When you think about the Hawaiian Islands, you will undoubtedly picture beautiful sandy beaches, expanses of blue waters and sunshine and warmth. But Hawaii Island is also home to a large number of shield volcanoes, including two of the world’s most active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa, with some others being Mauna Kea and Kohala. Thus, it is quite impossible to visit Hawaii without learning of Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes, and one of the most important of all the Hawaiian Gods.
Pele: Goddess of Fire
Pele, pronounced peh leh, is the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes. She is said to be the creator of the Hawaiian islands and native Hawaiians believe Pele lives in the Kilauea Volcano. This is why she is also known as Pelehonuamea, which means “she who shapes the sacred land.”
Pele’s residence, Kilauea Volcano, remains the most active volcano in the world. The volcano, situated in Volcanoes National Park, has had repeated eruptions of lava from the summit for the past few decades. The Hawaiians believe that the goddess herself regulates the volcanic activity in Kilauea and other volcanoes in Hawaii Island. There is a cyclical nature to the way the volcanic eruptions both destroy and create the land.
In the past, Pele’s wrath has destroyed many villages and forests as they have been covered by lava and ash. However, the molten lava that Pele sends down the side of the volcano has added 70 acres of land to the southeastern coast of the island since 1983. The duality of life and death, volatility and fertility, destruction and resilience are all embodied within the figure of Pele.
What does it mean to be a god or goddess of fire?
The worship of fire in the form of deities is very common in ancient civilizations, since fire is the source of life in very important ways. It is also a means of destruction and it was considered very important to keep those deities happy and appeased.
Therefore, we have the Greek god Prometheus, who is well-known for giving fire to humans and suffering eternal torture for it, and Hephaestus, who was not only the god of fire and volcanoes but also, very importantly, a master smith and craftsman. Brigid, from a pantheon of Celtic gods and goddesses, is also the goddess of fire and blacksmithing, a role that she combines with that of healer. It is clear, therefore, that to be a fire god or fire goddess is to be a symbol of duality.
The Origins of Pele
Pele was the daughter of Haumea, an ancient goddess who was herself considered to be a descendent of the ancient earth goddess, Papa, and the supreme Sky Father. Legends claim Pele was one of six daughters and seven sons born to Haumea and was born and lived in Tahiti before she was forced to flee her homeland. The reason for this varies according to the myth. Pele was either banished by her father for her volatility and temper or fled for her life after seducing the husband of her sister Namaka, the sea goddess.
Pele’s journey to the Hawaiian Islands
Pele traveled from Tahiti to Hawaii by canoe, being chased by her sister Namaka, who wished to put an end to Pele’s fires as well as Pele herself. As she moved from one island to another, it is said that Pele tried to draw lava from the ground and light fires throughout the journey. She traveled through Kauai, where there is an old hill called Puu ka Pele, meaning Pele’s Hill, and Oahu, Molokai, and Maui before coming to Hawaii.
Finally, Namaka caught up with Pele in Hawaii and the sisters battled to the death. Namaka emerged triumphant, putting out the fires of Pele’s wrath. After this, Pele became a spirit and went to live in the Kilauea Volcano.
The Worship of Madame Pele
The Hawaiian goddess Pele is still revered by the people of Hawaii and often referred to respectfully as Madame Pele or Tutu Pele, which means grandmother. Another name that she is known by is ka wahine ʻai honua, meaning earth eating woman.
In Hawaiian religion, the volcano goddess has become a symbol of power and resilience. Pele is synonymous with the island itself and stands for the fiery and passionate nature of Hawaiian culture. As the creator of Hawaii, her fires and lava rock is not only a symbol of destruction but equally a symbol of rejuvenation and the cyclical nature of life and death.
Legends claim that Pele disguises herself in various forms and wanders among the people of Hawaii. She is said to sometimes appear as a tall, beautiful, young woman and sometimes as an old woman with white hair, with a small white dog to accompany her. She always wears a white muumuu in these forms.
