This piece was originally prepared for the Interpretive Sourcebook issued at the November 2003 workshop of the National Association for Interpretation. The organization is dedicated to enhancing the quality of presentations of those who work to connect people with places through exposition of the natural and cultural features of those places.
The format used to standardize the Sourcebook’s material has been kept in this layout.
Kilauea exerts an extremely powerful pull on the imaginative and intellectual capabilities of humans who witness its displays. The Polynesians who sailed to the Islands nearly two millennia ago observed well and drew on an extensive ancestral trove of (literally) wonderful experiences to account for their observations of super-human forces, deifying volcanism as a goddess, Pele. In broad understanding and in explaining specific, localized phenomena, they often anticipated the findings of the very active modern geological science.
Kilauea volcano is the most active of the five volcanoes on the Island of Hawai`i. One of the most active volcanoes in the world, it is continuously and intensively studied. Kilauea is sprinkled with seismometers, tiltmeters, gas monitors and strain gauges in deep bore holes. Geologists enthusiastically scramble about on past and current lava flows, as they have even before the first scientific expedition ever financed by the government of the United States, the U.S. Exploring expedition, addressed the phenomena of Kilauea and Mauna Loa in 1840 – 1841.
Human habitation of the islands of Hawai`i began sometime around 1700 years BP (before the present). These original colonists were descendants of people who participated in the most rapid diaspora in human history. They populated a huge expanse of the Pacific Ocean (some 4,500 straight-line kilometers, beginning at the Bismarck Archipelago east of New Guinea) in just three to five centuries to end up in the islands of Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa as the progenitors of the Polynesian culture. At a time when Europeans were hugging continental coastlines for rear of monsters or vertical edges, the people who were to become the Hawaiians extended the bold voyages of their ancestors by forging into the midst of the earth’s largest ocean to settle in the most isolated major island group on the surface of the planet, known now as the Hawaiian Islands.
Remarkable Peoples, Remarkable Stories
As a people with a rich history of exploration marked by transitions averaging 180 – 300 km per generation, the Polynesians and their progenitors kept their cultural treasures alive in their minds and transmitted it orally. The myriad unexpected and sometimes inexplicable events they witnessed in the course of their migrations resulted in gripping tales, a mythology that is unsurpassed in color and complexity. The process of settling a new island home, interacting with the extant population (as they did until they reached the Solomon Islands, from which point colonizing uninhabited islands was the rule), and watching their offspring sail away over the eastern horizon, created a chain of cultural memories molded by time, distance, imagination, and the emotional connections to ancestors and ancestral lands.
With these traditions as background, the voyage of the first people to the Islands of Hawai`i would have been bracketed with great tales. The Island of Hawai`i, the first to be discovered and settled by the Polynesians, had (and has) three active volcanoes – Hualalai, Mauna Loa and Kilauea – among its total of five. It is a given that experiences and observations of volcanism would give rise to powerful stories.
Basic Hawaiian Geology
The heat of the earth’s interior is not uniformly distributed. Some areas are significantly hotter than others, and the “hot spots” create buoyancy in the mantle material (the thick layer between the core and the crust) that makes it rise through the surrounding cooler rock. As this hot plume reaches the underside of the crust – in this case, the Pacific plate – it pushes and melts its way through. Thus, a volcanic pile builds on the ocean floor. Over about 300,000 years, the mass of lava grows tall enough to break the surface of the sea, some 16,000 feet deep, and become an island. The volcanic mountain/island grows larger with each eruption. The Pacific plate continuously moves northwest at the rate of about three inches a year, slowly dragging the volcano away from the latitude of the hot spot and mantle plume. The island, even as it is waxing, is waning too, by erosive forces and by settling under its own weight. Eventually it will disappear beneath the ocean’s surface.
Remarkable Place, Remarkable Stories
The Polynesians found in Hawai`i a place of striking beauty, one with awesome mana or power, calling for explanation. Their minds required them to place their observations in contextual framework and impose meaning on raw experience. Oral traditions, associated with their voyaging traditions and their familiarity with stories of superhuman beings, readily came into play in accounting for powerful events.
Though there are references to a male volcano deity named `Ai La`au (forest eater), his reign ended long before western contact. It was western culture, ironically enough, that, despite its role in the dismemberment of the Hawaiian culture, brought the means to record on paper and the academic interest to do so that preserved some important stories
The deity primarily identified in extant accounts is a goddess: her name is Pele; she is quick-tempered, capricious, arbitrary, jealous, lusty, and powerful.
As Pele led her family to Hawai`i from the faraway place called Kahiki, it was her responsibility to find a suitable home for her siblings – and for her sacred fire. Probing the ground with her magical digging stick, she searched from the northwestern Islands to those in the southeast, finding, until she got to the Island of Hawai`i – water – inimical to her fiery nature. This sequence of exploration presents a striking correlation with the geological determination of relative island age. The older, more submerged and hot-spot-disconnected island are those to the northwest, and the youngest of all, the Island of Hawai`i, sits directly above the hot spot. In some tales, one of Pele’s sisters. Namakaokaha`i, goddess of the sea, relentlessly and vengefully pursues her. As Pele creates new land, her sister incessantly destroys it, gnawing away the shoreline to create both small and cataclysmic collapses, and slowly to engulf the sinking island – an obvious parallel with the geological observations of erosion and submergence.
