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
Formation of the
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
Pele uses Paoa, a magic digging tool, to try to dig a home to keep her fires warm on
She goes to Moloka`i, Lana`i, and Kaho`olawe still looking for a suitable home. Finally upon reaching
Pele then moves to the
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,
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
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
Pele's brief occupation of Haleakala is very intriguing. Haleakala is the only volcano not on the
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
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
Exceptionally clear descriptions of that past summit activity at
These descriptions fit well with what we know today about the history of
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
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
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
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
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
“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
After Hiiaka and Lohiau’s affection for each other has angered Pele, Hiiaka describes Pele’s rage prior to her burying Lohiau in lava.
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 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
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
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
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
The most common variant of the story has Kamapuaa arriving on the
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
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 the forest eater was supposedly a fearsome god that occupied
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
Beckwith, Martha, 1970, Hawaiian Mythology. University Hawaii Press,
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
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
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.
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.
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