“In the secret hour before dawn half naked figures appear in the shadows. Flickering flames light their faces. Their skin glows with an eerie red light as they dip the tips of sticks into a primordial river of fire, igniting them. Then, twirling their flaming torches in wild rhythm, they paint streaks of bright light across the canvas of the night.” This is not some ancient Hawaiian ritual – but a new circus tradition. It’s my juggler friends from the annual Hawaiian Vaudeville Festival celebrating Madame Pele in our own unique renegade style.
Often referred to as “Madame Pele” or “Tūtū Pele” as a sign of respect, she is one of the most well-known goddesses within Hawaiian mythology. Other names for her include Pele-honua-mea (“Pele of the sacred land”) and Ka wahine ʻai honua (“The earth-eating woman”). She was born from the female spirit named Haumea descended from Papa, or Earth Mother, and Wakea, Sky Father. I was fortunate to live on Hawaii island for over 36 years and learned to revere and humble myself before the awesome power and passion of Madame Pele.
The Hawaii archipelago emerged from the sea many millions of years ago, forged by the power of a chain of volcanoes. They are mainly ‘shield’ volcanoes, producing lava flows that form gently sloping mountains that stretch way below the surface of the ocean. A good example is Maunaloa which has probably been erupting for at least 700,000 years and stands 13,679 feet above sea level. It’s the most massive mountain on earth, deceptively covering half of Hawaii Island and from it’s ocean base it’s taller than Mount Everest. Looking down from this sleeping giant gives you a clear picture of how volcanoes create ever-changing landscapes over vast expanses of land over many centuries.
Out of the worlds 1,500 alive volcanoes Kilauea is the most active of all. It has been continuously erupting and flowing since 1983 and on it’s eastern flank, near the ocean, is where I bought land to build our jugglers community. Some would call it reckless, some might call it brash, impudent, kooky or harebrained but for my gang of renegade juggling friends it was just another over-adventuresome daredevil act. Many of us became addicted to trips up to the crater or active lava lakes to dance with the deity or just to stand in awe of it’s breath-taking formidable presence. The biggest lesson I learned was that nothing in this life is permanent especially the landscape on the sides of an active volcano. There was never any guarantee that Bellyacres would last for our lifetime.
A local legend states that Pele occasionally warns of impending eruptions. She appears in the form of a beautiful young woman or an elderly woman with white hair, sometimes accompanied by a white dog. Pele, in this form, has been seen walking along roads but will vanish if passersby stop to help her. Another legend called Pele’s Curse, states that her wrath will fall on anyone who removes rocks from the island. Each year numerous volcanic rocks are returned via post to the National Park Service by tourists seeking Pele’s forgiveness. Locals believe that Pele’s Curse was invented in the mid-20th century by tour bus drivers unhappy with tourists collecting and taking broken lava on board, often leaving a big mess.
The owner of the Volcano House, a hotel at the rim of Kīlauea from 1904 through 1921, said he would often “pray” to Pele for the sake of the tourists. Park officials frowned upon his practice of tossing gin bottles (after drinking their contents), into the crater but many have followed in his footsteps since then (usually leaving the bottle full) some have even tried Coca Cola but all have failed to stop the divine Goddess.
Many Hawaiians believe Pele governs Kilauea and is responsible for controlling its lava flows. There are several traditional legends associated with Pele in Hawaiian mythology. She is known for her power, passion, jealousy, and capriciousness with numerous siblings, including deities of various types of wind, rain, fire, ocean wave forms, and cloud forms. Her home is believed to be the fire pit called Halemaʻumaʻu at the summit caldera of Kīlauea, but her sacred domain encompasses all volcanic activity on the Big Island.
In 1983 when I moved to Puna the latest volcanic episode had just started. It began with spectacular eruptions which created a cone called Pu’u O’o and then a lava lake from which molten lava flows have relentlessly inched their way, over the years, down to Kalapana Village and beyond. In 1990 Pele made a big push along the coast destroying everything in her path until she came face to face with Aunty ‘G Girl’ Keli’iho-omalu whose prayers stopped her at the boundary of her family compound. Kalapana village is now totally gone but is not forgotten and new life is springing out of the black molten lava fields.
