A Pair of Thin Places, Part 2: Kilauea

Volcanoes inspire both wonder and fear. Around them rock can flow like water and burn like fire, reshaping the landscape. It’s not surprising, then, that many have developed the layers of tales and rituals that mark a long-term thin place. In Part 1, we looked at Devils Tower/Bear Lodge, which is not a volcano but may be the crystallized heart of an attempted one. Now I’d like to turn to Kīlauea, a living volcano still bringing destruction and creation every time it erupts. Oh, and it’s also said to be the home of a goddess.

Young and Restless

Volcanoes are often pictured as towering peaks shooting lava and clouds of ash, but Kīlauea has a subtler style. As a shield volcano, it produces thick, flowing lava rather than massive explosions.1 This results in a large hump of rock built from overlapping layers of cooled flows, so gradual in its rise that visitors may stand on the volcano without recognizing it.2 But while Kīlauea may lay low, it should not be taken lightly. This youngest of the Hawaiian volcanoes is still full of vigor, possibly the most active in the world with “nearly continuous activity” since the 19th century.3 A flow in 2018 destroyed around 600 homes and vaporized a small lake.4 This is the kind of thin place that demands its respect!

The caldera of Kīlauea. M. Patrick, U.S. Geological Survey, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Unlike Devils Tower/Bears Lodge, Kīlauea seems to have no controversy over its name. I’ve seen alternate spellings, such as “Kirauea” in a 1837 poem,5 but that’s it. Perhaps this is partly because the name is commonly translated as “spewing” or “much spreading,”6 which would make an awkward national park name. Traditionally, “Kīlauea” refers specifically to the caldera (large crater) at the peak of the volcano, but the name has been extended to the rest of the volcano as well.7 However, the caldera is still the center of volcanic activity and mythic significance.

Tales of Pele

The story of Kīlauea is the story of the goddess Pele. Her spirit is said to reside in the caldera and specifically in the Halemaʻumaʻu crater.8 Her presence defines Kīlauea’s nature as a thin place. The volcano is often seen as the body of the goddess. For instance, the fine strands of volcanic glass found near the crater are known as “Pele’s hair.”9 Like the volcano that embodies her, Pele is temperamental and dangerous when angered, but she is also a force of creation even as she destroys.

Pele’s Hair near the Halemaʻumaʻu crater. Photo by Matthew Patrick, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Pele did not always live in Kīlauea. She is said to have been born in Kahiki, possibly Tahiti or a generic “foreign land.”10 One day, after an accident with her powerful digging stick Pāoa destroyed her family’s home,11 she set out to find a new land. She brought most of her siblings with her, but her eldest sister, the ocean goddess Namakaokahaʻi, chased after in anger. Pele found land and dug a fire pit with her stick, but her eldest sister saw the smoke and sent a wave to attack them. Pele moved on to the next island, and the next, with Namakaokahaʻi always close behind. At Haleakalā in Maui, they fought. Pele’s body was ripped apart, leaving a field of shattered lava known as Naiwiopele or Bones of Pele. Yet her spirit flew on, planting her digging stick near Kīlauea and driving out ‘Ailā’au (eater of the forest), who had once dominated the crater.12 At last her sister grew weary of the chase and Pele had found her home.

Another tale tells of Pele and her younger sister, Hiʻiakaikapoliopele, or Hiʻiaka, for short. Pele brought Hi‘iaka to Kīlauea as an egg,13 and they were close enough that when Pele asked that someone bring her mortal lover Lohi‘au from Kau’i, Hi‘iaka volunteered. In return, she asked that Pele not harm her favorite grove of ‘ōhiʻa trees or her friend Hōpoe, who taught the sisters hula.14 Hi‘iaka then set off, encountering a series of adventures before finding that Lohi‘au had died.15 Undeterred, she carefully revived him and returned, but they had been gone so long that Pele burned the grove in jealous rage. Hi’iaka retaliated by embracing to Lohi‘au in Pele’s sight, which led to Pele killing him. The legends differ on how she killed him and whether he was brought back to life once more.

Many more stories about Pele exist, and some contain a subtle record of Kīlauea’s history. One definition of “myth” is a lie, a false tale, which can lead to the mistaken belief that mythology is “just” stories. However, I find there is usually a grain of truth in tales from mythology. Only rarely is that truth something that can be confirmed by scientific observation, yet as early as 1901, geologist C. H. Hitchcock noted that native Hawaiian mythology was “capable of giving reliable information about…eruptions for eighteen centuries.”16 Dates can even be calculated because Hawaiian myth centers itself through the succession of kings. The places Pele digs on her way to Kīlauea are nearly a perfect match for the volcanic flowering of each island according to one theory of how the Hawaiian chain formed.17 Her outburst over Lohi‘au as well as a tussle with the pig god Kamapua‘a are cited in a 2008 geological paper to argue that these stories should be used together with scientific methods to understand the history of the volcano.

