Hawaiian Mythology
by Martha Beckwith 1940



Hawaiians believe that the volcano at Kilauea is inhabited by a family of fire gods presided over by the goddess Pele who governs the activities of lava flows. A kahuna brother Moho (Ka-moho-ali‘i), two sisters, Pele and Hi‘iaka (Hi‘iaka-i-ka-poli-o-Pele), and a hump-backed brother named Kamakaua (Ke-o-ahi-kamakaua) are said to compose the original Pele family, all further additions being purely mythical. Traditional lists of volcano deities compiled by Ellis, Kalakaua, and Westervelt name at least five brothers and eight sisters, the brothers associated with the phenomena of thunderstorms and volcanic activities, the sisters with cloud forms, as translated by Ellis, who also uses the old t sound which later informants replace with a k.

Pele Pele Pele
Ka-moho-arii Kamohoalii (god of steam) Kamohoali‘i
Ta-poha-i-tahi-ora (Explosion in the place of life) Kapohoikahiola
(god of explosions)
Te-ua-a-te-po (The rain of night) Keuakepo (Rain of fire) Ke-ua-a-ke-po
Tane-hetiri (Kane of the thunder) Kane-kahili Kane-hekili
Te-o-ahi-tama-taua (Fire-thrusting child of war) Keoahi-kamakaua Ke-o-ahi-kama-kaua
Makore-wawahi-waa (Fiery-eyed canoe breaker) Makole-nawahi-waa Hiiaka-makole-wawahi-waa
Hiata-wawahi-lani (Heaven-rending cloud holder) Hiiaka-wawahi-lani Hiiaka-wawahi-lani
Hiata-noho-lani (Heaven-dwelling cloud holder) Hiiaka-noho-lani Hiiaka-noho-lani
(Quick-glancing-eyed cloud holder)
Hiiaka-kaalawa-maka Hiiaka-kaalawa-maka
Hiata-hoi-te-pori-a-pele (Cloud holder embracing the bosom of Pele) Hiiaka-hoi-ke-poli-a-pele Hiiaka-i-ka-poli-o-Pele
or Hiiaka-opio
Hiata-ta-bu-enaena (Red-hot mountain-holding cloud) Hiiaka-kapuenaena Hiiaka-kapu-enaena
Hiata-tareiia (Wreath-garlanded cloud holder) Hiiaka-kaleiia Hiiaka-kaleiia

The Pele myth is believed to have developed in Hawaii where it is closely associated with aumakua worship of the deities of the volcano, with the development of the hula dance. and with innumerable stories in which odd rock or cone formations are ascribed to contests between Pele and her rivals, human or divine. The myth narrates the migration or expulsion of Pele from her distant homeland and her effort to dig for herself a pit deep enough to house her whole family in cool comfort or to exhibit them in their spirit forms of flame and cloud and other volcanic phenomena. She approaches the group from the northwest, tries island after island without success, and finally settles on Hawaii at the crater Moku-aweoweo (Land of burning). Her brother Ka-moho-ali‘i and other male relatives assist in or accompany the journey. The only female companion noted in the story is her pet little sister Hi‘iaka. The myth continues at great length with an account of Pele's affair in spirit form with a handsome young chief of Kauai of whom she is enamored and whom she determines to have for a husband; of sending her sister to fetch him to share her home on Hawaii; of jealousy of her faithful messenger; and of the sister's consequent defiance.

The Pele myth therefore falls into two parts: (1) the establishment of Pele's home at the volcano on Hawaii, (2) the sending for her lover Lohiau to share this home. In the first myth Pele is the dominant character, in the second her sister Hi‘iaka has assumed that position.


