Despite the Destruction, Hawaiians Are Honoring the Goddess of Lava

Lava advancing from Kilauea
Lava advancing from Kilauea | © Yvonne Baur / Shutterstock
Marjorie Perlas

Contributing Writer

As The Big Island’s Kilauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes remain active, Hawaiians offer a fresh—and surprising—perspective on the ongoing eruptions.

Lava flow, volcano Kilauea

Since May 3, 2018, residents on the island of Hawai’i have been under code red from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. As news of volcanic eruptions in Hawaii continue to circulate the globe, there’s a certain level of fear-mongering attached to the Kilauea activity that many Hawaiians aren’t necessarily buying into. Instead, they fear that these eruptions are the work of a much greater force.

There’s a particular reason that the lava flow from Kilauea’s recent eruptions hasn’t been diverted or interrupted. This is a testament to the Hawaiian understanding and respect for forces of nature, particularly of those affecting this chain of islands. And many Hawaiians see the ongoing volcanic activity as the work of Mother Nature.

If you’ve ever been to Hawaii, you’ve heard warnings not to take any part of the land from the islands. As they say, you’ll incur the goddess Pele’s wrath—and for good reason.

“Land is borrowed, not owned”

The year 1924 was the last time Kilauea experienced an explosive eruption on the Big Island of Hawai’i. It is the state’s most active volcano and one of the most active in the world. As of May 3rd, it’s been relentless.

After a series of volcanic activity in the area, the over 300,000-year-old volcano erupted three weeks ago, sending smoke upwards, lava downwards, and prompting concern and attention of media around the world.

For the residents of the Leilani Estates, this event is completely devastating. With already 40 homes damaged or destroyed, the residential area sits right in the path of the volcano’s destruction, leaving many people without a home.

This same area was once known to the island natives as “Keahialaka,” with the understanding that this was a common path for Kilauea’s lava to flow. And while most of the Western media mourns the extent of property loss and damage, some natives and locals who feel a connection to the land and the culture see it from another point of view as well.

Lava on the southeast rift zone of Kilauea volcano

Ka Wahine ‘ai Honua: The Woman Who Devours The Earth

The goddess of fire, lava, and volcanoes, Pele has been revered since the beginning of Hawaiian culture and could be considered the figurehead of what’s left of native folklore today. In Hawaiian mythology, Kilauea is said to be the home of the goddess Pele herself and the place in which she keeps her fire. Locals and those of Hawaiian descent are taking the recent volcanic eruption as an assertive act of the deity.

Indeed, people are leaving ho’okupu, or offerings to the goddess, and making sure to stay clear out of her way. Ti leaves are spread around the area where the lava has been flowing. These offerings are also strategically placed to cover cracks and holes in the ground that Pele has come into contact with in hopes that she’ll choose to go another way.

The people of Hawaii are finding this event to be both devastating and awe-inspiring. Some even report sightings of Pele herself in the flow of the lava. To them, it’s an example of how great nature can be and a strong reminder of how very much alive the Hawaiian islands still are.

The event also formed a connection to Hawaii’s history and culture. The ancient hula honoring Pele that dancers have been studying for years now make more sense to the performers. They can see the inspiration for movement behind the hula and the stories in the flow of the lava. Some even consider it a stern warning from the goddess herself to stop misusing the land that she calls home. Even houses were cleaned, and doors were opened, almost to say “Pele—welcome home and do what you will.”

Red Alert

With all this might and beauty also comes destruction. The ash clouds quickly rising from Kilauea is nothing to take lightly. With it comes debris and poisonous gases, rising over 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) in the air. The area around the volcano has been set to high alert with inhabitants being evacuated. Pilots have been told to steer clear at 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) and a five-mile (eight-kilometer) radius with the aviation color code being changed to red.

No one knows for sure when the activity will die down, and more events are expected to occur. And though no one has yet been injured due to the eruption, thankfully, many people are now displaced from their homes with nothing but the bags they packed and took with them. In an effort to help, Kolten Wong, a Major League Baseball player who is a native of Hawaii, created a GoFundMe page to support the local community, stating that it is our “kuleana,” or responsibility, to help those who need us most right now.

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