In Which I Encounter Pele, Goddess of Fire

Day 5: Volcanoes National Park

I am not going to play some kind of cutesy metaphoric trick on you. My encounter with Pele was not just me visiting a volcano. Bear with me here–it’s worth it.

We have been to the Big Island a couple of times before–three?–and at none of these times has there been visible eruption from Kilauwea, the most active volcano in the islands at present. Kilauwea has been erupting since 1983, according to the National Park Service. Nonetheless, we visited Volcanoes National Park in the past, and enjoyed walking around the caldera, where wisps of gas and steam were visible rising from cracks below. We saw tiny orchids growing amid the rocks, and hiked Desolation Trail, which was bleak but incredibly impressive.

We heard before we left that Kilauwea was experiencing a resurgence. There were YouTube videos of houses burning as the flow consumed them, and people igniting tree branches from the flaming lava. Some (invariably young men) were walking on the hot lava flow. So we thought we might get to see the lava up-close and personal–or at least be able to see it flowing into the sea at night, which is spectacular.

Kilauea is very important in the legends of Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanos. I am tentatively planning to use Pele and her love-hate relationship with Kama-pu’a’a in my next book. (More about Kama-pu’a’a later.) There are several different versions of the Pele origin story, but the one I’ve encountered most often is this:

Pele was born in Kahiki (Tahiti). She has several brothers and sisters. Pele is very beautiful with a straight back like a cliff and breasts as round as the moon. She makes love to the husband of her older sister, Na-maka-o-kaha‘i, a sea goddess. Na-maka-o-kaha‘i is enraged and pursues Pele, who flees across the ocean, coming first to the island of Ni’i’hau. She is accompanied by her favorite sister, Hi’iaka and a brother or three. Pele tries to find a home on Ni’i’hau, but when she digs into the earth, she encounters water, which is antithetical to her fiery nature. Ni’i’hau is the northernmost habitable island of the Hawai’ian archipelago, and Pele tries each island in turn, coming at last to the Big Island of Hawaii, the last in the island chain. Here, she digs down and does not encounter water, so she makes Hawaii her home, along with her many relatives. She has several homes here, but her favorite is Kilauwea. The ancient Hawaiians also referred to Kilauwea, among other things, as “Pele’s ma’i.” Remember that the ancient Hawaiians were quite straightforward and frank about sex, and I am sure I need not translate.

As we were planning to visit Pele’s home, I thought, “Why not give Pele my precious maile lei and ask for her blessing?” After, all, what did I have to lose? The Hawai’ians I have met believe in Pele. A lot of other people do, too. The post offices here have large collections of stones tourists have taken from volcanoes and mailed back, citing unremitting bad luck ever since taking the souvenirs home. (The National Forest Service is happy to tell you this as well. They have their own collection of souvenirs returned by unlucky tourists.)

We had a leisurely breakfast, then set off. The drive to Volcanoes National Park is about 2 hours from Captain Cook. We drove along the Mamalahoa Hwy., sometimes with ocean visible on the right, sometimes climbing in altitude, going through tiny towns from time to time. We stopped at Punalu’u, the famous black sand beach. There is a legend (try to find some place in Hawaii that doesn’t have a legend) that a sea turtle goddess made her home there. She played with the keiki (kay-ee-kee, children) and protected them. The people in turn protected her keiki, the sea turtles, who come to feed in the bay and lay their eggs in the black sand. The black sand is, of course, pulverized lava. It glitters in the hand like a starry tropical night. We saw several sea turtles in the water, quite close to where we were standing.

Punalu'u black sand beach.

Punalu’u black sand beach.

We gained elevation as we began to climb the side of the volcano. Hawaiian volcanoes are not conical, like Mt. Fuji. They are called “shield volcanoes” because they resemble the shape of a warrior’s shield resting flat on the ground. You wouldn’t know you were on a volcano because the swelling is so gradual, but before we realized it, we were 4,000 feet above sea level. Although the terrain on the slopes of the mountain had been desert, largely fields of jagged chunks of lava (the Hawaiians have names for specific types of lava rock; this is called ‘a’a), as we approached the town of Volcano, it became quite lush.

We stopped at Kilauwea Lodge for lunch. This is a beautiful, old-fashioned establishment with a lovely garden. I had an antelope burger (the antelope is from Texas), largely because I had never had antelope before, and Tom ordered an ahi sandwich. They had decent wine, and we enjoyed ourselves. Antelope, by the way, tastes pretty much like beef, at least in burger form.

