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Huna: New Age on an Island

Donate Huna blends generic New Age spiritualism with a concocted version of Hawaiian tradition.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Alternative Medicine, Health, Religion

Skeptoid Podcast #807
November 23, 2021
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Huna: New Age on an Island

Travel to Hawaiʻi, or visit any sort of New Age conference, and you're going to be exposed to Huna. Huna is presented as, and believed by many to be, a system of secret ancient Hawaiian wisdom that you can learn and gain insight, improve yourself or your life, or be more successful, whatever you want. Key to its attractiveness to westerners is its claim of having its basis on an enlightened ancient culture. Is Huna truly a miracle solution, available to anyone for the price of a seminar; or is it just another New Age lifestyle, only festooned with Hawaiian imagery to give it an air of illumination and legitimacy? Today we're going to point our skeptical eye at Huna, and especially at its founder, Max Freedom Long, and his fundamental claim that it is represents a brand of ancient Hawaiian wisdom as passed down through its priests, the kāhuna.

The birth of Huna was not a promising one. In the 1920s, Max Freedom Long was a struggling, middle-aged author of pulp murder mysteries set in Hawaiʻi. By all accounts, he was quite a good writer and his stories accurately depicted the culture of white Americans living in Hawaiʻi, which was then a US territory. The native term for Long and his fellow whites was haole, today considered a derogatory and offensive term, but I'm going to use it in this episode because its cultural implications are important to this topic. A haole was not just a white person, in fact haole were not necessarily white at all. A haole was anyone who was not a native Hawaiian, and thus did not possess a native's understanding and connection to the culture. Haole would often be excluded from conversation about cultural matters. Long came to Hawaiʻi later in life on a teaching contract in 1917, and thus was about as haole as you could get.

And so imagine how seemingly improbable it was how, shortly after he moved back to California about 1932, Long the haole-extraordinaire produced a book titled Recovering the Ancient Magic, which was, purportedly, a revelation of all the ancient magical secrets of the kāhuna. Kahuna has fairly broad meaning, it can mean boss or even refer to a white collar professional, but in the traditional sense — certainly in the way Long used it — a kahuna was specifically a traditional Hawaiian priest. Only, Long layered on some fiction to make the kāhuna into "keepers of the secret", as he termed them. What secret? Well, good luck figuring that out; the book is all over the place. It goes from fire-walking over lava as a feat of magic, to magical healing powers, to Mesmerism, to materialization and dematerialization, to, well just about everything found on the spectrum of the supernatural. As a narrator, Long speaks as a layman, a man of science, who has witnessed all of these strange and miraculous things, studied them diligently for years, and is now bringing them to the world. He did not yet use the term Huna as the name for his imaginary version of Hawaiian mysticism; that was to come in his later books on Huna, of which there were about eight in all.

Note for readers: kahuna is singular; kāhuna is plural. —BD

In an evident effort to bolster his first book's credibility, Long included a character whom he regarded as a revered expert on Hawaiian culture, the botanist William Tufts Brigham, director of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. Long wrote how, while he was living in Hawaiʻi and learning all of these secrets, he befriended Brigham, and Brigham taught him all of the deepest secrets of the kāhuna.

This stretches credibility. First of all, Brigham was dead by the time Long wrote his book, and so would not be around to make trouble if Long made up all kinds of false stories about what they did together. Second, Brigham was highly unlikely to have been much of a source on kahuna magic. Brigham was indeed the museum director, but the way he got there was not auspicious. He was essentially a fugitive from justice, having embezzled large sums from his partners in a failed investment scheme. He fled to Hawaiʻi, knowing a bit about the Islands from having done his field work there as a botany student. Brigham was fortunate that his friend, the philanthropist Charles Reed Bishop, was building a museum and was in need of a director. Brigham never took much interest in the museum itself, and certainly never ingratiated himself with the local science community, or really with any community. He was universally disliked, by all accounts, and referred to Hawaiians by all the worst racial epithets. Questioned about this on one occasion by the museum's board, he openly explained that Hawaiians are an inferior race. He never learned the Hawaiian language, and never studied or wrote about kāhuna.

But what really makes the case that Long never actually knew Brigham is in the 1999 book Hoʻopono by Pali Jae Lee, who had been a researcher at the Bishop Museum, and was a co-author with her husband of books on true Hawaiian traditions. Lee found Long's book highly dubious, both in its characterization of kahuna magic and in its stories featuring Brigham. Luckily, Brigham was a fastidious documenter of everything he did, keeping a detailed journal, and also logs of everything that happened in his office. And, also luckily, Lee worked there and had full access to the archives. She wrote in Hoʻopono:

I went through page after page of his journals, year after year, looking for some note, some meeting, some mention. I found grocery lists and what he paid for each item, mention of sore legs, croup and weather conditions. I found all the letters from his relatives. He had not thrown out a thing. Everything was there. There was no mention of Max Freedom Long.