(a) Migration legend. Pele is one of a family of seven sons and six daughters born to Haumea and her husband Moemoe (Moemoe-a-aulii), all distinguished figures in old legend. Pele is very beautiful with a back straight as a cliff and breasts rounded like the moon. She longs to travel and, tucking her little sister born in the shape of an egg under her armpit, hence called Hiiaka-i-ka-poli-o-Pele (-in the armpit of Pele), she seeks her brother Ka-moho-ali‘i. He gives her the canoe of their brother Whirlwind (Pu-ahiuhiu) with Tide (Ke-au-lawe or Ke-au-miki) and Current (Ke-au-ka) as paddlers, and promises to follow with other members of the family. She goes by way of Polapola, Kuaihelani "where Kane hides the islands," and other islands inhabited by gods (Mokumanamana) to Ni‘ihau, island of the chiefess Fire-thrower (Ka-o-ahi), where she is handsomely entertained. Thence she visits Kauai and appears in the midst of a hula festival in the form of a beautiful woman. Falling desperately in love with the young Kauai chief Lohiau, she determines to take him for a husband. Passing southeast from island to island, on each of which she attempts to dig a home in which she can receive her lover, she comes finally to Hawaii and there is successful in digging deep without striking water, an element inimical to her fiery nature.

(b) Expulsion version. Pele is born to Kane-hoa-lani and Haumea in Kuaihelani. She sticks so close to Lono-makua, the fire god, as to cause a conflagration (or, as in the Aukelenuiaiku story, makes love to her sister's husband) and her older sister Na-maka-o-kaha‘i, called "a sea goddess," drives her away. She takes passage in the canoe Honua-i-a-kea with her little sister carried in her armpit and accompanied by her brothers Ka-moho-ali‘i, Kane-milo-hai, Kane-apua, and others, and arrives at the Hawaiian group by way of the northwestern shoals. There Kane-milo-hai is left on one islet as an outguard and Kane-apua on another, but Pele pities this last younger brother and picks him up again. A group of songs relate the relentless pursuit of the party by the older sister until the two sisters en-counter each other in Kahiki-nui on the island of Maui and Pele's body is torn apart and the fragments heaped up to form the hill called Ka-iwi-o-Pele (The bones of Pele) near Kauiki, while her spirit takes flight to the island of Hawaii and finds a permanent home on Hawaii.

(c) Flood version. Pele is born in Kapakuela, a land to the southwest, "close to the clouds," and her parents are Kane-hoa-lani and Ka-hina-li‘i, her brothers Ka-moho-ali‘i and Kahuila-o-ka-lani. By her husband Wahieloa (Wahialoa) she has a daughter Laka and a son named Menehune. Pele-kumu-honua entices her husband from her and Pele travels in search of him. With her comes the sea, which pours from her head over the land of Kanaloa (Kahoolawe), never before so inundated, and her brothers chant,

"A sea! a sea!
Forth bursts the sea,
Bursts forth over Kanaloa (Kahoolawe),
The sea rises to the hills. . . ."

 "Thrice" (according to the chant) the sea floods the land, then recedes. These floodings are called The-sea-of-Ka-hina-li‘i. 

(d) Unnatural birth version. Pele's father is the man-eater Ku-waha-ilo who dwells in the far-off heavens. Haumea, her mother, belongs to the Pali (cliff) family. Two daughters are born, Na-maka-o-kaha‘i from the breasts of Haumea, Pele from the thighs. Brothers are born; Ka-moho-ali‘i from the top of the head of Haumea, Kane-hekili (Thunder) from the mouth, Kauila-nui (Lightning) from the eyes, and other children (from four to forty sisters) from various parts of Haumea. Hi‘iaka is born in the shape of an egg and cherished as Pele's favorite. 

(d') Papa and Wakea are the parents of Pele, Ka-moho-ali‘i, and Kapo. Kapo is born from Papa's eyes, Kamohoali‘i from her head as a mist-crowned precipice. 

Local elaboration of the migration story describes in detail the localities on each island where Pele pursued her digging activities. A famous dance song records the successive steps of Pele's advance from island to island, beginning:

The blaze trembles,
Bursts out above, below,
The spade rattles in the cleft below.
"What god is this digging?"
"It is I, Pele,
Digging a pit on Ni‘ihau." 

