Avoid a Melee with Pele


Kilauea has been slobbering magma from its fiery gob for the last 28 years on a constant basis.

With the geological wisdom that enlightens our modern times, the existence of Hawaii – that cluster of dramatically beautiful islands studded like emerald jewels in the sapphire heart of the Pacific – can be explained away with relative ease. Millions of years of volcanic eruptions have caused globs of land to steadily escalate from the seabed, eventually coalescing into the eight landmasses we can see today.

All well and good, but let’s spare a thought for those nervous, uninformed souls who inhabited the fiery archipelago back in the dark ages, when mythology rather than geology was the order of the day; when the supernatural was used to explain the natural.

To modern eyes, Hawaiian folklore is, like the rest of this sentence, an intensely convoluted subject; an interlocking tangle of myths and legends, populated with gods and goddesses, ghosts and mortals, peppered with morals and religion, forming a rich, enrapturing, yet ultimately baffling tapestry of beliefs and a unique Hawaii culture. Trying to make sense of it in the 21st Century is akin to an Ancient Hawaiian trying to get acquainted with The Simple Life. So for both our sanity and yours, we won’t delve too deeply.t

Volcanoes National ParkVolcanoes National ParkVolcanoes National ParkVolcanoes National Park

There is one story, however, that you might do well to observe. It involves a rather sprightly deity called Pele.

She began life on the island of Tahiti, destined to be a water goddess. Alas, she developed an inconvenient penchant for fire, and in some calamitous blunder managed to incinerate Tahiti after dabbling with flames from the Underworld. Girls will be girls, no?

No. Pele’s sister, Namaka, a sea goddess, was absolutely livid at this turn of events, and her rage wasn’t softened by the revelation that her husband and Pele had had a bit going on the side. But that’s another story for another day.

In any case, Pele quite sensibly fled Tahiti, eventually stumbling across the Hawaiian archipelago and setting up camp in a volcanic cone just north of Niihau. Having now decided her path in life, Pele burrowed into the cone in search of a fire pit to call home, causing all kinds of eruptive mayhem in the process, but her efforts were thwarted by her disgruntled sister, who used her power as a sea goddess to launch wave after extinguishing wave into the new pad.

Not one to give up easily, Pele then indulged in a spot of island hopping, rather intriguingly following a route that chronologically matches actual volcanic activity, travelling first to Kauai, then Oahu, then Molokai and then Maui. Met with watery resistance at each turn, Pele made a final leap to Hawaii (or the Big Island, as it’s less confusingly known) where she at last found some degree of success.

And continues to do so, for this is where our story moves into the present day.

Now firmly established as Hawaii’s Volcano Goddess (she also takes care of fire and lightening, which should dispel any lingering doubt regarding her pyromanic tendencies) Pele is said to inhabit the Halema‘uma‘u crater of Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano. Together with the larger (but less active) Mauna Loa, this is Hawaii’s World Heritage-listed Volcanoes National Park, and it is one of the most extraordinary places on the planet.

Volcanoes National ParkVolcanoes National Park

Kilauea has been slobbering magma from its fiery gob for the last 28 years on a constant basis, and due to the predictable nature of the lava flow (picture a cauldron boiling-over rather than a firework factory going up in flames) it is possible to watch the eruptions from a very close distance in absolute safety. And should you be fortunate enough to witness this, we strongly suggest making your way to the edge of the Park, where the red-hot magma runs off the cliffs and collides with the ocean.

At this moment, when the two elements meet face to face, amid a tempestuous display of billowing steam and furious hissing, the stories of the Ancient Hawaiians suddenly begin to make a great deal of sense. The tale of Pele and Namaka has endured because it is still unfolding today; it is relevant because the sisters are still waging battle on one another, locked in an eternal stalemate. Indeed, it will come as no surprise that the Hawaiian words for ‘lava’ and ‘sea’ are pele and namaka.

We would do well to remember that what we view as allegory would have been seen as fundamental truth to the Ancient Hawaiians; they, like us, could only understand things in the context of their own time. They cited goddesses, we cite geologists; it doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things. The lava still flows, and the ‘truth’ is simply what people believe to be true.

With that in mind, we are obliged to tell you about one final thing; a curse, namely. You might believe in it, you might not, but be aware there could be consequences either way, legal or otherwise.

Volcanoes National Park, by SteveD (Flickr)Volcanoes National Park, by SteveD (Flickr)

The Curse of Pele reputedly falls on any person who removes volcanic rock from her mountain. In recent years the curse has (somewhat dubiously) been revised so that it covers the removal of any naturally occurring thing from any part of Hawaii. Apparently, the culprit will be punished with relentless misfortune until said thing is returned.

A different and slightly less excitable school of thought argues that the Curse of Pele was fabricated in the 1960s by a park ranger who wanted to give existing laws a little more oomph. If this is to be believed, his ruse was a spectacular success, for every year hundreds of tons of rocks are posted back to the islands, accompanied with guilty notes asking for forgiveness and an end to bad luck.

Probably best to just leave them be.

Hawaii is a magical place, and while the furnaces of Mount Kilauea are a highlight, as it were, every island in the archipelago is unique in its own special way.