Goddess of Fire
by Betty Fullard-Leo
PELE - Goddess of Fire.
Described as "She-Who-Shapes-The-Sacred-Land"
in ancient Hawaiian chants, the volcano goddess, Pele,
was passionate, volatile, and capricious. In modern
times, Pele has become the most visible of all the old
gods and goddesses. Dwelling in the craters of the Big
Island's Kilauea Volcano, she has been sending ribbons
of fiery lava down the mountainside and adding new land
around the southeastern shore almost continuously since
Lava entering the sea.
Pele was born of the female spirit Haumea, or Hina,
who, like all other important Hawai'i gods and goddesses,
descended from the supreme beings, Papa, or Earth Mother,
and Wakea, Sky Father. Pele was among the first voyagers
to sail to Hawai'i, pursued, legends say, by her angry
older sister, Na-maka-o-kaha'i because Pele had seduced
her husband. Pele landed first on Kaua'i, but every
time she thrust her o'o (digging stick) into the earth
to dig a pit for her home, Na-maka-o-kaha'i, goddess
of water and the sea, would flood the pits. Pele moved
down the chain of islands in order of their geological
formation, eventually landing on the Big Island's Mauna
Loa, which is considered the tallest mountain on earth
when measured from its base at the bottom of the ocean.
Steam rising as lava
enters the sea.
Even Na-maka-o-kaha'i could not send the ocean's waves
high enough on Mauna Loa to drown Pele's fires, so Pele
established her home on its slopes. Here, she welcomed
her brothers. A cliff on nearby Kilauea Mountain is
sacred to her eldest brother, Ka-moho-ali'i, king of
the sharks and the keeper of the gourd that held the
water of life, which gave him the power to revive the
dead. Out of respect for this brother, to this day,
Pele never allows clouds of volcanic steam to touch
Her other brothers also still appear on the Big Island
mountain; Kane-hekili as thunder, Ka-poho-i-kahi-ola
as explosions, Ke-ua-a-kepo in showers of fire, and
Ke-o-ahi-kama-kaua in spears of lava that escape from
fissures during eruptions.
Of all her siblings, Pele favored her youngest sister
Hi'iaka, the most. Pele, Hi'iaka and another sister,
Laka, goddess of hula, were all patronesses of the dance,
but Hi'iaka was said to have hatched from an egg that
Pele kept warm during the long canoe ride to Hawai'i
by transporting it in her armpit.
After Hi'iaka grew to womanhood on the Big Island,
Pele traveled in spirit form to the north shore of Kaua'i
to witness a dance performance at a pahula, or dance
platform, that still exists near Ke'e Beach. Here she
manifested herself as a desirable young woman, and quickly
fell in love with a handsome young chief named Lohi'au.
She dallied with Lohi'au for several days, but eventually
her spirit had to return to her sleeping body on the
Big Island. Upon awakening, Pele sent Hi'iaka to convince
Lohi'au to come to her. The sisters extracted vows from
each other: Hi'iaka promised not to encourage Lohi'au
should he become attracted to her and in return, Pele
promised to contain her fires and lava flows so as not
to burn a grove of flowering ohi'a trees where Hi'iaka
danced with her friend Hopoe.
On Kaua'i, Hi'iaka found that Lohi'au had died of grief
after Pele disappeared, but the graceful younger sister
was able to restore his spirit to his body, bringing
him back to life. Together, the two of them began the
journey to the Big Island, but Pele's suspicious nature
got the best of her. Because forty days had passed since
Hi'iaka had set out on her assigned mission, Pele decided
she had been betrayed, and so sent a flood of lava into
Hi'iaka's 'ohi'a-lehua grove, killing Hopoe in the process.
When Hi'iaka saw the smoldering trees and her dancing
friend entombed in lava, she flung herself into the
arms of Lohi'au. In retribution, Pele set lose another
stream of lava, which killed the mortal Lohi'au, but
Hi'iaka, a goddess, could not be destroyed.
Madame Pele always manages
to produce some sort of excitement for her guests.
On this day in 1924 it was a huge steam eruption
in Kilauea caldera.
The legend has a happy ending, however, as yet another
brother of Pele's, Kane-milo-hai, reached out and caught
Lohi'au's spirit when he saw it floating past his canoe.
He restored the spirit to Lohi'au's body, and once again,
the chief was brought back to life. Hi'iaka and Lohi'au
returned to Kaua'i to live contentedly.
Legends about Pele, her rivals and her lovers abound.
