It was like gazing at the sun at noon-day, except that the glare was not quite so white. At unequal distances all around the shores of the lake were nearly white-hot chimneys or hollow drums of lava, four or five feet high, and up through them were bursting gorgeous sprays of lava-gouts and gem spangles, some white, some red and some golden--a ceaseless bombardment, and one that fascinated the eye with its unapproachable splendor. The mere distant jets, sparkling up through an intervening gossamer veil of vapor, seemed miles away; and the further the curving ranks of fiery fountains receded, the more fairy-like and beautiful they appeared.These words, written by the great American novelist Mark Twain in his book Roughing It, describe Halema'uma'u crater on Kilauea. This pit of lava is within the summit caldera of Kilauea, reaching a further 270 feet below the floor of the main crater. It is a circle roughly 2.5 by 2.9 thousand feet across, constantly belching sulphurous gasses and stony projectiles. The Hawiian Volcano Observatory on the rim of Kilauea, which is now within Hawaiian Volcanos National Park, has declared Halema'uma'u "very active" and suspended all hiking trails, roadways and overlooks to the site. Through 2008, a series of eruption events forced the evacuation of the National Park, and it remains a volatile crater to this day. Halema'uma'u is also the seat of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of Fire and Volcanos, and she is angry.
Halema'uma'u crater, Kilauea. Photo: Tim Bray.
In Hawaiian mythology, Pele was the daughter of Haumea, goddess of Fertility and Childbirth. She has many siblings, including her brother Ka-moho-ali'i the shark god, sister Nāmaka a water spirit, sister Kapo who once resuced her from the unwanted advances of Kamapua'a the trickster, and sister Hi'iaka with whom she has a special relationship. Rev. A.O. Forbes recorded one version of how Pele came to the Hawaiian Islands in the time before time...
All volcanic phenomena are associated in Hawaiian legendary lore with the goddess Pele; and it is a somewhat curious fact that to the same celebrated personage is also attributed a great flood that occurred in ancient times. The legends of this flood are various, but mainly connected with the doings of Pele in this part of the Pacific Ocean. The story runs thus:
Kahinalii was the mother of Pele; Kanehoalani was her father; and her two brothers were Kamohoalii and Kahuilaokalani. Pele was born in the land of Hapakuela, a far-distant land at the edge of the sky, toward the southwest. There she lived with her parents until she was grown up, when she married Wahialoa; and to these were born a daughter named Laka, and a son named Menehune. But after a time Pele’s husband, Wahialoa, was enticed away from her by Pele-kumulani. The deserted Pele, being much displeased and troubled in mind on account of her husband, started on her travels in search of him, and came in the direction of the Hawaiian Islands. Now, at that time these islands were a vast waste. There was no sea, nor was there any fresh water. When Pele set out on her journey, her parents gave her the sea to go with her and bear her canoes onward. So she sailed forward, flood-borne by the sea, until she reached the land of Pakuela, and thence onward to the land of Kanaloa. From her head she poured forth the sea as she went, and her brothers composed the celebrated ancient mele:
O the sea, the great sea!
Forth bursts the sea:
Behold, it bursts on Kanaloa!
But the waters of the sea continued to rise until only the highest points of the great mountains, Haleakala, Maunakea, and Maunaloa, were visible; all else was covered. Afterward the sea receded until it reached its present level. This event is called the Kai a Kahinalii (Sea of Kahinalii), because it was from Kahinalii, her mother, that Pele received the gift of the sea, and she herself only brought it to Hawaii.
And from that time to this, Pele and all her family forsook their former land of Hapakuela and have dwelt in Hawaii-nei, Pele coming first and the rest following at a later time.
On her first arrival at Hawaii-nei, Pele dwelt on the island of Kauai. From there she went to Kalaupapa, on the island of Molokai, and dwelt in the crater of Kauhako at that place; thence she departed to Puulaina, near Lahainaluna, where she dug out that crater. Afterward she moved still further to Haleakala, where she stayed until she hollowed out that great crater; and finally she settled at Kilauea, on the island of Hawaii, where she has remained ever since.Pele eventually got over Wahialoa and found a new love in Lohiau. This brave, handsome man was chief of the island of Kaua'i, the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands. Oral tradition tells of Hawai'iloa, the great Polynesian navigator who discovered the islands that bear his name. After coming across these islands, he returned to his own and organized a colonial party of eight other navigators and his family, including his sons Kaua'i, O'ahu, and Maui. Each of these sons had one of the islands named in his honour.
The coast of Kaua'i. Photo: Paul Bica.
Chief Lohiau and Pele met when she visited Kaua'i in spirit to attend a festival. Stricken with love, she needed to find a way to bring him to her. It was Hi'iaka who volunteered.
Hi'iaka was the sister of Pele, who Pele took care of when she was still merely an egg. Laid in Tahiti, Pele bore the egg under her arm to Hawaii where it hatched. Because of this tender care by Pele, the two sisters grew very close. In adoration of her big sister, Hi'iaka offered to go to Kaua'i to fetch Pele's love. In exchange, Pele would watch over Hi'iaka's sacred grove and best friend Hopoe. However, Pele also placed a restriction on her sister: this had to be done in 40 days and she was forbidden from embracing or falling in love with Lohiau herself. If Hi'iaka did not return in 40 days, Pele would know that something fishy was going on.
Joined by several companions, Hi'iaka faced demons, sharks, lava, storms and all manner of adventures. Eventually she made it to Kaua'i, only to discover that Lohiau had perished from grief and longing for Pele. In a panic, she rubbed his body with sacred herbs and began the chants and prayers that would restore him to life. Unfortunately, this process took longer than 40 days.
When Hi'iaka returned to Pele with Lohiau, she discovered that Pele had destroyed her sacred grove and turned her friend Hopoe to stone in her fury. Enraged, Hi'iaka retaliated by embracing Lohiau. This infuriated Pele even more and she sent a massive wave of lava at the pair, which only succeeded in killing the mortal man. Hi'iaka mournfully brought him back to life and Pele offered him the choice of being with whomever he wished. In some stories he stays with Pele and in others he returns alone to Kaua'i, but in most versions he chooses the more even-tempered Hi'iaka and returns to Kaua'i with her. Pele's sister emerged as the patron goddess of Hawaii and of the hula dance, as well as bearing the clouds of storms and volcanos.
This is not the end of Pele's story, however...