As the oral recitation proceeds, recounting Pele's migration, old Hawaiian story tellers insert a song chanted in the oil (singing) style, such as the famous "Coming of Pele" describing the building of the canoe, the journey from the homeland, the family group who accompany Pele, their arrival on Hawaii, and their apotheosis at the volcano. "Kahiki" and "Polapola" as they occur in the song are today referred to the Society group, from which lands the party of gods is represented as migrating.

No Kahiki mai ka wahine o Pele
Mai ka aina mai o Polapola
Mai ka punohu a Kane mai ke ao lapa i ka lani
Mai ka opua lapa i Kahiki
Lapa ku i Hawaii ka wahine o Pele
Kalai i ka wa‘a o Honua-ia-kea
Ko wa‘a, e Kamohoali‘i, hoa mai ka moku
Ua pa‘a, ua oki, ka wa‘a o ke ‘kua
Ka wa‘a o kalai Honua-mea o holo
Mai ke au hele a‘e, ue a‘e ka lani
A i puni mai ka moku, a e a‘e kini o ke ‘kua
Iawai ka hope, ka uli o ka wa‘a? I na hoali‘i a Pele a e hue, e
Me la hune ka la, kela ho‘onoho kau hoe
O luna o ka wa‘a, o Ku ma laua o Lono Holo i honua aina, kau aku
I ho‘olewa ka moku, a‘e a‘e Hi‘iaka na‘i au ke ‘kua
Hele a‘e a komo I ka hale o Pele
Huahua‘i Kahiki lapa uila
Uila Pele e hua‘i e
Hua‘ina hoi e.

"The woman Pele comes from Kahiki,
From the land of Polapola,
From the ascending mist of Kane, from the clouds that move in the sky,
From the pointed clouds born at Kahiki.
The woman Pele was restless for Hawaii.
'Fashion the canoe Honua-ia-kea,
As a canoe, O Kamohoali‘i, for venturing to the island.'
Completed, equipped, is the canoe of the gods,
The canoe for (Pele)-of-the-sacred-earth to sail in.
From the straight course the heavenly one turned
And went around the island, and the multitude of the gods stepped ashore.
'Who were behind at the stern of the canoe?' p
'The household of Pele and her company,
Those who bail, those who work the paddles,
On the canoe were Ku and Lono.'
It came to land, rested there,
The island rose before them, Hi‘iaka stepped ashore seeking for increase of divinity,
Went and came to the house of Pele.
The gods of Kahiki burst into lightning flame with roar and tumult,
Lightning flames gushed forth,
Burst forth with a roar." 


Emerson version. Pele has made her home with her brothers and sisters at the crater of Mokuaweoweo. She falls into a deep sleep during which her spirit leaves her body and, following the sound of the nose-flute (Kani-ka-wi) and the whistle (Kani-ka-wa), arrives at the island of Kauai while a hula dance is in progress. She takes the form of a beautiful woman and wins the young chief Lohiau as her husband. Upon leaving him on the third (or ninth) night, she bids him await her messenger to bring him to the house she is making ready for him. [In Rice's version this meeting precedes her digging experiments from island to island.] In the meantime, her faithful sister has watched over her inert body and is relieved to see it return to consciousness. Pele calls for a messenger and Hi‘iaka-i-ka-poli-o-Pele is the only one of her household brave enough to face the dangers of the way. The girl demands and is given the powers of a god in order to pass through the ordeal in safety. Entrusting her beloved lehua groves and her friend Hopoe to the care of her sister and receiving her sister's last commands not to indulge in embraces on the way and to return within forty days, she sets forth on her perilous journey.

On the way she provides herself with women companions. Her old nurse Pau-o-palai (Skirt of palai fern) accompanies her as far as Kohala, where she remains with her husband Paki‘i until the girl's return. A half goddess named Wahine-omao (Thrush-woman), daughter of Kai-palaoa and Puna-hoa, is the only one who makes the entire journey with her. Another girl, Papulehu, joins her on the way but has not the spiritual qualifications to survive even the first of the dangers encountered.

