Who Is Pele?

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A night view of Puʻu ʻŌʻō Crater. Dated: November 2017

Madam Pele in the Current News

The Big Island of Hawaii is getting hit pretty bad right now. Earthquakes, lava flows, and endless amounts of vog are affecting all of the BI residents. I’m not there, but I keep receiving text messages from people asking if my family is ok. It was early in the morning this past week when I saw a text from my older sister saying that the BI had an earthquake, lava was spraying out of cracks in the ground, and it was flowing down Pahoa side. I opened up the news and sure enough, video footage portrayed the long streams of orange, red, and black lava spewing from fissures and flowing over green forests. I know people may be afraid of it, but I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. The Big Island was manifesting its life… and this time the whole world was watching.

The residents had no time to react to the ground breaking open, but they did have time to evacuate. Lava doesn’t flow too quickly, which gives people time to flee. While many people are asking if my family is ok, they really are ok. And all of the people are ok, for the most part… Many families lost their houses, which is devastating and my heart is sad for them. I really wish I could do something to help… but at the same time this was an agreement that was settled on when the properties in this area were purchased.

Even the land that my parents bought years ago had numerous potential risks and scenarios; there could be lava, earthquakes, the land could have caves hidden beneath, etc etc… and yet we agreed to that. The land in and around Leilani Estates was kind of a red, high risk zone. This map shows it. 

So yes, I’m really sorry—I’m not trying to sound mean or insincere or heartless—but I also understand that these people agreed to live in these areas, and Pele has a mind, timing, and strength of her own. But that’s exactly who this article is about and who I want to speak of: Pele.

Who is Pele?

People have mentioned her, hashtagged her, and attributed all of the destruction to her as these recent events have commenced. I don’t think she’s ever received this much attention in the 21st century. She is an ancient figure in a modern world. To background this, if you’ve read my other articles, one thing I especially don’t like about Polynesian stereotypes is that they really make Hawaiians look like this ancient, primitive people who only dance hula and live in grass shacks, etc. Well, Pele is a tradition that seems to have outlived any ancient story or practice, and yet she receives such little recognition in the stereotypical view of Hawaii.

Pele is the goddess of the volcano, and she is also a creation goddess. In high school, we learned Hawaiian mythology and how Pele had a great and mighty heart, showing mercy to those in need but letting her wrath fall upon any who dared to cross her path. She did all in her power to protect Hi’iaka i ka polio Pele. She fell in love with Kamapua’a, the half pig-half man god, and fell out of love when he did not return her gestures. She fought with Poli’ahu, who won against the volcano goddess in a sledding race. It was finally on the Big Island that Pele rested in Kilauea, and Poli’ahu graced the snowy slopes of Mauna Kea. Pele would never cross to the northern part of the Big Island, for fear of Poli’ahu throwing snow on and freezing her. 

What role does Pele play in modern Hawaii?

Locals always refer to Pele, maybe because it’s fun to be a little superstitious and attribute natural disasters to something, even if it isn’t real (although in writing this I apologize because I’m sure some people believe Pele is real).

I remember being told by my mother that if you’re driving down Kamehameha highway, there are a few rules:

  1. don’t carry pork meat (remember that Pele doesn’t like Kamapua’a, the half-man half-pig god? there is a relation there)
  2. if you see a woman on the side of the road asking for a ride, give it to her (in Hawaiian ghost stories there are lots of examples of tutus, or grandmas, asking for a ride, then they either disappear or turn into a fiercely beautiful woman, etc–we used to have a scary stories Hawaii book in our house and the cover scared me to death. I can’t even remember what it’s called but I just remember I didn’t like the cover).

Locals still perpetuate this idea: Don’t take lava rocks home. When my then-fiancé came to visit me in Hawaii, I told him this and he laughed about it. “You really believe that?” he asked, and I was pretty dead serious that he CANNOT take any lava rocks home. Maybe I’m a little superstitious, but things like lava rocks and black mirrors creep me out so we won’t even go there. 😂

Many hula dancers, especially when they come to the Big Island for the Merrie Monarch festival, take the journey to Volcano National Park, where they dance and pay tribute to Pele. She is the fire goddess, the most feared and remembered of all of the Hawaiian gods, because she is alive. In the lava. In the volcano. In the island.

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A view of lava flowing into the ocean. Dated: Nov 2017

So is Pele the cause of all of this lava?

Locals to this day will make mention of Pele because her stories, her character, and the tradition of her live in the heart of the island. It doesn’t mean that people believe in her. Because of modern science, we are able to know and see for ourselves how volcanoes work and we can somewhat predict how they will move (although, you can’t predict an earthquake unfortunately). There’s a lot going on social media about Disney’s Moana and how Maui must have stolen the amulet from Tefiti again. It could be Pele, it could be Maui, or it could just be the natural ways of the earth But, I’ll leave it up to you to decide. 🙂

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