For the inhabitants of the Big Island, hardly a week passes without mention of Pele, this island’s personal goddess of the Kilauea volcano and fiery keeper of the lands in Puna and Ka’u district. Mysterious, exciting, passionate and powerful stories abound describing Pele, known as the goddess of fire and lava, She-Who-Shapes-the-Sacred-Land in ancient Hawaiian chants. Her legends tell the epic stories of her beloved family and sisters such as Hi’iaka, the goddess of healing and her countless lovers, many of which met a fiery and desolate end in her lava fields. Contemporary legends speak of an old woman smoking on the side of the road or a young woman in a white dress, both looking for rides, both known to lash out in fury if passed by or rejected. She inspires artists, writers, storytellers and musicians with her power, her fury, her irresistible beauty. She is a goddess who rages and delights in her island land and is beloved by many on Big Island. Knowing that her wrath could strike at any moment in eruptive force, keeps locals and tourists alike in awe and reverence for her immense power. Pele is one of many gods and goddesses found within Hawaiian mythology, story, hula, chant and prayers. However, she is unique halema'uma'uto the Big Island because she dwells here, both destroying and creating new land continuously. She is believed to live at Hale Ma’uma’u on the volcano of Kilauea using her famous digging stick known in Hawaiian as o’o or pa’oa to churn up the molten lava from the depths of the earth. Halema’uma’u is named for the Ama’uma’u ferns found within the crater. Pele’s lava handiwork is seen throughout the island in the sharp craggy fields of a’a lava and the smooth coiling rope twisting forms of pahoehoe. Lava flows adorn the landscape, each one markedly different by the amount of growth that has risen since the flow. Flows as recent as last year run across the hill from Puʻu ʻŌʻō crater and down toward the ocean which has been erupting continuously since 1983. Puʻu ʻŌʻō literally means Hill of o’o or digging stick, Pele’s personal project so to speak where she digs away continuously. Living here for the last five and a half years, I have been fortunate enough to visit the lava many times; watching the flow of liquid fiery earth is one of the most profound ways to spend a morning. In the ancient Hawaiian legend, it is said that long ago, Pele was born to Haumea, the goddess of the earth and Wakea, the sky god in the ancient land of Lahiki. Noticing her gift with fire as a young girl, her uncle Lonomakua, the keeper of the flame, gave Pele the pa’oa or digging stick. She began to use the pa’oa as a magical tool to dig down deep into the crust of the earth and draw up the living lava below. The pa’oa is Pele’s power and a symbol of creativity, passion, sexuality and force. Thrusting a stick into earth naturally conjures up the associations of plowing fields and the connection to fertility and fecundity, which makes the soil rich and ready for new growth. The beautiful new growth that appears as greens of kupukupu ferns and ohia trees that follow in just a few months and years after a lava flow inspire the beauty of rebirth. It is astonishing how rapidly the plants begin to take root, the spiders weaving their delicate webs of hardened lava, the rain drizzling down and encouraging new life in the aftermath. Pele’s natural ability to use the pa’oa and both destroy land while creating new earth eventually drove her from her homeland of Lahiki. She traveled to the islands of Hawai’i where she plunged her pa’oa in several places, seeking the lava. Her sister, Namakaokahai, the goddess of the frothy waters followed Pele and challenged her to a duel. Pele was dismembered with the help of Haui, the ancient sea serpent and ripped apart, her body thrown across the islands. Pele was reborn in wisdom and light of a new day, reborn with a deeper understanding of her personal power and how to use the pa’oa with focus, deliberation, and intent. Dismemberment stories occur throughout mythic history and are connected to shamanic initiation. Being torn to pieces and then reborn is symbolic of losing our ego, our attachments and what keeps us from directly accessing our own power and brilliance.
Pele with her Pa'oa

Pele with her Pa'oa

The pa’oa is Pele’s feature symbol, the key of her legends which points the way. In some texts, there is mention of Kaleiopa’oa as a particular god, indicating that the pa’oa is not only a digging stick, but a manifestation as a deity as well. In Martha Beckwith’s classic, Hawaiian Mythology, she mentions the obscure character, Kaleiopaoa told in the legendary tale of Pele and Lohiau, her lover from Kaua’i. He is a close friend of Lohiau and becomes lovers with Pele after Lohiau dies. In the Dictionary of Polynesian Mythology by Robert D. Craig, he writes that later, when Lohiau is restored to life, Pele gives Pa’oa to Hi’iaka, however he is overcome with shame and casts himself into the sea. Pele then names her digging stick after him. Curiously we also find stories in ancient Maori history of a Paoa, whose name means smoke. Pa’oa is a leading chief and many stories are told of his adventures. In other Hawaiian legends he surfaces with name variations and Beckwith remarks intriguingly, “It is probable that Paoa once occupied a more important place than he holds today in the Pele legend.” Nathanial Emerson, historian of Hawaiian mythology likens the stick to a divining rod, in which Pele is able to seek out and find rivers of lava under the earth, just as one might find water with magical divining rod in the desert. Using a tool for magic is an ancient method of harnessing nature’s energy into a focused outcome. Pele’s pa’oa is not unlike the magic wand of ancient times. There is mention of special sticks made of particular wood in ancient Zorastrian and Sanskrit texts. People in those times used the sticks to connect directly with spirits. Even the Bible mentions angels of God carrying special sticks or rods to do God’s bidding. The power of the stick or wand holds in it the story of something used to divine, destroy, and recreate the world around us by our own will and use. In the ancient system of Tarot, the card Ace of Wands is akin to Pele’s digging stick. This is a card of power, fire, passion, and requires a measure of courage to reach out and grab the wand, as well as discipline to put it into practice. Before coming here, I lived for seven years in India and learned so much from a people who weave their daily life with the land, theLava Flows on the Big Island of Hawaii spirits, the deities and their ancient stories. Personally, I find illuminating inspiration in the story of Pele, her pa’oa and travels to the Big Island. Like many who are fortunate to live in the Hawaiian Islands, I am not originally from this land, nor are any of my ancestors, yet I feel a deep connection to this place. I think many of us here can relate to and are moved by Pele and that she too, came from another land. In this way, it seems that many here feel a resonant connection with Pele and her fiery ways. Walking out across the lava fields, one can squint her eyes in the glow of a Hawaiian sunset, looking over barren dark desolate land, and almost see the goddess herself moving across the landscape plunging her pa’oa into the earth, pulling up the lava and sending it down the hillside toward the ocean below. Reprinted from the January 22nd edition of Big Island Weekly