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Understanding Pele & Hiʻiaka

We here in Hawaiʻi have been obsessed with the recent daily drama of the lava flows obliterating large swaths of land, houses, ponds and bays in the Puna district of the island of Hawaii. Pele has been so ever-present in our thoughts as we observe her new creation as both awe inspiring and terrifying at the same time. It has challenged me to try to come to a deeper, more cultural understanding of the energy we call Pele.


Coming from a very different cultural upbringing as I do, it is very difficult to understand the Hawaiian mind-set and their relationship to the natural world. In the maoli, or indigenous view the natural world was not separate and unthinking; and we as humans are a part of that natural world. Just as we are sentient beings so are the other elements of the natural world sentient beings - that is, possessing a consciousness of their own. Therefore, the elements and forces of nature all have a personality, a task or purpose and, of course, a name by which to be referred.


When we think of Pele, we immediately picture the personification of the fire goddess and her eruptive process. But we need to think much deeper than this. Every inch of these Hawaiian Islands is a result of millennia of volcanic eruptions starting on the ocean floor and emerging from the ocean to create islands. Therefore, every inch of these Hawaiian Islands is Pele. The Hawaiian word for lava is Pele. Pele is the very land that supports everything that grows and thrives on it. Not just the stuff that flows during an eruptive phase.


But land alone is not enough to support life. There are other elements required. Just as we humans have need of our family, friends and associates to achieve our purposes, so Pele needs her family members to bring other life giving elements to the land. Foremost among them is the life-giving rays of the sun. This element - Kāne, father of Pele -is of a primary nature, outranking Pele in importance. The moon - Hina - is also of primary importance, regulating the seasons and the tides as well as the reproductive cycle of many life forms. The various aspects of weather - rain, wind, lightening, thunder - all of these elemental forces are family members with their own names and their own function.


The movements of the earth are personified with names and personalities as well, such as earthquakes and landslides. The movement of lava inside the earth is personified with names. The lava can move horizontally or vertically. It can move under the ocean floor or over the land. Also the movements of the ocean. These are all named members of Peleʻs family assisting her as she works. There are as many names as there are aspects of a dynamic, living, changing world.


The various family members are said to have been born from various parts of Haumeaʻs body. The place from which each of them was born gives us a poetic clue as to what function they perform in the natural world. Their name also gives us a description of their function.

As in all families, some of the members are in conflict with other members of the family. For instance: Peleʻs sister, Namakaokahaʻi whose element is ocean water, is naturally in conflict with Pele whose element is fire. Nāmakaokahaʻi, born from the breast, is another whose name includes "haʻi"(to break). She is the eldest female of the family and is the cause of fault lines in the earth. A weak point in a volcanic eruption is the maka, or source, where the fault is located and the breaking away begins. This phenomenon encouraged the story of sibling rivalry between Nāmakaokahaʻi and Pelehonuamea.


And then there is the understanding of Hi’iaka. Hi’iaka emerges from an egg. Doesn’t all life emerge from an egg? What is a seed except an egg with a different name? So Hi’iaka is all that grows and takes root on Pele - the land. After Pele has done all of this work creating new land, it is not habitable until it cools. Hi’iaka is truly "in the bosom of Pele" - that is where growth takes root and flourishes. Pele creates the land and Hi’iaka comes behind and greens the land.

(Hiʻi - to hold or carry in the arms, as a child, to bear; to nurse or tend a child Hawaiians did not carry children unrelated to
them and commoners did not touch a chief’s child; carrying a child symbolized love, kinship, and affection.
Aka - shadow reflection, image, likeness. Essence of an offering rather than the flesh. To appear. Embryo at the moment of

(Mahalo to Pua Kanahele and her invaluable book Ka Honua Ola which has been- and
continues to be- my teacher for this Pele journey)

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