Thursday, May 24, 2018

Women who devour the earth

The Hawaiian eruption highlights parallels between two powerful volcanic deities

Again, the New York Times demonstrates its unfailingness. Tuesday’s edition documents how the ongoing eruptions on Kilauea have prompted an upsurge in reverence for Madame Pele, Hawaii’s goddess of volcanoes. Now this is a topic that cannot fail to rivet the attention of any aspirant meizanologist.

Pele: painting by Herb Kane
at the Hawaii Volcanoes NP Visitor Center
Photo via flickr, courtesy Prayitno
Pele, also known as “the woman who devours the earth”, has been worshipped for centuries in the Native Hawaiian culture. And respect for the deity is growing, even though – or because – lava from her favourite volcano is currently devouring forests, houses and even a power station. According to the NYT, a retired schoolteacher who lost her home described it as “an offering for Pele”.

To folks who live underneath one, rites and oblations to appease a volcano have always made sense. In medieval Japan, such ceremonies were raised to a fine art. During Mt Fuji’s ninth-century eruptions, the authorities offered the Great God Asama a more commodious shrine (in what is now Fujinomiya). Then, in 859, they promoted him to the senior grade of the third court rank. And when that didn’t placate him, they censured the governor of Kai for neglecting the proper rituals and demanded an apology on the god’s behalf.

At that time, the deity of Mt Fuji was most definitely a guy. But, in later centuries, his role was taken over by a goddess, Konohanasakuya-hime, the Princess of the Flowering Cherry Tree. How this transgendering happened need not detain us; what’s interesting here are the obvious parallels between the Princess and Madame Pele.

Both deities are rather senior in their respective pantheons. “We believe in 40,000 gods, but Pele is in the highest echelon for obvious reasons,” says a hula teacher and lecturer on Hawaiian culture quoted in the NYT, adding that “Pele created Hawaii; she is that primordial force that exists within all landmasses. And she can be vengeful, so watch out.”

Konosakuya: Princess of the Flowering Cherry Tree
Nihonga painting by Dōmoto Inshō

For her part, Konosakuya is the wife of the god Ninigi (I’m relying on the usual online references here). Ninigi we’ve met before on this blog, as the deity who came down to earth on Takachiho, a volcano in Kyūshū, and founded the imperial line.

Like Pele, however, the Princess had to endure a troubled marriage, which may account for her volatile temperament. For she too can be somewhat vengeful: legend has her kicking over hapless Yatsu-ga-take because the older volcano had once presumed to be taller than Mt Fuji.

Intriguingly, Pele is said to be a shape-shifter who can easily appear in human form: “If you see her hitchhiking, pick her up. If you have a bottle of gin, even better. Pele, like her descendants, likes a little mischief,” suggests a Hawaiian evacuee, quoted in the NYT, who is waiting to see if the lava flow destroys her home.

This advice reminds me of an autumnal excursion to Mt Fuji. The official climbing season was long over; nobody was about. While sheltering from the bitter wind behind a boulder, we were overtaken by a little old lady, who was trotting up the mountain carrying a white shopping bag in each hand. As all the huts were closed, we couldn't imagine where she might be heading. And, since we weren't able to catch her up, we never found out.

You know, after reading that Times article, I rather regret that I didn’t immediately rush after her and offer to carry those shopping bags.


New York Times, "Madame Pele, Hawaii’s Goddess of Volcanoes, Awes Those Living in Lava’s Path", 21 May 2018 (print)

Shizuoka-Yamanashi Joint Council for Mount Fuji World Cultural Heritage Registration, Mt Fuji: the Wellspring of our Faith and Arts, Shogakukan, 2009

1 comment:

Ashley Wilson said...

It was very thrilling to read the folks of Madame Pele, Hawaii’s goddess of volcanoes. But still it has got a place in people's mind. Very interesting facts and story.