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Pele meets the scientist


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POSTED: Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hawaiian legend says Pele, the volcano goddess, set fire to her sister Hiiaka's ohia forest and killed her lover in a jealous rage. Hiiaka then dug a deep hole at Pele's home atop Kilauea volcano to look for her lover's body.

The story is among the many Pele tales Hawaiians have passed on through generations via hula, chants and oral histories.

Now, a scientist who has studied volcanoes for more than four decades says the stories might offer a clue that could be useful in understanding more about Kilauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes.

“;It's a very murky clue,”; said Don Swanson, of the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. “;But because it's there, it behooves us to investigate it.”;

Swanson is uniquely positioned to arrive at this realization. A lifelong lover of literature, he was reading the Pele and Hiiaka epic for fun one evening when he began to see parallels with his study of Kilauea.

“;All of the sudden the metaphors came together,”; said Swanson. “;My interest really perked up, and I suppose my pulse rate went up at the time, too.”;

Modern scientists have been analyzing Kilauea for more than a century. They know that the mountain, along with Hawaii's other active volcanoes, sits above a “;hot spot”; in the Pacific that releases lava through the earth's crust. All the islands in the Hawaiian archipelago were formed over millions of years as the Pacific plate slowly edged northwest over the stationary lava source.

Pele is the best known of Hawaii's 40,000 gods, and her stories are central to Hawaiian literature and dance. But the stories were dismissed as myth and the worship of Pele was declared superstition by Christian missionaries who arrived in the islands in the 1800s.

Today, books about Pele and Hiiaka are shelved among the ghost stories at the Hawaii State Library.

Swanson acknowledges that scientists cannot rely entirely on such stories for evidence, but he still thinks that they can inform research.

“;The chants provide an idea that you then go to test in the field,”; Swanson said.

He believes story of Pele burning her sister's ohia lehua wood forest likely describes a massive 60-year-long lava flow at Kilauea in the 15th century. During that eruption, believed to be the largest since Polynesians first arrived in Hawaii, lava poured down Kilauea's eastern flank and to the sea, enveloping lush forests in the Puna district of the Big Island.

In the story, according to a Nathaniel Emerson translation in “;Pele and Hiiaka: A Myth from Hawaii,”; Hiiaka cries out, lamenting the destruction:

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 forefront to the storm!
I weep for thy sorrowful plight!

Swanson also suspects Hiiaka's subsequent frantic digging to search for the body of her lover, Lohiau, describes the formation of Kilauea's summit caldera—a volcanic feature that develops when land sinks into space emptied by the release of large volumes of magma.

Swanson argues the Pele chants indicate the caldera formed some 100 to 150 years after the eruption, instead of around 1790 as other scientific theories postulate.

The epic says rocks flew as Hiiaka dug, a detail Swanson believes refers to explosions associated with the collapse of land as the caldera formed.

Carbon dating analysis of tephra, a volcanic material, at the caldera supports Swanson's hypothesis, published last year in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research.

Kevin Johnson, a University of Hawaii geology professor, said Swanson has done a good job of combining cultural and scientific analysis.

He noted that a scientist studying tsunamis in Japan has used oral history to study past instances of earthquake-produced waves.

“;If you don't put too much weight on it in the wrong places and use it in a responsible way, then I think it's really useful,”; Johnson said.

Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, a Hawaiian-studies professor at the University of Hawaii, said she is glad a volcanologist is using Hawaiian mythology to help his research.

But she believes the Pele and Hiiaka epic is a couple of thousand years old, predating the eruption Swanson addressed in his paper. “;The story is very old—older than the 15th century, in my opinion. The people who worshipped Pele came so long ago.”;

Swanson acknowledges the age of Pele's stories are a source of dispute. His conclusions are based on the interpretation that the tales are more recent.

Diane Paloma, a 35-year-old hospital administrator, is inspired by the confluence of legend and research.

She grew up learning to dance hula to the Pele and Hiiaka epic and continues to dance to these chants today. She said hearing Swanson talk about his paper at a Kamehameha Schools conference last year made her feel more connected to the stories.

“;This story actually took place. It's living and breathing; it's not just this mythological epic that took place somewhere in the heavens,”; Paloma said. “;It took place here, in our own back yard.”;