We went on to the park. As we went through the entry, the man who took our money said we qualified for a lifetime senior pass to all national parks. $10. There are some advantages to the silvery hair after all. He also admired my maile lei, which I had worn all the way from Captain Cook.

Things have changed. They no longer allow people into the caldera, and Desolation Trail is closed. You can view the caldera from the Jaggar Museum. The problem is that the volcano is emitting so much sulphur dioxide and other toxic gasses that it’s dangerous to get any closer. The path of the lava below the volcano (lava is not spewing out of the caldera, but squeezing through side vents) has been evacuated and quarantined, and no one is allowed near it. There is also a plume of deadly gas traveling across this area. To put a cap on our lava non-viewing experience, lava is not flowing into the sea right now, so that was out, too.

However, the Kilauwea caldera is awesome enough, with a white plume of smoke and steam rising up that can be seen for many miles. The area immediately around the caldera is barren, and it is easy to observe the way the mountain has melted, built and melted again with successive eruptions.

Pele's ma'i.

Pele’s ma’i.

We spent quite a long time at the overlook. A ranger talked about the volcano, Pele, and various related topics, and answered questions. We went through the museum. Then we walked a little way from the museum building and saw a path leading to the railing that prevented unwary tourists from falling over the cliff. There was a sign requesting soft voices and respect for those who had come to revere Pele. We saw a small tree just the other side of the railing that had two leis hanging in it, one of shells and the other of flowers. There was also an orchid lei draped over the railing.

I thought, “This is the place.” I asked Tom not to speak for a minute while I said my silent prayer to Pele. I stood at the brink, overlooking her home, and asked for her blessing on my work. I promised I would always be respectful to her and that which is hers. Then I took my precious lei off and hurled it into the little tree, where it lodged quite firmly. Maile leis are quite long, and this one twined across at least two branches.

Flinging the lei. The green thing in the upper right is the maile lei in flight.

Flinging the lei. The green thing in the upper right is the maile lei in flight.

“Mission accomplished!” I thought and turned away. We hadn’t gone more than four or five steps before I stopped and said, “Tom, let’s get a picture of the lei hanging in the tree.”

It cannot have been more than a few seconds since we stepped away, but when we turned around, the lei was gone.

We got as close as we could, but we couldn’t see it in the little tree (though the other three leis were still there). It was not in the bushes below the tree, nor as far as we could see, anywhere.

What fantasy writer would not kill for such an experience? However, I was accompanied by my rational and logical husband, so I quickly said, “Pele has accepted my offering–and I don’t want to hear any alternative theories!”

Tom, having lived with me for many decades, wisely kept his own counsel. As for me–despite the fact that I am not religious or even particularly woo-woo, at least for a fantasy writer–I was and am and continue to be thrilled. I feel I have Pele’s blessing on my work here, and I am incredibly energized. Every time I think about it, I experience the amazement and thrill I felt when I turned and saw that the lei had utterly vanished.

That might have been all I could ever have asked for, but the day was not over. We got back in the car and headed for Volcano House, which is a hotel and restaurant perched on the caldera, but far enough away from Pele’s antics to have survived since 1941. (There was a series of hotels before it that burned down.) We had heard that even if we couldn’t see actual lava, the glow from the caldera at night was spectacular in itself. We also knew from past experience that the restaurant is very good, so we made reservations for dinner that night.

The view from Volcano House is a panorama of Kilauwea, with its cloud of smoke and steam ever rising. We volcano-gazed for a while and then went to the bar. I intended to journal day 4 while we were waiting for our reservation. I ordered a daiquiri on the rocks because it’s kind of a tropical drink (the only cocktail I really like other than margaritas) and I hadn’t had the obligatory fruity drink yet. The waitress brought me a frozen daiquiri, and I politely reminded her that I had asked for it on the rocks. She said, “Well, you keep that one and I’ll go get you a daiquiri on the rocks.” Two drinks for the price of one! They kept me hydrated until dinner time.

By 7:00 it was dark, so we went outside. Kilauwea glowed a deep red-orange in the near distance, and the glare reflected off the smoke plume and the clouds above. It dominated the entire panorama, but trying to photograph it was hopeless. The best either of us could get was a large black field with a small red smudge in the middle that was as much a representation of this gaping maw of hell as a lit match would be. I do not know if anyone can see this without a frisson of unease up the spine: “I am standing right on top of an active, erupting volcano.”

