In Polynesian mythology Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes, exerted a powerful influence over the people of Hawaii. According to tradition, Pele had been driven from the sea by her sister, the irritable sea goddess, and finally settled in the very active volcano Kilauea on the Big Island, Hawaii. Pele was a destructive goddess who could make the earth quake with a stamp of her feet. As the force behind volcanic activity, she could create as well as destroy land. Easily insulted, the ill—tempered goddess could throw fiery tantrums to start an eruption, and in response to fervent prayers from her subjects she could as abruptly stop the flow of lava.

In1790 a group of Hawaiian soldiers returning from a victorious battle stopped at Kilauea to pay homage to Pele. As they prayed and offered fish, thanking Pele for their victory and safe return, the volcano erupted without warning and killed about one—third of the men, mostly with lethal gases. Footprints of the stricken soldiers are well preserved in volcanic ash along the old trail in the national park. In the minds of the survivors the army had unwittingly insulted Pele and had to be punished. Intense belief in Pele held sway until 1824, after Kapiolani, wife of the high chief of the Kona District, had been converted to Christianity. Kapiolani resolved to show her people that Pele was nothing more than a heathen superstition. Priests, friends, and husband all prophesied a fiery doom for her.

She traveled well over a hundred miles across rugged terrain to Kilauea, where active volcanism identified Pele's home. Kapiolani's prestige and influence preceded her, and during the journey increasing numbers of people followed her to the volcano. They all remained a respectable distance from the queen, lest the fire goddess misunderstand their reasons for following her.

Reaching the fire pit of Pele, Kapiolani immediately broke taboos by eating sacred ohelo berries without first offering some to Pele. The gathering crowds of followers gasped as she threw rocks and a slipper and emptied her washbowl into the sacred crater. She then descended several hundred feet to the very edge of the lava lake and openly defied Pele to destroy her.

Remaining at the edge long enough to prove her point, Kapiolani ascended the crater. When she returned unharmed, the people began to realize that Pele was just a superstition and their fear of her was groundless. Kapiolani's heroic act stimulated many natives to convert to Christianity, including the high priest of the volcano!

Alfred, Lord Tennyson later paid homage to the brave queen by immortalizing her in a poem "Kapiolani." He described her as "Great and greater, and greatest of women, island heroine, Kapiolani, climbed the mountain, and flung the berries, and dared the Goddess, and freed the people of Hawaii!" The British essayist Thomas Carlyle also commended the South Sea heroine who was "nerved to the sticking—place" and who followed through with her experiment, "which is now very easy to repeat, and very needless."

Some Hawaiians still believe in Pele, and others respond to the time—honored tradition. Periodically they gather at the top of Kilauea and throw offerings into the crater. Many of these rituals seem to be performed to impress tourists, because the offerings are made in their presence with great fanfare. One worshiper, in recognition of Pele's preference of beverages, was observed to throw an unopened bottle of gin into the crater.

In1986 Pele joined in the celebration of the seventy—fifth anniversary of the nearby Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and the opening of its new facilities. Kilauea has erupted periodically ever since and has added about twenty acres of lava to the island of Hawaii. By the summer of 1990 the lava flow had traveled over twenty miles, obliterating the community of Kalapana and reaching the Pacific Ocean. It has produced a record—breaking 850 million cubic yards of lava, enough to cover, to a depth of over thirty feet, four lanes of interstate highway from New York to San Francisco!

Pele, the lady with restless feet, remains capricious as always and pays visits in her own good time, but not without some pattern of movement. Beginning with Kure and Midway Island, the oldest of the 1,500—mile chain of islands in the northwest, she has worked eastward to Hawaii, the youngest creation. Seamounts along the Hawaiian Ridge southeast of the Bit Island are highly symmetrical, and underwater photographs show fresh lava.

The tempestuous, fiery—tempered goddess may still be subject to fits of murderous rage, but she no longer commands respect and fear as during the pre—Kapiolani days. Pele will continue to wander eastward on her impetuous adventures, but her subjects are freed from attempting to tame her volcanic fury.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth