In the last hundred years, the Big Island of Hawaii has become a modern, industrialized society – but one thing has not changed. Pele is still revered as the island’s volcano goddess.
Sayings like “don’t mess with Pele,” and offerings to Pele of baskets made with ti leaves are common. The glassy filaments of lava that drift through the air after an eruption are called "Pele’s hair.” The lava droplets are “Pele’s tears.”
Is Pele real or just a figment of the Hawaiian people’s imagination, born of a need to cope with the awesome power of live volcanoes? I lean toward the “real” verdict and would like to offer some anecdotal evidence to seduce you into agreement.
The legend of Pele originated with the Polynesians who first populated the Hawaiian chain of eight islands some 2,000 years ago. It has survived the assault of Westernization, which has denigrated Hawaiian mythology since 1820, when the first missionaries arrived. In the last forty years or so, there has been a resurgence of respect for the old, nature-based way of life. But of all the ancient gods and goddesses, Pele is the strongest survivor, probably because of the continuing volcanic activity.
On a recent trip to the Big Island, I became intrigued by this reverence for Pele. At the Kilauea Visitor Centre, I found a slim, 71-page tribute to Pele called Pele: Goddess of Hawaii’s Volcanoes by Herb Kawainui Kane (pronounced KAHney), an artist and historian who writes about his native Hawaii and the South Pacific.
Pele, I read in Kane’s book, is no meek and gentle goddess. Befitting her role as the ruler of volcanoes, her personality is “volcanic, unpredictable, impulsive, given to sudden rages and violence.” In one folktale, Pele – in the guise of a young woman – is slighted by a young chief whose favourite pastime is holua, the sport of racing narrow sleds down long slides built up of rockwork and thatched with slippery grasses.” Pele challenges the young man to a race, but he abruptly refuses her and launches down the slide by himself. His pleasure is soon cut short when he realizes that the woman he has so rudely dismissed is now pursuing him in a mantle of flame atop a flow of lava. The young chief manages to escape, but he knows he will never be safe on the Big Island again.
Although Pele’s volcanic outbursts can destroy land and property, her molten lava also brings an abundance of minerals to the surface. Within decades, lush new tropical growth hides the bleakness of the former lava flow. Herb Kane quotes one resident, on the run from the encroaching lava, philosophically accepting this cycle of destruction and rebirth: “I love my home; live here all my life, and my family for generations. But if Tutu like take it, it’s her land.” (Tutu is an affectionate term for grandparents that Hawaiians often use for Pele.)
Pele may be violent in her volcanic explosions, but she often gives warning – indirect thought it may sometimes be. “In May 1924,” Kane writes, “residents of the village of Waiohinu reported seeing a tall Hawaiian woman, a stranger dressed in a flowing white garment, walking about the countryside.” This beautiful, stately woman passed by all who saw her and spoke to no one. Soon after, earthquakes ripped the land apart and Kilauea exploded, throwing up rocks, dust and gasses that rose 20,000 feet. In hindsight, the villagers realized that the stranger must have been Pele.
For Herb Kane, what may have seemed like just folk tales took on new meaning after some “spooky stuffs” – to use an island expression – happened to him. In 1973, Kane was invited to paint a mural in Hawaii’s History Centre depicting how the town of Punalu’u might have appeared two centuries before when it was just a village of thatched houses. Kane settled in to paint the ten-foot high by twenty-foot long mural with scenes of chieftains talking, children playing and women preparing food. As Kane brushed in the details, other workers and villagers gathered behind him, talking quietly among themselves, telling stories of the old days.
Close to the completion of the painting, while expensive electronic displays were being installed in the History Center, the building was kept closed to the general public. One evening, Kane returned after dinner to work on the mural. The guard unlocked the door and let him in. After working for an hour, Kane felt he was no longer alone. He turned and found “an elderly Hawaiian woman standing in the shadows looking at the painting.” Kane said hello, but the woman just smiled and kept looking at the painting. The artist returned to his work, but when he looked up again, the mysterious lady had gone. Later, when Kane asked the guard who the woman had been, the guard denied seeing or unlocking the door for anyone but Kane.
Another hard-to-explain event occurred on the final day of work on the mural. Around eleven at night, after a full day of painting, Kane heard voices speaking Hawaiian. The voices seemed to be coming from the painting. “I turned toward the group of chiefs that I had painted standing upon the beach and saw that they were talking to each other. There was a movement on my left and I turned just as one of the women seated under a thatched shelter turned her head away from me, back to the profile position in which I had painted her.” At the time, Kane attributed the vision to overwork.
The third “unreal” incident occurred in the fall of 1975 when severe earthquakes and a tsunami damaged the Punalu’u area where Kane’s mural was located. When Kane phoned the Center the next day, he received some puzzling news. Although a three-foot high mud line was clearly visible on all the building’s walls, the painting, which touched the floor, was dry and unblemished. Kane raced over to see for himself, and it was just as the official had said.
“I searched for an explanation but found none,” Kane admits. But an onlooker thought he knew. He suggested it was Pele who saved the painting. She had made the earthquake that had created the wave but for some reason, she wanted to spare the painting. “She always get the last word,” the man said.
