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Pele's Hair


Source: Myths & Legends Of Our New Possessions & Protectorate

Fiercest, though loveliest, of all the gods is Pele, she whose home
is in Kilauea, greatest of the world's volcanoes. When this mountain
lights the heavens, when lava pours from its miles of throat, when
stone bombs are hurled at the stars, when its ash-clouds darken the sun
and moon, when there are thunders beneath the earth, and the houses
shake, then does this spirit of the peak, in robes of fire, ride the
hot blast and shriek in the joy of destruction,--a valkyrie of the
war of nature. Kanakas try to keep on the good side of this torrid
divinity by secret gifts, either of white chickens or of red ohelo
berries, and an old man once put into a guide's hand the bones of a
child that he might throw them down the inner crater,--Halemaumau,
the House of Eternal Burning, whose ruddy lava cones are homes of
the goddess and her family. The dogs sacrificed to Pele, when human
victims were scant, were nursed at the breasts of slaves, and the
priests and virgins received as their portion, after the killing,
the heart and liver. Next to her eyes, of piercing brightness,
the most striking thing in the aspect of this deity is her wealth
of hair, silky, shining red in the glow, and shaken from her head
in a cloud-like spread as of flame. When the eruption is at an end
and a sullen peace follows the outbreak, tufts _of_ this hair are
found in hollows for miles around. Birds gather it for their nests,
and unfearing visitors collect it for cabinets and museums.

Science tells us that Pele's hair is a molten glass; threads of
pumice: a stony froth. When a mighty blast occurs, or when steam
escapes through the boiling mass, particles of pumice shred off in
the upward flight, or are wire-drawn by winds that rage over the
earth. These viscid threads cool quickly in that chill altitude,
and float down again. They can be artificially made by passing
jets of steam through the slag of iron furnaces while it is in a
melted state, the product, which resembles raw cotton, being used,
in place of asbestos, for the packing of boilers, steam-pipes, and
the like. To such base uses might the goddess' shining locks be put,
if she tore them out in large enough handfuls during the carnival of
fire and earthquake; but they are not found in quantities to justify
this search by commercial-minded persons, and conservative Kanakas
might be alarmed by thought of revenges which Pele would visit on
them should they misuse her hair as the foreign heathen do.

The Prayer to Pele

Although Pele is the most terrible of deities, she can be kind. If a
village makes sacrifices to her she is liable at any hour to continue
to keep the peace. Otherwise, she loses her temper and pours out floods
of lava or showers of ashes on the neglectful people, or dries their
springs and wastes their farms. Sacrifices of unhappy beings were made
to her whenever the volcano spirits began to growl, the victims being
bound and thrown into the crater of the threatening mountain. Princess
Kapiolani was probably the first native to protest against these
sacrifices, and in 1824, after her conversion to Christianity,
she gave an instructive exhibition by defying the taboo of Kilauea,
eating the berries growing on the sides of the peak, in defiance of
the priestly order, and throwing rocks contemptuously into the pit.

Pele is the Venus of the islands, and is of wondrous beauty when she
takes a human form, as she does, now and again, when she falls in
love with some Mars or Adonis of the native race, or when she intends
to engage in coasting down the slippery mountain sides,--a sport of
which she is fond. As always with distinguished company, you must
let your competitor win, if you fancy that it is Pele in disguise who
is your rival in a toboggan contest; for a chief of Puna having once
suffered himself to distance her, she revengefully emptied a sea of
lava from the nearest crater and forced him to fly the region. Many
tales of her amours survive. Kamehameha the Great was among her most
favored lovers. It was to help him to a victory that she suffocated
a part of the army of his enemy with steam and sulphur fumes.

It fared less happily with the debonnair Prince Kaululaau when he
attempted force in his wooing. He found Pele watching the surf-riders
at Keauhou, and was ravished by her loveliness. Her skirt glittered
with crystal, her mantle was colored like a rainbow, bracelets of
shell circled her wrists and ankles, her hair was held in a wreath of
flowers. His admiration was not returned. She was contemptuous toward
him,--one could almost say cold, but Pele was seldom that, for when
the young chief approached, the earth about her was blistering hot
and he was compelled to dance. With his magic spear he dissipated her
power for a little and lowered the temperature she had inflamed the
very earth withal. So soon, however, as she had regained her freedom,
and had passed beyond the influence of this spear, she undertook
to avenge herself by opening the gates of the mountain and letting
loose a deluge of lava. Again with his spear-point Kaululaau drew
lines on the ground, beyond which the deadly torrent could not pass,
and through the hot air, amid the rain of ashes and the belching of
sulphurous steam, he regained his canoe and escaped.

Only so far back as 1882 this goddess was petitioned by one of the
faithful, and with effect. Mauna Loa was in eruption. A river of lava
twenty-five miles long was creeping down the slope and was threatening
the town of Hilo. The people raised walls and breaks of stone to
deflect this stream; they dug pits across its course to check it,
but without avail. The vast flow of melted rock kept on, lighting
the skies, charring vegetation at a distance, and filling the air
with an intolerable heat. Princess Ruth, a descendant of Kamehameha,
was appealed to. She hated the white race, and would have seen with
little emotion the destruction of all the European and American
intruders in Hilo; but it was her own people who were most in danger,
so she answered, "I will save the Hilo fish-ponds. Pele will hear a
Kamehameha." A steamer was obtained for her, and with many attendants
she sailed from Honolulu to the threatened point. Climbing the slope
behind the village, she built an altar close to the advancing lava,
cast offerings upon the glowing mass, and solemnly prayed for the
salvation of Hilo. That night the lava ceased to flow. It still forms
a shining bulwark about the menaced town. The princess sailed back
to Honolulu, and the faithful asked the Christians why the pagan
divinity alone had answered the many prayers.

Next: Lohiau And The Volcano Princess

Previous: The Misdoing Of Kamapua

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