Hawaiian Oral History related to Geology

GEOL 205: Lecture Notes

Hawaiian Oral History and Legend

            Hawaiian oral history and legends are amazing collections of history, morality, lessons, and art woven together.  Like any of the great works of literature, they are beautiful and poetic, yet carry many of the defining truths of their people.  And like their western equivalents, such as the sagas of Homer and the Bible’s Old Testament, they can possess a great clarity and be enigmatic at the same time.   In a similar fashion to these great works, Hawaiian legends were originally passed down as oral stories for centuries and were only written down later and then translated. There were probably several different versions of the stories in Hawaiian; translations of varying quality possibly tainted with western culture certainly added a few more.  Many of the stories were first recorded in writing in the 1800’s after contact with Europeans and after the introduction of writing and printing.  Stories of Pele, in particular, were actively discouraged by western Missionaries.  Some of the largest, compiled works about Pele legends, by Westervelt and Emerson, were compiled nearly a century later by these non–native speakers and almost certainly reflect some of their background and biases (as well as flowery Victorian writing).  Because the Hawaiian language is full of nuance and multiple meaning, it is unavoidable that many versions of the stories exist. Only recently, due to a renaissance of Native Hawaiian language and literature, are Hawaiian scholars going back and re–interpreting early 19th century accounts of oral histories that were written in Hawaiian, often by the storytellers themselves.

            There are several, separate stories about Pele that are known today, but only two basic themes that deal with the entire island chain. The most well-known are the story of the Migration of Pele from her home and family to the Hawaiian Islands and her new home at Kilauea. Another that may have significant geologic themes is the story of Hi`iaka, Pele, and Lohi`au. There are many more tales regarding the doings of Pele that are more regional in scope usually attached to a local land feature.

Formation of the Hawaiian Islands and the Migration of Pele

            While Pele stories differ on many points, it is clear from the stories themselves that Pele arrived in Hawai‘i long after the islands had been created.  In other Hawaiian legends, the demigod Maui fishes the islands from the sea, a theme of island evolution that is recurrent in other parts of Polynesia.  The details of how and why Pele arrived in the islands differ significantly between legends.  Most say that she came from the south or southeast either looking for a better home, following a husband, running from a flood, or being chased by her angry sister Namakaokaha’i, goddess of the sea.  Then she and her family land to the west of Kauai either at Nihoa Island or Niihau and begin to search for a home.

            Pele uses Paoa, a magic digging tool, to try to dig a home to keep her fires warm on Kauai after finding the smaller islands unsuitable.  She either fights Namaka o Kaha’i and is chased from Kauai or has her home drowned by water.  Pele once again finds the low lands of Oahu unsuitable as she encounters water every time she attempts to dig a new home.  The numerous cones like Puowaino (Punchbowl Crater), Leahi  (Diamond Head) and Koko Head strung along the coast near Honolulu were thought to be abandoned excavations of Pele.

            She goes to Moloka`i, Lana`i, and Kaho`olawe still looking for a suitable home. Finally upon reaching Maui, Pele is able to begin to establish a home.  In one version she has a terrible battle with Namaka o Kaha’i and who tears her body apart on the shores of Haleakala. This version has her reappear in her spirit form on the Big Island.  In another, she simply is unable to sustain her fires on Haleakala due to its immense size and she moves on to Hawai`i with her entourage.

            Pele then moves to the Island of Hawai‘i, where in some stories she makes her home not in Kilauea, but in Mokuaweoweo caldera at the summit of Mauna Loa.  In the legend recounted by Emerson, the location of Mokuoweoweo is specifically stated to be the summit of Kilauea and not the present location of Mokuaweoweo on Mauna Loa.  The Pele story with the most specific reference to her arrival on Kilauea is the Westervelt account of Pele and  `Ai la`au (the forest eater).  According to this legend, `Ai la`au was greatly feared by the surrounding people and originally lived in the pit craters outside Kilauea, but eventually had moved into Kilauea crater itself.  When Pele arrived, `Ai la`au heard of her coming and fled from Kilauea never to be seen again.  While most acknowledge Halema`uma`u as Pele’s primary residence, many stories place her in other locations. She is even said to move freely between Kilauea and Mokuaweoweo as evidenced by observations of a fireball between the two during the 1984 simultaneous eruption of Mauna Loa and Kilauea.

