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  • Writer's pictureKara Newcastle

Myth Monday: Pele, Fiery Volcano Goddess (Hawaiian Myth)

Myth Monday: Pele, Fiery Volcano Goddess (Hawaiian Myth)

I had wanted to write about Pele months ago, but, given what had happened in Hawaii, it just didn’t seem to be in the best taste at the time. Now that things have calmed down (somewhat/for now), I think it might be safe to discuss this explosive goddess now. Who knows? Maybe this blog will make her happy and she’ll be cool with everybody again.

Pele was born to the sky god Kane Hoalani and Haumea the fertility goddess somewhere near Bora Bora. When she opened her eyes for the first time, flames danced in her pupils and her uncle, the fire god, realized that the pupil he had been waiting years for had finally arrived. He took young Pele under his wing and taught her all the secrets of fire.

However, not everyone was thrilled; mysterious fires would spring up out of nowhere, bedeviling the gods. Pele was also quite fiery in spirit, and she regularly bickered with her older sister, the goddess of the sea Namaka. In time, the bickering turned into blows, and the two sisters battled, with Pele lobbing fireballs at her sister’s massive sea waves. Finally, their father became so fed up with their fighting he ordered Pele to leave their home and seek her own land.

Boarding a huge canoe with nine of her siblings, Pele and her family paddled across the ocean, visiting various islands and atolls throughout Oceania, but not finding anything big enough to serve them. Finally, Pele drew out her dowsing rod and held it over the blue water, summoning land to rise out of the sea. These islands became Hawaii. The volcano Kilauea was the first to emerge, and Pele took the Halemaumau crater at the top as her home, fleeing there after another older sister, one of the four snow goddesses, fought her and cooled her lava flows until they turned to stone.

Pahoeoe fountain by j.d. griggs

Eventually humans arrived on Hawaii, and Pele took interest in these mortals. One day she challenged Chief Kahawalito a sled race down the side of Kilauea, but when he won, Pele flew into such an explosive rage that the chief had to flee by boat. The Hawaiian people were so fearful of Pele’s unpredictable rages that they took pains to keep her happy, honoring her with dances, food, drink, and sacrifices of her favorite berries, flowers, and white birds, all tossed into the volcanic crater. Some say that humans were also thrown in as well, but there is no evidence that this ever occurred.

Pele was also extremely attracted to Hawaiian men. Once she had been married to a man, but he left her for another woman, but that betrayal didn’t sour Pele’s need for love—and sex. One night as she slept in her volcano, Pele heard wonderful music from the valleys below. Her spirit detached itself from her body and traveled down to a nearby village, where the mortals were throwing a raucous festival. There, Pele saw among the dancers the devastatingly handsome Chief Lohiau and fell instantly in love. She went to him, and for three days they made love, until Pele realized that she had to return her spirit to her body, or her sacred fires would die out. She promised to send for Lohiau when she was ready for him, then returned to Kilauea.

Unable to leave her volcano, Pele asked her favorite sister Hi’iaka the cloud goddess (who had been born from an egg that Pele had kept safe in her armpit) to go and bring back Lohiau for her, and Hi’iaka agreed so long as Pele tended to her gardens. Hi’iaka traveled down to the mortals’ village, encountering many monsters and trials that slowed her progress. Upon reaching the village, Hi’iaka was shocked to learn that Lohiau had died of a broken heart just before she arrived. Determined to bring Lohiau back to her beloved sister, Hi’iaka caught Lohiau ’s departing soul and pushed it back into his body, bringing him back to life.

Upon awaking, Lohiau saw Hi’iaka and fell hopelessly in love with her. Hi’iaka, though charmed and finding the chief extremely handsome, had no interest in his affections and good-naturedly rebuffed his advances as she led him back to Kilauea. Unfortunately, they took so long getting back that Pele began to worry that the two were having an affair behind her back. In rage, Pele burned all Hi’iaka’s beautiful gardens. When Hi’iaka learned what Pele had done, she took Lohiau to the edge of Pele’s crater had sex with him in full view of her sister.

Halemaumau Crater, March 2013 by TimBray, said to be the exact spot where Pele lives

Beside herself with jealous fury, Pele threw lava at the pair, drenching and killing him instantly. Hi’iaka was horrified and, realizing that she was in love with Lohiau after all, traveled down to the Underworld to rescue him yet again. Pele saw the lengths that he sister had gone to save the man they both loved and, chastened, she relinquished her claim over Lohiau and allowed him to marry Hi’iaka. Since then, Pele has been viewed as a goddess of love and sex as well as a creator and destroyer and goddess of fire.

But Pele didn’t give up chasing men, and eventually she began a torrid love affair with Kamapua’a the Hog-man, an agriculture god who could shape-shift from a man to a pig or a fish. Kamapua’a volcano to tickle her. Their love-making can be destructive, and when Pele’s fires prove to be too hot for Kamapua’a to handle, he whips up thick fogs to cool her down.

Kapiolani defying Pele by john chisholm lambert

Pele is one of the most powerful of all the Hawaiian pantheon (if not the most powerful), and her strength has held up against even Christianity. In 1828, Chieftess Kapiolani who had converted to Christianity challenged Pele’s power as a way to convince her people to convert as well. Her people stood by and watched in terror as she picked Pele’s sacred berries without asking permission first, then went up to the top of Kilauea and flung rocks down into the pit, all while shouting that Pele had no power, that Jehovah was greater. In 1881, Mount Kilauea erupted violently, with rivers of lava rushing down to the town of Hilo below. Desperate to stop the flow of death coming down on them, Hawaiian princess Ruth Keelioani, who still clung to the old religion, rushed out the lava flow and offered Pele gifts of colorful silk scarves and brandy if she would stop her eruptions—all done within sight of a church. Amazingly, the lava ceased flowing at the edge of town.

Puu_Oo_cropped by G.E. Ulrich usgs

To this day, Pele is still seen and felt in Hilo, especially around Mount Kilauea. She doesn’t like when people steal rocks and obsidian from her lava fields and will curse the thieves with misfortune (the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park regularly receives about two thousand pounds of rocks in the mail from frantic tourists who had taken the rocks as souvenirs and later regretted it), but she does show concern for the mortals who live there. She is said to appear before humans looking either as a beautiful young Hawaiian woman in a red dress or, quite frequently, as a haggard old, fiery-eyed woman in a white dress, with both forms often accompanied by a small white dog. As a young woman, Pele can be seen dancing along the volcanic crater, and she may approach people in various areas around the big island, sometimes asking for a ride and a cigarette, which she will then light with a flame from her fingertips before disappearing. As an old woman, she may flag down a passing driver or just be seen hobbling along the side of the road with her dog, and both forms are known to give the mortals she meets good advice tha spares them from fatal accidents. Woe be to the drivers that don’t offer Pele a ride—stories abound of bad luck and accidents trailing them afterwards.

Since it was Mount Kilauea that erupted this summer, I can’t help but wonder what caused Pele to become so angry this time … though mostly, I’m dying to hear who many people saw her before the eruptions started!

Check out my Youtube page (Kara Newcastle) for videos of Pele sightings under the Mythology playlist! (Please bear with the jumbled-ness of it all, I’ve been working on categorizing stuff.) And here's a good creepy one: The Man Who Met Pele.

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