Also known as: Pele-honu-amea (Pelé of the Sacred Land); Pele-‘ai-honua (Pelé Eater of Land)

Origin: Polynesia

Classification: Akua; Aumakua

Pelé is currently the world’s most famous volcano goddess, but she is also so much more. Pelé is a divine ancestress and a spirit of righteous, if temperamental, justice. She provides for those she considers her people in times of famine, drought, and need. Pelé destroys, but she is also a vigilant guardian. Pelé is a love goddess: much of her mythology focuses on her romantic and erotic adventures. She is incredibly generous and incredibly temperamental. Her fury is akin to a volcano blowing its top. She is a lusty goddess who loves music, dance, food, drink, and handsome men.

Pelé is an ancient goddess and a modern urban legend. She is a living spirit who likes to mingle with people. Pelé makes frequent corporeal appearances. In other words, those who encountered her first thought she was a human being until Pelé somehow revealed her goddess identity. Pelé may be the prototype for the modern urban myth of the vanishing hitchhiker.

Hawaii’s most famous goddess, daughter of Haumea and Kanehoalani, was born in the Society Islands in either Tahiti or Bora Bora. When she was born, the image of flames could be seen in her eyes. Her uncle Lonomakua, the island’s fire keeper, had been waiting for years for someone to whom he could transmit his knowledge. When he saw Pelé’s eyes, he knew she was the one.

Fiery phenomena increased. Island hot spots spontaneously burst into flames. Pelé and her uncle were blamed, accused of stoking fires in subterranean caverns. Pelé and her older sister, the water goddess Namaka fought and Pelé was banished, placed on a canoe with supplies and any siblings who chose to travel with her.

Her arrival in Hawaii was heralded by lightning and volcanic eruptions. She initially had trouble finding a home. Namaka pursued her, dousing Pelé’s flames. Finally Pelé burrowed into the volcano Kilauea on the big island of Hawaii, her home base ever since. Pelé likes to travel. There are legends about her throughout the Hawaiian isles. She is not a stay-at-home goddess but likes to get out and see people. Pelé rescues people who are gracious, polite and kind to her (usually by warning of dangers on the road).

On the other hand, she allegedly curses those who remove anything from her volcano (rocks, plants). The curse manifests as bad luck, trouble, unemployment, illness, or accidents. Some claim that this is an invented legend, but over two thousand pounds of rocks are returned to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park annually, accompanied by letters from people describing their misfortune. Even if Pelé didn’t originally think of the curse herself, she seems to have adopted it with gusto.

Pelé is an extremely adaptable goddess, very capable of adjusting to modern times. She likes roads. She likes cars. She seems to have fun playing the role of vanishing hitchhiker. She may or may not actually hitch-hike. She often stands or walks on a very lonely road after dark. She appears old and fragile, not at all threatening. A kind person would stop and ask if she was all right or if she needed a ride. Those who do not pick her up often meet with trouble. Alternatively, she just magically appears in their car anyway.

Pelé protects her descendents and those she loves. She is a mistress of magic and hula dancing. (The official 2008 poster for the annual Merrie Monarch Festival of Hula and Hawaiian Culture features an image of Pelé.)

In December 1824, Chiefess Kapiolani, an early and fervent convert to Christianity, defied Pelé. She traveled up to the Kilauea fire pit. People followed weeping, convinced that she would die. Kapiolani marched several hundred feet into the crater. Then she threw rocks into the pit, announcing that Jehovah was her god and that he, not Pelé, had kindled the volcano flames. That story is very famous. There’s a second half that’s less frequently recalled.

In 1881, almost sixty years after Kapiolani’s defiance, lava streamed toward the town of Hilo. Princess Ruth Ke_elik_lani, a traditionalist who hewed to Hawaiian spiritual traditions, was delegated to propitiate Pelé. She brought her brandy, silk scarves, and offered traditional prayers right in sight of a Christian Church. The lava, which had already reached the outskirts of Hilo, immediately stopped.

Manifestation: Pelé manifests in any form she desires: young, old, gorgeous, haggard. Her hair may be black, red, white, or silver. She likes to dress in red. Pelé’s skin may be scorching hot or ghost cold to the touch. Theoretically any woman might be Pelé, so all women should be treated with respect.

If she wants to identify herself, she will. The classic example involves a mysterious hitchhiker who after settling herself in the vehicle requests a cigarette. Before the person who gives it to her can offer a light, the hitchhiker manifests fire right out of her naked hands. She lights her cigarette, the flame in her hands vanishes, she has no burns. She may disappear shortly after.

When she hitchhikes, Pelé appears as a solitary old lady, often in traditional Hawaiian dress. She appears on the beach as a beautiful young Hawaiian woman in a scarlet muumuu accompanied by an entourage of dancers. In any guise, her most frequent companion is a little white dog. So-called ghost-lights may signal her presence. (Science suggests these mysterious dancing lights are caused by gas escaping from terrestrial fissures, which sounds like something Pelé would cause.)

Iconography: Pelé is a favorite subject of artists. In particular, portraits by Herb Kawainui Kane have achieved iconic status.

Attributes: Flames are her primary attribute; she may also leave behind three long silver hairs as her calling card.

Spirit allies: Kamapua’a; Pelé has a close relationship with many shark spirits. (She is literally related to many of them.)

Creatures: Dog, shark

Sacred sites: Active volcano Mount Kilauea (she reputedly lives within Halema’uma’u crater but the whole mountain is her home). The site of her ancient temple is now occupied by the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum, which features Herb Kawainui Kane’s Pelé murals. Mauna Loa also belongs to her.

Tree: ‘Ohi’a lehua (Metrosideros collina)

Plant: Sadlaria (red) ferns, ohelo (Vaccinium reticulatum). Pelé claims the ohelo berries that grow on her mountain. The ohelo is not just any plant: it grew from the bones of her mortal sister, Ka’ohelo. The mountain berries are reserved for Pelé (and endangered Hawaiian nene geese).

Color: Red, orange, flame

Element: Fire

Offerings: Offerings are traditionally left respectfully at the crater’s edge but may be placed on home altars, too: crystals, roast chickens, flowers, ohelo berries, flame-colored silk scarves or other luxurious fabrics. Pelé is frequently given cigarettes, gin, brandy, or other alcoholic beverages. However, this is controversial: many traditional Hawaiians do not approve.

See also: Akua; Haumea; Hi’iaka; Kahoupokane; Kamapua’a; Kamohoali’i; Kane; Kapo; Kihawahine; Laka; Lilinoe; Lono; Namaka; Poliahu; Waiau