            Native Hawaiians were very astute observers of their natural environment and this is evident in their descriptions of Pele’s arrival to the islands.  It is pretty clear that these stories do not make any attempt to assess how old the islands are.  Instead, the stories describe the relative ages of the last volcanic events (rejuvenated stage volcanism) on Ni`ihau, Kaua`i, Oahu, Moloka`i, and Maui.  Hawaiians inferred from the appearance of the youngest volcanic features on each island (especially those which had craters) that eruptions had ceased first on Niihau and Kauai, and then became younger the farther south you traveled along the island chain. 

            The Hawaiian view of the islands expressed in Pele’s travels along the island chain is remarkably consistent with the idea James Dana proposed in 1849 that order of volcanic extinction had proceeded from the Northwest to the Southeast (he might have heard the Pele legend!).  And in fact, at the time, scientists surmised that all of the islands  formed roughly at the same time growing upwards by eruptions from the seafloor, an idea not too different from the Maui legend. While geologists looked at both the volcanism and erosional features on each of the islands as a measure of time since eruptions ceased, the Pele legend appears to record only how recent the final episodes of volcanism were.      The belief that the islands formed simultaneously was widely held or at least inferred by geologists for at least another hundred years (see Clague and Dalrymple, 1987, p.13 for an excellent summary of the evolution of geologic thought on the origin of the Hawaiian Islands).  In fact, there was no way either the Hawaiians or early scientists could have known that the entire island chain was moving northwest 2–3 inches a year and that the activity of each volcano wanes as it is transport farther and farther from the place of its origins.  Nor would they probably have believed it if they were told at the time.

             Another confluence is the relationship between water and volcanism.  While it may be coincidental, it is worth noting that all of the large tuff cones in the Honolulu region were produced by violent interaction of magma with groundwater.  The youngest of these cones is at least 30,000 years old, and probably closer to 100,000 years old, making it impossible for any Hawaiians to have observed this type of eruption.  Still, Hawaiians appear to have been very aware that mixing water and lava had catastrophic consequences and make references to this in Pele’s battles with Na–maka–o–Kaha’i, and Hi’iaka’s near-miss at flooding Pele’s home on Kilauea (described below).

            Pele's brief occupation of Haleakala is very intriguing.  Haleakala is the only volcano not on the island of Hawai'i that has erupted in the 1500–2000 years since Polynesians settled here.  During this time there have been numerous eruptions in the summit crater and on both the southwest and east rift zones.  Recently mapping and geochronology done by Dr. Dave Sherrod of the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory has greatly refined the understanding and timing of eruptive events of Haleakala (http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov/volcanoes/haleakala/newmapping.html).  Still it is difficult to ascertain which, if any, of these eruptions may be referred to in the story of Pele’s migration.

Matching the Historical and Geological Records.

            Prior to contact with Europeans in 1778, the only record of eruptions lies within the oral history and chants that were passed on from one generation of Hawaiians to the next.  Since geologists first arrived in Hawai‘i, many have been interested in reconciling Hawaiian legends with the interpreted sequence of geologic events.  This becomes an interesting exercise in itself, as both records share some of the same types of weaknesses.

            First, the passage of time tends to blur detail of events.  Most of us forget details of our childhood, for example the weather on the first day you attended school, due to the sheer mass of information and the relative importance of it.  Similarly, there is a selective preservation of information in the natural world.  Beautiful ripples of sand may appear on a beach for a day, but disappear the next without leaving a trace.  In addition, there is always the problem in geology of exposure.  Younger lava flows bury older flows; it can be difficult to locate a place to see the correct sequence of events or collect material to obtain an age for the unit.  In the case of Hawaiian culture there was actually a conscientious movement by missionaries to prevent much of the information in legends from being preserved (as well as the language, art, and hula).  It is hard to know what was lost.  And for those who interpret the preserved record of the event, whether it be geological or cultural, it is often their own personal knowledge that determines the interpretation.  To a non–geologist, most of the rocks on the Big Island look nearly identical. What is important to the observer often depends on what they have been trained to see or is limited by our current understanding of geologic processes.  Changes in ideas and availability of new technologies can lead to new ways of looking at a deposit.  To someone unfamiliar with Hawaiian thought, culture, history, and places, much of the meaning of the legends can be hidden.  And, just as today there are few great works of literature written specifically about geology, recording the chronology of eruptive events was not the central purpose of Hawaiian legend.  Why certain events are recorded and what meaning they had at the time are always difficult questions to answer.