Most of the lovers she took were not lucky enough to
escape with their lives when she hurled molten lava
at them, trapping them in odd misshapen pillars of rock
that dot volcanic fields to this day.
One lover who proved a match for Pele was Kamapua'a,
a demi-god who hid the bristles that grew down his back
by wearing a cape. The pig god could also appear as
a plant or as various types of fish. He and Pele were
at odds from the beginning; she covered the land with
barren lava, he brought torrents of rain to extinguish
her fires and called the wild boars to dig up the land,
softening it so seeds could grow.
Pele and Kamapua'a raged against each other until her
brothers begged her to give in, as they feared Kamapua'a's
storms would soak all the fire sticks and kill Pele's
power to restore fire. In Puna, at a place called Ka-lua-o-Pele,
where the land seems torn up as if a great struggle
had taken place, legend says Kamapua'a finally caught
and ravaged Pele. The two remained tempestuous lovers,
it is said, until a child was born, then Kamapua'a sailed
away and Pele went back to her philandering ways.
Pele's greatest rival was Poliahu, goddess of snow-capped
mountains, and a beauty who, like Pele, seduced handsome
mortal chiefs. Pele's jealousy flamed after she had
a fling with a fickle young Maui chief named 'Ai-wohi-ku-pua,
as he was traveling to the Big Island to court a mortal
chiefess, Laie. Paddling along the Hana Coast, 'Ai-wohi-ku-pua
saw Pele in human form as a beauty named Hina-i-ka-malama,
riding the surf. He paused for a brief affair. Then
he went on to the Big Island, where Poliahu seduced
him. He convinced his personal goddess to release him
from his promise to his first love, and went back to
Kaua'i with the snow goddess. Pele (as Hina-i-ka-malama)
chased after them, eventually winning back the fickle
chief, but Poliahu was so vindictive, she blasted the
lovers with cold and heat until they separated, and
'Ai-wohi-ku-pua was left with no lover at all.
According to Hawaiian historian David Malo in his book
"Hawaiian Antiquities," in old Hawai'i, some
gods and goddesses, including Pele, were believed to
be akua noho, gods who talked. They could take possession
of an earthly being, who became the god's kahu. Malo
writes, "The kahu of the Pele deities also were
in the habit of dressing their hair in such a way as
to make it stand out at great length, then, having inflamed
and reddened their eyes, they went about begging for
any articles they took a fancy to, making the threat,
'If you don't grant this request, Pele will devour you.'
Many people were imposed upon in this manner, fearing
Pele might actually consume them." Naturally, people
who had seen others destroyed in Pele's fiery lava flows,
were terrorized by such a kahu.
Pele has continued to intrigue contemporary men. Not
long after the old religion was abolished in 1819, the
high chiefess Kapi'olani defied Pele by eating 'ohelo
berries at the edge of Halema'uma'u caldera without
first offering them to or requesting Pele's permission.
In open defiance, Kapi'olani threw stones into the molten
lava below. When she was not harmed, she insisted it
proved Pele had no power and it was time for Hawaiian
people to accept Christianity as their religion. In
1823, when Reverend William Ellis became the first white
man to visit Kilauea, most Hawaiians accompanying the
expedition were still in awe of the volatile goddess.
The hungry missionaries began to eat 'ohelo berries,
but were quickly warned to give Pele an offering. Ellis
wrote, "We told them ...that we acknowledged Jehovah
as the only divine proprietor of the fruits of this
earth, and felt thankful to Him for them, especially
in our present circumstances."...We traveled on,
regretting that the natives should indulge in notions
so superstitious." At the crater, the Hawaiian
guides "turned their faces toward the place where
the greatest quantity of smoke and vapor issued, and,
breaking the ('ohelo) branch they held in their hand
in two, they threw one part down the precipice, saying:
E Pele, eia ka 'ohelo 'au;
(Oh, Pele, here are your branches)
e taumaha aku wau 'ia 'oe
(I offer some to you)
e 'ai ho'i au tetahi
(some I also eat).
To this day, tales of Pele's power and peculiarities
continue. Whispered encounters with Pele include those
of drivers who pick up an old woman dressed all in white
accompanied by a little dog on roads in Kilauea National
Park, only to look in the mirror to find the back seat
empty. Pele's face has mysteriously appeared in photographs
of fiery eruptions, and most people who live in the
islands-whether Christian, Buddhist, Shinto, or other-speak
respectfully of the ancient goddess. After all, she
has destroyed more than 100 structures on the Big Island
since 1983, and perhaps even more awesome than that,
she has added more than 70 acres of land to the island's
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