The frightening television pictures of the volcano Kilauea erupting on the Big Island of Hawaii have been tragic, as the lava flow wipes out homes. All of our hearts go out to the islanders, who have or may lose their homes as fissures open up unpredictably.
I remember, years ago, driving completely around the Big Island, then suddenly, I couldn’t, because an eruption and lava flow simply wiped out the road. Later, it was a surreal experience as we actually walked out over the freshly hardened lava flow, glowing only a foot or two from us, feeling the heat from the moving orange glow of fresh lava. Some people would go there at night with flashlights. This is nature at its wildest.
Mark Twain an Early Visitor
At this writing, the Volcanoes National Park has been temporarily closed to the public and guests at the Volcano House Hotel have been relocated. Mark Twain stayed at Volcano House in 1866, when it was more rustic than now. Twain wrote:
“ I have seen Vesuvius since, but it was a mere toy, a child’s volcano, a soup kettle compared to this. Here was a vast perpendicular walled cellar, nine hundred feet deep in some places, thirteen hundred in others. The illumination was two miles wide and a mile high; and if you ever, on a dark night and at a distance, beheld the light from thirty or forty blocks of distant buildings all on fire at once, reflected strongly against over-hanging clouds, you can form a fair idea of what this looked like.”
Jack London and his wife Charmian visited the Kilauea volcano in 1907. London didn’t include the visit in his book “The Cruise of the Snark,”
although he describes a trip in detail to the extinct volcano, Haleakala, on Maui. But Charmian, a talented writer herself, wrote about their visit to Kilauea:
“Perched on the ultimate, toothed edge, we peered into a fearsome gulf of pestilent vapors rising, ever rising, light and fine, impalpable as nightmare mists from out of a pit of destruction. If the frail-seeming ledge on which we hung had caved, not one of us could have reached the bottom alive- the deadly fumes would have done for us far short of that.”
Isabella Byrd An Early Visitor
In 1886, the English writer Isabella Byrd rode side-saddle up the long trail from Hilo to the edge of the volcano and looked down. She wrote to her sister back in Scotland:
“What we did see was one irregularly shaped lake, possibly 500 feet wide at its narrowest part and nearly half mile at its broadest, divided in two by low banks of lava. On our arrival eleven fire fountains were playing joyfully around the lake.”
“This lake, the Hale-mau-mau, or house of everlasting fire in Hawaiian mythology, the abode of the dread goddess Pele’, is approachable with safety, except during an eruption.”
The Old Hawaiian Beliefs
Pele’ is, in Hawaiian mythology, the goddess of fire, lightning, wind and volcanoes. She is a female spirit and it was believed that the eruptions and explosions of Kilauea were directed by Pele’ herself.
In 1819, the old native religion and its beliefs was forbidden on the Hawaiian Islands with the advent of Christian Missionaries and the creation of the Kingdom of Hawaii.
In 1824, Pele’s reputation was challenged. High Chiefess Kapi’olani, a highly literate and educated member of the Hawaiian Royal family, whose second cousin was the great Kamehameha I, descended into the Kilauea’s Halemaumau crater. She deliberately picked the forbidden berries and recited aloud a Christian prayer. The fact that Pele’ did not kill her was used as an example of the superiority of her faith. In fact, Lord Tennyson wrote a poem about it:
“Kapi’olani ascended her mountain… and crying ’I dare her, let Pele’ avenge herself!
Into the flame-billow dash’d the berries and drove the demon from Hawaiee.”
That storied event took place 194 years ago. So, with the passage of time, modern progress, world wars etc., you would think the story of Pele’ would be treated as a curious old time myth. And yet, just last week, CNN reported that ”many native Hawaiians believe the lava is a physical embodiment of the volcano goddess Pele’. ”
The belief in Pele’ is more widespread than one might imagine. A few years ago, I met a badly bruised gentlemen in a motorized wheel chair, legs in casts, arm in a sling, bandages around his head. He was once the picture of health and now he was a wreck. I asked him what happened.
“ I was in a terrible, terrible accident,” he said with a shaky voice. “There has been a death in the family and we have lost much of our income.”
When I told him I was sorry, he looked me in the face and said, “The bad luck is all our fault. We brought it on ourselves. It is the curse of Pele’.”
He then told me of the curse of Pele’. It is taboo for anyone to remove lava rock from the Hawaiian Islands as a souvenir or for any reason.
“We were foolish,” he said. “ On our last visit to the Big Island, we packed some lava rocks in our suitcases for our garden at home. We removed them from the island and Pele’ has cursed us with bad fortune.” He said this looking directly into my eyes with all the seriousness of a man making a confession.
I asked him if he couldn’t remove the curse by bringing the lava rocks back to Hawaii. “No, no,” he had tried that and it didn’t change his family’s fortunes or improve his health. “Once you anger Pele’ you are cursed forever.”
I honestly didn’t know what to say.
A few years later, having lunch at Volcano House, I was telling the Pele’ curse story to some people. One of the gentlemen told me that recently he mailed a package to the U.S. Mainland and happened to be at the Hilo Post Office.
As he navigated the Post Office, he couldn’t help noticing a number of packages being processed, which were all addressed to:
United States Post Office
Big island, Hawaii, USA
Jokingly, he said to the post office clerk, “Does Pele’ get her mail here?”
“Oh, yes,” came the reply. “Many visitors take lava from the island as souvenirs. Then they hear about Pele’s curse. They can’t afford another trip to the islands, so they mail the lava back to Pele’ at the post office to try to remove any curse. And we get them.”
“What do you do with them?”
“Oh, we open the packages, take out the lava rocks and scatter them around the island. So the lava really does come back.”
So, Pele’ continues to be alive in many minds. By the way, I don’t think it is a good idea to remove any lava rocks, or any rocks from the Hawaiian Islands. Bad manners, you know.
Listen To Read
PS: Our Listen2Read audiobook of the month is “The Cruise of the Snark” by Jack London. If you ever dreamed of having a sailing adventure – this wild South Seas true story is a textbook of what NOT to do. You can download it at the link at the bottom of the page.