            Using both historical accounts from the Reverend William Ellis and Hawaiian legends, Robin Holcomb in 1987 (See Appendix ?) provided a very insightful analysis of how this information might be matched to specific geologic events.  Much of the discussion provided here relies heavily on Dr. Holcomb’s work.  Where warranted by new geologic evidence, some of the interpretation has been modified.  These changes underscore how our understanding of events may change by new geologic studies or by new translations of Hawaiian history.

            Detailed written records of geologic observations began with the Ellis in 1823, though sporadic observations had been made between Cook’s arrival in 1778 and 1823.  During this time interval, huge explosions rocked the summit of Kilauea in 1790 and killed  a portion of Keoua’s army that was heading to Kau to fight Kamehameha.  This was a major cultural event, as it eventually led to Kamehameha winning control of the island of Hawai‘i.  It was also a huge geologic event, as large explosive eruptions are relatively rare on Hawaiian volcanoes. 

            Exceptionally clear descriptions of that past summit activity at Kilauea were given to Ellis by Hawaiians living in the region.  They told him that Kilauea “had overflowed some part of the country during the reign of every king that had governed Hawai‘i: that in earlier ages it used to boil up, overflow its banks, and inundate the adjacent country; but that, for many kings’ reigns past, it had kept below the level of the surrounding plain, continually extending its surface and increasing its depth, and occasionally throwing up, with violent explosion, huge rocks or red–hot stones.  These eruptions, they said, were always accompanied by dreadful earthquakes, loud claps of thunder, with vivid and quick–succeeding lightening.  No great explosion, they added, had taken place since the days of Keoua; but many places near the sea had since been overflowed, on which occasions they supposed Pele went by a road under ground from her house in the crater to the shore.”

            These descriptions fit well with what we know today about the history of Kilauea.  During the past 1000 years, roughly 90% of Kilauea’s surface has been covered by lava flows, so the Hawaiians were certainly not exaggerating about the overflows that inundated the country side.  The second part stated that for many kings past (suggesting something well beyond their lifetimes), Kilauea caldera was present and was sporadically producing highly explosive eruptions that were accompanied by earthquakes and deepening of the caldera.   Ash deposits containing footprints from the eruption that killed Keoua’s warriors in 1790 were identified in the early 1900’s.  Though the ash from this event mantles cliffs around parts of the caldera,indicating it was emplaced after caldera formation, ages of 200–300 years and the lack of any erosion between ash layers (a few major rainstorms should have left large gullies in the ash between eruptions) led geologists to believe that Kilauea caldera formed during this event.   Still it bothered most geologists that the Hawaiians Ellis talked to not only didn’t remark about the recent formation of a huge crater on Kilauea, their accounts suggested it had been there for perhaps hundreds of years.

            Dr. Don Swanson of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory was one of the geologists that helped assemble the original theory about the 1790 explosive eruptions. During another investigation in the late 1990’s,  he and his co–workers began to turn up evidence that suggested there had been many explosive eruptive events over several centuries that produced the thick ash deposits, and that the 1790 eruption was the simply the final one.  By doing thousands of hours of geologic detective work and with a technological advance in dating of charcoal,  Dr. Swanson and his group established that the first explosive eruptions began between the years 1450 and 1500.  This is also probably when the current Kilauea Caldera began to form, a story much more consistent with the Hawaiian accounts.  The explosive eruptions of Kilauea require interaction of the lava with water stored in the surrounding rocks or even partially filling the early crater.  When the lava contacts the water, large amounts of steam form and blast the lava into ash, creating large eruption columns associated with spectacular lightning displays.  Archeologists working with the geologists have also established that Native Hawaiians moved through and perhaps lived around the summit during this period of explosive activity.

