Pele’s legend: Goddess of Volcanoes

There are many myths to be told of Pele, the Goddess of the Mount Kilauea – a Volcano in Hawaii still active today. Some stories tell of her love affair with the Ocean and their fiery meetings. Others tell of her human embodiment to seduce a young man, Lohiau with whom she fell deeply in love.

There are around 1500 documented volcanoes that have erupted throughout earth’s history and over 800 of them are still active today. Eruptions are usually violent and devastating for the communities that lay in the wake of the resulting ash and lava flows. We can do nothing to stop the outbursts, we can only hope to predict when they will occur and even then this is fraught with inaccuracy.

So what does the legend of Pele, the beautiful goddess of the volcano, serve to teach us?

Lava spewed from the Volcano will flow inexorably toward the sea and it will eventually cool and harden. In it’s wake new land has been formed and the landscape will have been changed forever. We are powerless to stop this change. As the lava cools and the ashes settle we see new life, new and different creation as nature adapts to its new surroundings. The eruption brings forth the ability to change the environment in the most natural, albeit violent way. It is part of the creative process.

The legends of Pele

Pele was born the middle child of three daughters. Her older sister Namaka was a water goddess, as Pele was supposed to be. She also had a younger sister Hi’iaka. As a young child Pele became fascinated with fire and she was known for her fiery temper and angry outbursts. Eventually Pele’s fascination lead to the destruction of her home (the island of Tahiti) when she literally set it alight in a fit of rage. Fleeing the inferno Pele’s parents loaded their daughters into a canoe sailing to the safety of another island. Angered by the separation, Namaka threatened to flood the island as punishment for Pele’s destructive ways.

After island hopping a trail of destruction left by the bickering sisters and being chased off one island after another by resident snow goddesses, the family eventually settled on the islands of Hawaii. The tribes of Hawaii were enthralled by their beauty and liveliness, and revelled in the girls’ love of song, frivolity and dance. Hi’iaka (also called Laka) was recognized as the goddess of the sacred dance, the ‘hula’ and patronesses of dancers.
Still the fiery outbursts of Pele and the flooding destruction of Namaka continued. In trying to escape her sister’s tidal waves and floods, Pele finally settled at Mauna Loa, a mountain on the southernmost island next to Mount Kilauea and still very active. Whilst Mount Everest is the tallest mountain above sea level, Mauna Loa is earth’s tallest mountain as measured from the ocean floor and is occasionally snow capped. According to some parts of Hawaiian folklore, Pele was actually exiled to the crater of the volcano by her father because of her fiery temper.

Here Pele was free to keep her fires alight in the various volcanic craters in the mountains knowing that Namaka was unable to raise the waters as high as the mountain’s peak. But the fighting continued. Soon the two sisters were waging a ferocious battle. Pele’s fires rose up out of the trembling earth, spewing rivers of lava fiery lava into the ocean, driving the sea away from the coast. As the lava cooled it added to the land mass, and the small atoll was transformed into the beautiful Big Island of Hawaii.

Pele’s legend is not restricted to her fiery ways as many stories abound about her insatiable jealousy and need to conquer her lovers.

Pele’s lovers

It is said that Namaka has to this day never forgiven Pele for having had an affair with her husband, ‘Aukele. This is the basis for their ongoing violent encounters.

One of the snow goddesses was Poliahu who took a handsome young tribal chief as her lover, much to the disgust of Pele who was also wanting of the young chieftain’s attention. A rivalry ensued with Poliahu showering the two lovers in freezing snow until eventually they had to separate. Pele retaliated with a fiery eruption forcing Poliahu off the mountain. Not to be outdone Poliahu returned with a massive snow storm so great that it managed to extinguish some of Pele’s craters forever. To this day it is said that the quarrel continues in perpetuity.

Attracted to a handsome mortal named Ohi`a, Pele flew into a rage when he resisted her seduction while proclaiming his devotion to the lovely mortal Lehua. Furious, Pele killed the lovers. However, Pele regretted this impetuous act, and made amends by joining the lovers together for all eternity, turning Ohi`a into a shrub and filling the branches with soft delicate flowers made from the body of Lehua. The Ohi`a lehua tree, sacred to the goddess Pele, is always the first to sprout and grow in the hard earth of a lava bed.

Of all Pele’s lovers the one that saddened and enraged her most was Lohiau, the handsome young mortal and chief of Kauai. Pele seduced him and the two fell in love. Hearing her sister Hi’iaka’s cries from the mountain Pele left Lohiau to return to her sister’s aid. 

