomed Lono’s return to Hawai‘i, were offered at heiau ipu o Lono or hale o Lono, built at the boundaries of ahupua‘a.

Martha Beckwith writes that our ancestors recognized Lono’s powers over plentiful harvests with daily prayers as well. Each home kept a special ipu (gourd) for family prayers by the kuahu (altar) in the hale mua (men’s house). This ipu o Lono held food offerings and, at the beginning and end of each day, the man of the house sat before the gourd of Lono, and offered prayers for the well-being of the chiefs, commoners and for his own family. Then he ate the food from the gourd before leaving to work in the māla (gardens).

In addition to dark clouds, heavy rain and thunder, Lono is represented by lightning, earthquakes, rain and wind, rainbows, whirlwinds that sweep the earth, waterspouts, the clustering clouds of heaven, and gushing springs on the mountains. Other kino lau of Lono are red fish, black coconut, white fish and ‘awa. Many chants refer to rain clouds as “bodies (kino) of Lono.” ‘Uala (sweet potato) cultivation on the dryer hillside lands that were dependent on winter rains are identified with Lono in his form as Kamapua‘a (hog-child). Humorously, our ancestors referred to the humble ‘uala as the “droppings” of Kamapua‘a.

Lono was celebrated annually for bringing rains that watered leeward slopes and all farms in the islands. The Makahiki was a four-month long religious ceremony. During Makahiki, kāhuna (priests) prayed for rain, abundant crops, and to escape from sickness and trouble. Ho‘okupu (gifts) that were products of the land and were kino lau (body forms, symbols) of Lono were presented to Lono-makua (Lono-the elder) during Makahiki. Offerings were collected at altars on the borders of each ahupua‘a (island district). During a royal procession through the districts, the harvest tribute was accepted, and the ahupua‘a lands and crops were blessed and released from kapu. The attending ali‘i nui, or high chief, acted as a deputy of Lono, who was represented by a symbol somewhat suggestive of a ship’s sail. The symbol was a tall staff with a small carved figure at the top and a cross-piece fastened just below. A large square of white kapa (bark-cloth) hung from the cross-piece. The four-month-long Makahiki begins on the first full moon after the Makali‘i (the Pleiades) appears in the eastern sky at sunset, usually in mid-October.

In a coincidence of place and timing, Captain James Cook landed at Kealakekua (the path of the god) Bay to provision his ship during the season of the Lono festival. Cook was received and worshipped as Lono-makua. During the subsequent disheartening and disillusioning events, the navigator was killed. The event occurred on the shores of Kealakekua, where for centuries Lono-makua, the bearer of rain and plenty, was believed to have come ashore each year. Makahiki is approaching and many in Hawai‘i will acknowledge the gifts of Lono that continue to enrich Hawai‘i’s lands.