Many years ago, I had a conversation with a Krishna devotee from Hawaii on the differences between the Hawaiian Goddess Pele and the Hindu Goddess Kali. She explained that Pele is similar in power to Kali Ma, except that she treads slowly, which is her way of displaying self-confidence, and she always gets what she wants. Hawaiians swear by Pele. To them, She is as real as the ground they stand on. My Hawaiian friend reminded me of my years living in Puerto Rico, and how real the Orisha (deities) of Santeria were for many of my friends who were initiated into the Lucumí tradition, who often took offerings for Yemayá to the ocean, or for Oshún to the river. There’s something magical and enchanted about living in a beautiful island.
There is no doubt that the recent volcanic eruptions in Hawaii are an awe-inspiring thing to behold. It’s not difficult to understand how ancient peoples imagined Pele, a personification of fire, as a Goddess–or, as some modern Hawaiians say, an “elemental force of nature”–and feared her, and tried to appease her, and told stories about her.
Of all the elements in nature, fire is the one for which humans reserve the greatest instinctive fear, awe, respect, and reverence. We know from experience that, if we touch it, we burn, and that it hurts. We need it, and must domesticate it, but must do so from a healthy distance. Fire demands respect from us. Its mana or power is undeniable. It is the most natural metaphor for divinity and taboo.
One curious thing about the Pele storyline is that she is believed to have migrated from the northwest toward the southeast, until she settled in the site that is currently erupting, which is believed to be her home and where her worshipers come to bring her offerings wrapped in leaves. A YouTube video by Physics Girl titled Why Hawaii’s Volcano is so Unusual beautifully explains the science behind this myth. Volcanologists and geologists point to a long chain of undersea volcanic mountains northwest of the Hawaiian islands that goes all the way to Siberia. It is easily observable using modern technology. It turns out the pressure under the crust of the Earth is not random, but follows a predictable pattern, and millions of years into the future we can expect more islands to be born southeast of the Hawaiian islands, following the pattern of Pele’s known, slow trajectory.
The islands would not exist were it not for Pele. This is where science and poetry/myth coincide: Pele is a destructive, constantly-evolving and dynamic force of nature, but yet is also the Creatrix of Hawaii, and indeed some of her followers describe lava as her genitalia. Like Venus, she is believed to be powerful, jealous, passionate and capricious. They may be different forces of nature, but as products of the collective psyche of mortals, they share many parallels.
Lucretius, in Book 6 of On the Nature of Things–referring specifically to Mount Etna–gives an entirely naturalistic explanation of volcanoes. It’s not the raging god Vulcan fuming at the sins of mortals, but air particles that have been heated, exerting great pressure against the surface, that cause volcanic eruptions. He takes the fact that big boulders can be hurled into the air as evidence of the pressure inside. It’s not as romantic as Hawaiian myth, or as poetic as Lucretius’ ode to Venus at the onset of De Rerum Natura, but it’s a great testimony of pre-scientific attempts at a scientific understanding of natural phenomena. If Epicurus or Lucretius had been to Hawaii, these verses could have been the start of a conversation on how we should separate taboos imposed by necessity and by nature–Don’t play with fire!–from those invented by the poets, by folklore, and by convention. I’ve taken the liberty of replacing words like “flame” and “fire” with Madame Pele, etc.
But now I will unfold
At last how yonder suddenly angered Pele
Out-blows abroad from vasty furnaces
Kīlauean. First, the mountain’s nature is
All under-hollow, propped about, about
With caverns of basaltic piers. And, lo,
In all its grottos be there wind and air-
For wind is made when air hath been uproused
By violent agitation. When this air
Is heated through and through, and, raging round,
Hath made the earth and all the rocks it touches
Horribly hot, and hath struck off from them
Fierce Pele of swiftest flame, it lifts itself
And hurtles thus straight upwards through its throat
Into high heav’n, and thus bears on afar
Its burning blasts and scattereth afar
Its ashes, and rolls a smoke of pitchy murk
And heaveth the while boulders of wondrous weight
Leaving no doubt in thee that ’tis the air’s