ALSO KNOWN AS:
Pele-honu-amea (Pelé of the Sacred Land); Pele-‘ai-honua (Pelé Eater of Land)
Pelé is currently the world’s most famous volcano goddess, but she is also so much more. Pelé is a divine ancestress and a spirit of righteous, if temperamental, justice. She provides for those she considers her people in times of famine, drought, and need. Pelé destroys, but she is also a vigilant guardian. Pelé is a love goddess: much of her mythology focuses on her romantic and erotic adventures. She is incredibly generous and incredibly temperamental. Her fury is akin to a volcano blowing its top. She is a lusty goddess who loves music, dance, food, drink, and handsome men.
Pelé is an ancient goddess and a modern urban legend. She is a living spirit who likes to mingle with people. Pelé makes frequent corporeal appearances. In other words, those who encountered her first thought she was a human being until Pelé somehow revealed her goddess identity. Pelé may be the prototype for the modern urban myth of the vanishing hitchhiker.
Hawaii’s most famous goddess, daughter of Haumea and Kanehoalani, was born in the Society Islands in either Tahiti or Bora Bora. When she was born, the image of flames could be seen in her eyes. Her uncle Lonomakua, the island’s fire keeper, had been waiting for years for someone to whom he could transmit his knowledge. When he saw Pelé’s eyes, he knew she was the one.
Fiery phenomena increased. Island hot spots spontaneously burst into flames. Pelé and her uncle were blamed, accused of stoking fires in subterranean caverns. Pelé and her older sister, the water goddess Namaka fought and Pelé was banished, placed on a canoe with supplies and any siblings who chose to travel with her.
Her arrival in Hawaii was heralded by lightning and volcanic eruptions. She initially had trouble finding a home. Namaka pursued her, dousing Pelé’s flames. Finally Pelé burrowed into the volcano Kilauea on the big island of Hawaii, her home base ever since. Pelé likes to travel. There are legends about her throughout the Hawaiian isles. She is not a stay-at-home goddess but likes to get out and see people. Pelé rescues people who are gracious, polite and kind to her (usually by warning of dangers on the road).
On the other hand, she allegedly curses those who remove anything from her volcano (rocks, plants). The curse manifests as bad luck, trouble, unemployment, illness, or accidents. Some claim that this is an invented legend, but over two thousand pounds of rocks are returned to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park annually, accompanied by letters from people describing their misfortune. Even if Pelé didn’t originally think of the curse herself, she seems to have adopted it with gusto.
Pelé is an extremely adaptable goddess, very capable of adjusting to modern times. She likes roads. She likes cars. She seems to have fun playing the role of vanishing hitchhiker. She may or may not actually hitch-hike. She often stands or walks on a very lonely road after dark. She appears old and fragile, not at all threatening. A kind person would stop and ask if she was all right or if she needed a ride. Those who do not pick her up often meet with trouble. Alternatively, she just magically appears in their car anyway.
Pelé protects her descendents and those she loves. She is a mistress of magic and hula dancing. (The official 2008 poster for the annual Merrie Monarch Festival of Hula and Hawaiian Culture features an image of Pelé.)
In December 1824, Chiefess Kapiolani, an early and fervent convert to Christianity, defied Pelé. She traveled up to the Kilauea fire pit. People followed weeping, convinced that she would die. Kapiolani marched several hundred feet into the crater. Then she threw rocks into the pit, announcing that Jehovah was her god and that he, not Pelé, had kindled the volcano flames. That story is very famous. There’s a second half that’s less frequently recalled.
In 1881, almost sixty years after Kapiolani’s defiance, lava streamed toward the town of Hilo. Princess Ruth Ke_elik_lani, a traditionalist who hewed to Hawaiian spiritual traditions, was delegated to propitiate Pelé. She brought her brandy, silk scarves, and offered traditional prayers right in sight of a Christian Church. The lava, which had already reached the outskirts of Hilo, immediately stopped.
Pelé manifests in any form she desires: young, old, gorgeous, haggard. Her hair may be black, red, white, or silver. She likes to dress in red. Pelé’s skin may be scorching hot or ghost cold to the touch. Theoretically any woman might be Pelé, so all women should be treated with respect.
If she wants to identify herself, she will. The classic example involves a mysterious hitchhiker who after settling herself in the vehicle requests a cigarette. Before the person who gives it to her can offer a light, the hitchhiker manifests fire right out of her naked hands. She lights her cigarette, the flame in her hands vanishes, she has no burns. She may disappear shortly after.
When she hitchhikes, Pelé appears as a solitary old lady, often in traditional Hawaiian dress. She appears on the beach as a beautiful young Hawaiian woman in a scarlet muumuu accompanied by an entourage of dancers. In any guise, her most frequent companion is a little white dog. So-called ghost-lights may signal her presence. (Science suggests these mysterious dancing lights are caused by gas escaping from terrestrial fissures, which sounds like something Pelé would cause.)
Pelé is a favourite subject of artists. In particular, portraits by Herb Kawainui Kane have achieved iconic status.
Flames are her primary attribute; she may also leave behind three long silver hairs as her calling card.
Kamapua’a; Pelé has a close relationship with many shark spirits. (She is literally related to many of them.)
Creatures: Dog, shark
Active volcano Mount Kilauea (she reputedly lives within Halema’uma’u crater but the whole mountain is her home). The site of her ancient temple is now occupied by the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum, which features Herb Kawainui Kane’s Pelé murals. Mauna Loa also belongs to her.
