A brief introduction to precontact Hawaiian cultural astronomy at Kūkaniloko

The stone compass is a boulder with a diamond-shaped top surface. That surface is fluted, thought to have had thirty-six flutes – with each outward flute counting as one and each inward flute counting as another one. The stone is weathered and time-worn, but you can still see the softened edges of the flutes.


The first person known in modern time to have identified the stone as a compass stone was retired U.S. Army Major Harry Kurth in 1982. Major Kurth recognized the stone as similar to a “stone compass,” also called a “stone canoe,” he had become familiar with during his time in what was called the Gilbert Islands, now known as Kiribati. He wrote notes and a memorandum from which he intended to write a paper. He passed away before he was able to write the paper, but Rubellite Kawena Johnson wrote a paper from his notes.

The location of Kūkaniloko on the Līhue plain a mile or so north of Wahiawa in Central O’ahu is nine miles west of the Ko’olau Mountain Range and seven miles east of the Wai’anae Mountain Range. Its location makes it not only the cultural center/piko of O’ahu but also the geographic center/piko of the island.

kukaniloko location.jpg

A consequence of that centering important to astronomy is the naming of places for the rise and set of stars from the point of view of Kūkaniloko. Those place names together with the many names for each star inscribed astronomical knowledge on the land and in the sky. Both the landscape names and the star names use kaona, even no’o huna, the poetic devices that both veil and record knowledge. Through these means, the naming and veiling of names, Kūkaniloko is an encyclopedia, a library, of precontact astronomical knowledge and knowledge systems. These knowledges and knowledge systems are entwined, braided, interwoven. They are interdependent.

There is much to share and much left to learn.

AN IMPORTANT NOTE: Kūkaniloko can be visited. But the pōhaku of the site are cordoned off from the public by a rectangle of stones inside of which is a rectangle of ti/ki plants. The stones and ti plants indicate that the area within is kapu and not to be entered. It is important to respect that kapu and thus to remain outside the rectangle of stones around the site. There are opportunities to enter the site at certain occassions and in the company of one or more of the siteʻs kahu.

Introductory Overview


Nearly every star and every planet has multiple Hawaiian names. Those names mean something, and they tell us something about the star. One of the names for Sirius, for example, is Hokukelewa’a – the canoe-steering star.

Some names are shared by two or more celestial objects. There are, for example, five celestial objects that share the name Hoku Ula, Red Star – Aldebaran, Antares, Betelgeuse, Mars, and Mercury. All five appear red to the naked eye. Thus Hoku Ula is not the name of a star, but rather a kind or category of star – red stars. Jupiter and Antares share the name Kahuaokalani. Kahuaokalani has several meanings, one of which is the foundation (kahua) or the seed (ka hua) of the (ka) heaven (lani) of highest chiefs (lani). Here the shared name is a category that also tells us that these two celestial objects are senior celestial objects, that they are probably involved with cosmogony, and that they are significant players in the Hawaiian sky.

The landscape markers for each starʻs rise and set from the point of view of Kūkaniloko also tell us something about the star. Among the landscape markers for Antares, for example, are Kaupakuhale (housebeam), Halekou (house of kou, house of male virility), and Kahanali’i (the work/responsibility of the chief/s, the chief(s)ʻ place).

The landscape markers from the point of view of Kūkaniloko are a major reason Kūkaniloko is such an encyclopedia of precontact star knowledge. And thatʻs because Kūkaniloko is the piko, the center, of O’ahu that is not just geographically centered but also astronomically centered. As far as I know there are no sites on the other islands that are similarly centered.

Diacritical Marks

Iʻve used diacritical marks – the ‘okina and kahakō, the glottal stop and the macron – so far, but from this point on I wonʻt use them for star/planet names or landscape marker names. There are reasons for that. Chief among those reasons are a) the necessary and intended ambiguity of the words that make up the names that disappears with diacritical marks; b) and related to a) are the poetic arts of Hawaiian orality which include homonyms/puns, symbols, imagery, allusions to moʻolelo and cosmogony; and c) the names pre-exist the development of Hawaiian as a written language and also pre-exist the use of diacriticals in the written Hawaiian language.

As a “by-the-way,” the apostrophes in word and names, as in, for example, Johnʻs house, are backwards. Thatʻs because a Hawaiian font is installed on my computers and for reasons I donʻt understand it requires that I toggle out of the Hawaiian font and into American or British English to make the apostrophe the right way around. Because I use the Hawaiian font every day Iʻm ignoring the fact that apostrophes appear backwards.

Calendar/Month Stars

There are four precontact calendars – Hawai’i Island, Molokaʻi, Oʻahu, and Kaua’i. All of them name months for stars, but each of them places them in a different order than the others. And some stars appear twice, although with different names, in a calendar.

For the research about Kūkanilokoʻs astronomy I used, no surprise, the O’ahu calendar. In some ways that doesnʻt matter. For one thing, no one, as far as Iʻve been able to find out, has been able to show a rise, set, or zenith position of a month star, the generally most important star positions, during the month named for the star. That is because, at least in one meaningful part, the months are lunar months and the moonʻs cycles are not the same as the starsʻ cycles.

O’ahuʻs Calendar/Month Stars

Gemini (Castor and Pollux)                            January

Welo (Orionʻs Belt)                                        February

Ikiiki (Regulus)                                               March

Kaaona (Cancer)                                             April

Hinaieleele (Aldebaran/Hyades)                     May

Mahoe Mua (Castor of Gemini)                     June

Mahoe Hope (Pollux of Gemini)                    July

Ikuwa (Antares)                                              August

Welehu (Antares)                                            September

Makalii (The Pleiades)                                    October

Kaelo (Betelgeuse)                                          November

Kaulua (Sirius)                                                December

This list is from David Maloʻs Hawaiian Antiquities, Bishop Museum Press, 1951, page 32.

The English language month equivalencies are very approximate and most Hawaiian months cover parts of two consecutive English language months – because Hawaiian months run from first crescent to next first crescent. The Western calendar ignores the moon except for determining the date of Easter each year. Way back in the 300 AD era the Church determined that Easter would be the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Thatʻs still the way Easterʻs date is decided.