She has a volatile temper and a jealous streak. She devours the land, setting ablaze anything in her path. But the power and destruction of the Hawaiian Goddess of Fire, Pele (pronounced Peh-leh), is not as much feared as is it revered by the people of Hawaii.
Though she may decimate forests and threaten local villages with molten lava, Pele (or Pelehonua) is exalted by the Hawaiian people as an important part of the storied history of the island chain and a still-present force in the land and among the people.
Also known as “Ka wahine ai honua,” which translates to “the woman who devours the earth,” Pele continues to change the landscape of the Big Island — her rivers of lava burning and blanketing everything in their path —leaving vast, desolate fields of onyx rock that will take years to show signs of life again.
But Pele is also the one who shapes the land. Since 1983, nearly 500 acres of new land has been added to Hawaii Island from the continuous eruption of Kilauea.
To stand at Pele’s doorstep is to stand at the edge of Halemaumau Crater — a 3,000-foot-wide, 300-foot-deep depression in the Kilauea Caldera — the youngest of five Big Island volcanoes and one of the most active in the world.
To be a guest in Pele’s home within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is also a deeply spiritual, almost primal experience.
It is considered a sign of respect to bring a “hookupu” (offering) to Halemaumau Crater, just as you would bring a gift to the home of a friend.
Traditional and accepted forms of offerings include prayer, chant, dance, or lei. Other types of gifts include pork, red fish, banana, and even gin. You will see these gifts, wrapped in ti leaf, left at the crater’s edge.
Dancers of participating halau hula, as a way of paying respect and honoring the Hawaiian goddess in her home, will make offerings and share their dance at the crater’s edge. It’s a very deep and moving experience for the dancers — a way for them to connect to the land and the oral histories they are interpreting.
There are many legends that link Pele’s wrath (which is usually evoked by jealousy or someone’s arrogance) to eruptions and destruction.
One Hawaiian legend tells about a young man named Ohia and a beautiful young woman named Lehua who were in love. However, Pele wanted Ohia for herself. When he refused, she flew into a jealous rage and turned him into an ugly tree. Lehua pleaded for Pele to turn Ohia back into a man, but nothing could calm Pele’s fury. The other gods felt sorry for Lehua, and so they turned her into a beautiful flower and placed her on the Ohia tree.
Pele is visible in everything you see at Kilauea, from volcanic eruptions themselves to the steam that rises from the ground. You may even happen across “Pele’s hair,” fine threads of golden volcanic glass that are formed when a spray of lava droplets cool rapidly in the air.
Hawaiian legend maintains that Pele — one of six daughters and seven sons born to the ancient Earth goddess Haumea and creator of the sky, Earth and heavens, Kane Milohai — traveled from the northernmost islands, guided by her favorite brother Kamohoalii, who was a guardian shark.
She traveled in search of a suitable home and finally settled in the crater of Halemaumau at the summit of Kilauea Volcano.
Other versions of this legend of how she came to reside in the crater have her being sent away by her father because of her bad temper and being chased from her homeland by her sister, Namakaokahai, an ocean goddess, because Pele seduced Namakaokahai’s husband.
Though it is believed that Pele’s home is Halemaumau Crater, she is sighted across the island chain, appearing as either a tall, beautiful, young woman or a frail, elderly woman.
It is said that Pele takes the latter form to test mankind, asking them if they will share food or drink. Generous, kind folk are rewarded, while those who are greedy or mean are punished.
And if you find yourself a shiny lava rock, and you are tempted to bring it home, think again. It is said a curse will befall you, and you will suffer bad luck if you remove lava rocks from Madame Pele’s home.
Her domain is a place where death and life are closely intertwined. You will see manifestations of the goddess and her work just about everywhere you look on the Big Island. The ongoing eruptions and outbreak of lava flows serve as a reminder that Pele is still here, and her power is not to be forgotten.