National News

Madame Pele, Hawaii’s Goddess of Volcanoes, Awes Those Living in Lava’s Path

Posted May 21, 2018 6:36 p.m. EDT

PAHOA, Hawaii — When the rivers of lava forced thousands to flee this month, many people on Hawaii’s Big Island pointed with awe toward the drizzle-shrouded volcanic crater where Pele — known as “the woman who devours the earth” — usually dwells.

“Our deity is coming down to play,” said Lokelani Puha, 52, a hula dancer and poet who evacuated as the lava encroached, referring to Hawaii’s goddess of volcanoes and fire. “There’s nothing to do when Pele makes up her mind but accept her will.”

Hawaiians have endured the overthrow of their kingdom, annexation by the United States and policies aimed at obliterating the Hawaiian language. But in a striking display of the resilience and adaptability of Native Hawaiian culture, the exaltation of Pele has not only persisted through the centuries, but seems to be strengthening with every bone-rattling eruption of Hawaii’s volcanoes.

The Kilauea volcano has already laid waste to dozens of homes this month, triggering earthquakes, releasing lethal gases and setting forests ablaze, and on Monday it showed few signs of subsiding.

A lava stream over the weekend blocked a highway that people have been using as an escape route. It reached the ocean to produce a caustic plume of acid fumes laced with fine volcanic glass specks. On Monday, a new flow began moving toward a geothermal plant, raising fears over the potential release of volcanic gases from wells on the site. Flying lava shattered a man’s leg while he was on the third-floor balcony of his home on rural Noni Farms Road.

And yet many living in Kilauea’s shadow welcome the eruption, express reverence for Pele and thank her — even when the lava destroys their home.

“My house was an offering for Pele,” said Monica Devlin, 71, a retired schoolteacher whose home was destroyed by a lava flow. “I’ve been in her backyard for 30 years,” she reflected, doing the math on when she moved here from Northern California. “In that time I learned that Pele created this island in all its stunning beauty. It’s an awe-inspiring process of destruction and creation and I was lucky to glimpse it.”

In a state where ethnic tension sometimes simmers beneath a veneer of tranquility, proclaiming veneration for Pele is something uniting many Native Hawaiians and outsiders, though their methods for doing so often vary.

Scholars of Hawaiian culture point out that the honorific name for Pele (pronounced PEH-leh) is Pelehonuamea, incorporating the deity’s sacred connection to the earth, the oceans and the red color of lava. Many Hawaiians call the goddess Madame Pele or Tutu Pele, using an affectionate term for grandmother while making it implicitly clear they are Pele’s descendants. Legends vary as to her origins, but chants suggest Pele followed her star to Hawaii from elsewhere in Polynesia, similar to the seafarers who reached the Hawaiian Islands in an epic feat of navigation and migration around the time Europe was mired in the Dark Ages.

Some say Pele was born in Tahiti to the fertility goddess Haumea, but was forced to flee to Hawaii in a great canoe after seducing the husband of her older sister, the goddess of the sea. At different islands in Hawaii, Pele used her stick to dig out fire pits, forging the archipelago’s magnificent volcanic craters.

After the United States formally took control of Hawaii in 1898, appeasing Pele and accepting her force did not seem to be much of an official priority. Before rising to prominence as a general during World War II, George S. Patton, then the Army’s chief intelligence officer in Hawaii, tried bombing the lava flow from the eruption of the Mauna Loa volcano in 1935 in an attempt to divert it.

While that tactic had mixed results, some on the Big Island put their faith in making offerings to Pele of items including crystals, money and incense, or foods such as whole cooked piglet and poi, a staple made from the taro plant. Many venture near fissures to place the leaves of the ti plant, also called the palm lily, in the cracks in the earth.

“We believe in 40,000 gods, but Pele is in the highest echelon for obvious reasons,” said Kimo Awai, 67, a hula teacher and lecturer on Hawaiian culture. “Pele created Hawaii; she is that primordial force that exists within all land masses. And she can be vengeful, so watch out.”

In Pahoa, a counterculture outpost where ganja smoke wafts through the air, a lava flow in 2014 threatened the town, but in the end destroyed just one home, stopping at the recycling facility. Paintings of Pele, often portrayed as a woman cradling fire in her hands, hang in shops. Visitors can dine at Pele’s Kitchen or stay at a bed-and-breakfast near Volcanoes National Park called Pele’s Breath. A popular bumper sticker on the four-wheel-drive trucks that ply the bumpy back roads around Pahoa proclaims, “Pele is my homegirl.”

Some newcomers express an almost erotic fascination with Pele, comparing the experience of getting so close to steaming lava flows to sensual experiences.

Richard Schott, 34, a bearded Pennsylvanian who moved here after teaching English in South Korea, trekked barefoot to a remote location in the Malama-Ki Forest Reserve over the weekend where he giddily performed yoga positions within feet of the lava flow.

Schott, who goes by the moniker Son of Pele on social media, grinned as the police called on him to retreat. “The energy I’m feeling after seeing Pele up close is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced,” said Schott, racing over the jungle floor without shoes.

There are some kanaka maoli, as Native Hawaiians call themselves in their resurgent language, who express irritation over such interpretations of Pele, contending that the deity is growing angry with outsiders settling in the forest without thoroughly learning about her ways.

“It’s not the outsiders’ fault,” said Awai, the hula teacher, who has recited chants in recent weeks in an effort to appease the goddess. He emphasized that Puna, the region of the Big Island that is home to Kilauea, holds a position of religious significance in Hawaii that is unfamiliar to some newcomers.

“Puna is to believers of Pele what the Vatican City is to Roman Catholics,” Awai said. “The outsiders, some of them, they don’t know any better.” Written tales in Hawaiian of Pele flourished in the 19th century, but after Americans outlawed the teaching of the Hawaiian language in schools in 1896 — a restriction enduring until the 1970s — the newspapers in which writers published versions of Pele’s ways went under.

In their place, white writers like the mythologist Nathaniel Emerson published their own simplified descriptions of the deity, producing caricatures of her as an excitable goddess or irritable old woman. A new generation of Hawaiian scholars is now seeking to describe Pele in her full complexity.

Doing so, however, involves dealing head-on with a deity who remains sacred for many Native Hawaiians. Some feel at ease describing how stoic they can be in accepting the destruction unleashed by Pele, while others express hesitance about divulging too much information about a figure of extreme importance to many people here.

Some in the lava’s path are embracing the uncertainty involved in their deity’s dance around the island.

“Pele is a shape-shifter who can easily appear in human form,” said Puha, the hula dancer and evacuee who is waiting to see if Pele destroys her home. “If you see her hitchhiking, pick her up. If you have a bottle of gin, even better. Pele, like her descendants, likes a little mischief.”