Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Story of Pele - Part 2

Though Pele longed for her lost love Lohiau, who loved her but ultimately rejected her uncontrollable temper, she met her match in Kamapua'a.

Carving of Kamapua'a.
Collection of the Baily House Museum, Maui.

Born to his mother Hina and father Kahiki-ula, and is considered an incarnate form of Lono, the god of rain and agriculture. He grew up as a trickster by necessity, given that he was a man-pig. Despite being a useful labourer for his brothers and mother, his nature as a pig resulted in his constantly being hunted by Chief Olopana of the island of O'ahu. Kamapua'a evaded him for a very long time, using his powers to turn himself into a tiny piglet in a sow's litter to grass and trees. Olopana wasn't totally to blame though: Kamapua'a was stealing and eating his chickens. Eventually, Kamapua'a killed Olopana himself and swam across the ocean in the form of the humuhumunukunukuapua'a fish (which is Hawaii's official state fish). He came ashore in Tahiti and proceeded to marry the daughters of the local chief there.

One fateful night, however, the fires of Pele summon Kamapua'a back to Hawaii. Assuming fish form once again, he swam back to the island and came to this intriguing new paramour. Though he assumed human shape to woo her, Pele could see through this to his pig form and began to mock him. They engaged in a war of bitter quips that enflamed to torrents of lava and ash being hurled at Kamapua'a. Thankfully his younger sister was born as a rain cloud and could subdue the pyroclastic fury. As they continued to fight, a grudging respect was born that developed into unquenchable passion. Pele and Kamapua'a succumbed to one another. For days. Awkwardly, Pele's brothers and sisters comment on her shameful behavior, which causes them to call a truce to their... activities... and share a meal. In the process they divide up the big island of Hawaii: Pele receives the regions of Puna, Kona, and Ka'u, which are the most volcanically active areas of the island. Kamapua'a receives Hilo, Hamakua, and Kohala, which are verdant rainforests.

Their peace was not an easy one, and Kamapua'a made other advances. In one of these, Kapo, the goddess of fertility, rescued Pele by detaching her nether-regions and sending them flying off in another direction. Kamapua'a gave chase, though Kapo's parts imprinted themselves on the rock as Kohelepelepe crater. Nevertheless, it is Kamapua'a's constant... devotion... that makes Hawaii a fertile place, transforming the hard stone of Pele's fires into soil for the growth of forests and crops. In some versions of the story, the pair's coupling produces the child Opelu-nui-kauhaalilo, who is the ancestor of commoners and some royalty.

The natural enemies of Pele are the goddesses of the snows: Lilinoe, Waiau, Kahoupokane, and Poli'ahu. These goddesses have claimed the mountain of Mauna Kea as their home. From sea level, Mauna Kea is over 13,800 feet, making it the highest point in Hawaii. However, the actual base of the dormant volcano lies far, far beneath the waves. Measured from its actual base, Mauna Kea is over 33,000 feet or more than twice the height of Mount Everest. Because it is such a monumental peak, it spends winter draped in a mantle of snow. The clarity of the atmosphere on Mauna Kea also make it one of the best astronomical viewing sites in the world and home to the Mauna Kea Observatories.

Mauna Kea viewed from the sea. Photo: Vadim Kurland.

The Mauna Kea Observatories. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

While it is now the domain of astronomers and sky watchers, the summit of Mauna Kea was considered a sacred place by indigenous Hawaiians. Only high-ranking chiefs could ascend it, and later quarries were formed on its flanks for the high quality basalt that it produced during its last eruptions 4,600 years ago. An ancient sport amongst these Hawaiians was racing sleds down the grassy slopes of the mountains, and it was during these competitions that Poli'ahu encountered Pele.

As Poli'ahu and her sisters were enjoying their racing, they were approached by a stunningly beautiful woman. She wanted to join in and race the esteemed Poli'ahu, who was considered very beautiful in her own right, if not the most beautiful of all the goddesses. In the first match, Poli'ahu won easily. Fearing that it may simply have been because the stranger had an inferior sled, they traded and Poli'ahu won again. In the third, winner-takes-all race, the ground welled up and a stream of lava burst forth in Poli'ahu's path. The stranger dropped her disguise and revealed herself as Pele.

Poli'ahu retreated to the summit of Mauna Kea and from this vantage point launched her counter attack against Pele. Though Pele was furious and hot, her heat was dispelled by the ice and snow projected by Poli'ahu. Eventually she had to surrender and retreat back to Kilauea. Periodically, only every now and then, Pele emerges from the ground and tries to reach Poli'ahu on the summit, but she is always defeated. This is why Mauna Kea does not erupt like the volcanoes further south on the big island. Kilauea and Mauna Loa belong to Pele, but the northern part of the island, Mauna Kea, belongs to Poli'ahu.

The story of Pele is one of tragic strength. Though as powerful as the volcanoes in which she resides, her temper always destroys her happiness. Wild and unpredictable, she is still bested by the likes of Poli'ahu and  Kamapua'a... A mythological reflection on the ability of life to thrive atop these volcanic islands. Her final indignity came in December of 1824 when High Chiefess Kapi Ľolani, the first Christian queen of Hawaii, flouted her ceremonial laws. The previous year, the missionary William Ellis ascended Kilauea looking for a site for his church and ate of the Ohelo berries that were sacred to Pele without saying the proper prayers to her. The lava field in the crater became active and the people blamed Ellis. To prove them wrong, Kapi Ľolani journeyed to Kilauea on foot and descended into the crater. The old guard warned her that if she did not make the proper prayers to Pele, she would be consumed. In defiance, she uttered prayers to Christ and went into the mouth of the volcano. Despite the fears of her people, she returned unharmed. Kilauea was one of the last remaining sites of traditional worship in Hawaii, since it could not be torn down as so many temples were. After this, the strength of Pele was finally broken. 

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