The dining room also faces the volcano and has a wall of windows allowing an excellent view. Periodically, the staff turned out the lights so diners could appreciate the spectacle. Tom and I both ordered the kampachi, a fish in the skipjack family. It was pan-fried with a lobster and seaweed salad on the side. Heavenly! Sadly, I couldn’t finish it all.

After dinner, we went back outside. It was darker than before, and though Kilauwea’s smoldering glare obscured the stars in that direction, they were blazing overhead like living diamonds. Incidentally, it was quite chilly–59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius), which is not a temperature one associates with Hawaii. We were inadequately dressed for the temperature, so we stayed as long as we could stand it, then piled back into Sparky (as we now call the Crapmobile) and began the drive back to Captain Cook.

As nothing memorable happened along the drive, thank goodness, I may as well mention that the temperatures in Captain Cook were much cooler than I expected. It stayed in the mid-to-low 70’s (20’s Celsius) during the day and dropped into the 60’s at night. The town is a thousand feet or more above sea level and gets cooling breezes all the time. The sea water is pleasantly refreshing, just the right temperature.

We got back to Camp Aloha around 11 pm. I was still buzzing from the day’s events and spent more time journaling before falling into bed and sleeping the sleep of one who has been incredibly, unbelievably blessed.

8 thoughts on “In Which I Encounter Pele, Goddess of Fire

  1. Hello K.D.
    I found your blog while falling through an internet black hole about Obsidian. Thank you so much for the story. I lived on the Big Island for a few years 3,000 ft up in the town of Waimea (called Kamuela because there is also a Waimea on Kauai.) I know exactly how you felt on that helicopter in the canyon on Kauai; I think the pilots love to impress the haolies with their flying abilities.
    If you return to the big island, I would suggest staying at the Manago Hotel in Captain Cook, near Kealakekua – mostly locals, very reasonably priced, local type meals, close to mac nut plantation, and also maybe time it with the Rodeo at Parker Ranch in Waimea. Also check out Volcano House Cabins & Campsites, Located at Namakanipaio Campground. You pick up your bedding at the Volcano House, then stay in a 4 bed cabin, cook out on the grill. Very cool – no poisonous critters on Hawai;i.
    Also, there is an amazing artist in Kailua-Kona, MaryAnn Hylton, http://pelehawaii.com/, that creates an amazing physical representation of Pele as originally drawn by Herb Kane’.
    Thank you for making me home sick.
    Lynn

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    • Lynn, thanks for your comments! We ate at the Manago Hotel while we were in Captain Cook, but stayed at a B&B, and absolutely loved it. The Big Island is a favorite of ours, so I’ll probably be back yet again. If you read further in the blog, I talk about Molokai, which was an amazing experience in itself, and totally different from the Big Island. Are there really no poisonous critters on Hawaii? What about centipedes–we ran into two of those in our condo on Molokai.

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  2. What you didn’t do was the helicopter ride to visit the active volcano. This is one of the most awe inspiring things I have ever done, and I’m not big on awe.

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  3. Since no immediately obvious alternative lent itself to the moment I also vote for Pele having accepted your offering thereby laying her blessing on your future work. If you get anywhere near that same spot again, I’d appreciate you throwing her a flower on my behalf.
    No mention today of gleaning any new information to use in the book unless the stories of Pele count.It’s amazing she became so revered when she started off by doing her sister wrong.

    I hope you continue to have a brilliant time while having much success with your legend hunting.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

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    • Pele is like most deities of old, Lord D.; fickle and unreliable. Remember, God told Moses to tell Pharoah to let his people go. When Moses did as told, God hardened Pharoah’s heart against him, thus bringing about several nasty plagues. Does that make any sense? And let’s not even discuss Zeus and his ilk! The Hawaiian pantheon of deities is huge and confusing, and I haven’t really sorted it yet–maybe never will, because what people believed varied from island to island, district to district, village to village, and person to person. I have actually gotten some wonderful ideas for my book, but haven’t put it all together yet–that’s what this journey is all about. I’ll write a bit about Pele and Kama-pu’a’a tomorrow, because there’s a connection in spirit between Kama and Coyote, one of the protagonists of “the Obsidian Mirror.”

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