Whispers of Pele
The overpowering sulfur dioxide fumes that had been our constant companion since we’d entered Volcanoes National Park had certainly affected my respiratory system by three in the afternoon, making me wheeze with each intake of air during this, our third straight hour of hiking makai (towards the sea) as we neared the end of Chain of Craters Road. My then-husband Michael was dragging his heels behind me as we walked single file, his strawberry blond hair gleaming like a torch in sharp contrast to the black fields of hardened lava flows that had surrounded us for miles. It amazed me that he hadn’t yet taken off his fleece pullover: it was a necessity at the chilly 4,200-ft. summit of Mt. Kilauea’s caldera:
Halema’uma’u Crater (said to be the actual home of the volcano and fire goddess Pele), but here at the coast the air was hot and arid; I’d long since stripped off my denim jacket. My skin was experiencing the odd state of feeling cold (from accumulated sweat?) in the blazing sun: each time the infernal breezes from the sea cliffs to my right cascaded across my body, my arms would break out in “chicken skin” (the Hawaiian term for goosebumps).
“This better be worth the shlep,” my sailor of a spouse at the time uttered in a raspy exhalation. His “sea legs” were having a tough time getting acclimated to the uneven terrain that we’d covered, spanning such extremes in sea level as it did.
“We’ve been in this park for seven hours and I haven’t seen any lava spewing,” he pouted. “I WANNA SEE PELE SPEW!” he said in between hops on the pavement, his fists tightly clenched.
A true textbook Aries temper tantrum, I noted to myself with amusement.
I shared his longing but knew that I could not feel disappointment if we never wound up beholding Pele busy at work in one of her most majestic feats: adding hundreds of new acres to the island as her blazing orange rivers of lava tumble headlong into the churning Pacific, into the domain of her sister Na-maka-o-ka-ha’i (the two are said to be locked in an ageless struggle—talk about sibling rivalry!). Indeed, Hawaii is the only state that is physically growing each year due to Pele’s incessant activities—the hula dance of destruction and creation that only she can execute with such panache. Is it any wonder that she is still actively worshiped as a living deity here? Many of the other Hawaiian akua (gods) have waned in the collective Hawaiian unconscious, thanks in no small part to the spiritual incursions of “major” religions, Western and Eastern—Baptists and Buddhists alike. But happily Pele has not suffered that fate, nor is it likely that she ever will.
She is too tangible a presence. By turns nurturing and wrathful, responsive to those who pay her respect and merciless to those who break the kapu (taboos) that hold the people in sacred covenant to love of the land (aloha ‘aina), she is reverentially spoken of as “Madame Pele.”
Numerous sightings of her are reported, typically before an eruption. She is often spotted hitchhiking in the Puna district in the guise of either an elderly woman dressed in white (the Crone) or as a beautiful woman dressed in red (Maiden or Mother?). It’s advised that motorists offer her a ride or show her some other act of kindness—to fail to do so is to invite great misfortune, including being consumed by an imminent lava flow!
Even on O’ahu, whose mighty volcanoes have long since receded into gentle mountain ranges, Pele sightings are swapped among kama’aina (literally “children of the land,” referring to either island-born locals or long-time residents). While dining at the popular Honolulu eatery, Brew Moon, in the summer of 2003, Michael and I discussed Hawaiian folklore: Night Marchers, haunted locales, and Pele sightings. I could sense that our waiter, circling around our table with no apparent purpose except to eavesdrop, had some information he wanted to impart. He bided his time until the coffee and macadamia nut mud pie had been delivered to our table for dessert.
“You been to Sea Life Park yet?” he asked.
It’s a marine-life tourist attraction located on the southeast corner of the island, a smaller and more intimate version of Sea World, if you will.
“Yes,” I replied. “Friends from Chicago stayed with us last month and we took them there. We all loved it.”
“Well, I wouldn’t recommend driving around Kalanianaole Highway there at night, especially by the Blowhole,” our waiter matter-of-factly stated. “Madame Pele haunts the road.”
Michael and I paused in the act of scooping the rich dessert with our forks and glanced at each other.
My skeptical fiancé (at the time) was the first to speak. “So you’ve seen her?”
“Oh, it was her alright. Last Friday me and my buddies were heading into town, on our way back from boarding at Sandy Beach. It was dark, but all of a sudden near the turn by the Blowhole this little white dog darts across the road. We almost hit it. I told my friend who was driving to stop the car and go get it—it was Madame Pele looking for a ride—but he just kept goin.’ And sure enough the fan belt broke down near Hanauma! You gotta watch out for Pele; she’s bad-ass,” he sternly cautioned.