Pele also has conflict with other Hawaiian deities. One, Kamapua`a, whose primary form is as a giant hog, found Pele in her form as a beautiful woman to be irresistibly attractive (in Hawaiian culture, a concept known as kinolau, or a myriad of bodies, refers to the capability of the same being to have various forms). When he pursued his interest, in his form as a rugged man, he found himself rejected in no uncertain terms as “a pig and the son of a pig.” Angry exchanges led to elemental battles: earth and water vs. fiery lava. One aftermath of this battle is found on the rim of Kilauea caldera, at a place called A-Kani-Kolea, where a meadow-like area surrounded by forest and crossed with earth cracks emitting plumes of water vapor. Geologists explain the lack of trees and the presence of steam vents as due to the presence of an intrusive magma body emplaced several centuries ago that killed the trees with its heat. Even today it is hot enough to vaporize rainwater that infiltrates the ground to the magma below. Such areas frequently become the sites of eruptions, but this has not yet eventuated here. The “struggle” between moist earth and the hot magma-body of Pele continues at a subdued level
Another consequence of this conflict was the portioning of some of the Island between the two combatants: The realm of Kamapua`a became limited to the windward flanks of Kohala and Mauna Kea, while Pele’s sway is restricted to Kilauea and Mauna Loa. No eruptions are to break out in his lands and no streams to flow over hers. Geologically, the lands of Kamapua`a have not seen eruptive activity since long before humans arrived and the young volcanoes of Pele’s realm are covered with lava so porous that rainwater percolates into it, rather than flowing over its surface.
In Hawaiian myth, Pele dwells in subterranean chambers, primarily in Halema`uma`u, a pit crater within the summit caldera of Kilauea, though she has numerous other places to live and underground passageways to travel between them. Geologists map magma reservoirs, rift zones, and lava tubes that correspond well to these mythical structures. Reservoirs, subterranean gaps in the rocks, fed by the mantle plume, fill with magma prior to an eruption, which can either rise up to the summit caldera or push laterally through systems of major cracks (rift zones) to discharge at vents remote from the summit. Lava tubes form as molten lava cools and crusts, first on its flow margins, then over the top. The crust provides such effective insulation that the flow only loses a few degrees of temperature in a mile. As a result, when the source vent stops feeding the flow, the stream drains out of its crust like water flowing out of a pipe, leaving the crustal structure in cave-like form. Indeed, Pele usually resides, and often moves, underground.
Between 1410 and 1470 CE, according to modern geological mapping and dating, an eruption occurred that proved to be the longest-lived of any Hawaiian eruption since the arrival of humans. It covered a great expanse of the eastern flank of Kilauea, reaching the ocean on a wide front in a district known since ancient time as Puna. In one of the central myths of Hawai`i, another sister of Pele, Hi`iaka-i-ka Poli-o-Pele, accedes to her elder sibling’s demand to fetch from the Island of Kaua`i a handsome chief name Lohiau, with whom Pele, in spirit form, has had an intense liaison. Meeting with many obstacles and delays (not least, having to bring him back to life after he killed himself in his grief at losing the literally ravishing goddess who had appeared to him). Hi`iaka saw from a great distance that Pele, believing that her tardiness was due to betrayal, had burned the forest of `ohi`a-lehua that was so beloved by Hi`iaka. This forest was in Puna; the story of its destruction may well relate to the eruption of 1410-1470.
Pele had conflict, too, with Poliahu, the snow goddess who resides on and rules over the summit area of Mauna Kea. Snow and ice capped the summit of this now-dormant volcano up until about 10,000 years ago. Volcanic activity last occurred about 3,500 years before the present; there were eruptions under the ice cap, which cooled the molten rock so quickly as to change the consistency of the lava toward a denser, fine-grained texture, which the Hawaiians found quite suitable for making stone cutting tools. Though the glaciation and the most recent eruptions preceded human presence by thousands of years, the perceptive Hawaiians have their stories of molten rock clashing with ice.
Even in historic times, the powerful twin streams of human meaning-making are to be seen: in 1790, Kamehameha’s most powerful rival for dominion over the Island lost many of his troops in an explosion generated by ground water being flashed to steam by contact with magma – at least, that’s how geologists summarize it. For the Hawaiian it was obvious that Pele had taken sides in the conflict.
Kilauea’s incredible power has interacted with human observers to create an intersection of two perspectives, science and myth. The volcano’s capacity to focus observing minds to generate powerful and fascinating explanations is a testimony to its impact. We humans come off pretty well, too: our ability to create explanatory stories is quite impressive – and a challenge to interpreters to carry forward in a balanced, pono way.
Beckwith, Martha. 1970. Hawaiian Mythology. University of Hawai`i Press: Honolulu, Hawai`i.
Emerson, Nathaniel B. 1978.Pele and Hi`iaka: a Myth from Hawai`i. Charles E. Tuttle Co.: Boston, MA.
Kalakaua, His Hawaiian Majesty, King David. 1972. The Legends and Myths of Hawai`i: The Fables and Folk-lore of a Strange People. Charles E Tuttle C.: Boston, MA
Kirch, Patrick V. 1997. The Lapita Peoples: Ancestors of the Oceanic World. Blackwell Publishers: Malden, MA.
Macdonald, G. and A.T. Abbott. 1970. Volcanoes in the Sea: The Geology of Hawai`i. University of Hawai`i Press: Honolulu, Hawai`i.
McPhee, John. 1999. Annals of the Former World. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York, NY.
Swanson, Donald. June, 2003. Scientist-in-Charge, Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory. Personal communication.