‘Ohi’a lehua (Metrosideros collina)
Plant: Sadlaria (red) ferns, ohelo (Vaccinium reticulatum). Pelé claims the ohelo berries that grow on her mountain. The ohelo is not just any plant: it grew from the bones of her mortal sister, Ka’ohelo. The mountain berries are reserved for Pelé (and endangered Hawaiian nene geese).
Red, orange, flame
Offerings are traditionally left respectfully at the crater’s edge but may be placed on home altars, too: crystals, roast chickens, flowers, ohelo berries, flame-colored silk scarves or other luxurious fabrics. Pelé is frequently given cigarettes, gin, brandy, or other alcoholic beverages. However, this is controversial: many traditional Hawaiians do not approve.
Akua; Haumea; Hi’iaka; Kahoupokane; Kamapua’a; Kamohoali’i; Kane; Kapo; Kihawahine; Laka; Lilinoe; Lono; Namaka; Poliahu; Waiau
Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses– Written by Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.
Pele : Hawaii’s fierce goddess of the volcano has been seen in ghostly form off and on for centuries. Pele, often called Madame Pele, appears on all the Hawaiian Islands but is seen most often on the island of Hawaii, where she makes her home at Halema’uma’u in Kilauea crater, one of the island’s highest peaks, located on the eastern side of Mauna Loa.
Various Polynesian myths explain the origins of Pele. In one, she came from a family of distinguished Hawaiian deities. Her original home was the island of Kauai, which she left for Mauna Loa. Once there, she dug until she found the molten center of the mountain, thus creating Kilauea crater. When the volcano is quiet, she lives in the crater and presides over a family of fire gods, but prior to eruption, she descends to warn islanders of the coming danger.
According to another myth, Pele originated in Tahiti, which she left to escape the wrath of her sister, whose husband Pele had seduced. Still another myth says she escaped a flood, while another claims she simply loves to wander. Her jealousy of her sister is the cause of the lava she sends streaming down Mauna Loa.
Pele is temperamental and passionate, and her wrath is easily sparked by the thoughtlessness or inappropriate behavior of humans. She especially does not like irreverence toward her sacred domain, the volcano, and punishes those who take away pieces of her domain, such as chunks of lava. These are her “children.” Her curse may be misfortune or even death. Less often, she is seen as generous and forgiving. Offerings of rocks, crystals, roasted chickens and her favourite, bottles of gin, are often left at Halema’uma’u and other volcanoes for her. The owner of Volcano House, an inn at the edge of Kilauea, reportedly is spared from destruction because the owner pours bottles of gin into the crater.
Pele appears in whatever form she wishes, from a young girl to an old and haggard woman. She may be hot or cool to the touch. Her hair may be red, black, white or silver. She often appears as a young, beautiful woman dressed in a brilliant red muumuu, accompanied by a small white dog. She is frequently spotted in the wee hours of the night, standing or walking along a lonely road. It is advisable to stop and offer her a lift, for to ignore her is to invite her wrath in the form of excessive death and destruction in the coming eruption.
The first recorded incident in which Pele appeared to a motorist on the island of Hawaii was in 1925. She was in the form of a feeble old woman who was walking along the roadside near Keei in the south Kona region. Two cars passed her without greeting or stopping. A third car, driven by a young Japanese man, came by. He was going to visit a family said to be descendants of Pele. He offered to give her a ride and she got in. Along the way they passed the two cars who had not stopped. Both were stalled on the side of the road. When the driver reached his destination, he told the old woman he would continue and take her directly to where she was going. Receiving no reply, he turned around and saw that the backseat was empty. The old woman simply had vanished.
Many similar stories involving Pele have been recorded. Sometimes she appears as a young girl. Sometimes she leaves behind proof of her identity: three long silver hairs. Sometimes she saves the lives of people who are kind enough to give her a ride by warning them of danger ahead on the road. These stories have the same motifs as the Phantom Hitchhiker URBAN LEGEND.
George Lycurgus, the owner of the Volcano House from 1904 to 1921, had numerous encounters with Pele. One evening soon after he had bought the Volcano House, he joined a group of people having a luau on the edge of Halema’uma’u. During the party he suddenly saw a skinny old woman with straggly, gray-white hair hanging down her back and a shawl around her shoulders. She was walking toward the edge of the pit, leaning on a stick. She was invited to join the party but declined. She told them she had work to do. She turned and walked toward the pit and then disappeared. People rushed to the edge, thinking she had fallen in, but no one was there. Soon thereafter the volcano began to violently erupt. Everyone got on their horses and quickly left the area.
Lycurgus said he had seen Pele during other eruptions. She had black hair and was dressed in a dark robe, and moved in and out of the flames. He believed that Pele spared his hotel from destruction by stopping the flames before they reached it.
Pele’s curse upon those who take away chunks of lava remains active in contemporary times. Each year more than 2,000 pounds of rocks are returned from all over the world to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park by regretful souvenir-seekers. In letters, the tourists say they simply wanted a token and did not believe in Pele’s curse. After returning home, misfortunes and disasters, such as accidents, lost jobs, illness and so on, befell them. They associated their bad luck with the curse and were returning the rocks in the hopes of placating Pele and ending the curse.
The returning of rocks has been going on since the 1950s. The legend may have grown around stories concocted for the amusement of tourists. Nonetheless, the return of rocks is a real phenomenon. They present a problem for the park service, since they may contain bacteria, plant spores, and microbes not native to Hawaii. They must be sterilized before being returned to the soil.
- Beckwith, Martha. Hawaiian Mythology. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1970. First published 1940.
- Ching, Linda, and Robin Stephens. Powerstones: Letters to a Goddess. Honolulu: Private Press, 1994.
- Grant, Glen. Obake Files: Ghostly Encounters in Supernatural Hawaii. Honolulu: Mutual Publishing, 1996.