Coincidently, another Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geologist, Dr. David Clague, had just completed a study of large lava flows, called the Ai laau flows, that had overflowed the summit region (no caldera was present at the time) and covered more than 50% of Puna’s forest.  The vent for these flows formed a large shield whose summit lay between present day Kilauea Iki (which formed later) and Nahuku (Thurston) Lava Tube.  The Ai laau flows host the longest lava tube caves in the world???, and the lava covered a large swath of Puna from the summit to the coastline to the north and south of  Paradise Park.  Dr. Clague found that before the Ai laau flows, this coastline had been heavily used by Native Hawaiians. The Ai laau flows would have represented a truly unusual event as lava had not reached the ocean in this area for 2700 years or at least 700 years prior to Polynesians arriving in Hawaii.   These eruption of these lava flows turned out to have ended around 1450–1500, about the time Swanson has documented for the first explosive eruptions.

In an interesting side note of science, Clague did his work before Swanson and had originally thought that it might bring the age of the Ai laau flows closer to the 1790 event, which was still thought to be the time of caldera formation.  Clague was somewhat perplexed when the ages he obtained turned out to be a hundred years older than the previous age.  Scientists are often left with data that doesn’t fit their preconceptions, and must wait for someone else to fill in the final part of the puzzle.   When he learned of Swanson’s new ideas, the ages he had found for the Ai laau flows made a lot more sense. 

            The destruction of large swath of rain forest in Puna by lava flows followed closely in time by catastrophic explosions and formation of a large crater at the summit of Kilauea seemed important enough that Swanson thought they might be recorded in Hawaiian legend or history.  His work led him to the legend of Hi’iaka and Lohi’au.

Sequences where Eruption Chronology and Legends can be related

Hiiaka and Lohiau

There are many different versions of the legend of Hiiaka and Lohiau, just as there are of all the Pele legends (see Beckwith for comparisons of many of the versions of Pele and other legends published before 1950).  The largest published volume is “Pele and Hiiaka” by Emerson, which contains many chants in Hawaiian and English (though the translations may be problematic in places).  “Holo Mai Pele” tells this story in a beautiful fashion and those unfamiliar with this story should read this book and watch the video.  Here is a synopsis that is not intended to be “correct” (there are many variations in the stories), but bring together the most common elements pertinent to geology from many of the different stories.

Hiiaka came with her older sister Pele to Hawai‘i and lived there where she protected the forests of Puna.  Pele falls into a dream and meets her lover Lohiau on Kauai.  When she awakes, she asks her many sisters if one will go and retrieve Lohiau for her.  Hiiaka agrees to go, but only on the condition that Pele will protect the forests in her absence.  Pele agrees, but tells Hiiaka to return quickly (some stories say within 40 days).  Hiiaka overcomes many obstacles on her journey to Kauai and arrives only to find Lohiau dead.  Hiiaka finds her inner powers to give life and brings him back from the dead.  She and Lohiau then begin the long trip back.  On their way, Hiiaka is able to sense or see that her forests are burning.  Pele had become impatient, and fearing that Hiiaka had stolen her lover, she sent large lava flows into the forest.  Upon their arrival, Hiiaka and Lohiau witness the terrible destruction and then openly displayed their love to  Pele.  Pele unleashes her anger at the lovers, covering Lohiau with lava that kills him.  Hiiaka becomes enraged and digs up Pele’s home to find Lohiau.  Hiiaka is so enraged that she tears through the layers of the earth to unleash the deep water to destroy her sister.  The other Gods intervene to stop Hiiaka from destroying Pele.  Hiiaka is able to bring her lover back to life and they leave together.

In Emerson there are several Hawaiian chants that give very vivid descriptions of volcanic events.  Bear in mind that while these translations may not be accurate, they are still very interesting for the detail they provide.

            Upon returning to Hawaii, Hiiaka is able to see the destruction of her beautiful forest from a vantage point above Hilo.

“See the cape[coast] that’s a funeral pyre;

The tongue of ohia’s grief-smitten.

Beyond, at peace, lies Manie;

Above rage the fires of Laka.

The cape is passion-moved; how human

The groan of rocks in the fire-pit!

