People make offerings to Tutu Pelé as the lava flows

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HAWAII — While a Hawaiian volcano continues to spew forth destruction on one Hawaiian island, many forget that it was this same activity that created all the Hawaiian Islands. Destruction transforms into creation.

The Hawaiian goddess, Tutu Pelé (Madame Pele) lives in, or is, the Kilauea Volcano. She has become one of the most well-known goddesses in the modern world. Native Hawaiians know Tutu Pelé by many names. According to Patricia Iolana in Sacred History, Native Hawaiians call Tutu Pelé, “Pele-honua-mea, Pele of the sacred land.” They also call her “Pele-‘ai-honua, Pele the eater of the land,” when her flames devour the land. She is not necessarily nice, but she is a fierce protector of her children and her lands.

Tutu Pelé lives among all Hawaiians and not just among people with Native Hawaiian ancestry. Hawaiians report that have seen her in the form of a young maiden or that of an old crone. Then she suddenly vanishes. The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has made it illegal to pick her sacred plant, the Ohelo plant. People leave offerings for Pele at Kilauea’s crater. These offerings consist of fruit, flowers, forest plants, berries, and vegetables. Since the recent increase in activity, residents have been leaving flowers and other offerings around their homes and in cracks to ask the goddess for forgiveness and protection.


Secularity and science

Volcanoes do not constitute a single event. An eruption expels rock, ash, and poison gases outward. Earthquakes co-occur. Heat-liquefied rock or lava oozes out of vents, or explodes out of lava fountains. When lava flows into the sea, it creates more poison gases. If the hot lava encounters burnable material, that material will burst into flame. Volcanoes violently birthed the Hawaiian Islands this way.

Kilauea has been actively spewing lava since 1983. On May 3, 2018, new lava vents opened on its slopes. An earthquake occurred at the same time as these vents appeared. Authorities ordered the evacuation of around 2,000 residents. On May 17, the volcano belched out ash 30,000 feet (9.1 kilometers) into the air.

Another major eruption occurred around the midnight between May 20 and 21, 2018. The Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency is coordinating the emergency response. They reported that volcanic ash formed its major danger of this eruption. For some of us, the words “Civil Defense” will bring back memories of crouching under school desks and thinking about mushroom clouds.

Lava flow has cut off water supplies in some areas. Residents in those areas now are relying on water tankers. These lava flows have downed power lines either by force or by causing fires.

As of May 21, this eruption/lava flow event has destroyed 44 structures. Tutu Pelé / Kilauea has injured one person. A lava bomb hit them in the leg. A lava bomb involves lava spatter. Some vents ooze out lava. Others create lava fountains that spew out these “lava bombs.” These “bombs” of hot melted rock can weigh as much as a refrigerator.


English speakers had to develop a special vocabulary to describe life with a volcano. When hot molten lava flows into the cold sea, it produces a haze. Poisonous gases and glass particles make up this haze. English speakers call that haze, “laze.” They call the air pollution that volcanic eruptions create “vog.” This pollution can contain poisonous gases. Winds can spread laze and vog away from the volcanic activity.

Elevated levels of sulphur dioxide in the air form the greatest volcanic danger. This colorless, odorless gas acts like an acid when it reaches the lungs. As a gas, the wind can disperse it far from the eruptions and lava flows.   Infants, the elderly, and those with respiratory problems have the greatest risk.

The latest reports are now showing the lava flow hitting the ocean, creating a toxic stream cloud caused by a chemical reaction between the lava and sea water. Authorities are warning residents to stay away.

Tutu Pelé/Kilauea

According to story, Tutu Pelé traveled from Tahiti to an already settled Hawaii. She moved from island to island before settling in Kilauea. She replaced the prior god at Kilauea. Her movement from island to island follows modern scientific chronologies of how the islands formed.

Daniel Swanson in “The Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research” examined the sacred chants of Hawaiian oral traditions about Tutu Pelé/ Kilauea. He wanted to see how well they matched the geological record. He found evidence that elements in the chants were consistent with geological evidence.

The Hula Preservation Society describes a “mele hula” as a specific hula linked with a specific chant, such as those Swanson examined. Rather than a dance, a mele hula is more like a ritual. This ritual involves chanted words and choreographed movements. Native Hawaiians recorded and enacted their histories and cosmologies in these mele hula rituals. Those mele hula rituals about Tutu Pelé involve her different aspects. They reflect her journey to Hawaii, her fights with her sister, and her destructive or constructive lava flows.

Alia Wong wrote in The Atlantic about how, despite everything, many Hawaiians found Pele’s visitations to be “an invigorating spiritual awakening.” Wong reported that some blame Tutu Pelé’s current visit on attempts to extract geo-thermal energy from her volcano. The current eruption activity has forced authorities to pump cold water into some of these geothermal pools to “kill” them. Others blame the many tourists who visit the island and make “souvenirs” out of pieces of the land – rock, soil, sand, flower.

This latest visitation of Tutu Pelé/Kilauea is providing witnesses around the globe with a vivid understanding of the intertwining of nature’s destruction and creation. At the same time, It is also also providing witness to the island’s still living indigenous spiritual tradition and how it thrives in the island’s modern culture.

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For more information on Tutu Pelé/Kilauea, the website for the main Hawaiian newspaper is

The Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency has a Facebook page with the latest advisory, and information.

For videos of lava flowing into the ocean and its laze, a tour boat operator has posted videos on Facebook.