Heebie-Jeebies

At the mention of Mo’okini Heiau, Andrew Doughty, the author of a popular guidebook, Hawaii The Big Island Reveled, suddenly turns mystical.

“Even before we knew the gory details about Mo’okini Heiau’s history, the place gave us the heebie-jeebies. We aren’t the only ones who have noticed that the area around the temple is filled with an eerie, ghostly lifelessness, and it’s the only place on the island that we like to avoid…Used for human sacrifices, the area feels devoid of a soul. The quiet isn’t comforting, but rather an empty void.”

Why would a guidebook author, who is usually practical, suddenly go Gothic? Was this calculated entertainment? Or an ingenuous expression of personal experience? And if it is the later, what created his reaction?  Can a landscape be haunted?

The vibe at Mo’okini Heiau is unusual and the feeling begins a few miles from the temple with a dramatic descent on a single lane, which drops 500 feet to the sea. As my Kia Sorrento and I were losing altitude, other famous descents came to mind, most gloomy, like the journey of Orpheus into the underworld to find his lost love or the descent of Jesus into hell.  Primed now for mythic interpretation of whatever came into view, I saw at the bottom of the incline a platoon of giants with faces to the breeze.

The wind turbines, whose great size was occasionally obscured by the rise and fall of hills, sent scimitars of shadow across the backs of grazing horses. The turbines were white but for one blade, which was painted the shade of marigold. The unexpected flash of color required my eye to follow and my brain to tally repetitions, which may account for the dreamy, hallucinatory feel of the wind farm.  But maybe the strangeness was created by the quiet, compound sound of the turbines, at once mechanical like a buried pump and human like the swish of ballet skirts. The association of giants and ballerinas was odd, but I left the wind farm happy, encouraged to see sustainable energy technology applied.

But the oddness continued; at the bottom of the road, edging the sea, was a well-maintained and perfectly empty airport.  No planes, no people, no cars. If it were derelict, the airport would register simply as something old and not useful. But since it’s groomed and ready for action, the total absence of humans is weird. Where did everybody go? The scene is Hitchcock weird, subtle, ambiguous and full of portent.

Now accompanied by Hitchcock, giants, Orpheus, Jesus, and the corps de ballet, I continued through the constant wind, along an unpaved track, parallel to the sea toward Mo’okini Heiau. The land here is very dry and open, receiving only a few inches of moisture a year.  As a result, it’s tan and dotted with gnarly trees whose branches turn like expressionist strokes of black on a field of raw canvas.

One approaches Mo’okini from below on a path of red cinders.

“Heiau” is the word for “temple” in the Hawaiian language. Mo’okini Heiau was for centuries the most important temple in the Big Island District of Kohala and much of it’s history has come to the present through oral tradition. The original temple was built near the end of the first millennium by Mo’okini a local priest.  It was subsequently rebuilt and enlarged, circa 1370, by Pa’ao, a priest who arrived from the south Pacific, bringing with him new gods, and the tradition of human sacrifice, a practice that endured for centuries after his death.  Reports of the number of sacrifices range from hundreds to tens of the thousands.

By legend the Heiau was built in a single day by a line of 15,000 men who brought rocks from 10 miles away by passing them along the human chain. The exterior walls of the Mo’okini are roughly rectangular, about 250 feet by 130 feet and the height varies up to 14 feet, but they may once have been as high as 20 feet.  The base of the ground hugging walls is 10 feet thick and they taper on the exterior and the interior.  The scale and the mass of the exterior is sobering; “weighty” describes both the thing and the feeling it evokes. By comparison a modern temple like the average Wal-Mart building is much larger, but it has no scale or weight, festooned as it is with light, color and signage.  For the modern viewer, the weight of the stone and the size of the walls dominate perfectly, not unlike a sculpture by Richard Serra, who is a master at creating sober reverence through manipulations of space, scale and mass.

The entrance to the temple is large enough for only one person to pass.  Stripped by the architecture of the comfort and strength of companions, you enter alone.

The thousand year old walls, assembled without mortar, block the sound and feel of the wind.  The quiet and stillness are surprising and register as a small loss, as if loved ones, who have been visiting for the weekend, have just left.

Inside across the northerly end is a raised stone platform three feet high which once held fires, statues, the alter and wood towers.

On the alter someone dropped a lei around a stone as if it were a head.

Detached stone platforms only a stone or two high, are scattered around the interior and once served as foundations for wooden temples dedicated to various gods.

At the north end of the compound situated between the main temple and distant Maui lies a flat stone named, Papa-nui-o-leka. Here human flesh was separated from bones after the body had been sacrificed. As was the tradition in many Pacific cultures, the flesh was eaten and the bones used to make tools like fish hooks, and needles.

A natural table, the Papa-nui-o-leka stone is about 6’ x 5’ x 2.5’, concave, and smooth on top. It’s easy to imagine it in use. The sacrificial stone is the tangible evidence that supports the myth that Mo’okini Heiau is full of spirits. Mo’okini is a sober place in which one feels isolated, but there is no need to resort to mysticism to account for the feeling that comes from a visit here. As with any site in which humanity slaughters humanity, like the beaches at Normandy or the World Trade Center, the visitor is moved by the loss and unsettled by the thought that killing is so often ideological. But few would claim as did the author of my guidebook that these sites are “filled with an eerie, ghostly lifelessness, … devoid of a soul”.  Perhaps it’s the cannibalism and the reuse of bone that upsets modern sensibilities to the point of hallucination. Putting modern standards aside, however, it was practical of these people to utilize the protein and raw materials of sacrificed bodies. But it’s not just history that accounts for the feelings evoked by the place, they are also created by the site, an isolated windy, dry slope as well as the architecture, which nimbly exploits the psychological effects of scale, weight and space. If Mo’okini is haunted, it is haunted by the prejudice of modern people who too quickly indulge in a fantasy that people of the past were bloody to a degree that surpasses our own.

But there is relief from the gloominess, unintentional as it is. Someone has placed several sprinklers around the grounds, which go pfft, pfft, pfft and shoot little rainbows making a counter-memorial to the monument of Mo’okini Heiau.

Most of the historical information in this post is from the following:

Russell Apple, Pacific Historian, US Department of Interior, National Registry of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form.

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