The Makahiki festival punctuated the yearly farming cycle in ancient Hawai`i. Celebrating harvest and Lono, the Hawaiian god associated with rain and fecundity, Makahiki marked a temporary halt to activities of war and occasioned lesser changes in many other daily routines. For religious reasons that coincided with seasonal weather, activities such as deep-sea fishing – associated with Ku, the god of war – were kapu, or prohibited, during Makahiki. Beginning in late October or early November when the Pleiades constellation was first observed rising above the horizon at sunset, the Makahiki period continued for four months, through the time of rough seas, high winds, storms and heavy rains.
Makahiki was a time to gather and pay tithes to chiefs who redistributed the gifts of the land, a time to cease farming labors and a time to feast and enjoy competitive games. Hawaiians gave ritualized thanks for the abundance of the earth and called upon the gods to provide rain and prosperity in the future.
Lono, the god of fertility and rain, was identified with southerly storms. He is sometimes referred to as the elder brother of Pa`ao, the influential priest who also arrived from the south and who instituted new rituals and beliefs in the Hawaiian religion. Lono took many forms, or kino lau. He could be seen in the black rain clouds of kona storms, in flashing eyes that resembled lightning, or in kukui, a plant associated with the pig-god Kamapua`a. Kamapua`a and Pele were both close relatives of Lono. Pele was sometimes called Lono's niece, sharing his southern origins and favoring the rainy seasons and southern coasts for her eruptions.
The highest chief of the island acted as host to Lono during Makahiki, performing ceremonies to mark the beginning and end of the festival. The chief collected gifts and offerings – food, animals, kapa, cordage, feathers and other items – on behalf of Lono and redistributed them later amongst lesser chiefs and their followers. The chief declared the kapu on produce and the land which was observed as the Lono figure - a staff topped by a small carved figure and a crossbar supporting a white sheet of kapa – was carried around the island perimeter in a clockwise direction. Lono's retinue stopped at the boundary of each ahupua`a where a stone altar, or ahu, included the carved wooden pig - the pua`a - and where gifts of the district had been collected. The slow circuit of the island took several days.
Once all the tribute to Lono and the chief was collected, communities gathered to celebrate with feasts and games. Chiefs and commoners competed, as well as those trained as athletes. Boxing was a favorite spectator sport. Both men and women participated in the competitions; some contests were sham battles that resulted in death. Other games included `ulu maika (a type of bowling), foot races, marksmanship with pahe`e or short javelins, puhenehene, a guessing game with pebbles that often involved sexual wagers, wrestling and hula dancing. Hula – under guidance of the goddess Laka, sister to Pele – offered many chants and dances composed specifically for Makahiki. They honored Lono, the chief, Kane (the god most closely associated with taro), and were meant to invoke rain and fertility.
In addition to the games and circuit of the Lono figure, the chief observed further religious ceremonies. Makahiki rituals were the most festive of the Hawaiian religion and included dramatic pageants and other acted-out scenes. The pageant of Kahoali`i honored a mythical hero sometimes associated with the dark underworld where the sun goes at dusk. The pageant of Maoloha, or the net of Makali`i, featured a net of food symbolizing the Pleiades and a future period of prosperity. Once the proper rituals and ceremonies were performed, the chief lifted the kapu on fishing, farming and war and a basket of food was ritually set adrift on the sea, lashed to the outrigger of a wooden canoe. Normal life resumed and the farming cycle began again.