In my previous article I mentioned the “un-Americanness” of Hawai’i. Today this is what I begin to write about, though not without misgivings. The first time I attempted to write about it from Hawai’i, tumblr lost the post. Today being the second time I tried to write about it, my template’s HTML code was wiped out and exchanged for another code.
I fear I transgressed in Hawai’i and because this is also a story of Pele, have picked a fight.
See, in Hawai’i — really, in all places — it’s a good idea, it’s recommended that one ask the Gods’ permission to be on their land. And when given permission, it’s also a good idea to treat the land with respect and express gratitude once you have the acquired the blessing of the Gods.
You know — be a good guest.
The night I visited Pele, I didn’t ask permission. I was visiting with an intermediary, so to speak, who was my “cultural tour guide.” I figured he would do the work and anyway, if it was okay for him to be on that land, as generations of his family had been, then as his guest, it was okay for me, too.
Before I tell my story, it is only fair to introduce Pele, one of the world’s last living Goddesses. In short, Pele is an ancient fire Goddess who the Hawaiians attributed to living on the islands since before their arrival some 1500 years ago. Before I go on I should note that this is a slippery date. One of the museums in Kaua’i noted settlement as occurring around 1000 AD; the Tahiti Tourism Board has it at no later than 1100 AD. A PBS document asserts that it occurred between 300 and 500 AD. And a cursory (that is to say lazy) examination of scholarly opinion reveals a date anywhere from 300 AD to 1300 AD.
Not very helpful.
A loose consensus appears to gather around the year 500 AD. Now, this date is just to give us an idea of what was happening in the Western world around the time when the expert Polynesian navigators and “wayfarers” sailed northeast from the Marquesas and Tahitian Islands to settle a group of islands that had heretofore only been the home of the Gods, the Gods alone.
Pele being among the most feisty and powerful of them.
Some might call her a bit of a drama queen.
The stories find her actually moving shop several times, from one volcano to another due to ceaseless conflict with her sisters. This footloose kind of life would have easily explained an ever changing landscape of volcanic activity as Pele, being a fire Goddess, would grace only the active flows with her presence.
At last, she settled in the Kilauea caldera.
When the first settlers of Hawai’i encountered Pele, no matter which caldera she inhabited, the Roman Empire was in decline, meaning it was at its apex and soon-to-be disintegrating (possibly both simultaneously). Native tribes and factions from the continent were overwhelming Roman imperial forces, if not militarily then culturally. And Christianity had established itself as a stubborn and hardy competitor for human souls in the Mediterranean basin – its dominance on the European continent was imminent.
Before you dial 1-800-BORING, here’s why the history matters.
It’s important to remember that Roman aggression among European tribes would greatly influence the Hawaiian islanders, that it seeded a mythos of heroism and glory, a hostility against women and foreigners, and a policy of imperialism throughout Europe and that these things would later galvanize and inspire European nations to explore and colonize foreign lands. Enter Hawai’i. Enter Africa, Asia, and North and South America, too.
Put simply, when the Romans rolled up into what is now England, Germany, and France, the locals might not have liked them, but they made an impression.
But Pele didn’t care about any of this. The islanders soon learned to live with and among her, as they did with their other Gods, of which she was not the most important. Yet, as any woman with a penchant for drama and showmanship, she did prove to be the most unforgettable.
So it was when I met her.
Something happens when you’re up there on the volcano. Your expectations are disappointed. The things you learned about in school, looked up on the internet, worked yourself up about prior to the visit seem to melt away with each step.
In their place, a spreading sense of awe emerges. And an emptiness that mirrors the moon-like landscape. The black, hardened lava over which you walk is fifty percent silica. It proceeds as far as the horizon in every direction, punctuated only by a few dead trees, a bit of green shrub choking out of the hardened cracks that time slowly hammers into the lava rock’s surface, and the brittle remains of the 1992 eruption. Forests do regrow on a lava flat — it just takes about 100 years.
You admire it’s aspect but dare not fall. It crunches under your feet and cuts the soles of your shoes, reminding you to proceed with caution. Or is it respect? These days, we know so little of respect that Pele could have something to say on the matter.
Time slows down. Or at least, you need it to. You cannot walk too slowly. The bustling, busy, productive, effectual walk of airports, business halls, and commercial centers fade away.
You are vulnerable and you know it. And if you don’t know it, you invite Pele to humble you. The lava fields are her hunting grounds. They are textured with the beautiful signatures of former flows, some whirling, some braided, some flat and expanding.
It’s a devastating beauty.
There are heights and deviations, invisible lava tubes underfoot, and poisoned smoke billowing on the horizon. You walk with the wind. That’s what the guide tells you to do. So, we don’t approach the fumes; we walk with the wind, then west away from them, towards the sea, which is a small comfort.
In Part 2, I will write about explosive confrontations on the volcano, complicated politics, and Pele’s call to account.