That cauldron of vapor and smoke—

One side-wall has broken away—

That covers the earth and the sky:

Out pours a deluge of rock a-flame.

My home-land is Puna, sworn guard

At the Eastern gate of the Sun.”

Emerson, Pele and Hiiaka, p. 190.

            Emerson provides copious notes about this short translation and it’s difficult to gauge its accuracy, but there is a strong suggestion of lava entering the ocean along the coast visible from Hilo.  This correlates nicely with the known extent of the Ai laau lavas entering the ocean along the coast in what is now Hawaiian Paradise Park.  The largest ocean entry built Kaloli Point.  While the chant is very poetic, there are fairly clear references to destruction of ohia forests and large amounts of lava pouring out of the summit region of Kilauea.

After Hiiaka and Lohiau’s affection for each other has angered Pele, Hiiaka describes Pele’s rage prior to her burying Lohiau in lava.

            Kilauea breaks forth: smoke blurs the day;

A bitter rain blots out one half the Pit;

Heeia is whelmed by a tidal wave;--

Dread day of the fiery Goddess!

The face of the cliff is splintered away;

The lowlands are littered with fragments

Her besom spares other land, not the park.

The screw-palms are rent, the rock-plates shattered;

The bowlders grind, the mamanes groan;

I hear the pitiful sob of the trees.

The tree-gods weep at their change into stone.

Man, like the roof-pole, strangles in smoke;

Puna chokes with the steam of the Woman;

How groan the lehuas of Kali’u

A quivering flame enwraps Apua,

Mine eyes are blinded at the sight

Of the forest-circle of Ho’oku;

Nahunahu is swallowed up in the rack.

Puna, how scarred! By the Goddess ravaged!

Oluea’s uplands quiver with heat—

What ravage! Its rocky strata uptorn;

Like an oven glows the face of the rocks.

Now Heaven hurls her forked bolts

And bitter thunder-bombs; rocks burst and fly.

A crash of splintered echoes breaks the night,

Shatters the heavens and rends the earth.

My towering cliff is shook like a reed;

The trail down the cliff is wreathed in steam;

Mist veils the ragged spurs of lehua—

A reign of terror! Flames leap from the Pit;

The storm-clouds spread their wings for rain;

They rush in column of the plain.

The mouth of the demon vomits flame—

A besom-stroke to wooded Kaimu.

Destruction follows before and behind;

What terror smites a-far and a-near!

A brooding horror wraps my soul

As the fine rain covers the plain.

A spectacle this for the eye of Day!

An offering’s laid—a pig?  a man!

Deem’st it a crime to snuggle close in travel?

That we gathered flowers in the woods?

That we strung them and plaited wreaths?

That we hung them about our necks?—

A fire that burns with a devilish flame,

Till the blistered skin hangs in rages;

And this—is the work of the God!

The faithless Woman! Puna sacked!

The Park of Lehua all turned to rock!

The column of rock moves ever on;

Lehuas and palms melt away,

As the fire sweeps down to the sea.

For Puna’s below and Pele above,

And Puna’s mountain is ever aflame.

Oh Puna, land close to my heart!

Land ever fore-front to the storm!

I weep for thy sorrowful plight!”

Emerson, Pele and Hiiaka, p. 199-200.

            This chant contains vivid, graphic descriptions of cliffs being shattered, lowlands littered with fragments, rocks bursting and flying, loud crashing sounds breaking the night, smoke blurring the sky, storm clouds spreading in columns, lightning being hurled from the sky, and earthquakes that shake towering cliffs like a reed.  All of these things are events that geologists would predict to happen during collapse and formation of Kilauea’s caldera and the ensuing explosive eruption that approached the scale of Mt. St. Helen’s eruption.   The chant also contains numerous references to lava flows coating trees, blistered skin hanging in rags, fire sweeping down to the sea, and more.  Interpreting these descriptions is a bit more problematic.  Was the writer referring to the previous destruction of Puna, did the lava flows continue with the explosive eruptions, or were there additional lava flows during the explosions that geologists have yet to correlate with the formation of Kilauea Caldera.  There were large lava flows in lower Puna in 1790. They occurred around the same time as the last explosive event that killed Keoua’s warriors.  A small section of these flows can be seen at Lava Trees State Park.

