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Pele is an important figure in Hawaiian mythology. She is the goddess of volcanoes, fire, lightning, dance and violence. Revered and feared, Pele has an intriguing story that sheds light on ancient Hawaiian beliefs and folklore.
The Origins and Legends of Pele
Pele’s Supernatural Birth
According to ancient Hawaiian legends, Pele was born to the goddess Haumea and the god Kane in the spiritual land of Kuaihelani. She was considered a sacred child from birth, displaying supernatural abilities like the ability to take the form of a fireball or human at will.
Her birthplace was thought to be very close to the home of the gods.
Pele’s Siblings and Rivalries
Pele was one of many children born to Haumea and Kane, though she stood out among her siblings. She was said to engage in intense rivalries with her sister Na-maka-o-Kaha’i, the goddess of the sea, often fighting over land and resources.
At one point, their rivalry grew so fierce that Pele was exiled from her home, beginning her legendary journey to Hawai’i.
How Pele Came to Hawaii
There are a few versions of the legend detailing how Pele ultimately arrived in Hawaii. Most agree that she initially left her home in a canoe with her brothers and sisters to find a new land. She brought with her a small fire pit that would never go out, allowing her to provide warmth and life.
After trying to settle in other Pacific Islands like Samoa and the Marquesas Islands, she finally landed in Hawaii. Impressed by volcanoes like Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, she made Hawaii her new home.
Pele as a Volcano Goddess
Pele and Kilauea Volcano
The Hawaiian goddess Pele is closely associated with volcanoes, especially Kilauea on the Big Island. According to legends, Pele lives inside Kilauea and causes eruptions by digging lava tunnels with her magic stick.
When Kilauea erupts with oozing red lava, the Hawaiians say “Pele is very angry today. “
Kilauea is one of the world’s most active volcanoes and has had continuous eruptions since 1983, providing a vivid backdrop for the fiery goddess Pele. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which encompasses Kilauea and other volcanoes, highlights Pele’s mythical connection to the islands’ geology.
Legends of Pele’s Curses
According to Hawaiian oral histories, Pele curses those who disrespect her domain. One famous legend tells of a princess who stole lava rocks from Kilauea Volcano. Soon after, the princess’ home was destroyed by lava flows.
This grim tale is often cited as why visitors should never take lava rocks off the Big Island.
Another mythic curse involved Pele appearing as a beautiful woman asking for help. A man named Kahawali snatched Pele’s magical canoe and paddles, refusing to give them back. Furious over the theft, Pele turned Kahawali into stone.
His petrified remains now form the striking rock formation called Kahawali (or the Canoe) in Haleakala National Park.
Sacrifices Made to Appease Pele
To appease their volatile goddess, ancient Hawaiians offered various sacrifices at volcanic sites. These ranged from food, flowers, coins, and bottles of gin to animals. Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park’s Nāhuku site exhibits a human figurine, demonstrating the significance of ritual gifts for Pele.
During Kilauea’s 2018 eruption, which destroyed over 700 homes, some locals made offerings to the angered goddess. But most hope that increased awareness about Pele’s cultural importance will encourage respect rather than propitiation going forward.
The Modern Legacy and Influence of Pele
Pele in Hawaiian Culture Today
Pele, the powerful goddess of volcanoes and fire in Hawaiian mythology, continues to have a strong presence in modern Hawaiian culture. She is an important figure that connects native Hawaiians to their storied past through oral histories, songs, dances, artworks and rituals that pay homage to her.
There are many stories, chants and epic poems called “meles” that recount the legends of Pele and keep her mythology alive. The meles tell tales of Pele’s epic journey to Hawaii, how she battled with various gods and goddesses, and how she eventually settled in Kilauea volcano on Big Island as her sacred home.
These stories portray her passionate, determined personality and remind Hawaiians of her continued presence and influence over volcanic landscapes.
In Hawaiian artworks like sculptures, carvings and paintings, Pele is commonly depicted as a beautiful young woman with long flowing hair, standing amidst volcanoes and lava. Such artistic depictions celebrate her divine beauty and power over volcanic forces of creation and destruction.
Pele also features prominently through hula, the traditional Hawaiian dance form accompanied by chants and music. The hula dedicated to Pele often involves fluid hand gestures and steps mimicking erupting volcanoes, flowing lava, leaping flames and billowing smoke.
The red and orange dresses donned by dancers symbolize Pele’s fiery nature. Such performances bring alive Pele’s spirit through movement and music.
Offerings like flowers, food, shells and gin are still left by native Hawaiians on the edges of active lava flows and volcanic craters as gifts to appease Pele. Prayers are offered asking for her blessings of fertile land and protection from destructive volcanic eruptions.
A 2022 survey found over 60% of native Hawaiians still actively participate in rituals connected with Pele. This shows the enduring belief and reverence for Hawaii’s powerful volcano goddess.
Important Sites Connected to the Pele Mythology
The two most important geological sites associated with the Pele mythology are the Halemaʻumaʻu crater at the summit caldera of Kilauea volcano, and the lava lake called Halemaumau crater in the Puu Oo vent of Kilauea’s east rift zone. Both craters are believed to be sacred homes of Pele.
Halemaʻumaʻu summit crater is especially significant in Hawaiian cultural history and Pele legends. Ancient Hawaiians observed the fiery lava lake active in Halemaʻumaʻu for centuries and believed Pele lived deep inside this boiling cauldron surrounded by ferns, flowers and ohelo berries.
Several Hawaiian cultural sites like burial grounds, temples and sacred spots dot the rim of Halemaʻumaʻu.
In Hawaiian chants and meles, Puu Oo vent with its persistent lava lake is imagined as the current home of Pele. Its continuous lava flows reaffirm Pele’s living presence shaping Hawaii’s landscape. Lava fragments from Puu Oo are considered sacred pieces carrying Pele’s mana or spiritual power.
Over 8 million lbs of such lava rock fragments have been scattered by Hawaiians on beaches and coastal spots in the last 30 years.
Besides these actively volcanic sites, other places significant in Pele folklore are Kilauea Iki crater, Kamokuna ocean lava entry, Kau Desert, Rainbow Falls, Waha’ula visitor center showcasing Pele legends, and painters’ cones on Maui believed to have been created when Pele dug soil to make the island’s red dirt.
Through these wondrous sites from Hawaiian geography connected to captivating legends, Pele lives on as an integral and iconic part of Hawaii’s cultural fabric.
Pele continues to captivate people in Hawaii and beyond with her stories of fiery battles, supernatural feats, curses, and connections to the active Hawaiian volcanoes. She remains a powerful force in Hawaiian legend and leave behind an intriguing cultural legacy.