Choosing the upland path across Hawaii, the party must first exterminate the evil mo‘o who make the way dangerous. With the help of the war gods Kuliliaukaua and Kekako‘i and the shell-conch blowers Kamaiau, Kahinihini, and Mapu, Hi‘iaka fights and overcomes a number of these monsters. The mo‘o woman Panaewa, who impedes her way in the form first of fog (kino-ohu), then of sharp rain (kino-au-awa), then of a candle-nut (kukui) tree, she entangles the mo‘o and her followers, the Na-mu and Na-wa in a growth of vine [or engulfs them in the sea]. Two mo‘o, Kiha and Pua‘a-loa (Long hog), are caught in a flood of lava, where their forms may be seen to this day. The shark at the mouth of Waipio valley who seizes swimmers crossing the bay is met and slain. Mo‘olau, chief of the jumping mo‘o (mahiki) in the land of Mahiki-waena, is defied, his followers put to rout, and the wounds bound up of two men the mo‘o have mangled. Two mo‘o, Pili and Noho, who make travelers pay toll at the bridge across the Wailuku river, are rent from jaw to jaw and the way opened for free traffic. The prudish ghost god Hinahina-ku-i-ka-pali, who objects to the girls swimming naked across the stream Honoli‘i while holding their clothing above their heads, is reproved and put to silence.

Crossing to Maui, the girls avoid the attentions of the paddlers Pi‘i-kea-nui and Pi‘i-kea-iki and proceed along the coast. A maimed spirit named Manamana-i-aka-luea is seen dancing the hula mu‘umu‘u (maimed) and her spirit nature is tested by throwing a hala fruit and seeing her figure instantly vanish. Omao catches the spirit and the girls restore it to its lifeless body. Refused hospitality at the home of the chief Olepau [or Kaulahea] in Iao valley, Hi‘iaka avenges the insult by catching his second soul, as it goes fluttering about while he lies sleeping, and dashing it against the rock Pahalele near Waihe‘e. At the advice of the kahuna Kuakahi-mahiku, the chief's friends attempt to overtake and conciliate Hi‘iaka but are tricked by concealing transformations. At the hill Pulehu the two take the shapes of an old woman and child with a dog; at Kalaula‘ola‘o, of girls stringing blossoms; at Kapua in Kaanapali they appear as women braiding mats for a new house. [In Rice's version other incidents occur and the chief is restored to life.]

Crossing next to Molokai, the girls choose the route along the dangerous windy side of the island and make the passage to Oahu from Kaunakakai. The single adventure described is the banishing of the lawless mo‘o tribe who have robbed women of their husbands, and the slaying of the mo‘o woman Kikipua who has stolen Oloku‘i from his wife Papaua, deserted her own husband Hakaaano, and made a false bridge of her tongue to destroy travelers. Hi‘iaka makes use of her skirt (pau) as a bridge, over which the girls pass safely. The mourning women whose husbands have been destroyed by the mo‘o band she however reproves for indulging in useless hysteria.

Again choosing the rocky side of the island on Oahu, Hi‘iaka addresses chants to the rocks Maka-pu‘u and Malei, whom she recognizes as her own supernatural relatives; greets Pohakuloa at Ka-ala-pueo (The owl road); and crushes the evil mo‘o Mokoli‘i at Kualoa. Kauhi, "with eye-sockets moist with the dripping dew from heaven," wishes to go with her and, when she refuses his company, struggles up to a crouching position. So his form may be seen today along the rock wall of Kahana. At Kahipa she reproves Puna-he‘e-lapa and Pahipahi-alua for slipping away without a greeting. At Kehuahapu‘u she listens to the sound of the sea, notices the uki plant, and admires the beauty of Waialua. At the plain near Lauhulu she chants the praises of the mountain Kaala. At Kaena point she apostrophizes its huge boulders and begs the Rock-of-Kauai, left at sea when Maui's fishline broke, to send her a canoe to cross to Kauai. It was from this point that her sister had listened to the music which lured her across the channel to Lohiau's feast.

