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A Woman Challenges the Goddess of the Volcano

March 16, 2011

Could you imagine walking up to the edge of a molten lake of lava to prove a point? That is exactly what happened in 1824…

We thought we’d share one of the most celebrated accounts in Hawaii’s modern history that occured between a courageous woman and the legendary goddess of the volcano, Pele.

Some of the most important events in Hawaiian history were undertaken by powerful women. In 1819, Queen Ka`ahumanu overthrew the age-old kapu system of rigid laws and for years to come exerted her influence on the successors of her late husband Kamehameha the Great. Later in the mid-1800’s, Queen Emma began the first hospital for her people, which still operates to this day as the Queen’s Medical Center. It is understandable that women like Ka`ahumanu and Emma would be held up as an example of greatness by the Hawaiian people, though their names remain little known to most outsiders. However, another Hawaiian woman gained worldwide notoriety because of her deeds.

In 1824, just a few years after the first Protestant missionaries had arrived, Chiefess Kapiolani marched down with many Hawaiian onlookers and stood defiantly at the edge of a rolling, churning lake of molten lava in what is now Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. For generations, Halema`uma`u was believed to be the home of the powerful, and often temperamental, goddess Pele.

As Kapiolani stood at the edge of this molten abyss, she declared the superiority of her new faith and (it is said) ate the sacred `ohelo berries without first giving some to goddess. Although she had been told by a kahuna (priest) of Pele that she would die, Kapiolani stood her ground and defied centuries of tradition, to the awe and amazement of the onlookers. Her act at Halema`uma`u was a defining moment that illustrates for us today the profound change that took place at that time in Hawai`i.

In a matter of just a few years, many of the traditional beliefs that had been held for centuries were tossed aside in exchange for new ideas from the West. Years after this event, artists and poets tried to capture this important moment, including the famous British poet Lord Alfred Tennyson, who penned a poem describing his feelings concerning this act by Kapiolani.  He wrote,

When from the terrors of Nature a people have fashion’d and worship a Spirit of Evil
Blest be the Voice of the Teacher who calls to them,
“Set yourselves free!”

II

Noble the Saxon who hurled at his Idol a valorous weapon in olden England!
Great, and greater, and greatest of women, island heroine Kapiolani
Clomb the mountain, and flung the berries and dared the Goddess, and freed the people
Of Hawa-i-ee!

III

A people believing that Peelè the Goddess would wallow in fiery riot and revel
On Kilauea,
Dance in a fountain of flame with her devils or shake with her thunders and shatter her island,
Rolling her anger
Thro’ blasted valley and flowing forest in blood-red cataracts down to the sea!

IV.

Long as the lava-light
Glares from the lava-take,
Dazing the starlight;
Long as the silvery vapor in daylight,
Over the mountain
Floats, will the glory of Kapiolani be mingled with either on Hawa-i-ee.

V.

What said her Priesthood?
“Woe to this island if ever a woman should handle or gather the berries of Peelè
Accursed were she!
And woe to this island if ever a woman should climb to the dwelling of Peelè the Goddess!
Accursed were she!”

VI.

One from the Sunrise
Dawned on His people and slowly before him
Vanished shadow-like
Gods and Goddesses,
None but the terrible Peelè remaining as Kapiolani
Ascended her mountain,
Baffled her priesthood,
Broke the Taboo,
Dipt to the crater,
Called on the Power adored by the Christian and crying, “I dare her, let Peelè avenge herself!”
Into the flame-billows dashed the berries, and drove the demon from Hawa-i-ee.

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