Princess Ruth Keʻelikōlani and Mauna Loa

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There was a major eruption from Mauna Loa that erupted in November 1880 and continued for several months. By March, 1881, the lava flowed northeast toward Hilo threatening the entire city. The lava inched its way closer and closer to the city. Local Christian churches held special services to pray for the volcano to stop, but to no avail. Many of the people of Hilo evacuated to Hāmakua and Kona.

A small group of Native Hawaiian women who maintained the old Hawaiian religion from the island of Hawai’i went to O’ahu and approached Princess Ruth Keʻelikōlani, The Princess was staying on O’ahu at the time due to her overseeing the construction of her private home, Keoua Hale and a lingering illness.

The Princess agreed to do something. She would travel immediately to Hilo and and asked to be taken near the edge of the lava flow with four days’ food supply, water for her to drink and some offerings for Pele including silk, pigeons, gin, brandy, and pigs. Her entourage brought her near the edge of the lava flow and built a pili grass house for her to stay in.

The princess asked to be left alone, but some of her retainers remained on a nearby hill. They did not see the Princess for an entire day. The same on the following day. They feared for their Princess’ life while the slowly lava flow advanced to within twenty feet of the hut. The Princess began the rituals of welcoming Pele and making the appropriate offerings to her by giving her the essence. She also offered herself if Pele would spare Hilo.

By the next morning, on the fourth day, all could see that the lava flow stopped four feet from where the princess slept. Pele had accepted the offerings and stopped the lava flow.

As the Princess went down from the mountain to Hilo, throngs of people gathered to greet and thank the Princess.

King Kalākaua then arrived a day later and held a thanksgiving to Pele and to honor Princess Ruth Keʻelikōlani as well as giving out donations and construction materials to the victims of the lava flow.

(Picture: View of the lava flow that almost destroyed Hilo. Note the artists.)

Pele and ʻAi Lāʻau

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There seems to be much misunderstanding about Pele, her family, and her legends. I have read in a post from a malihini (who obviously hasn’t read much on the Pele lore) crediting the forest eater god, ‘Ai Lā’au, as being the one “eating” Leilani Estates. The undertone of that of course is based on Western sexism–that men only have the power to destroy. 

ʻAi Lāʻau was an ancient Native Hawaiian akua whose home was Kilauea. As the name implies, he lived off of burning forests. When Pele arrived on the island of Hawaiʻi, ʻAi Lāʻau knew his power to be weaker than hers and eventually fled. Sometimes ʻAi Lāʻau was invoked when clearing forests to make way for loʻi or taro terraces but he largely disappears from Hawaiian mythology. The general theme in many Hawaiian myths is quite the opposite of what that malihini commentator stated. One of Pele’s titles literally meant earth eater so Native Hawaiians did recognize that aspect of her and her ability to destroy and create lands–on her own. Several Hawaiian stories speak of her burning lehua grooves and forests as punishment for misdeeds and slights in fact.

In addition, Pele, as well as other Hawaiian female deities like Papa and Hina, are normally always stronger than their male counterparts–and in fact their male counterparts often weakens them with their fickle emotions. This would make sense to someone who understands the Hawaiian language and deep culture. Men had to build heiau and conduct rituals to invoke the mana of the ancestors that women already naturally possessed. Thatʻs why thereʻs fewer female temples–women did not need the rituals.  In stories such as Pele, we find the creative and destructive side of nature and when I mean nature I mean nature as in the environment but also in human nature as Kanaka Maoli once (and still do) view it. This thought of crediting a long forgotten male akua over a female akua– that many still believe in–is simply iʻa palahō (rotten fish) compared to the rich, nuanced and powerful roles Hawaiian women played in Hawaiian mythology and in Hawaiian society (then and now).