Madame Pele – Volcanic Goddess of Fire and Ruler of Hawaii

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With five major volcanoes, two of which are among the most active in the world, Hawaii has long ago developed a strong faith in Pele, the goddess of fire, volcanos, and lava. She is one of the most important and well-known deities in Hawaiian mythology.

Who is Pele, however, how active is the worship toward her, and what do you need to know if you’re visiting Hawaii? We’ll cover all that below.

Who is Pele?

Pele by David Howard Hitchcock
Pele – David Howard Hitchcock. PD.

Also called Tūtū Pele or Madame Pele, this is arguably the most actively worshipped deity in Hawaii, despite the polytheistic native Hawaii religion including many other types of deities. Pele is also often referred to as Pele-honua-mea, meaning Pele of the sacred land and Ka wahine ʻai honua or The earth-eating woman. Pele often appears to people either as a young maiden dressed in white, an old woman, or a white dog.

What makes Pele so unique for the people of Hawaii is clearly the volcanic activity on the island. For centuries, the people on the island chain have lived at the mercy of the Kilauea and Maunaloa volcanoes, in particular, as well as Maunakea, Hualalai, and Kohala. When your whole life can be uprooted and devastated at a deity’s whim, you don’t really care as much about the other deities in your pantheon.

A Big Family

Halemaʻumaʻu volcano hawaii
Legend has it that Pele lives in Halema`uma`u.

Pele is said to be the daughter of the Earth Mother and fertility goddess Haumea and the Sky Father and creator deity Kane Milohai. The two deities are also called Papa and Wakea respectively.

Pele had five other sisters and seven brothers. Some of those siblings include the Shark God Kamohoaliʻi, the Sea Goddess and water spirit Nāmaka or Namakaokaha‘i, the Fertility Goddess and mistress of dark powers and sorcery Kapo, and several sisters named Hiʻiaka, the most famous of which is Hiʻiakaikapoliopele or Hiʻiaka in the bosom of Pele.

According to some myths, Kane Milohai isn’t Pele’s father but is her brother and Wakea is a separate father deity.

However, this pantheon doesn’t live in Hawaii. Instead, Pele lives there with “a family of other fire gods”. Her exact home is believed to reside in the summit of Kīlauea, within the Halema‘uma‘u crater on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Most of the pantheon of gods and Pele’s parents and siblings live either in the sea or on other Pacific islands.

The Exiled Madame

There are multiple myths on why Pele lives in Hawaii, while most of the other major deities do not. However, there is a major throughline in all such myths – Pele was exiled because of her fiery temper. Apparently, Pele often had jealous outbursts and got into numerous fights with her siblings.

According to the most common myth, Pele once seduced the husband of her sister Namakaokaha‘I, the water goddess. Most of Pele’s lovers weren’t lucky enough to survive a “heated” affair with her and some myths claim such a fate for Namakaokaha‘I’s husband as well. Regardless, Namaka was furious with her sister and chased her off the island of Tahiti where the family lived.

The two sisters warred across the pacific with Pele setting numerous islands on fire and Namaka flooding them after her. Eventually, the quarrel is said to have ended with Pele’s death on Hawaii’s Big Island.

However, Pele losing her physical form wasn’t the end of the fire goddess, and her spirit is believed to still live inside Kīlauea. In other versions of the myth, Namaka doesn’t even manage to kill Pele. Instead, the fire goddess just retreated inland where Namaka couldn’t follow.

There are numerous other origin myths as well, most including different families with other deities. In almost all myths, however, Pele comes to Hawaii from across the ocean – usually from the south but sometimes from the north as well. In all myths, she is either exiled, expelled, or just traveling of her own volition.

Mirroring the Journey of The People of Hawaii

It’s no coincidence that all origin myths include Pele sailing to Hawaii on a canoe from a far-away island, usually Tahiti. That’s because the very inhabitants of Hawaii came to the island in that exact manner.

While the two Pacific island chains are divided by the mind-boggling distance of 4226 km or 2625 miles (2282 sea miles), the people in Hawaii got there on canoes from Tahiti. It’s believed that this trip was made somewhere between 500 and 1,300 AD, possibly on multiple waves in that period.

So, naturally, not only did they identify Pele as the patron of these new volcanic islands but they assumed that she must have got there the same way they did.

