Kahuna is a Hawaiian word, defined in as a "priest, sorcerer, magician, wizard, minister, expert in any profession". (See additionally Ancient Hawaii.)

Forty types of kahuna are listed in the book Tales from the Night Rainbow. Kamakau lists more than 20 in the healing professions alone, including for example "Kahuna la'au lapa'au" (an expert in herbal medicine) and "kahuna haha" (an expert in diagnosing illnesses).

With the revival of the Hawaiian culture beginning in the 1970s, a few native Hawaiian cultural practitioners call themselves kahuna today. Others disdain the term. In the New Age spiritual system known as Huna, which uses Hawaiian words and appears to be appropriated or adapted from Hawaiian tradition, kahuna similarly denotes someone of priestly or shamanic standing.

Many myths have grown up around kahuna. One is that kahuna were outlawed after the white man came to Hawaii. It is known that there were a large number of different types of kahuna. Kahuna can be divided into two categories: "craft" kahuna, such as kālai waʻa, an expert canoe maker, and hoʻokele, an expert navigator; "sorcerers" including kahuna ʻanāʻanā and lapaʻau (healer). According to one source, there were ten types (or ranks) of sorcery kahuna.

  1. Kuhikuhi puʻuone (literally "to direct divination"): one who locates the site for the construction of heiau, or temples.
  2. kilokilo: one who divines and predicts future events, a prophet.
  3. Hoʻounāunā: one who can send spirits to cause an illness.
  4. ʻAnāʻanā: one who can pray someone to death.
  5. Nānāuli: one who studies natural signs, like clouds, rains, and winds.
  6. Hoʻopiʻopiʻo: one who touches a part of his own body, thereby causing injury to his victim's body in the same place (like voodoo dolls)
  7. Hoʻokomokomo: one who can send a spirit, usually evil, to possess its victim.
  8. Poʻi ʻUhane: one who can catch a spirit and force it to do its bidding.
  9. Lapaʻau: one to practises procedures of medicinal healing.
  10. Oneoneihonua: one who performs the human sacrifices at the luakini heiau.

It is said that the one who can master all of the ten types, becomes a Kahuna Nui (Great Kahuna). It is known that Hewahewa, a direct descendant of Paʻao, was the Kahuna Nui to Kamehameha I.

Craft kahuna were never prohibited; however, throughout the decline of native Hawaiian culture a large number of died out and didn't pass on their wisdom to new students. As an example, when the Hōkūle‘a was built to be sailed to the South Pacific to prove the voyaging capabilities of the ancient Hawaiians, master navigator Mau Piailug from Satawal was brought to Hawaii to teach the Hawaiians navigation.

It is often said that the missionaries came to Hawaii in 1820 and made kahuna practises illegal. In the 100 years after the missionaries arrived all kahuna practises were legal until 1831, a few were illegal until 1863, all were legal until 1887, then a few were illegal until 1919. Since 1919, all have been legal, except sorcery, which was illegal at first, but was decriminalised in 1972.

The first Christian missionaries arrived in 1820. The most powerful person in the nation, Kaʻahumanu, didn't convert until 1825. But it wasn't until 11 years after missionaries arrived that she proclaimed laws against hula, chant, ‘awa (kava), and Hawaiian religion.

King Kamehameha V came to power in 1863. He disdained the law and encouraged the revival of native practices. (Chai) Many kahuna who had been quietly practising came forward. On Maui, a group of eight Hawaiians founded the 'Ahahui La'au Lapa'au in 1866. They weren't only kahuna; several were additionally members of the Hawaiian Legislature. They interviewed twenty-one kahuna to compile a complete resource of prayers and remedies for the Legislative record. (These interviews have been republished in the book Must We Wait in Despair? by Malcolm Naea Chun.)

Both Kamehameha V and his successor, King Kalakaua, invited kahuna to come to Honolulu to share their wisdom. They compiled oral and written histories and documented the prayers, chants, hulas, and remedies for healings. Kalakaua convened groups of kahuna to refer to with each additional to preserve their heritage. This and a large number of additional moves by Kalakaua outraged the Christian residents. In 1887 they forced the Bayonet Constitution upon the King, stripping him of most of his personal authority.

While all this legal manoeuvring has been going on, a large number of traditional practitioners have continued to practise as they and their ancestors have always done.

Non-Hawaiian uses

The use of the term in reference to surfing can be traced back to the 1959 film Gidget, in which "The Big Kahuna", played by Cliff Robertson, (Martin Milner in the TV episode), was the leader of a group of surfers. The term then became commonplace in Beach Party films of the 1960s such as Beach Blanket Bingo, where the "Big Kahuna" was the best surfer on the beach. Eventually, it was adopted into general surfing culture. Hawaiian surfing master Duke Kahanamoku might have been referred to as the "Big Kahuna" but rejected the term as he knew the original meaning.

In the 1999 movie The Big Kahuna salesmen are trying to get a lucrative contract with a manufacturer they refer to as the "great kahuna". In a fantasy scene, Kevin Spacey's character wears a headdress and is revered as "the big kahuna".

The term was additionally used by Wally Amos in his biscuit business .

  • Ho'oponopono, ancient Hawaiian forgiveness process, often practised by a kahuna
  • Maven, a term from a different tradition with similar connotations
  • Morrnah Simeona, regarded as a kahuna la'au lapa'au
  • Tohunga, a cognate term and title in Māori tradition
  • Big Kahuna Burger, a fictional chain of Hawaiian-themed fast food restaurants that appears in the movies of Quentin Tarantino