I didn’t know what to think of this tale. I know that Michael was certainly not buying any of it; he figured the waiter assumed we were tourists who would relish this exposure to spurious superstition. What left an imprint in my mind was the weird imagery: why would Pele assume dog form? (Does this lend her a chthonic aspect, like Hekate?) A dog looking for a ride? It seemed too odd! The story of an otherworldly female hitchhiker I could understand: a motorist (a taxi driver, presumably) sees a little old Hawaiian lady dressed in white, standing at the side of the road. He offers her a ride and she accepts. When he turns around to ask her about her destination, he sees that she’s vanished, leaving behind her white sweater in the back seat. As a native Chicagoan, I’ve heard this kind of urban folktale before: Resurrection Mary!
To date I haven’t encountered anyone else on O’ahu who had a Pele sighting to share, so I don’t know how great an anomaly her dog form is when she’s seen on the highway. But as with the tales of Pele on the Big Island, to see the goddess and not perform a kind gesture for her invites disaster. Duly noted.
Instead of ghostly wayfarer, my experience of Pele during my Big Island honeymoon in March of 2004 was of her raw power as Mother Goddess.
Not long after venturing onto Crater Rim Drive near the Visitors Center at Volcanoes National Park, Mike and I strayed off the beaten path to hike one of the trails that wound its way through grassy fields of steam vents. Thick, whitish-gray clouds of sulfur smoke could be seen spewing from numerous orifices in the earth—orifices that remarkably resemble vulvas:
Michael and I paused before one and I felt my chakras tingle from root to crown. Such powerful mana! The sulfur clouds were forcefully blown onto our faces (poor Mike had to keep defogging the lenses of his eyeglasses)—we were receiving kisses from Pele!
I noted that her sacred red berries, the ohelo, were growing in abundance in a tiny shrub nearby. The berries are edible, but it would be unconscionable to eat them without first making an offering to Pele.
“Let’s make an offering,” I said. My maternal grandmother was very much on my mind all day; it was March 16, the anniversary of her death.
“Sure thing,” Michael said. I was instantly reminded of why I loved him so much. Though raised Catholic, he didn’t see any conflict with supporting my polytheistic worldview. He began to pick some of the ohelo.
“Do you plan on eating any?” he asked.
“I don’t know—do you?”
“I wouldn’t feel right about it,” he said. “These belong to Pele.” I knew he spoke with utter conviction. I nodded in agreement.
I poised my outstretched hand over the foot-long, yoni-shaped aperture in the earth. The dirt was rust- colored and dribbling with moisture. “Pele, we bring to you your food, the fruits of the earth. We come in friendship, we come with aloha ‘aina. Please grant us safe passage during our travels, treat us kindly as we walk across your body.” Mike and I threw in a handful of the red berries.
I began to visualize the face of my beloved grandmother, her Old World charm expressed in a myriad of smiling wrinkles and wise eyes, eyes that peered into Turkish coffee grounds and regular playing cards for divination. Her body entered the earth of her Yugoslavia fourteen years ago, when I was sixteen, but her presence felt very palpable to me at that moment in Hawaii. Surely she was listening to me at the other end of Pele’s gateway?
“O my dear Nana Milojka, I bring food for your spirit. You are no longer restless, you are free from shadows; you are cradled in the arms of the Mother. We will see and know and love each other again someday,” I said. I tossed in the remaining berries.
“Amen,” Michael said reverentially and then tossed in his berries.
Levity then began to fill our hearts, and we hiked the remainder of the trail with zeal. The afternoon progressed along its course with more driving around the various regions of the park, with frequent stops (such as at Devastation Trail, the Thurston Lava Tube, and other places) to stretch our legs on long, meandering hikes, culminating in our quasi-masochistic descent down the Chain of Craters Road to the sea.
I looked at my watch: twenty to four in the afternoon. My thighs felt like jelly. I ran out of my last bottle of water a quarter of a mile ago; my lungs would just have to deal with the sulfur dioxide sans any hydration. And then we beheld it: the end of the road. Mind you, the road would have continued for another couple of miles, but just about a year ago Madame Pele decided to efface some of the civil engineering work with a project of her own: a massive swath of rope lava that scorched everything as it tumbled into the sea.
You can actually see where the road ends and the lava begins. Even better, Pele managed to leave some of the road signs intact; the irony of seeing a “No Parking” sign in the middle of a recent lava field lent itself to an unforgettable Kodak moment.
Bad-ass goddess? Without question. But no one can accuse Madame Pele of lacking an exuberant sense of humor.
Michael and I joined the throng of tourists who were either lazy enough or sane enough to have driven down this way. We were careful to not stray near the cliff’s edge: many tourists often misjudge the solidity of the lava beneath their feet as they try to peer over the its formations into the sea; sometimes the lava is no more than a thin crust that can crumble under the weight of a person. Many people have fallen to their deaths, an unexpected and horrifying way to prematurely end a vacation.