The restoration of Lohiau takes place on Kauai. Arrived on that island, the girls are entertained at the house of the chief Malae-ha‘a-koa, whose lameness they have cured, and learn of the death of Lohiau out of grief over the disappearance of the beautiful woman who came to him at the hula dance. Two women of Honopu, Kilioe-i-kapua and Kalana-mai-nu‘u, relatives of Kilioe, have stolen his body from the place where his sister Ka-hua-nui had laid it, and hidden it in an inaccessible cave high up on the cliff Kalalau [but in some versions Kilioe is Lohiau's sister and the hider herself of the body]. Hi‘iaka catches the fluttering spirit and destroys the two Honopu women by means of an incantation. She and Omao scale the cliff and for ten days, while the people below dance the hula, she recites the chants useful to restore a spirit to its body. At the end of this time Lohiau lives and all three descend on a rainbow and purify themselves in the ocean.

The return voyage is now to be undertaken. Meanwhile the forty days' limit set by Pele for the journey has been already covered and more delays are still before them. Between Kauai and Oahu the shark gods Kua and Kahole-a-Kane and the sea goddess Moana-nui-ka-lehua raise a storm to prevent the match between their divine relative Pele and a mere mortal like Lohiau. Hi‘iaka -chooses the overland route across the island of Oahu while the other two round the island by canoe. At Pohakea she climbs the ridge, looks across to her home on Hawaii, and voices a bitter lament when she sees her beloved forests in flames and her friend Hopoe wrapped in burning lava. Still true to her mission in spite of her sister's betrayal, she chants a warning to the two alone in the canoe to indulge in no love making. At Kou (Honolulu) the party is entertained by the famous prophetess Pele-ula, a former lady-love of Lohiau, and Hi‘iaka contends with her hostess in a kilu game for his possession, but refuses to take advantage at that time of her success. [Some accounts state that at this point the three fashion visible bodies for themselves out of spittle and, leaving these behind, go in their spirit bodies to Hanauma bay, where they pass over to Maui.]

The death of Lohiau takes place as a climax to Pele's jealousy. Without waiting for an explanation from the two women who go ahead to acquaint Pele with the story of their adventures, the angry goddess, furious at the long delay, overwhelms them with fire. At this, Hi‘iaka, for the first time and on the very edge of the crater in full view of her sister, accepts Lohiau's embraces. Pele calls upon her sisters to consume Lohiau, but they pity his beauty. She invokes her gods but they call her unjust and blow away the flame, for which disloyalty she banishes them to the barren lands of Huli-nu‘u; and that is how Ku-pulupulu,

Ku-moku-hali‘i, Ku-ala-nawao, Kupa-ai-ke‘e, and Ku-mauna came to sail away and become canoe makers in other lands. Finally Pele herself encircles the lovers with flame. Hi‘iaka has been given a divine body and cannot be hurt, but Lohiau's body is consumed.

The second restoration of Lohiau to life follows. Hi‘iaka digs down after him through the earth, passing at the first stratum of earth the god of suicide, at the fourth the bodies of her two women friends, whom she restores to life. She is about to rend the tenth layer when Wahine-omao warns her against letting in the water upon her sister. Lohiau's spirit, fluttering overseas, first to Kauai, where he bids his friend Paoa seek Pele, then to La‘a in Kahiki, is caught by Kane-milo-hai who has been left to guard the outposts of the group, and restored to life. At first he is listless, but La‘a's bird messengers, Plover and Turnstone, rouse him to interest in human affairs. At Pele-ula's home he is reunited to Hi‘iaka. [In Rice's version he is sent back to Kauai by canoe. In one legend Omao becomes the wife of Lono makua.] 

The trance motive in the story of Pele's meeting with her lover depends upon the idea that a spirit can wander away from a living body (uhane-hele) and take the form of a second body (kinoho‘opaha‘oha‘o), in which form it can carry on a life of its own apart from the body. The theme is rationalized in the Laieikawai romance where Aiwohikupua dreams of meetings with Laieikawai before he has ever seen her. In Tahiti it is recorded that the young chiefess of Huahine remained in such a condition for a month, during which time she met a lover who cherished and protected her. In a Marquesan story two gods who desire the woman Teapo stop her breath and take her ghost to Havaii where she hears songs sung which she can repeat after she is restored to life. 

