Growing up in Hawaii, no matter which island you’re from, there’s at least one rule that every child learns: Don’t ever take a piece of lava rock or a handful of black sand from Kilauea—the active volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island. Because if you do decide to be so entitled, the goddess Pele will curse you until you return what’s hers.
Pele (or more traditionally, Pelehonuamea) is one of the most powerful and important deities in Native Hawaiian mythology, with extensive stories surrounding her in the form of chants and Hawaiian literature. Sometimes referred to by Hawaiians as "Madame Pele" or "Tutu Pele," using the Hawaiian word for "grandmother," she is the goddess of volcanoes and fire—representing both creation and destruction—who resides inside Halema’uma’u Crater at the summit of Kilauea volcano and causes its lava to flow at her will. Aptly, she is known for being fiery, jealous, even vengeful to some—on all accounts a formidable force to be reckoned with.
Today, despite being a Native Hawaiian deity, all long-time residents of Hawaii are at the very least aware of her history and power—and reverence of her transcends the Native Hawaiian community. On the one hand, it’s remarkable that her cultural presence has been so enduring considering Hawaii’s long history of colonial powers attempting to stomp out its native language and culture; and yet it also feels inevitable, because as the volcano goddess, she created much of the land that makes up the Hawaiian Islands. Plus, Kilauea has been erupting on a continuous (yet typically mild) basis since 1983—so Pele is always making her presence known through glowing streams of magma.
There are many contradictions within various tellings of Pele’s life. But the dominant narrative is that she was birthed by Haumea, the goddess of femininity and childbirth in Hawaiian lore, in Kahiki—today known as Tahiti. In many versions of her mythology, Pele is driven away from home by her older sister, sea goddess Na-maka-o-kahai, either because Na-maka-o-kahai fears that Pele’s intensity will be destructive to their home or because Pele seduced her husband. Pele then travels to Hawaii in a sacred canoe (in most tellings, accompanied by several siblings), first arriving at Niihau and Kauai. According to Hawaiian historian Herb Kane’s PELE: Goddess of Hawaii’s Volcanoes, she then tries to dig into a crater in order to bury her sacred fire, but her sister drives her out by filling the crater with water. The two continue this back-and-forth along the island chain until Pele reaches Kilauea and is able to dig deep enough into the earth to evade her sister. She remains there today—although in some versions of her story she is killed, and it’s her spirit that inhabits the fiery crater.
Beyond showing herself through lava flows, Pele is also said to appear in the form of a young, beautiful maiden or an old woman, often wearing white and accompanied by a white dog. And it’s common for locals to relay encounters they’ve had with her over the years, like spotting her along the side of the road or seeing her walking by herself while hiking the crater. When Pele is angry, however, she becomes Ka wahine ‘ai honua, "the woman who devours the earth," and is said to appear as a woman engulfed in fire or simply as fire itself.
It’s this version of Pele that Big Island residents have encountered head-on over the past couple weeks, after being shook by a 6.9 earthquake and being met with an eruption unlike any they’re used to—streams of magma, hot ash, and molten rock exploding from Kilauea's mouth at a rate much faster and more forceful than its typical, slow-moving flows. In Puna, the district directly adjacent to Kilauea, dozens of homes have been destroyed and around 2,000 residents have evacuated as the earth literally cracks open, and streams of lava engulf roads and forests. And the destruction does not appear to be stopping any time soon.
While my mainland friends have been shaking their heads, remarking on the horrible destruction and asking (kindly) whether my loved ones are OK, the conversation between friends in Hawaii on social media has mostly revolved around Pele’s immense, awe-inspiring power, with many characterizing the eruption as a punishment for the rapid development and increase of newcomers in Puna in recent years. The idea that newcomers’ disrespect ignited the eruption was also touched on in arecent piece for the New York Times, which quoted hula (sacred Hawaiian dance) teacher Kimo Awai saying: "Puna is to believers of Pele what the Vatican City is to Roman Catholics. The outsiders, some of them, they don’t know any better."
But as beautifully reported by Alia Wong for The Atlantic, most Big Island residents—and especially those who live in Puna—do respect Pele and understand the risk of living in the capricious goddess’s backyard, even placing offerings like flowers, money, and food outside their homes in an attempt to appease her in the past few weeks. "[Puna residents] see the goddess’s unpredictability as a fact of life that they not only accept and prepare for but also internalize and revere," writes Wong, who is also from Hawaii. "The myriad hoʻokupu (offerings) found all over the Big Island, from Halemaʻumaʻu crater to black-sand beaches to paved highway roads, attest to her grip on its residents."
And as Puna state legislator Joy San Buenaventura told Wong: "This is part of living in Pele’s home…when the lava flow comes in, Hawaiians clean up their house to welcome Pele. They believe that Pele is coming to visit even if she leaves a path of destruction."