Images of Madam Pele, the Hawaiian Goddess of Fire, resemble the flames seen in flowing lava. When she erupts she is passion incarnate, bringing destruction and creation at the same time.
When not active, she rests peacefully within the earth, sharing her energy with those who live in the shadow of the volcano.
What do stories of Gods and Goddesses mean for our modern world?
[This blog post is a dialogue between Jody and Michelle about Pele]
M: Thank you, Jody, for wanting to write about Pele. The district I live in is considered part of the lands of Pele. Even if I am a modern person, in some sense I live inside the story of Pele because I’ve been hearing stories about her all my life. Also, the story of Pele explains the kind of relationship most people have with the landscape here the best. It is a very personal and reverent relationship. It’s hard not feel reverence before Halemaʻumaʻu, the vast smoking, flaming crater that is her home.
J: The powerful elements of nature; fire, water, air (wind), and earth are often pictured as images of Gods and Goddesses. They capture our need to ‘humanize’ the forces of nature making it easier to talk with them, perhaps in the hope that they wouldn’t destroy us.
M: Yes, living within sight of a live volcano reminds you daily and deep in your psyche how contingent your life is on forces far beyond human control or even comprehension. The story of Pele explains something that even the scientific facts about volcanoes can’t explain very well – the feeling of living near a volcano, the feeling of living near a super-human, landscape-scale being that is extremely fierce and unpredictable.
J: The God’s and Goddesses were also believed to have been the source of many gifts. Early humans believed that the Gods gave us the gift of fire. Our ability to control fire was probably one of the earliest human tools.
Some scientists suggest that life arrived on earth from stardust, fallen meteorites that contained frozen molecules of DNA from some distant exploded solar system. ‘We’ traveled to earth across light years and the seed within the meteorite became the molecules of life that began to grow within the mud along the edges of a very different sea, under a very different sky.
We have little if any scientific proof, the evidence was long ago destroyed, but the ideas are interesting. Humans have long tried to imagine our beginning, how we got here, where we are headed.
M: There is a very beautiful story recounted by Robin Wall Kimmerer about Skywoman, the goddess who fell from the sky, that is another way of talking about this idea of life being seeded from the stars:
“She fell like a maple seed, pirouetting on an autumn breeze. A column of light streamed from a hole in the Skyworld, marking her path where only darkness had been before. It took her a long time to fall.”
Pele is also said to have been a traveller from another world; she is said to have led her clan from the ancestral, mythical lands of Kahiki to find the islands of Hawaiʻi. So we are talking about a very strong, passionate woman here, who could lead her clan into the unknown, to take that ultimate gamble of seeking out new islands in the vastness of the North Pacific.
J: All through time life has faced challenges maintaining it’s tenuous foothold on the thin skin of surface we inhabit on this planet. I think of today with temperatures rising, climate changing, storms becoming stronger, and I wonder if Pele feels the stirrings too. We used to fear making the Gods and Goddesses angry lest we awaken their destructive forces. Perhaps in honoring Goddesses such as Pele we acknowledge the powerful forces of nature lest we are ever arrogant enough to think we can control them.
Here is a poem I wrote trying to express the ebb and flow of the energy we call passion.
Passion comes unveiled and I stand aright at last.
How quickly the mind surrenders to the fire from within.
The energy that creates me surges through my veins,
and lifts my body upwards towards a union with my soul.
Like a demon possessed or a Goddess on her throne,
the spirit of fire devours my every flesh and bone.
Underneath life’s movement passion runs its course,
giving everyday events a touch of rapture and remorse.
How easy it is to feel creation’s lust and thrill,
until passion burns to dust and the curtain falls once more.
M: Your poem reminds us how much the passions that surge through our minds and bodies connect us to the greater processes of the world. You seem to have been “channeling” a fire goddess when you wrote this! Your poem also makes me think of another poem about nature, creativity, and passion by Alice Fulton (quoted in Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (2007):
because truths we don’t suspect have a hard time
making themselves felt, as when thirteen species
of whiptail lizards composed entirely of females
stay undiscovered due to bias
against such things existing,
we have to meet the universe halfway.
Nothing will unfold for us unless we move toward what
looks to us like nothing: faith is a cascade.
The sky’s high solid is anything
but, the sun going under hasn’t
budged, and if death divests the self
it’s the sole event in nature
that’s exactly what it seems.
Because believing a thing’s true
can bring about that truth,
and you might be the shy one, lizard or electron,
known only through advances
presuming your existence, let my glance be passional
toward the universe and you.
What Alice Fulton (and Karen Barad) is getting at, I think, is that what we find is what we want to find, in other words, what is meaningful to us. So the story of Pele helps us to see things – the shy ones – that we otherwise might not find meaningful enough to see. And so we can all be voyagers, discoverers of new worlds, in our own home landscape, by seeking to see what is right there in a different way. Every landscape is the home of gods and goddesses, and itʻs not that you have to believe in them, itʻs that you might be able to see them. Like in Chrisʻ quiet and profound If You Stop in the Woods or Richardʻs eery and wonderful Keep you Eyes and Hear Open.