Few references to the Pele figure are to be found in othergroups. Gifford reports a Tongan female deity called Puakomopele with pig head and woman's body who rules all the gods of Haapai and whose sacred animal is the gecko. Allusions to Pele in Tahiti as deity of fire under the earth are said to be due to late contact with the Hawaiian group:

The heat of the earth produced Pere (Conceiving heat), goddess of the fire in the earth (atua vahine no te vera o te fenua). . . a blond woman (vahine ‘ahu); then came Tama-ehu (Blond child) or Tama-tea. Fire was those gods' agent of power; it obeyed them in the bowels of the earth and in the skies. They were the chief fire gods. 

. . . The great goddess Pere (Consuming heat) must be goddess of spontaneous burning of the earth. Tama-'ehu (Blond child), the brother of Pere, must be the god of heat in the nether lands. 

. . . Pere has light down in the earth, without heat; above is the fire ever burning. Awe-inspiring is the residence of Pere down in the earth, great are her attendants that follow her below and above the surface of the world. 

In Tahiti, the uninhabited islet of Tubai, most northern of the group, is Pere's home during her visits to the south. Ti-‘ara‘a-o-Pere (Standing place of Pele) is the name of the assembly ground of the district of Tautira on Tai-a-rapu. 

Pele as goddess of volcanic fire is addressed in Hawaiian chants by a number of names descriptive of volcanic activity. Pele-ai-honua (eater of land) she is called because she destroys the land with her flames. Ai-laau (Wood eater) in the Pele myths is an old volcano god who retreats before Pele or surrenders to her the pit he has dug. According to Kamakau he is still an aumakua of volcanic fire to whom dead bodies are offered to become flame. Among the Maori, the descendant of Maui-mua who came to New Zealand in the Tearatawhao canoe is literally "Toi the wood eater" because he used raw fern-wood, the edible palm, and young fern sprouts for food and knew nothing of fire and of cultivated food. 

Pele's most common chant name is Pele-honua-mea (Pele of the sacred earth), reminiscent of the Maori Para-whenua-mea, a name which Percy Smith interprets as "effacement of nature due to the flood," Para-whenua-mea being, in Maori myth, the wife of Kiwa and mother of "the great ocean of Kiwa" or the Pacific Ocean. Pele is the name by which the goddess is worshiped in her fire body. Ka-ula-o-ke-ahi (The redness of the fire) is her sacred name as a spirit. Kilinahi Kaleo, whom I here quote, gave a start when I pronounced the name, and lowered his voice in answering my question. Pele's name as a woman on earth, he told me, was Hina-ai-ka-malama. Clearly the Maui mythologists of Hana have taken this means to work into the Pele cycle their own famous Hina goddess of the moon, to whose connection with the flood story and with the Kaha‘i-Laka cycle is now added a place in the pantheon of the hula dance and the romances woven about its festivals.


Source: http://www.sacred-texts.com


1. Coming of the Gods
2. Ku Gods
3. The God Lono
4. The Kane Worship
5. Kane and Kanaloa
6. Mythical Lands of the Gods
7. Lesser Gods
8. Sorcery Gods
9. Guardian Gods
10. The Soul after Death
11. The Pele Myth
12. The Pele Sisters
13. Pele Legends

14. Kamapua`a
15. Hina Myths
16. Maui The Trickster
17. Aikanaka-Kaha`iI
18. Wahieloa-Laka
19.  Haumea
20. Papa and Wakea
21. Genealogies
22. Era of Overturning
23. Mu and Menehune
24. Runners, Man-Eaters, Dog Men
25. Moikeha-la`a Migration
26. Hawaiiloa and Paao
27. Ruling Chiefs
28. Usurping Chiefs
29. Kapua Stories
30. Trickster Stories
31. Voyage to the Land of the Gods
32. Riddling Contests
33. The Kana Legends
34. The Stretching-Tree Kupua
35. Romance of the Swimmer
36. Romance of the Island of Virgins
37. Romances of Match-Making
38. Romances of the Dance
39. Wooing Romances
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