Life with Pele

The legends may record Kīlauea’s eruption history, but we know only a few things about the history of Pele’s worship. Her origin story and references to her as a “foreign deity” suggests she may be a later addition to the Hawaiian pantheon.18 Though her stories were known throughout the islands, actual worship of her tended to stay within her volcanic domains of the Big Island where people treated her as both an ancestral deity/‘aumakua and a major deity/akua.19 Families who traced their line back to Pele often felt a deep bond with her. Even those that moved to different islands would return to bring offerings or have their bones given to the goddess after death. Casting the bones of a loved one into the crater of Kīlauea gave them a chance to become a volcanic spirit who could protect the living from eruptions.20

One of the most important elements of Pele worship was offerings. These could be made at home, at one of the various Pele temples, or at the crater itself. Almost everyone in the area knew the proper etiquette and offerings for Pele, though a network of religious officials conducted ceremonies, supervised or made offerings, and communicated Pele’s wishes to the larger community.21 Many items were offered, including plants, foods, cloth or clothing, and human hair. The men who served as kāula/prophets never cut their hair except as an offering to Pele.22 If anyone wished to eat the red berries of the ōhelo bush that grows on Kīlauea, they had to first offer some to Pele.23 Hula and chanting were also performed for the goddess.

Red flowers likely left as offerings to Pele near the crater. Photo by Brock Roseberry from Belleville, IL, United States, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Pele does not live only in ancient myths. Though the main system of Hawaiian religion was dismantled in 1819, Pele was among the deities whose worship continued.24 The modern relationship with her can be almost affectionate. She is often referred to as Madame Pele or Tutu (Grandmother) Pele.25 Some trucks sport bumper stickers proclaiming, “Pele is my homegirl,” and gin has become a popular modern offering. One man from a Pele-descent clan speaks with pride about watching his daughter learn a traditional hula as an offering to Pele.26 During her performance on Kīlauea, he saw ancestral spirits in the volcanic smoke. Not all modern Hawaiians feel a connection with Pele, but for those who do she is still very much a living goddess.

People of non-native descent have also experienced Kīlauea as a thin place, though some in a negative sense. William Ellis, an English missionary and one of the first Europeans to visit the caldera, purposely broke several taboos on Kīlauea trying to discredit belief in Pele.27 Yet when he looked into what was then a lava lake, he wrote it “filled us with wonder and admiration at…the power of the dread Being who created the world” and would someday burn it.28 Other 19th century accounts call it otherworldly and even hellish. Once the volcano became a tourist location, however, some seemed to go from awe to complete irreverence. There was once a golf course on Kīlauea with the caldera as the last hole and photographs show early 20th century tourists sitting right by the lava.29 Really, that’s a bad idea whether you believe in Pele or not. There are still people who need to be told not to roast marshmallows over the volcanic vents. Probably the majority of visitors today fall somewhere between horrified or reverent awe and flippant disregard, but the dismissive tend to be remembered more.

Sightings and Curses

Flippant tourists are likely what created one of the enduring modern myths around Kīlauea: Pele’s curse. If you aren’t familiar with this idea, it claims that those who take rocks or other natural material from the Hawaiian volcanoes will suffer ever increasing bad luck unless they return the items. The curse doesn’t specifically name Kīlauea, good evidence that it isn’t actually ancient in origin. Some now point to a frustrated park ranger in 1946 as the source of the rumors about a curse.30 Yet “thousands of pounds of rocks are returned every year” along with letters apologizing and describing the bad luck experienced. It’s also illegal to take rocks and other items from the park, so really reconsider if you’re visiting Kīlauea and tempted to take a souvenir home.

Rock cairns at Kīlauea Iki (Little Kīlauea). Please don’t touch! Photo by Netherzone, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Other people report more direct encounters with Pele near Kīlauea or other volcanoes. Several claim to see her in photographs taken of craters and erupting lava. She has also entered urban legend through sightings reported since at least the 1930s,31 such as this one. She may appear as an old or young woman, often accompanied by a small white dog. Many stories follow a trope called the Vanishing Hitchhiker, where Pele asks for a car ride late at night. Variations have her destroying the homes of those who refuse, lighting cigarettes with her fingertips, or simply disappearing during the course of the ride. Pele’s white dog, said to signal when an eruption is nearing,32 appears solo as well. Staff at a volcanic observatory on Kīlauea’s neighbor Mauna Loa snapped pictures of one such dog, who arrived shortly before a Kīlauea eruption in 1959, disappeared, and then reappeared. The reappearing part is strange, since you’d think most dogs would leave permanently after an eruption.

