According to Hawaiian myth, Pele, the volcanic fire-queen and the chief architect of the Hawaiian group, was a foreigner, born in the mystical land of Kuai-he-lani, a land not rooted and anchored to one spot, but that floated free like the Fata Morgana, and that showed itself at times to the eyes of mystics, poets and seers, a garden land, clad with the living glory of trees and habitations—a vision to warm the imagination. The region was known as Kahiki (Kukulu o Kahiki), a name that connotes Java and that is associated with the Asiatic cradle of the Polynesian race.
Pele’s mother was Haumea, a name that crops up as an ancestor in the hoary antiquity of the Hawaiian people, and she was reputed to be the daughter of Kane-hoa-lani.
Pele was ambitious from childhood and from the earliest age made it her practice to stick close to her mother’s fireplace in company with the fire keeper Lono-makua, ever watchful of his actions, studious of his methods, an apprenticeship well fitted to serve her in good stead such time as she was to become Hawaii’s volcanic fire-queen. This conduct drew upon Pele the suspicion and illwill of her elder sister Na-maka-o-ka-ha’i, a sea-goddess, who, fathoming the latent ambition of Pele, could not fail to perceive that its attainment would result in great commotion and disturbance in their homeland.
Her fears and prognostications proved true. Namaka, returning from one of her expeditions across the sea, found that Pele, taking advantage of her absence, had erupted a fiery deluge and smothered a portion of the homeland with aä.
It would have gone hard with Pele; but mother Haumea bade her take refuge in the fold (pola) of Ka-moho-alii’s malo. Now this elder brother of Pele was a deity of great power and authority, a terrible character, hedged about with tabus that restricted and made difficult the approach of his enemies. Such a refuge could only be temporary, and safety was to be assured only by Pele’s removal from her home in the South land, and that meant flight. It was accomplished in the famed mythical canoe Honua-i-a-kea.
The company was a distinguished one, including such godlike beings as Ka-moho-alii, Kane-apua, Kane-milo-hai and many other relations of Pele, the youngest, but not the least important, of whom was the girl Hiiaka, destined to be the heroine of the story here unfolded and of whom it was said that she was born into the world as a clot of blood out of the posterior fontanelle (nunoi) of her mother Haumea, the other sisters having been delivered through the natural passage.
The sailing course taken by Pele’s company brought them to some point northwest of Hawaii, along that line of islets, reefs, and shoals which tail off from Hawaii as does the train of a comet from its nucleus. At Moku-papápa Pele located her brother Kane-milo-hai, as if to hold the place for her or to build it up into fitness for human residence, for it was little more than a reef. Her next stop was at the little rock of Nihoa that lifts its head some eight hundred feet above the ocean. Here she made trial with the divining rod Paoa, but the result being unfavorable, she passed on to the insignificant islet of Lehua which clings like a limpet to the flank of Niihau. In spite of its smallness and unfitness for residence, Pele was moved to crown the rock with a wreath of kau-no’a, while Hiiaka contributed a chaplet of lehua which she took from her own neck, thus christening it for all time. The poet details the itinerary of the voyage in the following graphic lines:
Ke Kaao a Pele i Haawi ia Ka-moho-alii i ka Haalele ana ia Kahiki
Ku makou e hele me ku’u mau poki’i aloha,
Ka aina a makou i ike ole ai malalo aku nei,
A’e makou me ku’u poki’i, kau i ka wa’a;
No’iau ka hoe a Ka-moho-alii;
A’ea’e, kau i ka nalu -
He nalu haki kakala,
He nalu e imi ana i ka aina e hiki aku ai.
O Nihoa ka aina a makou i pae mua aku ai:
Lele a’e nei makou, kau i uka o Nihoa.
O ka hana no a ko’u poki’i, a Kane-apua,
O ka hooili i ka ihu o ka wa’a a nou i ke kai:
Waiho anei o Ka-moho-alii ia Kane-apua i uka o Nihoa.
No’iau ka hoe a Ka-moho-alii
A pae i ka aina i kapa ia o Lehua.
Pele’s Account to Ka-moho-alii of the Departure from Kahiki
We stood to sail with my kindred beloved
To an unknown land below the horizon;
We boarded, my kinsmen and I, our craft,
Our pilot well skilled, Ka-moho-alii.
Our craft o’ermounted and mastered the waves;
The sea was rough and choppy, but the waves
Bore us surely on to our destined shore
The rock Nihoa, the first land we touched;
Gladly we landed and climbed up its cliffs.
Fault of the youngster, Kane-apua,
He loaded the bow till it ducked in the waves;
Ka-moho-alii marooned the lad,
Left the boy on the islet Nihoa
And, pilot well skilled, he sailed away
Till we found the land we christened Lehua.