Pele in the past
Pele wasn’t always this ephemeral spirit who teases people with random appearances. According to legend, Pele first arrived in Hawaii “in human goddess form.” Some time after reaching Hawaii, as the story goes, Pele died, but her spirit stayed on to be an intermediary between the forces of the volcanoes on the various islands and the people living there. (At present, the only active volcanoes are on the Big Island.)
Kane speculates that the first Hawaiians must have felt a mixture of awe and terror when they beheld this huge island “crowned with fiery volcanoes and trembling with earthquakes, an island so different from the smaller and more tranquil islands and atolls they had known in the South Pacific.” But in the Polynesian universe, every part of nature, every person, and all the gods were part of an organic whole. A volcano, even with its power of destruction, was revered as part of nature. Kane points out “success was achieved by living in careful and reverent harmony with Nature; failure to do so being marked by swift retribution from the gods.” Our concept of Nature as an object of conquest would have been incomprehensible to the Polynesians.
A workshop in Hawaii
Even with all the dangers, the Big Island is still a beautiful, exotic and fascinating place to visit or live on. Ask Nicki Katchur, the Winnipegger responsible for luring me to Hawaii to attend her two-week Huna Kane (no relationship to Herb Kane!) workshop and tour of the Big Island. Nicki lived there for eleven years and loved it, developing a sense of rapport with Pele that she now incorporates into her workshops.
One day, Nicki took us to a cave in an old lava field that had a steam vent connected to the molten lava underground. Because Pele was giving us the steam, Nicki asked us to bring a small gift – perhaps food or some small token of appreciation – to leave for Pele at the entrance to the cave. We then crawled through a narrow opening in the rock into a dark cave filled with steam that we hoped wouldn’t get too hot of fill us with sulfur fumes. There was no switch on the wall to control the situation! Perhaps the gifts please Pele because we all survived.
Nicki told us about the “curse of Pele,” a myth that threatens bad luck to people who remove volcanic rocks from the island. Perhaps the myth is true. The Hawaii Volcanoes National Part frequently receives packages of rocks or other volcanic material from hapless former tourists. In their plaintive letters, they describe the calamities that have befallen them since they picked up their prohibited lava souvenirs.
Nicki argues that it’s the intent that matters. She has brought lava rocks home with her to Winnipeg, but she asks Pele first, takes the rocks with reverence, and leaves a gift for the goddess in return.
“What I received from being on an island with a live volcano on it,” says Nicki, “is a feeling of reverence for the awesomeness of the creative life force. I think it’s important to let go of the judgmental aspect of creation and destruction.” Nicki was sad about the loss of Kalapana (a town covered by lava in 1990), but she could see the cycle of life and death being acted out there. She was not bitter, as some people were.
Nicki knew of the myth of Pele appearing in an area before the lava flows; in fact, she actually knew a man to whom it happened. Just before lava wiped out the Kapoho area in the 1960s, an older Hawaiian woman knocked at the door of many homes, asking for food. Everyone refused her, except for Nicki’s friend who lived on a large tract of land surrounding Green Lake. A few days later, when the lava flowed, only the man’s property was spared.
Brushes with Pele
I didn’t see or sense Pele while I was in Hawaii, but I do have a couple of stories to add to this mix of folk tales.
When I started to write this article, I was back in Winnipeg, far from the source of any volcanic action. In my mind, I asked, “Pele, could you help me with some inspiration? I wish I had interviewed more people when I was on the Big Island.”
Within a couple of days, I bumped into a friend at a local pottery shop. She was talking to a woman named Doreen who (drum roll) was here on a visit from Hawaii! Amazed, I listened as Doreen told me she belongs to a group that studies the old Hawaiian mythology and learns chants to honour Pele. Doreen even had a Pele story to tell me.
It seems there was a large, shallow, warm pond in the Kapoho area in which people loved to bathe. Someone bought the property and decided to develop it into a resort area. Their first act was to fence it off and charge admission.
One day, a young woman came to the gate and asked to come in for a swim. The guard said she had to pay.
“But I don’t have any money,” said the young woman.
“Then you can’t come in,” replied the guard.
“If I can’t swim here, then no one can,” the woman fumed, and walked away.
Within days, the warm pond was covered with lava.
My second “encounter with Pele” occurred at Grand Beach this summer while I was staying a a friend’s cabin. I was working on this article and running out of paper. What a tragedy – a writer short of paper and no store nearby! (I was using a portable typewriter; no laptop at that time.) I looked around the cabin, poking in odd corners, opening drawers, hoping for a find.
It was a bit cool that day. Impulsively, I opened the wood-burning stove, thinking I might light a fire. There I found four sheets of clean, lined paper lying on the ashes. I whooped with joy, plucked them out and giggled to myself about Pele and the woodstove, the closest thing to a volcano in Manitoba!
Convincing? It tickles my fancy to believe in Pele so I will. Our modern society has moved away from an everyday connection with ancestral and nature spirits, but I find it nourishing to believe in these spirits and to attempt to commune with them.
While at Grand Beach this summer, I walked to Spirit Rock, a four-foot-high rock on which Indians many years ago would place an offering to appease the spirits of the lake. These gifts, they hoped, would bring good weather and protect them when fishing or traveling. I put a penny on the rock, and connected in spirit to the people 4,500 miles away who perform the same ritual for Pele on the Big Island of Hawaii.