            In the sequence recounted by Emerson, Lohiau is finally turned to stone by Pele.  This sends Hiiaka into a rage and she begins tearing up the strata with the intention of flooding all of Pele’s domain and destroying her.  She is stopped by the voice of a friend.  This description could also represent caldera formation or deepening of the caldera.  The reference to water is particularly intriguing.  Don Swanson has postulated that once the caldera formed, it was deep enough to intersect the water table and a lake would have formed within Kilauea Caldera.  Did native Hawaiian’s actually see a lake of water?  The references to the complete destruction of Pele by flooding her domains may simply refer to the ability of water to quench lava and put out the “volcanic fires”.  However, there is also the suggestion here and in the battles of Namaka o Kaha’i and Pele that Hawaiians knew that mixing water and lava could produce extremely explosive eruptions. 

            Does the saga of Hiiaka and Lohiau record the eruption of the Ai laau flows followed relatively quickly by formation of Kilauea Caldera and the onset of explosive eruptions?  It certainly is tempting, but there are a couple of interesting inconsistencies.

The sheer volume of the Ai laau flows (about 3 times what Puu Oo has produced in twenty years) and charcoal dates indicate that these flows lasted for at least twenty years and perhaps as long as 70 years.  In the legend, Hiiaka was only gone for around 40 days, during which time Pele destroyed her forest.

Another interesting point is that Hawaiians apparently made no mention of the legend of Hiiaka and Lohiau to Ellis when he traveled to Kilauea’s summit and across Puna.  Instead they gave the more specific, historical account of behavior given above.  There were specific references made to the legend of Kamapua`a and another to Kahawali.  Both of these legends seem to be tied to events that occurred 1-2 centuries before the Ai laau flows and formation of Kilauea Caldera.   

            A more definitive answer awaits the results of Don Swanson’s research into this topic.  In the meantime, we should all be mindful that the true meaning of these legends far surpasses the chronological events played out within them.  This elegant quote by Kumu Hula Pualani Kanaka’ole-Kanahele captures an important essence of the legend.

“The epic struggle of Pele and Hiiaka is played out to this day in the ongoing tension and balance of natural forces”.  After each eruption, lava flows destroy what life lies in their paths, but before long, they become beds for ohia seedlings.  In the Hawaiian cosmology, Pele and Hiiaka comprise the eternal cycle of destruction and renewal that drives creation.”  Pualani Kanaka’ole-Kanahele, Holo Mai Pele: The Story [from PBS Website].

Pele and Kamapuaa

            Another famous legend that related to creation and destruction is that of Pele and the half man–half hog demigod Kamapuaa.  Most of Kamapuaa legends are related to Kauai and Oahu, where he grew up.  Kamapuaa is described as a foreigner with sparkling eyes and is said to have had bristles on his back that he covered with his cape.  He also had the power to control the rain and to change into a hog, various plants, and fish.  In some versions of his encounter with Pele he escapes by turning into a humuhumunukunukuapua’a and swimming away.  Kamapuaa is associated with the lush forests on the windward side of islands.

            The legend of Kamapuaa and Pele is of particular geologic interest because it was mentioned to Ellis with specific reference to a set of lava flows west of the village of Kealakomo (now buried beneath Mauna Ulu flows).  Holcomb does an excellent job of discussing the contradictions between the geologic evidence and the descriptions given by Ellis that make it difficult with certainty which flows were related to Kamapuaa.

            The most common variant of the story has Kamapuaa arriving on the island of Hawaii and proceeding to the summit of Kilauea.  Some legends even specifically refer to Halemaumau, the house of the fern, as where he met Pele.  Kamapuaa courted Pele but was rudely rejected.  Pele called him a hog and son of a hog, which angered him and a great battle ensued.  Kamapuaa nearly drowned Pele’s home with torrential rains or waters from the sea.  With her fires nearly drowned, Pele makes a recovery (possibly with the intervention of her family or other gods) and chases Kamapuaa into the sea where he turns into a humuhumunukunukuapua’a and swims away. In the version told by Kane, Kamapuaa and Pele become lovers and split up the volcano.  He is free to roam on the rainforests of the windward side of Hawaii and she retains control of the active volcanoes. 