When they had crowned the desolate rock with song and wreath, Ka-moho-alii would have steered for Niihau, but Pele, in a spasm of tenderness that smiles like an oasis in her life, exclaimed, “How I pity our little brother who journeyed with us till now!” At this Ka-moho-alii turned the prow of the canoe in the direction of Nihoa and they rescued Kane-apua from his seagirt prison. Let the poet tell the story:
Hui iho nei ka wa’a a Ka-moho-alii
E kii ana i ko lakou pokii, ia Kane-apua, i Nihoa.
Pili aku nei ka wa’a o Ka-moho-alii i uka nei o Nihoa,
Kahea aku nei i ko lakou pokii, ia Kane-apua,
E kau aku ma ka pola o ka wa’a.
Hui iho nei ka ihu o ka wa’a o Ka-moho-alii
He wa’a e holo ana i Niihau,
Kau aku nei o Ka-moho-alii i ka laau, he paoa,
E imi ana i ko lakou aina e noho ai, o Kauai:
Aole na’e i loa’a.
Kau mai la o Ka-moho-alii i ka laau, he paoa;
O Ahu ka aina.
Ia ka ana iho nei o lakou i Alia-pa’akai,
Aole na’e he aina.
Ka-moho-alii turned his canoe
To rescue lad Kane from Nihoa.
Anon the craft lies off Nihoa’s coast;
They shout to the lad, to Kane-apua,
Come aboard, rest with us on the pola.
Ka-moho-alii turns now his prow,
He will steer for the fertile Niihau.
He sets out the wizard staff Paoa,
To test if Kauai’s to be their home;
But they found it not there.
Once more the captain sails on with the rod,
To try if Oahu’s the wished for land:
They thrust in the staff at Salt Lake Crater,
But that proved not the land of their promise.
Arrived at Oahu, Ka-moho-alii, who still had Pele in his keeping, left the canoe in charge of Holoholo-kai and, with the rest of the party, continued the journey by land. The witchery of the Paoa was appealed to from time to time, as at Alia-pa’akai, Puowaena (Punchbowl Hill), Leahi (Diamond Head), and lastly at Makapu’u Point, but nowhere with a satisfactory response. (The words of Pele in the second verse of the kaao next to be given lead one to infer that she must for a time have entertained the thought that they had found the desired haven at Pele-ula, a small land-division within the limits of the present city of Honolulu.) Let the poet tell the story:
Ke ku nei makou e imi kahi e noho ai
A loa’a ma Pele-ula:
O Kapo-ula-kina’u ka wahine;
A loa’a i ka lae kapu o Maka-pu’u.
Ilaila pau ke kuleana;
Imi ia Kane-hoa-lani,
A loa’a i ka lae o Maka-hana-loa.
He loa ka uka o Puna:
Elua kaua i ke kapa hookahi.
Akahi au a ike - haupu mau, walohia wale:
E Kane-hoa-lani, e-e!
E Kane-hoa-lani, e-e!
Kau ka hokú hookahi, hele i ke ala loa!
Aloha kama kuku kapa a ka wahine!
He wahine lohiau, naná i ka makani;
He makani lohiau, haupu mai oloko!
We went to seek for a biding place,
And found it, we thought, in Pele-ula
Dame Kapo she of the red-pied robe
Found it in the sacred cape, Maka-pu’u;
The limit that of our journey by land.
We looked then for Kane-hoa-lani
And found him at Maka-hana-loa.
Far away are the uplands of Puna;
One girdle still serves for you and for me.
Never till now such yearning, such sadness !
Where art thou, Kane-hoa-lani ?
O Father Kane, where art thou ?
Hail to thee, O Father, and hail to me !
When rose the pilot-star we sailed away.
Hail, girl who beats out tapa for women
The home-coming wife who watches the wind,
The haunting wind that searches the house !
The survey of Oahu completed, and Ka-moho-alii having resumed command of the canoe, Pele uttered her farewell and they voyaged on to the cluster of islands of which Maui is the center:
Aloha, Oahu, e-e!
E huli ana makou i ka aina mamua aku,
Kahi a makou e noho ai.
Farewell to thee, Oahu!
We press on to lands beyond,
In search of a homing place.
Repeated trial with the divining rod, Paoa, made on the western part of Maui as well as on the adjoining islands of Molokai and Lanai proving unsatisfactory, Pele moved on to the exploration of the noble form of Hale-a-ka-la that domes East Maui, with fine hope and promise of success. But here again she was dissatisfied with the result. She had not yet delivered herself from the necessity of protection by her kinsman, Ka-moho-alii: “One girdle yet serves for you and for me,” was the note that still rang out as a confession of dependence, in her song.
While Pele was engaged in her operations in the crater of Hale-a-ka-la, her inveterate enemy Na-maka-o-ka-ha’i, who had trailed her all the way from Kahiki with the persistency of a sea-wolf, appeared in the offing, accompanied by a sea-dragon named Ha-ui.
