Sister goddesses Poli’ahu and Pele bring lava and snow on same day to Big Island summits
For generations, Big Island volcanoes Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa have been the source of Hawaiian legends.
Pele, the fire and volcanoes goddess, showed up late Sunday night with the eruption of Mauna Loa spewing red hot lava, up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Pele’s sister Poli‘ahu, goddess of snow, stormed the summit of Mauna Kea, forcing the access road to shut down Monday night.
“[Pele is] protecting her sister, and I think that’s what’s happening there,” said Professor Lilikalā Kame‘eleihiwa, who teaches at the Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. “Poli‘ahu controls the snow and she’s protecting Mauna Kea as it is sacred to her father [Waiakea].”
Hawaiian legends tell many stories about Pele and Poli‘ahu. One includes Pele erupting at Mauna Kea after losing a sledding contest to her sister. In a series of eruptions, Poli‘ahu battled against her sister using snow, mist and water, causing glaciers to form on Mauna Kea.
Kame‘eleihiwa said some stories about the sisters circulating don’t appear to be rooted in legends passed from kūpuna (elders). Those stories typically detail fights over lovers.
Kame‘eleihiwa said it’s quite possible the two goddesses fought. But she said sisters aren’t supposed to fight over lovers in the Hawaiian culture; they’re supposed to share them.
Kame‘eleihiwa believes the goddesses are helping to block efforts to build additional telescopes on Mauna Kea, which has been home to several telescopes for several years. The mauna has been a source of controversy for several years as attempts to build the powerful Thirty Meter Telescope on the summit in 2019 failed due to ongoing protests.
Kekoa Harman, associate professor of Hawaiian studies and Hawaiian language at UH Hilo, said he approaches these types of occurrences — the eruption on Mauna Loa or snow on Mauna Kea — through chants and hula to brings these experiences to life.
“I go back to chants that were written long before I was on this earth,” Harman said. “There’s so much to learn as far as understanding the perspective on how they [kupuna] would view things and describe it.”
Harman saw the lava flow Monday night while traveling from Kona to Hilo.
“I felt so enticed to stare at it and witness its movement and glow and where it was coming from,” Harman said. “From a human level, it makes you feel alive.”
Earlier this week, the Mauna Kea summit was shrouded with fog making it difficult to see the flow. On Tuesday morning, the Gemini webcam on Mauna Kea captured Pele flowing as Poli‘ahu stood tall in a blanket of snow.
In Harman’s studies, he also never read about Poli‘ahu and Pele fighting over men. Since the eruption began, Harman has been reading not only chants, but Hawaiian language newspapers to gain a better understanding of how people were experiencing these same elemental events years before.
“Some of the descriptions include how we look at the glow, how the lava flows on the landscape and indiscriminately devours everything in its path,” Harman said. “We learn about different sounds, how the lava flows and moves underneath the surface of the earth.”
One chant Harman has been called back to describes the awe of Pele and her domain pleads with the goddess to take care of the land and people.
Many people may not know the Hawaiian legends but are familiar with the term Pele’s hair, which is volcanic glass produced from cooled lava that is stretched into thin strands, which can look like golden mats of hair.
The Mauna Kea Access Road was closed due to snow as well as foggy and icy conditions earlier this week, which limited the number of people coming to the mountain, said Nahua Guilloz, director of stewardship operations with the UH Hilo Center for Maunakea Stewardship.
Guilloz said they anticipate more people this weekend as the weather clears up. But she also said: “Most folks have just been stopping on Saddle Road to observe the lava since it is so close and the view is magnificent.”