            Kalakaua tells a very different story where Kamapuaa is a warrior that arrives at Keahou and seeks to marry a mortal Pele.  Kalakaua is very specific about the timing of this encounter at 1175 A.D.  Pele rejects Kamapuaa’s advances, whereupon he kills many of the settlers in the area.  Pele and her family run inland and find a cave where they defend themselves from Kamapuaa and his men.  A lava flow chases Kamapuaa away, but buries Pele and her family in the cave.  Kalakaua’s story as Pele worship begin with this event.  This is a very different telling of the Pele–Kampuaa legend and it is difficult to know how it fits into the overall Pele mythology.

            Holcomb points out there are three major sets of lava flows on the south side of Kilauea that Ellis would have traversed on his way from Kilauea Iki to Kealakomo.  Unfortunately there are few charcoal ages from these flows.  The exact ages of the flows are difficult to determine, but they probably were erupted between 1100 and 1500 A.D. 

            The easternmost and oldest is the huge field of pāhoehoe erupted from Kane nui o Hamo, a large shield structure on the northern edge of Makoapuhi crater.  The current remains of this flow field stretch along the coast between the 1969–1974 Mauna Ulu flows and the Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō flow field.  This flow field rivaled the size of the Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō flow field and contains the Pu‘u Loa petroglyph site. 

            To the west of Kealakomo are flows were thought by Holcomb to have erupted from Pu‘u  Huluhulu, the prehistoric cone on the northern side of Mauna Ulu. More recent work shows that these flows are part of the Ai laau flow system. Holcomb called these the Keahou flows for Keahou landing which is on the western margin of the flows.    The western branch of the Mauna Ulu flow field partially covers the Keahou flows, which in turn cover the edge of the Kane Nui O Hamo flows where they are both exposed.

            The furthest west flows possibly came from the cinder cones either at Devils Throat or on the edge of Kokoolau Crater.  These flows did not reach the ocean and may be the flows attributed  to an eruption during the reign of Liloa by Ellis.

            While it is impossible to know with any certainty, the Keahou flows seem to be most reasonably associated with the Kamapuaa legend for several reasons.  The flows in question must have reached the ocean to be consistent with the legend.  The flows Ellis describes are evidently newer looking and to the west of Kealakomo, both facts consistent with the Keahou flows.  Kalakaua has much of the legend taking place around Keahou landing, which is on the western margin of the Keahou flows and far from the margin of the Kane Nui o Hamo flows.  However, this section of the coast is dry and desolate, not a very fit setting for Kamapuaa.

            Most of the Kamapuaa legends imply a battle where the forest begins encroaching on the volcano.  The name Halemaumau is associated with Kamapuaa and suggests that the summit region at some point might have been at least partially vegetated.  The rainstorms and dousing of Pele’s fires also suggest that the summit may not have been as active. 

             The legend of Kamapuaa and Pele, like that of Hiiaka and Pele, records the ongoing interplay between renewal and destruction of the forest.  At times the forest may creep back onto the volcano, covering the lava with seedlings and soil.  Then Pele reawakens and pour out new lava flows that continue to build up the island.

Ai laau

            Ai laau the forest eater was supposedly a fearsome god that occupied Kilauea prior to the arrival of Pele.  According to Westervelt’s account, upon Pele’s arrival he became scared and vanished from Kilauea.  Holcomb named the extensiv Ai laau flows after this account and it is always tempting to related the period of caldera formation to the arrival of Pele.  However, even Holcomb gives this legend little credibility as none of it’s elements appear in any of the other Pele legends.  Holcomb makes a good case that Westervelt may have been heavily influenced by the geological history of Kilauea as it was known in his time and incorporated elements of this into his story.  So while we have an extensive and important flow field named after Ai laau, his place in Hawaiian legend is uncertain, if he existed at all.

