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Who is Madam Pele?

As the world watches Kilauea’s eruption, many people are for the first time hearing the name Pele. Who is she and why are people talking about her?

As lava flows through Hawaii Island’s Lelani estates, some will describe what’s happening with scientific terms. Others will use just one term: Madam Pele, the Goddess of Fire, known to appear in many forms.

Dr. Lilikala Kameeleihiwa, senior professor at UH’s Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies, is a historian and an expert in Hawaiian cultural traditions. She describes, “Sometimes Pele’s an old woman on the side of the road, sometimes she’s a beautiful young woman about to give birth.”

Pele is respected and honored by many longtime Hawaiian families – regarded oftentimes as an ancestor, Dr. Kameeleihiwa adds.

Believers will tell you she’s reclaiming her land right now. Some accept it. Others might ask her for mercy. In ancient times, Dr. Kameeleihiwa says this was the ritual: “A very high chief to take an offering of a pig and pray to Pele to ask her to stop. You don’t see those things happening anymore.”

Dr. Kameeleihiwa says Pele is a strong woman and a fighter for justice. She wonders if Pele is making a statement. “A lot of people have opposed the geothermal well digging into her body; quite a desecration,” she says, referring to the power plant of Puna Geothermal Ventures.\

If nothing else, it’s a humbling reminder of the power of nature. “The elements are bigger, more important than us. Sometimes we think we can control them. We need to live in harmony with them,” says Dr. Kameeleihiwa.

Dr. Kameeleihiwa says many who live in the shadow of Pele accept the volcano as part of daily life: “We live with her, honor her, learn from her.” Now, they say the deity who can appear as a pregnant woman is giving birth – to new land.



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