Glimpses of Kīlauea

Though legends of Pele and by extension Kīlauea have continued to evolve into the present day, it’s surprisingly hard to find either in media. There are a couple children’s books by Virginia Nielsen, The House on the Volcano and Kimo and Madame Pele. Paul Newman starred in the 1980 film When Time Ran Out, which has the wrong type of volcano in its trailer. More recently, the basic elements of Pele’s curse were used without her or Kīlauea in an episode of the fantasy crime drama Grimm. Then there’s Te Fiti in Disney’s Moana. As the fiery Te Kā, this goddess may resemble Pele, but she really seems more like a combination of several Hawaiian or Polynesian goddesses, such as the sometimes dual daughter/sister of Pele who is “the gentle Laka” when worshiped and “vengeful Kapo” when angered.33 Her encounter with ocean-commanding Moana somewhat mirrors the struggle between Pele and her oceanic sister. But in this case, Moana dousing the flames of Te Kā is an act of healing rather than of violence.

I have encountered one very well-done modern depiction of Kīlauea and Pele in Beth Cato’s steampunk fantasy novel, Roar of Sky, set in an alternate 1906. For Ingrid Carmichael, calling Pele “Grandmother” is not just a term of respect but a literal truth. Her geomancy powers come from her connection to Pele, though she did not inherit her grandmother’s ability to shapeshift and split into multiple forms simultaneously. Cato portrays Pele as a world-weary being who exists on a geological time scale and no longer wishes to “meddle in human affairs.”34 Ingrid first meets a splinter of her in the form of a white dog. The dog accepts an offering of pork before leading Ingrid and friends to Pele in the form of an old woman wearing a red dress.35 It’s a wonderfully updated and complex vision of Pele, who is too often typecast as a purely violent or sometimes sensuous force.

Meanwhile, Cato’s description of Kīlauea shows the range of reactions to this thin place. Ingrid follows all the rules of respect and on seeing the caldera murmurs, “If hell looks like this, I want to go there.”36 Yet she envies the tour guides who have a full, lived connection to the place rather than knowledge that comes from textbooks like she does. Meanwhile, she is outraged by the other tourists who singe postcards and cook frankfurters over the lava.37 These behaviors, accurate to our own timeline, seem a bit strange at first in a world where magic and mythical beings called “fantastics” are common knowledge. However, one guide says the tourists claim “they want to see [Pele] mad.”38 Maybe this apparent disrespect is another way of responding to that sense of a thin place, testing the boundaries in the hope of a thrilling brush with a mysterious power. Still not a good idea, but at least I can understand it more.


Lava flow from Kīauea. United States Geological Survey, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Thank you for joining me in this exploration of two thin places! I hope to cover more in the future, but these two just made such a great pair. What do you think about the legends, old and new, surrounding Kīlauea? Would you call both mythology or would you use a different term for modern beliefs like the curse? If you know of other media featuring the volcano or Pele, I’d also love to hear about that.

