Hawaiian HallMuseum Entrance

The Story of Pele
by Serge Kahili King

Pele is well known as a volcano goddess living in the crater of Kilauea on the island of Hawaii, and for most people that's about it. So here is some background on this famous lady of the isles who is virtually unknown elsewhere in Polynesia.

There are a number of variations in the legends that tell of how Pele first came to the Hawaiian Islands. One of the most common tells that she was one of a family of six daughters and seven sons born to Haumea (a very ancient Earth goddess) and Moemoe (a name having to do with purposeful dreaming). She lived in Kahiki* and longed to travel, so she borrowed a canoe from a brother and came from the northwest with some of her siblings, landing first at Lehua, a small volcanic cone sticking up out of the water just north of Niihau. Another variation says she was chased from her homeland by her angry sister, Namakaokahai, an ocean goddess. Pele's essence is fire and she dug into the island to find a firepit to live in, but was unsuccessful and went on to western Kauai. Traveling along the Na Pali to the north shore she dug again but only found water (at the Wet Caves) and journeyed inland to the very ancient peak now called "Puu ka Pele" (Pele's Hill). Still having no luck she followed the Waimea Canyon to the south side, dug around Poipu for awhile, then went on to Oahu, Molokai, Maui and finally Hawaii where she found a place for her family to live at last in Kilauea. From a research point of view it is quite interesting that her route followed the progression of volcanic activity in geologic time.

Now the tale varies again as to when she fell in love with the mortal Lohiau, a chief of Kauai. One version says she was sleeping in her home at Halemaumau crater on the Big Island and another that she was standing on the Rock of Kauai at the western end of Oahu when she heard the sounds of a hula festival. By astral travel she followed the sounds to Haena on Kauai, saw the handsome chief dancing at a festival, and fell in love (or was aroused by lust). Materializing the form of a beautiful young woman (Pele was a good shaman, able to change into many forms), she entered the dance, captured Lohiau's heart (his name means "retarded", if that has any significance) and lived with him for awhile. Finally she had to return home and promised that she would send for him. That story involves her sister Hi'iaka and we will save that for another article. At any rate, the house site of Lohiau and the remains of the famous hula temple where Pele danced still exist near Haena at Ke'e Beach. We can also note that there is an ancient volcano on Kauai's north shore called Kilauea, the same name as Pele's home on Hawaii. That word can be translated as "energetically spreading vapor (like volcanic gas)" and there are some who think that Kauai's Kilauea was Pele's actual home in the exceedingly distant past. However, that does not correspond to Western geological or anthopological ideas, and it would not make the people of Ka'u on the Big Island very happy.

There are many stories equating Pele's wrath, usually stimulated by jealousy or someone's arrogance, to volcanic eruptions or destructive lava flows. In fact, the Hawaiian word pele means molten lava. However, no human sacrifices were ever made to Pele, just red berries in ancient times and gin or brandy in later days. For Hawaiians, respect, if not worship, for Pele has lasted longer than that for any of the other old gods. Visibly active power has a strong influence on hearts and minds.

There is a modern legend invented by a park ranger on the Big Island which says that Pele will curse people with bad luck if they take rocks home from the islands. The fact is that it is against Federal law to take anything out of a national park and the ranger decided to give the law a little more bite. There is absolutely no Hawaiian tradition relating to Pele's concern about rocks. There is one legend from the black sand beach of Punalu'u west of Kilauea that says there are male rocks and female rocks there that give birth to baby pebbles, and that if you take a rock from there another rock will not be able to make babies and the beach will eventually disappear. The ranger's version was probably based on this one, although it has no curse attached to it. This made-up myth about Pele's bad-luck curse has caused many hundreds of guilty people or those having bad luck to mail hundreds of tons of rocks - and even sand - back to the islands every year.

*"Kahiki" is commonly thought to be a Hawaiian variation of Tahiti, but the word actually means any place out of sight. That could be over the horizon, in outer space, or in the spirit world. Early Hawaiian authors used it in all of those ways.

© 1999 by Serge King