There are many forms of volcanic activity, from explosive eruptions with clouds of ash and pyroclastic flows, to lava flows which creep over the surrounding landscape. These phenomena shape the lives of communities who live with these threats, and in many cases folklore develops to explain what is happening.
On the Pacific Island chain of Hawaii, there is still considerable respect for the deity Pele who dwells within the lava lake at Halema’uma’u, and who still shapes the lives of those living on the Big Island today. The story goes that she arrived in Hawaii from Tahiti in Polynesia, and traveled down the island chain from the northwest to the southeast, before reaching her current residence at Kilauea. Her journey was accompanied by the movement of volcanic activity from island to island, which today we would explain through plate tectonics and ‘hot spots’. On her journey, she met Lohi’au, a chief of the island of Kaua’I, with whom she fell in love. After settling at Kilauea, she sent her sister, Hi’iaka, to return for him. Hi’iaka requested in return for Pele to refrain from destroying the ʻŌhiʻa Lehua trees. Pele agreed but stipulated that Hi’iaka must return within 40 days. Hi’iaka set out on her journey, having many adventures on its course, including returning Lohi’au from the dead. When they eventually returned, they found the ʻŌhiʻa Lehua forest on fire. The 40 days were up and Pele had assumed the worst: that Hi’iaka had stolen Lohi’au for herself. In retaliation Hi’iaka made this fear a reality, and in a jealous rage, Pele killed Lohi’au and threw his body into the crater. Distraught, Hi’iaka dug frantically to recover him, digging so deep that if she had gone much further she would have reached water that might have put out the fires of Pele.
While scientists have different mechanisms to explain what happens at Kilauea, there are parallels in the story to geological events which were noteworthy enough to form part of Hawaiian oral tradition. The first of these is an extensive lava flow, active for sixty years and covering 430 km2 (roughly ten times the size of Oxford), ending between 1410 and 1470 CE. The ‘Ailā’au lava flow significantly altered the landscape and would have destroyed the ʻŌhiʻa Lehua- the first vengeful act in this story.
The second link is Hi’iaka’s frantic digging and the formation of the caldera at Kilauea’s summit. The story implies that this event was explosive and that she dug deep enough to nearly touch the water table. It also implies that the caldera formation took place directly after the ‘Ailā’au lava flow. Until recently, scientists believed that this had taken place in 1790, linking it to an explosive eruption which killed a fraction of an army. This however, contradicts information a British missionary by the name of Ellis received when visiting Kilauea in 1823. He was told that “for many kings’ reigns” the summit lava flows were contained within the caldera. A simple calculation made by Don Swanson, a geologist at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, assuming 10-15 kings with reigns of 20-25 years, showed that the caldera-forming eruption would have occurred much earlier, roughly 1440-1600 CE, similar to the age from more recent carbon dating, 1470-1500 CE. This is close after the ‘Ailā’au flow, as implied by the tale. Swanson argues that had geologists paid more attention to the Hawaiian chants and Ellis’ writings, scientists may have had a date closer to the truth before carbon dating was conducted. He also believes that there may still be more to learn from Hawaiian oral traditions.
While there are limitations to using myths to inform geology, there are occasions where much can be learnt from local traditions and stories. Scientists shouldn’t be quick to discount this type of evidence, which might help visualise events before the written record.
I would like to thank members of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory for introducing me to these stories
Swanson, D. (2008) Hawaiian oral tradition describes 400 years of volcanic activity at Kilauea, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 176(3): 427-431.
For anyone wanting to find out more about Hawaiian myths about Pele a good book is:
Kane, H.K. (1996) Pele: Goddess of Hawaiis Volcanoes, Kawainui Press.