  1. Bagley, Mary, “Volcano Facts and Types of Volcanoes,” Live Science, Feb. 7, 2018, accessed Nov. 25, 2020, https://www.livescience.com/27295-volcanoes.html.
  2. Frierson, Pamela, The Burning Island : Myth and History in Volcano Country, Hawai’i (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991), 3.
  3. U. S. Geological Survey, “Kīlauea,” Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, accessed Nov. 16, 2020, https://www.usgs.gov/volcanoes/kilauea.
  4. Sylvester, Terray, “Rivers of lava destroy 600 homes on Hawaii’s Big Island: Mayor,” Reuters, June 7, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hawaii-volcano/rivers-of-lava-destroy-600-homes-on-hawaiis-big-island-mayor-idUSKCN1J406S.
  5. Melville, Herman, Published Poems: The Writings of Herman Melville, ed. Robert C. Ryan and Herschel Parker (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library, 2009), vol. 11, 356. Accessed through Google Books Nov. 25, 2020, https://books.google.com/books/about/Published_Poems.html?id=9smLjgj553IC.
  6. National Park Service, “Kīlauea,” Hawai’i Volcanoes, last modified Nov. 20, 2020, accessed Nov. 25, 2020, https://www.nps.gov/havo/learn/nature/kilauea.htm.
  7. U.S. Geological Survey.
  8. National Park Service, “Kīlauea.”
  9. Frierson, 55.
  10. Frierson, 48.
  11. National Park Service, “Holo Mai Pele (The Journey of Pele),” Hawai’i Volcanoes, last modified Oct. 28, 2020, accessed Nov. 25, 2020, https://www.nps.gov/articles/holo-mai-pele.htm.
  12. Swanson, Donald A., “Hawaiian Oral Tradition Describes 400 Years of Volcanic Activity at Kīlauea,” Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 176 (2008): 427-431. Michigan Technological University, https://pages.mtu.edu/~raman/papers2/SwansonKilaueaMythsJVGR08.pdf, 428.
  13. National Park Service, “Holo.”
  14. Frierson, 155.
  15. Swanson, 428.
  16. Hitchcock, C. H. “The Volcano Kilauea,” Bulletin of the American Geographical Society 41 (1909): 684-691. JSTOR, https://archive.org/details/jstor-199505/page/n7/mode/2up, 684.
  17. Frierson, 48.
  18. Nimmo, H. Arlo, “The Cult of Pele in Traditional Hawai‘i,” Bishop Museum Occaisional Papers 30, (June 1990): 41-87. Bishop Museum, http://hbs.bishopmuseum.org/pubs-online/pdf/op30p41.pdf, 45.
  19. Nimmo, 44.
  20. Nimmo, 74.
  21. Nimmo, 52.
  22. Nimmo, 54.
  23. Frierson, 120.
  24. Frierson, 122.
  25. Romero, Simon, “Madame Pele, Hawaii’s Goddess of Volcanoes, Awes Those Living in Lava’s Path,” New York Times, May 21, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/21/us/pele-hawaii-volcano.html.
  26. Suganuma, La‘akea, oral story, quoted in Rath III, J. Arthur, “Introducing Volcano Goddess Pele,” menehuneRATH, accessed Dec. 1, 2020, https://menehunerath.wordpress.com/menehunes/post-vi/.
  27. Nimmo, 49.
  28. Frierson, 93.
  29. Fritz, Angela, “8 fascinating things you never knew about Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano,” Washington Post, May 7, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-weather-gang/wp/2018/05/07/8-fascinating-things-you-never-knew-about-hawaiis-kilauea-volcano/.
  30. Cep, Casey N., “Pele’s Curse,” Pacific Standard, June 4, 2015, https://psmag.com/social-justice/will-get-you. %.
  31. Pak, Sandra F., “Urban Legends of Hawaii,” in Folklore Around the World, ed. Kristen Paletti Eastman and Grace Inokuchi Omura (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1994), 99-117. ERIC, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED371391.pdf, 101.
  32. NOAA, “Mauna Loa’s White Dog,” Global Monitoring Laboratory, accessed Dec. 1, 2020, https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/obop/mlo/webmuseum/mlodog.html.
  33. Nimmo, 82.
  34. Cato, Beth, Roar of Sky (New York: Harper Collins, 2018), 105.
  35. Cato, 96.
  36. Cato, 75.
  37. Cato, 76.
  38. Cato, 72.

29 thoughts on “A Pair of Thin Places, Part 2: Kilauea

  1. All volcanoes command respect for their destructive power. Either of greater or lesser power. Your articles on this topic are interesting because generally I don’t pay attention to it until a misfortune occurs. Very good entrance
    Manuel Angel

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Beautiful piece and so well-researched. I definitely would not mess with Hawaiian volcanoes and steal rocks! Not only because of their curse but also out of respect for the culture! Great post and can’t wait to read more from you, I always learn something new.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I really enjoyed Grimm as a show. I think I remember the episode in question too. For me, even if the event is modern, I like these to be referred to as myths that are underpinned with curses as an expansion on the myth. Perhaps, some of them might be referred to as urban myths instead of curses as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I enjoyed watching Grimm too! It touched on so many interesting concepts.

      Yes, I think urban myths count as mythology. Humans are a story-telling species that can’t help creating tales to explain and expand our world. That hasn’t changed just because we have the internet or the scientific method. Instead, those things have just given us new themes for our stories. Also, many of the stories that we traditionally treat as mythology had a similar sense of dark daydreams, warnings, and everyday people encountering something otherworldly. And there are plenty of old tales about curses too! 😅

      Liked by 1 person

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