Pele, She-Who-Shapes-the-Sacred-Land

This article originally appeared in the November, 2007 issue of Immanence.

Pele (PAY-lay) is the Hawaiian Goddess of volcanoes. Passionate, fiery, and with a fierce temper, Pele is a continually visual deity in the Hawaiian pantheon. Both creator and destroyer, Pele is considered responsible for the creation of the Hawaiian islands. She is still active today, on Mt. Kilauea on the Big Island, and continues to demand sacrifice from the residents of Hawaii. When lava threatens a Hawaiian home, the owners would be better off giving Her gifts so that their residence may be spared.

Aside from demanding sacrifice, Pele wants Her lava to stay put. Tourists to Hawaii: take away lava rock only if you wish your life to collapse around your ears. Believe you me, it happened here – in this family. Only when we went back to Hawaii to appease Pele did our bad luck abate. She will wreck you if you mess with Her.

Pele is a loving if tough Goddess to Her faithful. Remember that destruction is a good thing–one cannot create new things without getting rid of the old first. Myths about Pele abound and are varied. I will give you my favorite. Pele was born in Tahiti to Haumea, descended of Papa the Earth Mother and Wakea the Sky Father. (Yes, you read that right – Papa is female.) When Pele’s grandfather looked into the girl’s eyes, he saw fire there. Pele’s power frightened the men of the tribe and so She was sent away. Her mother gave Her an egg to keep her company, and when She arrived in Hawaii it hatched into Her sister Hi’iaka. Hi’iaka was Pele’s favorite sister, and along with Their other sister Laka, the three of Them were matron goddesses of dancing – specifically Hula.

When Pele fell in love with a young chief named Lohi’au on another island after She traveled there in spirit form, She sent Hi’iaka to go bring him to Her. The sisters made a vow: Hi’iaka would not encourage Lohi’au should he become attracted to Her, and Pele would keep Her lava flows from the grove of ohi’a trees where Hi’iaka and Her friend Hopoe danced.

However, Pele was not only impatient but easily inspired to jealousy. When forty days had passed since She had sent Hi’iaka, Pele decided She had been betrayed and let the lava burn the grove of ohi’a trees, killing Hopoe. As Hi’iaka came upon the island She saw the smouldering trees and, in fury, flung Herself into Lohi’au’s arms. Pele, enraged, sent Her lava to kill them, but only Lohi’au, being mortal, died.

Pele continues to be venerated today, but for a while it was quite in secret. The last straw for the Hawaiian religion was when first Queen Kapio’lani in 1819, and then some missionaries a few years later, defied Pele and remained unharmed – this was seen as “proof” that the Goddess had no power and the islands should convert to Christianity. My opinion? Even Pele chooses Her battles – and that one was not worth it.