Understanding of Volcanoes

            From the legends and recorded histories, it is clear that Native Hawaiians had developed a good understanding of the volcanoes they lived among.  Accounts given to Ellis, along with repeated warnings, demonstrated that they were well aware of the hazards of approaching Kilauea Caldera.  At the time of his visit, it had only been about 30 years since the last violent explosion from Kilauea and the results were still strongly imprinted on the nearby residents.  Considering that both cultural and geological evidence point to several centuries of explosive activity, the warnings were advisable.  It is interesting that Ellis ignores them as superstition and feels that belief in a Christian God was sufficient for protection.  The accounts of Ellis are clear that Native Hawaiians felt that Kilauea Caldera was the sacred home of Pele and their were heiaus in the vicinity where offerings were frequently left.  The simple fact that this was a sacred site would serve to limit visitation, an extremely wise thing to do when Kilauea is undergoing a period of explosive eruptions. 


Beckwith, Martha, 1970, Hawaiian Mythology.  University Hawaii Press, Honolulu, orig. 1940, 571 pages.

An extensive treatment of Hawaiian legends often trying to compare and reconile different versions of each legend.  This book also provides numerous examples of ties to similar myths throughout Polynesia.  There is a good treatment of many of the Pele stories, including all of those discussed here (see pages 167–213).

Clague, D. A., Hagstrum, J. T., Champion, D. T., and Beeson, M. H., 1999, Kilauea Summit Overflows:  Their Ages and Distribution in the Puna District:  Bulletin of Volcanology, volume 61, p. 363–381.

An excellent paper describing the age, geology, and hazards implications of the Ai laau flows.  Includes observations on the changes in usage of the region by Native Hawaiians.

Holcomb, Robin, 1987, Eruptive History and Long–Term Behavior of Kilauea Volcano, in Decker, Wright, and Staufer, editors, Volcanism in Hawai‘i, U. S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1350, pages 261–350.

This is an excellent summary of what was known in 1987 of the long term behavior of Kilauea, much of which still holds today.  Of particular interest are pages 337–340 that contain comparisons of the geologic record to Hawaiian legends [these are reproduced here in Appendix ?].  Readers may find it fascinating to examine the differences in how the sequence of events related by Hawaiians to Ellis fit the geologic understanding at the time.

Holo Mai Pele –PBS TV show and website

This is a fantastic reference for Hawaiian Culture written by Pualani Kanaka`ole-Kanahele and her sister Nalani Kanaka`ole, two of the most respected Hawaiian hula kumus, Hawaiian historians, and cultural practioners. I throughly recommend that you read everything on this site. Also get their book and video if you can. Truly an amazing performance.


Moniz-Nakamura, Jadelyn, J., Keonehelelei - The Story of the Footprints Area http://www.nps.gov/havo/history/archeology/footprints.htm

An excellent recounting of the tragedy that befell Keoua’s warriors and the origin of the footprints found in the Keanakako’i ash in the Footprints Area.  This well written short paper describes the context of the footprints in light of new geological and archeological evidence that demonstrate that Hawaiians traveled this area much more frequently than previously thought.  Signs of Hawaiian habitation help confim that these ash deposits were deposited during multiple eruptive events and not just during the final explosion that trapped part of Keoua’s army.

Examination Questions

  1. What part of the geological evolution of the Hawiian Islands does Pele's arrival in Hawaii describe?
  2. What events might be described in the story of Pele and Hiiaka? Why do you suppose Hawaiians would have recorde these events?
  3. How does what Ellis was told by Hawaiians shape our view of the formation of Kilauea caldera? What helped scientists change their view of this event to fit observations by Hawaiians?
Extra Reading

Moore, J. G. and others, 1989, Prodigious submarine landslides on the Hawaiian Ridge: Journal of Geophysical Research, Series B 12, Volume 94, p. 17,465-17,484. Moore, J. G., and Chadwick, Jr., W. W., 1995, Offshore Geology of Mauna Loa and adjacent areas, Hawaii: in Mauna Loa Revealed, Rhodes, J. M., and Lockwood, J. P., American Geophysical Union Geophysical Monograph 92, p. 21-44. Lipman, P. W., 1995, Declining growth of Mauna Loa during the last 100,000 years: Rates of lava accumulation vs. gravitational subsidence: in Mauna Loa Revealed, Rhodes, J. M., and Lockwood, J. P., American Geophysical Union Geophysical Monograph 92, p. 45-80.

If you have comments or suggestions, email me at kenhon@hawaii.edu