Pele's Hair





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.





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