The story relates that, as Na-maka-o-ka-ha’i passed the sand-spit of Moku-papápa, Kane-milo-hai, who, it will be remembered, had been left there in charge as the agent of Pele, hailed her with the question: “Where are you going so fast?”
“To destroy my enemy, to destroy Pele,” was her answer.
“Return to Kahiki, lest you yourself be destroyed,” was the advice of Kane-milo-hai.
Pele, accepting the gage thrown down by Na-maka-o-ka-ha’i, with the reluctant consent of her guardian Ka-moho-alii, went into battle single-handed. The contest was terrific. The sea-monster, aided by her dragon consort, was seemingly victorious. Dismembered parts of Pele’s body were cast up at Kahiki-nui, where they are still pointed out as the bones of Pele (na iwi o Pele.) (She was only bruised). Ka-moho-alii was dismayed thinking Pele to have been destroyed; but, looking across the Ale-nui-haha channel, he saw the spirit-form of Pele flaming in the heavens above the summits of Mauna-loa and Mauna-kea. As for Na-maka-o-ka-ha’i, she retired from the battle exultant, thinking that her enemy Pele was done for: but when she reported her victory to Kane-milo-hai, that friend of Pele pointed to the spirit body of Pele glowing in the heavens as proof that she was mistaken. Namaka was enraged at the sight and would have turned back to renew the conflict, but Kane-milo-hai dissuaded her from this foolhardy undertaking, saying, “She is invincible; she has become a spirit.”
The search for a home-site still went on. Even Hale-a-ka-la was not found to be acceptable to Pele’s fastidious taste. According to one account it proved to be so large that Pele found herself unable to keep it warm. Pele, a goddess now, accordingly bade adieu to Maui and its clustering isles and moved on to Hawaii.
He Kaao na Pele, i Haalele ai ia Maui
Aloha o Maui, aloha, e!
Aloha o Moloka’i, aloha, e!
Aloha o Lana’i, aloha, e!
Aloha o Kaho’olawe, aloha, e!
Ku makou e hele, e!
O Hawaii ka ka aina
A makou e noho ai a mau loa aku;
Ke ala ho’i a makou i hiki mai ai,
He ala paoa ole ko Ka-moho-alii,
Ko Pele, ko Kane-milo-hai, ko Kane-apua,
Ko Hiiaka - ka no’iau - i ka poli o Pele,
I hiki mai ai.
Pele’s Farewell to Maui
Farewell to thee, Maui, farewell!
Farewell to thee, Moloka’i, farewell!
Farewell to thee, Lana’i, farewell!
Farewell to thee, Kaho’olawe, farewell!
We stand all girded for travel:
Hawaii, it seems, is the land
On which we shall dwell evermore.
The route by which we came hither
Touched lands not the choice of Paoa;
’Twas the route of Ka-moho-alii,
Of Pele and Kane-milo-hai,
Route traveled by Kane-apua, and by
Hiiaka, the wise, the darling of Pele.
Pele and her company landed on Hawaii at Pua-kó, a desolate spot between Kawaihae and Kailua. Thence they journeyed inland until they came to a place which they named Moku-aweo-weo - not the site of the present crater of that name, but, situated where yawns the vast caldera of Kilauea. It was at the suggestion of Ku-moku-halii and Keawe-nui-kau of Hilo that the name was conferred. They also gave the name Mauna-loa to the mountain mass that faced them on the west, “because,” said they, “our journey was long.”
Night fell and they slept. In the morning, when the elepaio uttered its note, they rose and used the Paoa staff. The omens were favorable, and Pele decided that this was the place for her to establish a permanent home.
The people immediately began to set out many plants valuable for food; among them a variety of kalo called aweü, well suited for upland growth; the ulu (bread-fruit); the maiä (banana); the pala-á (an edible fern); the awa (Piper methysticum) and other useful plants.
The land on the Hilo side of Kilauea, being in the rain belt, is fertile and well fitted for tillage. The statement, however, that Kilauea, or its vicinity, became the place of settlement for any considerable number of people cannot be taken literally. The climatic conditions about Kilauea are too harsh and untropical to allow either the people or the food plants of Polynesia to feel at home in it. The probability is that instead of being gathered about Kilauea, they made their homes in the fat lands of lower Puna or Hilo.
Pele, on her human side at least, was dependent for support and physical comfort upon the fruits of the earth and the climatic conditions that made up her environment. Yet with all this, in the narrative that follows her relations to humanity are of that exceptional character that straddle, as it were, that border line which separates the human from the superhuman, but for the most part occupy the region to the other side of that line, the region into which if men and women of this work-a-day world pass they find themselves uncertain whether the beings with whom they converse are bodied like themselves or made up of some insubstantial essence and liable to dissolve and vanish at the touch.
Picture of Pele and Hi'iaka
Nathaniel Bright Emerson (July 1, 1839 Waialua, Oahu – July 16, 1915, at sea) was a medical physician and author of Hawaiian mythology.