Pele and Poli’ahu

Another legend tells of the great rivalry between the fire goddess Pele and the snow goddess Poli’ahu.

According to the myth, one day Poli’ahu came from Mauna Kea, one of several dormant volcanos on Hawaii. She came together with some of her sisters and friends such as Lilinoe, the goddess of fine rain, Waiau, the goddess of lake Waiau, and others. The goddesses came to attend the sled races done on the grassy hills of the Hamakua province of the Big Island.

Pele disguised herself as a beautiful stranger and greeted Poli’ahu. However, Pele soon grew jealous of Poli’ahu and opened the dormant crater of Mauna Kea spewing fire from it toward the snow goddess.

Poli’ahu fled toward the summit and threw her snow mantle over the peak. Mighty earthquakes followed but Poli’ahu managed to cool down and harden Pele’s lava. The two goddesses reignited their fights a few more times but the conclusion was that Poli-ahu has a stronger hold over the northern part of the island and Pele – over the southern part.

Fun fact, Mauna Kea is actually the highest mountain on Earth if counted from its base on the seafloor and not just from the surface of the sea. In that case, Mauna Kea would be 9,966 meters tall or 32,696 feet/6.2 miles while Mount Everest is “only” 8,849 meters or 29,031 feet/5.5 miles.

Worshiping Madame Pele – Dos and Don’ts

Ohelo beerry
Ohelo Berries

While Hawaii today is predominantly Christian (63% Christian, 26% non-religious, and 10% other non-Christian faiths), the cult of Pele still lives on. For one, there are still people who follow the island’s old faith, now protected by the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. But even among many of the Christian natives on the island, the tradition of honoring Pele can still be seen.

People would often leave flowers in front of their homes or in cracks caused by volcano eruptions or earthquakes for good luck. Additionally, people, including travelers are expected not to take lava rocks with them as souvenirs as that can anger Pele. The very lava from Hawaii’s volcanoes is believed to carry her essence so people aren’t supposed to remove it from the island.

Another possible offense a tourist may accidentally do is eating some of the wild ohelo berries that grow alongside Halema‘uma‘u. These too are said to belong to Madame Pele as they grow on her home. If people want to take a berry they must first offer it to the goddess. If she doesn’t take the berries, the people must ask for her permission and only then eat the delicious red fruits.

There is also the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival at the start of October which honors both Pele and Poli’ahu.

Symbolism of Pele  

As a goddess of fire, lava, and volcanoes, Pele is a fierce and jealous, deity. She is the patron of the island chain and she does hold a firm grasp over her people as they are all at her mercy.

Of course, Pele is neither the most powerful nor the most benevolent deity in her pantheon. She didn’t create the world, nor did she create Hawaii. However, her dominance over the future of the island nation is so complete that the people can’t afford not to worship or revere her as she can shower them with lava at any moment.

Symbols of Pele

Goddess Pele is represented by symbols related to her position as a fire deity. These include:

  • Fire
  • Volcano
  • Lava
  • Red colored items
  • Ohelo berries

Importance of Pele in Modern Culture

Even though she is not overly popular outside of Hawaii, Pele has had quite a few appearances in modern pop culture. Some of the more noteworthy ones include an appearance as a villain to Wonder Woman, where Pele sought revenge for the murder of her father Kāne Milohai.

Tori Amos also has an album called Boys for Pele in the goddess’ honor. A Pele-inspired witch also appeared in an episode of the hit TV show Sabrina, the Teenage Witch called The Good, the Bad, and the Luau. The fire goddess is also a playable character in the MOBA video game Smite.

FAQs About Pele

What is Pele the goddess of?

Pele is the goddess of fire, volcanoes, and lightning.

How did Pele become a goddess?

Pele was born a deity, as the daughter of the Earth Mother and fertility goddess Haumea and the Sky Father and creator deity Kane Milohai.

How is Pele depicted?

While depictions can vary, she’s typically seen as an older woman with long flowing hair but can sometimes appear as a beautiful young woman.

Wrapping Up

Of all the hundreds of deities of Hawaiian mythology, Pele is possibly the best known. Her role as the goddess of fire, volcanoes, and lava in a region where these are plentiful, made her significant.

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