Hi’iaka was crying for her lifelong friend and mentor, a poet mortal called Hopoe who lived in a beautiful Ohi’a lehua grove. She longed to be with Hopoe but needed Pele’s blessing. Pele agreed and sent Hi’iaka to live with Hopoe inside the beautiful gardens where together they made lei’s and sang songs.

But Pele never stopped wanting Lohiau. Tormented and determined to have him, Pele sent her sister Hi’iaka to fetch him. To this she endowed Hi’iaka with special powers of seduction in the hope that Lohiau would come, but advised Hi’iaka that nothing was to happen between them and that she must return within 40 days. Upon finding Lohiau dead (his heart broken by the departure of Pele), Hi’iaka went to the underworld to free Lohiau’s soul to return to his body. It worked, however this meant that she had surpassed the 40 days.

Pele suspicions flooded her emotions and she was infuriated believing they had become lovers. Unable to contain her jealousy, Pele’s fire raged and she burned Hiiaka’s gardens, killing Hopoe in the process. Upon her return with Lohiau, Hi’iaka was horrified and angered. Hi’iaka retaliated by making love to Lohiau right on the edge of Pele’s craters. Pele seethed more. In her outrage she sent her fiery molten lava straight at Lohiau, burning him in flames and killing him.

Pele could not bring herself to harm her sister Hi’iaka. Grief stricken, Hi’iaka fled back to the underworld to save Lohiau’s soul again, this time to the gates that held back the rivers of Chaos. She knew that opening the gates would flood the earth and would in turn quash Pele’s fires. Like her sister, she realised that she also could not harm Pele.

Eventually, Pele took other lovers and Hi’iaka, realising that she loved Lohiau lived in happiness with him on another island, out of Pele’s reach.

Pele and Kamapuaa

Pele’s most famous lover was indeed Kamapuaa, a young mortal who became the Hawaiian God of Rain. Kamapuaa’s father accused his mother of infidelity (which was likely true) and cast out Kamapuaa, denying him to be his own. Kamapuaa grew strong and took up a life as a thief and plunderer. Unwashed and covering himself in tattoos, he forced people to yield to him including whichever woman took his eye. Upon arriving at the coast of Kilauea in his boat he heard stories of the beautiful young woman called Pele. He set about getting her for himself and scaled the mountain.

When he found her he fell deeply in love. He pleaded with her to become his wife, to have children with him and to love him. But Pele rejected him, disgusted by his appearance. A bitter fight ensued but Pele would not yield. Kamapuaa eventually tried to sooth his heart by forcing Pele to at least be his friend. To this end he subdued his anger and approached Pele with a softness that Pele could not resist. In that moment they became lovers. But Pele soon became confused with the sudden change in Kamapuaa and her old distrusts emerged. Soon they were again at loggerheads and Kamapuaa left the volcano for safety in the green valleys of Hilo, Hamakua, and Kohala where he rained continually.

‘If you drown me with water, you will still not have me as a woman,’ Pele laughed.

‘If you burn me with fire, your own barrenness will starve you,’ he retorted.

Today it is said that Kamapuaa’s rains shower the lush valleys and quell the fires of Pele, in turn new life is born. Later, it is believed that Pele gave birth to their child, Opelu-nui-kauhaalilo. Seeing the softness of the child she now missed the company of Kamapuaa. Today, Opelu-nui-kauhaalilo is regarded as the ancestor of both local tribal chiefs and commoners alike. Kamapuaa is said to be the protector of broken hearts.

Pele’s legend today

In death, Pele became a spirit, a shape-shifter who can assume whatever appearance she wishes. It is said that she will often appear as a shapely young woman, sometimes as a small white dog, and other times as an old woman asking a stranger for a cigarette.

It is the continued clashes of Pele with her rivals that is said to have created the luxuriant and fertile hillsides that grace the Hawaiian landscape. Once she has scorched all that lies on her path, Pele swiftly seeds it with the beautiful flowers that quickly rise from the bed that she created with her fiery anger.

Kilauea is considered to be the present home of Pele and several special lava formations are named after her, including Pele’s Tears (small droplets of lava that cool in the air and retain their teardrop shapes) and Pele’s Hair (thin, brittle strands of volcanic glass that often form during the explosions that accompany a lava flow as it enters the ocean).

Kilauea is where most of the conflict between Pele and Kamapuaa took place. Realising that each could threaten the other with destruction; the two had to call their fight a draw and divided the island between them: Kamapuaa got the windward north eastern side, and Pele got the drier Kona (“leeward”) side.

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