However, in most paintings or other such depictions, Pele is shown as a woman made of or surrounded by red flames. Over the years, people from around the world have claimed that Pele’s face has appeared in photos of the lava lake or lava flows from the volcano.
Myths about the Hawaiian Goddess Pele
There are several myths about the fire goddess, apart from the tales of her journey to Hawaii and her battle with her sister Namaka.
Pele and Poli’ahu
One of the most well-known Pele myths is about her altercation with the snow goddess Poli’ahu. She and her sisters, Lilinoe, the goddess of fine rain, and Waiau, the goddess of Lake Waiau, all reside on Mauna Kea.
Poli’ahu decided to come down from Mauna Kea to attend the sled races on the grassy hills south of Hamakua. Pele, disguised as a beautiful stranger, was also present and was greeted by Poli’ahu. However, jealous of Poliʻahu, Pele opened the underground caverns of Mauna Kea and threw fire from them towards her rival, leading to the snow goddess fleeing to the summit of the mountain. Poli’ahu finally managed to put out the fire by throwing her now-burning snow mantle over them. The fires cooled down, earthquakes shook the island, and the lava was driven back.
The volcano goddess and snow goddesses clashed several times, but Pele ultimately lost. Thus, Pele is more revered in the southern parts of the island while the snow goddesses are more revered in the north.
Pele, Hi’iaka and Lohiau
Hawaiian mythology also tells the tragic tale of Pele and Lohiau, a mortal man and a chief of Kauai. The two met and fell in love, but Pele had to return to Hawaii. Eventually, she sent her sister Hi’iaka, the favorite of Pele’s siblings, to bring Lohiau to her within forty days. The only condition was that Hi’iaka must not hug him or touch him.
Hi’iaka reached Kauai only to find that Lohiau had died. Hi’iaka was able to catch his spirit and revive him. But in her excitement, she hugged and kissed Lohiau. Angered, Pele covered Lohiau in lava flow. Lohiau was, however, soon brought back to life again. He and Hi’iaka fell in love and began a life together.
Pele in Modern Times
In modern day Hawaii, Pele is still very much a part of the living culture. It is considered extremely disrespectful to remove or take home lava rocks from the islands. Indeed, tourists are warned that this could cause them bad luck and there have been many instances where tourists from all over the globe have sent back the rocks that they have stolen, believing that it is Pele’s wrath that has brought bad luck into their homes and lives.
It is also disrespectful to eat the berries that grow along the sides of the crater where Pele lives without paying respect to her and asking for permission.
Folklore says that Pele at times appears to the people of Hawaii in disguise, warning them of upcoming volcanic eruptions. There are urban legends of an old woman in Kilauea National Park whom drivers have picked up only to look at the back seat through the mirror and find it empty.
Pele’s Significance in Hawaiian Geology
A very interesting folktale lists the progression of the volcano goddess as she fled to Hawaii. This corresponds exactly with the age of the volcanoes in those areas and the progression of geological formation in those particular islands. This interesting fact can be attributed to how well the Hawaiians understand volcanic eruptions and lava flows and how they incorporated this into their stories.
Even geologists like Herb Kane say of Pele that she will loom large in the minds of the people as long as there are earthquakes and volcanic activity to associate her with.
Books, Films, and Albums that the Goddess Pele Appeared In
Pele appears in an episode of Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Luau,’ as Sabrina’s cousin and also in a 1969 Hawaii Five-O episode, ‘The Big Kahuna.’
Pele appears, too, in a couple of DC comics as the villain, including an issue of Wonder Woman, seeking revenge against the titular heroine for the death of Pele’s father, Kane Milohai. Simon Winchester wrote about Pele in his 2003 book Krakatoa about the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa caldera. The Wildfire book series by Karsten Knight features Pele as one of the deities reincarnated in teenagers over the years.
Tori Amos, the musician, named one of her albums Boys for Pele for the Hawaiian deity and even directly referenced her in the song, ‘Muhammad My Friend,’ with the line, “You’ve never seen fire until you’ve seen Pele blow.”