We took pictures to our hearts’ content and tried to rest as best as we could (in the absence of shade) before rising once more to make the arduous partial uphill climb back to our rental car. Happily, we didn’t have far to walk as a kind Army couple—early twentysomethings from Oahu’s Schofield Barracks; they were vacationing inside the park at Kilauea Military Camp—offered to give us a ride up towards the top in their rental jeep. I was content to let Michael do the majority of the talking; I felt too drained to be much of a conversationalist.
But that didn’t stop Pele from conversing with me. One curious phenomenon to behold in Hawaii is the sight of young green plants shooting out from the crevices of lava-rock formations. I spotted some young ferns poking out from some formidable rocks near where we had parked our car. It was then in that early evening that I heard Pele whisper to me; in true Zen satori-like fashion, the illumination came instantaneously: “Life cannot be thwarted.”
The phrase played itself over and over in my mind long after the sun had set, when I volunteered to drive the long southern route of the island along Highway 11 back west to our bed-and-breakfast on the Kona Coast. Life cannot be thwarted. I slept very peacefully that night.
Madame Pele returned to the forefront of my consciousness again on March 21st, the last day of the honeymoon. Michael and I had some time to kill before our return flight to Honolulu, so we meandered about the tents and kiosks of the colorful farmers’ market in Kona. We had vowed to each other to not purchase any more souvenirs as our bags were truly stuffed to the gills. Needless to say, our vows were swiftly broken.
My downfall occurred at the table of a very energetic vendor, a dark-haired haole (Caucasian) woman who primarily sold gemstone-beaded bracelets that were said to harmonize one’s chakras. Appearing to be in her early forties, her lithe and lean frame told me that she was quite the yoga adept and dancer. We spoke of our experiences of the energy vortices throughout Hawaii; her eyes lit up.
“Do you know what someone said to me recently?” she asked while executing a pirouette. “The chain of the Hawaiian islands corresponds to the chakras of the human body: Ni’ihau is the crown, which makes the Big Island the root chakra. Isn’t that wild?”
Her buoyancy was infectious. “Yes, I can see it!” I exclaimed. “The primal, raw energy here—Pele’s volcanic force! Totally the root chakra!”
“But you know, there are more than seven chakras,” she said while standing on tiptoe and extending her arms out fully sideways. “I use my eighth chakra.”
“Actually,” I chimed in, pointing at Michael, “when we visited Volcanoes National Park a few days ago, we learned that the newest Hawaiian island is taking shape below the sea as we speak. Scientists have already given it a name: Lo’ihi. It will take a few thousand years, though, before it emerges from the ocean floor.”
“Great! There’s my eighth chakra,” this wonder wahine (woman) said gleefully. As she spun around to handle the inquiries of other potential customers who had entered her tent, I began to peruse her other wares. In addition to her custom-made jewelry and a varied assortment of loose semi-precious stones, she also sold reprints of local artists’ paintings. I was immediately drawn to a 5” x 7” miniature reproduction of a colorful oil painting of Pele from an artist named Alaina de Havilland. Signed by the artist and only five dollars? I had to have it! Entitled “Pele: Goddess of Destruction, Goddess of Creation,” the piece depicts a beautiful and fiery Madame Pele in the midst of a hula dance at the base of Mt. Kilauea, which is overflowing with lava. The other Hawaiian islands recede behind Pele’s twirling frame into an azure horizon. This small but poignant work of art fills my heart with deep aloha every time I behold it.
Once the sprightly merchant finished making a bracelet sale, she skipped back to where Michael and I were standing.
“So, how long will you two be staying on the Orchid Isle?” she asked good-naturedly.
“Unfortunately, our flight home leaves this afternoon,” Michael responded with a sigh.
“Oh, that’s too bad. But it sounds to me like you guys had an awesome time, right?”
“Definitely!” I said with a beaming smile.
My then-newlywed husband, ever so adorably in his Celtic way (the embodiment of Oenghus Mac Og if ever I met him) shuffled his feet in the volcanic soil and grinned at the cosmic vendor and me sheepishly.
“Well,” he pouted, “it would have been more awesome if only we’d have gotten the chance to see Pele spew.”
By way of editorial intrusion: The curious-minded who may be interested in learning more about Ms. de Havilland’s Legends of Ancient Hawaii artwork series may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For the record, I am in no way acquainted with her…but I am sure she would appreciate the publicity born of the breezes from the wings of Isis! Blessed Be!
- Alaina de Havilland
- aloha 'aina
- Big Island
- Celtic spirituality
- chicken skin
- Crater Rim Drive
- Devastation Trail
- Hawaiian religion
- indigenous Hawaiian spirituality
- Kalanianaole Highway
- Kilauea Military Camp
- Kona Coast
- Madame Pele
- Mother Goddess
- Mt. Kilauea
- Night Marchers
- Oenghus Mac Og
- Schofield Barracks
- Sea Life Park
- the Blowhole
- the Goddess
- Thurston Lava Tube
- Volcanoes National Park
- Zen Buddhism