Deity of the Day
In the Hawaiian religion, Pele (pronounced /ˈpeɪleɪ/ pay-lay or [ˈpɛlɛ] pel-lə), the Fire Goddess, is the goddess of fire, lightning, wind and volcanoes and the creator of the Hawaiian Islands. Often referred to as “Madame Pele” or “Tūtū Pele” as a sign of respect, she is a well-known deity within Hawaiian mythology, and is notable for her contemporary presence and cultural influence as an enduring figure from ancient Hawaii. Epithets of the goddess include Pele-honua-mea (“Pele of the sacred land”) and Ka wahine ʻai honua (“The earth-eating woman”).
There are several traditional legends associated with Pele in Hawaiian mythology. In addition to being recognized as the goddess of volcanoes, Pele is also known for her power, passion, jealousy, and capriciousness. She has numerous siblings, including Kāne Milohai, Kamohoaliʻi, Nāmaka and numerous sisters named Hiʻiaka, the most famous being Hiʻiakaikapoliopele (Hiʻiaka in the bosom of Pele). They are usually considered to be the offspring of Haumea. Pele’s siblings include deities of various types of wind, rain, fire, ocean wave forms, and cloud forms. Her home is believed to be the fire pit called Halemaʻumaʻu crater, at the summit caldera of Kīlauea, one of the Earth’s most active volcanoes; but her domain encompasses all volcanic activity on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi.
Pele shares features similar to other malignant deities inhabiting volcanoes, as in the case of the devil as responsible for the eruptions of the volcano.
In one version of the story, Pele is the daughter of Kanehoalani and Haumea in the mystical land of Kuaihelani, a floating free land like Fata Morgana. Kuaihelani was in the region of Kahiki (Kukulu o Kahiki). She stays so close to her mother’s fireplace with the fire-keeper Lono-makua. Her older sister Nā-maka-o-Kahaʻi, a sea goddess, fears that Pele’s ambition would smother the home-land and drives Pele away. Kamohoali’i drives Pele south in a canoe called Honua-i-a-kea with her younger sister Hiʻiaka and with her brothers Kamohoaliʻi, Kanemilohai, Kaneapua, and arrives at the islets above Hawaii. There Kane-milo-hai is left on Mokupapapa, just a reef, to build it up in fitness for human residence. On Nihoa, 800 feet above the ocean she leaves Kane-apua after her visit to Lehua and crowning a wreath of kau-no’a. Pele feels sorry for her younger brother and picks him up again. Pele used the divining rod, Pa‘oa to pick a new home. A group of chants tells of a pursuit by Namakaokaha’i and Pele is torn apart. Her bones, KaiwioPele form a hill on Kahikinui, while her spirit escaped to the island of Hawaiʻi.:157 (Pele & Hi’iaka A myth from Hawaii by Nathaniel B. Emerson)
In another version, Pele comes from a land said to be “close to the clouds,” with parents Kane-hoa-lani and Ka-hina-liʻi, and brothers Ka-moho-aliʻi and Kahuila-o-ka-lani. From her husband Wahieloa (also called Wahialoa) she has a daughter Laka and a son Menehune. Pele-kumu-honua entices her husband and Pele travels in search of him. The sea pours from her head over the land of Kanaloa (perhaps the island now known as Kahoʻolawe) and her brothers say:
O the sea, the great sea!
Forth bursts the sea:
Behold, it bursts on Kanaloa!
The sea floods the land, then recedes; this flooding is called Kai a Kahhinalii (“The sea of Ka-hina-liʻi”), as Pele’s connection to the sea was passed down from her mother Kahinalii.:158
Pele and Poliʻahu
Pele was considered to be a rival of the Hawaiian goddess of snow, Poliʻahu, and her sisters Lilinoe (a goddess of fine rain), Waiau (goddess of Lake Waiau), and Kahoupokane (a kapa maker whose kapa making activities create thunder, rain, and lightning). All except Kahoupokane reside on Mauna Kea. The kapa maker lives on Hualalai.
One myth tells that Poliʻahu had come from Mauna Kea with her friends to attend sled races down the grassy hills south of Hamakua. Pele came disguised as a beautiful stranger and was greeted by Poliʻahu. However, Pele became jealously enraged at the goddess of Mauna Kea. She opened the subterranean caverns of Mauna Kea and threw fire from them towards Poliʻahu, with the snow goddess fleeing towards the summit. Poliʻahu was finally able to grab her now-burning snow mantle and throw it over the mountain. Earthquakes shook the island as the snow mantle unfolded until it reached the fire fountains, chilling and hardening the lava. The rivers of lava were driven back to Mauna Loa and Kīlauea. Later battles also led to the defeat of Pele and confirmed the supremacy of the snow goddesses in the northern portion of the island and of Pele in the southern portion.
Pele belief continued after the old religion was officially abolished in 1819. In the summer of 1823 English missionary William Ellis toured the island to determine locations for mission stations.:236 After a long journey to the volcano Kīlauea with little food, Ellis eagerly ate the wild berries he found growing there.:128 The berries of the ʻōhelo (Vaccinium reticulatum) plant were considered sacred to Pele. Traditionally prayers and offerings to Pele were always made before eating the berries. The volcano crater was an active lava lake, which the natives feared was a sign that Pele was not pleased with the violation.:143 Although wood carvings and thatched temples were easily destroyed, the volcano was a natural monument to the goddess.
In December 1824 the High Chiefess Kapiʻolani descended into the Halemaʻumaʻu crater after reciting a Christian prayer instead of the traditional one to Pele. She was not killed as predicted, and this story was often told by missionaries to show the superiority of their faith. Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892) wrote a poem about the incident in 1892.
When businessman George Lycurgus ran a hotel at the rim of Kīlauea, called the Volcano House, he would often “pray” to Pele for the sake of the tourists. Park officials took a dim view of his habit of tossing items such as gin bottles (after drinking their contents) into the crater.
Plantation owner William Hyde Rice published a version of the story in his collection of legends.In 2003 the Volcano Art Center had a special competition for Pele paintings to replace one done in the early 20th century by D. Howard Hitchcock displayed in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park visitors center. Some criticized what looked like a blond caucasian as the Hawaiian goddess. Over 140 paintings were submitted, and finalists were displayed at sites within the park. The winner of the contest was Pahoa, Hawaii artist Arthur Johnsen. This version shows the goddess in shades of red, with a digging stick in her left hand (theʻōʻō, for which the currently erupting vent was named), and an embryonic form of Hiʻiaka-i-ka-poli-o-Pele in her right hand. The painting is now on display at the Kīlauea Visitor Center on the edge of the Kīlauea crater.