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When lava flows, Hawaiians invoke goddess Pele’s name

/ 12:41 PM May 17, 2018

HONOLULU — In rural Hawaii neighborhoods where lava from Kilauea volcano has burned down or threatened to consume the homes, a name often comes up: Pele (peh-leh).

“You can’t really predict what Pele is going to do,” said Julie Woolsey, who evacuated on May 3 as a fissure opened on her street, oozing lava just 1,000 feet from her home.

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Here is more information about Pele and why the goddess is revered:

Who is Pele?

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Pele, known as the goddess of volcanoes and fire, is an important figure in Hawaiian culture.

She represents all the phenomena related to volcanos — the magma, steam, ash, acid rain.

Pele is an akua, or goddess, but not in the way people outside Hawaii might think of gods and goddesses. “A lot of people translate the word akua as god. But we feel that word has kind of a western connotation to it, so we use the word ‘element,'” said Kuulei Kanahele, researcher at the Edith Kanakaole Foundation, which focuses on Native Hawaiian cultural preservation and education. “They’re not like Greek gods or the biblical, western gods where they’re punishing you.”

According to chants, Pele and her family migrated from kahiki — an unspecified land outside of Hawaii. She first landed in the northwestern Hawaiian islands before making her way through the main Hawaiian islands, starting with Kauai, then Oahu, then Maui, before settling in Hawaii Island.

She dug craters on the islands, including Maui’s Haleakala and what’s known as Punchbowl and Diamond Head on Oahu. “She didn’t find a crater that was suitable to her liking,” Kanahele said, until Kilauea’s Halemaumau crater, where she now resides.

Why is she revered?

“In Hawaiian thinking and Hawaiian culture, Pele is the foundation, the creation of land,” said Piilani Kaawaloa, who teaches traditional Hawaiian literature, chant and hula at the Hawaii Island campus of Kamehameha Schools.

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“People know she exists,” Kaawaloa said. “And because we have these genuine stories and legends and chants that talk about who she is.”

She has two forms, Kaawaloa explained, one that stays at the crater tending to her fire pit and another that goes “holoholo” or leisurely exploring, around Puna, a district on the slopes of the volcano.

That’s exactly what is happening now with the lava fissures opening up in Puna’s Leilani Estates and neighboring communities, while scientists worry that Kilauea’s summit could have an explosive steam eruption that would hurl huge rocks and ash miles into the sky.

Legends of Pele

A popular legend tells the tale of a frail, old woman who asks for food from two girls cooking breadfruit. One girl said they didn’t have food for strangers, but the younger girl shared the breadfruit. The woman told the younger girl that strange things would be happening on the mountainside and to tell her family to hang bits of cloth made from bark to stay safe.

The younger girl’s grandmother said that woman was Pele and heeded the advice. A neighbor told them Pele is angry and she’s stirring her fire pit on Mauna Loa, according “Hawaii Island Legends,” edited by Mary Kawena Pukui.

Pele sent her lava to destroy those who made her angry. The lava stream broke in two and flowed on each side of the younger girl’s home.

“When our myth writers observe nature and what’s happening, it’s easy to put feelings and emotions and romance into it,” to make the stories interesting and stand the test of time while also incorporating morality lessons, Kanahele said.

To understand Pele on a deeper level, it’s important to remember science underlies the tales, which were created to record scientific observations, she said.

One example, she said, is the story of Pele brawling with Poliahu, the goddess of snow. That’s really an eruption at Mauna Kea, where there’s snowfall, describing the fire and ice interacting, Kanahele said.

A lava flow is often described as “cleaning house,” but Kanahele said that’s a more modern, western metaphor. “Pele was flowing for millions of years,” she said. “She wasn’t cleaning house, she was creating land.”

Four laws

Pele has four laws, Kanahele explained:
1. The lava will always flow in order to create new land. Lava will always migrate to new spots.
2. When there’s evidence of volcanic activity — earthquakes, the smell of sulfur — the land belongs to Pele. “If she’s in residence, then it’s best for humans to not be there.”
3. Once Pele moves on and the area is free from kapu, or prohibitions, then humans can go into that land.
4. Land is suitable for human use after land burned down has reforested.

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