A place like Hawaii conjures relaxing thoughts of glittering beaches, hula dancers, and shaved ice. Step off the tourist path, however, and you’ll discover a paradise rich with tales of the spirit world.
Kaena Point (or Kaʻena Point) lies on the westernmost tip of Oahu. While roads extend toward the shore, they quickly diminish into rutted two tracks and narrow paths. Intrepid hikers must make the last leg of the trek by foot, where they’re met with breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean.
And it’s at this point that the natural world meets the afterlife, according to Hawaiian folklore.
Pele, Hawaii’s fire goddess, controls the energy of lightning, volcanoes, and wind. She’s also the deity who created the Hawaiian Islands. The story goes that Pele’s male relative (some versions say her brother, others say cousin) traveled to this mystic point at Oahu’s western edge and decided to stay. So it was named for him—ka’ena means “red hot” in Hawaiian.
But just what’s so alluring about this rugged stretch of land?
Hawaiian folklore has long considered Kaena Point a “jumping off” place for souls. As the land breaks into the sea the distinction between earth and ocean—life and death—begins to blur. According to island tradition, when a person is dying, his soul leaves his body. The wandering spirit first arrives at a fishing shrine, known as hauone. There, the fulfillment of one’s worldly obligations is assessed. If all is well, the soul is obligated to cross over.
The soul then arrives at Kaena Point where it meets two gods. These gods toss the wandering soul into a gigantic pit known at Lua a Kehena, whereupon death finally strikes the person’s body. The spirit’s journey continues toward Na ulu o lei walufor final judgment—the good go right, while the bad go left.
Kaena Point is more than a haunted landscape; it’s a gathering space of spiritual forces. Hawaiians have long held it to be one of their most sacred places, both because of its significance in the soul’s journey—and as the site where mortals make the final leap into the realm the gods.
Today Kaena Point lies within a state park. It’s home to a high degree of biodiversity and sustains an ecosystem brimming with flora and fauna. Those who manage to reach its rugged turf do report hearing something beyond the sounds of wildlife. It’s an eerie wail that seems to rise out of the ocean, like the distant calls of lost souls.
Photos (in order): Nick Welles / Flickr; Jeffrey Villamin / Flickr; Jeffrey Villamin / Flickr