During these years of destruction and creation my friends and I continued our treks to pay homage to the venerable Goddess on land and on the sea. Henrik and I kayaked several times to watch the flow pouring directly into the Pacific ocean. We started our paddle at night with the full moon and felt the water grow warmer as we approached the billowing clouds of steam that often masked the red glow of the molten rock. I’m not sure about Henrik but I prayed earnestly for Pele to refrain from melting our plastic boats and to permit us a safe return. Apparently she heard me.
In 2014 Pele surprised everyone by oozing north from Kilauea and travelling 13 miles towards Pahoa town. For over four months the flow threatened to cut off the only arteries connecting the small communities of Hawaii Island’s easternmost tip to the rest of the island potentially isolating about 8,500 people. Everyone wanted to know how far the lava would go or when it would halt its advance but only Pele had the answer. At one point the lava was a few hundred yards from the main shopping area and less than a mile from Pahoa Village Road. Mayor Billy, volcano scientists and all the County department heads met twice weekly with local residents in the school gym to explain what they knew.
At the same time those of us expecting to be trapped in ‘Lavaland’ held weekly meetings at S.P.A.C.E. to discuss our contingency plans for the day when Pele cut us off from the rest of the island. As the interim chairperson for this ad hoc group a lot fell on my shoulders. The attendance rose to include more than 30 community leaders including our State Senator and a past Mayor and we took the impending emergency really seriously. We established a number of working groups who researched and devised ways that we could provide basic essential services for our community and monitor air quality. It was an exercise in discovering how self-sustainable we could be, when required, and many of us were excited about the prospect of putting our plans to the test. Pele however, had different ideas and stalled on three occasions just before reaching the roads and eventually stopped flowing. The emergency was over for now but Pele lives on!
Living in Madame Pele’s neighbourhood, on the slopes of an active volcano, means exposing yourself to some very real physical and emotional hazards. Like most other people who bought cheap land or rented a place to live in this rural paradise I was oblivious to almost all of them. It took me over three decades witnessing the destruction of Kalapana, the dispersement of its inhabitants, the threat of Pahoa being split by a flow, the air pollution plus all the travel restrictions that affected us before I accepted the full impact of Pele’s powers. Living ‘on the edge’ is not for the faint of heart with it’s continuous uncertainty about changes that Pele can bring and the speed with which they can happen.
No incident in two hundred years on the Big Island has created as much upheaval and heartbreak as the 2018 eruption which brought outbreaks of lava from 24 fissures with fountains up to 300 feet high, fast moving flows, and volcanic gas preceded by earthquakes and ground deformations that created cracks across many roads. The massive lava flow forced the evacuation of two thousand residents, buried sections of the main Highway and reached the Pacific Ocean at Kapoho Bay. It entered the Kapoho Crater and evaporated the largest natural freshwater lake in Hawai’i. It then moved speedily forward and destroyed the subdivision of Vacationland. The volcanic activity was the most impactful in the United States since the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens with nearly 14 square miles of land covered by lava flows and about 780 houses destroyed.
Right now, the big question is what is Madame Pele going to do next? Will Kīlauea continue to erupt on the lower East Rift Zone, where it was in 2018, or will it reestablish the lava lakes at the summit and Pu’u O’o? My friends and other people who used to live in the now-buried areas will need to decide if they want to try to rebuild or whether they try to move to a less volcanically-active place. Right now, only time will tell what Madame Pele’s next moves will be. She’s proven herself to be an unpredictable destructive renegade of the ultimate magnitude while paradoxically she’s also been the creator of all land on earth.
Too hot to handle
No one saw the first time she came,
See her once and you’ll remember her name,
a passionate power with a burning touch,
she turns a cold shoulder when it all gets too much.
She's a mystical mistress, a Madame in red,
compulsively calling, her glow warms my head,
she's too hot to handle, always lives free,
I'm blinded by love, but she's too hot for me.
Her fiery anger makes earth tremble and shake,
She creeps all around like Eve’s wicked snake,
Scene stealer and thief in the pitch black of night,
Through ancient forests her beauty burns bright.
She waltzes along meandering for miles,
Watched by the moon she swoons as she smiles,
A mythological queen she dances in clouds,
As majestically blushing she wows waiting crowds