A 2011 article in The Hawaiian Journal of History by Makana Risser Chai acknowledges that Long invented his association with Brigham, and yet the stories in which he mentioned him were generally accurate, in terms of the traditional practices mentioned. Long himself provided one source that was quite possibly where he got those cases, and they weren't from Brigham. After Long moved to Honolulu, he may well have actually tried to meet Brigham at the museum; however, by then, Brigham had been fired from his position. But Brigham did still do some writing and was still around a lot, and may even have kept an office there — as evidenced by the journals that Lee had searched. The person Long did meet at the museum was Lahilahi Webb, the only Native Hawaiian on staff, whose role was as "Hostess and Guide to the Exhibits." Webb's credentials were very much in order. Chai wrote:

Lahilahi Webb (1862–1949) was Hawaiian and one-sixteenth Spanish. Her great-grandmother was Haiamaui, a chiefess, who married Don Francisco de Paula Marin, a Spaniard who served as an advisor to Kamehameha the Great. Webb participated in the coronation of Kalakaua in 1883. From 1915 to 1917 she was the lady-in-waiting and nurse to Hawaiʻi's last monarch, Queen Liliʻuokalani.

Over time she became respected by the scholars at the museum and her role changed... In the 1931 introduction to Kepelino's Traditions, she is named as an authority on the old Hawaiian language, and by 1934 she was acknowledged in a museum publication as an "invaluable resource" of traditional wisdom about healing. The Bishop Museum Archives contain a number of delightful first-hand accounts of her observations of kāhuna at work.

But even as a haole, Long would have had other sources during his years in the Islands; Webb is just one that we know of. So he certainly would have had enough information to string together some actual kahuna practices, upon which to build his substantial fictionalization on top of. It was, in fact, his leaping-off point; little else in his books has any connection to anything meaningful.

For example, among all the New Age mumbo-jumbo that Long poured into his books were the concepts of the subconscious, conscious, and superconscious, which at the time had only recently been made part of pop culture by Carl Jung. Long made these one of the fundamentals of Huna, only he renamed them the unihipili, uhane, and aumakua — Lee also noted in her book that the meanings Long claimed for these words didn't have anything remotely to do with their actual meaning.

But what's even stranger is that the more of Long's books you read, the more outrageous they get, until you pass the point where it's clear that you're reading fiction. For example, in his second book on Huna, The Secret Science Behind Miracles, he asserts that the original Hawaiian kāhuna were Berbers from ancient Egypt, "before the time of Moses":

...The Hawaiians once lived in a home land far away. They saw by psychic sight the land of Hawaiʻi and set out to find it. Their journey commenced at the "Red Sea of Kane," which fits neatly into the idea that they came from Egypt by way of the Red Sea... The history gives few details of the journey from that place on, except to tell how progress was made from land to land in large double canoes. When the eight unoccupied islands of Hawaiʻi were found by the scouts who went ahead, they returned to the nearest islands to the west to fetch the others of the tribe who had remained there to rest. Trees, plants and animals were brought on subsequent voyages as the tribe moved in and took up its home in Hawaiʻi.

Now we know to thank the Egyptians for the trees, plants, and animals of the Hawaiian Islands.

Even on the website, which you'd think would have attempted to patch things up and cover for Long's errors, says:

Huna comes from ancient times, it is one of the original arts and sciences of healing and spiritual development. We believe that it may be as old as 35,000 years and is a part of the original teachings of the peoples of the earth which were centered here in Hawaiʻi on a continent which now, no longer exists. All that remains physically of that land are the mountain peaks of the island chain called Hawaiʻi.

Not only is that in direct contradiction with what Long said, it's in direct contradiction to basic geology and the well-known volcanic history of the Hawaiian islands.

It's pretty easy to summarize Huna, and to do so with dead accuracy, as it's little more than yet another iteration of the old "spin the wheel and make up a New Age philosophy." Huna consists of the exact same generic New Age mysticism — though most authors of Long's day called it the New Thought movement — that's been recycled time and time again. Long anchored it with a handful of true facts about Hawaiian kāhuna, and then layered on the old familiar metaphysics, spiritualism, and the "law of attraction" that says positive thinking is enough to make anything come true — which we talked about way back in episode #96 about the 2006 book and movie The Secret. (That book even has the same title, as Huna is an actual Hawaiian word for secret.) This means there's nothing in Huna that you can't get from a discount used book store for 99 cents. Long's only contribution was to decorate it with misused or made-up Hawaiian-sounding words and traditions. Regarding Huna as Hawaiian in any way is an insult to actual Hawaiian culture, and to Hawaiians themselves. It's a very haole thing to do.

By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.


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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Huna: New Age on an Island." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 23 Nov 2021. Web. 22 Apr 2024. <>


References & Further Reading

Beckwith, M. Hawaiian Mythology. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1976.

Beckwith, M. Kepelino's Traditions of Hawaii. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1932.

Lee, P. Ho'opono. Honolulu: Night Rainbow Publishing, 1999. 45, 56.

Long, M. The Secret Science Behind Miracles. Los Angeles: Kosmon Press, 1948.

Long, M. Recovering the Ancient Magic. London: Rider, 1936.

Risser Chai, M. "Huna, Max Freedom Long, and the Idealization of William Brigham." The Hawaiian Journal of History. 1 Jan. 2011, Volume 45: 101-121.

Rose, R. A Museum to Instruct and Delight. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1980.


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