Hawaiian Mythology Digs Deep into Volcanic Past (Op-Ed)
An aerial view of the erupting Pu'u O'o crater on Hawaii's Kilauea volcano taken at dusk on June 29, 1983.
Credit: G.E. Ulrich, USGS

Robin Wylie, is a doctoral candidate in volcanology, at University College London. He contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Hawaii's vibrant mythology is populated by savage, emotional gods. But behind the fantasy could lie clues to the catastrophic volcanic events that scientists now believe inspired those tales.

Ten centuries ago, the small group of Polynesian sailors who first glimpsed the Hawaiian Islands must have sensed the miraculous; a thousand miles from home, the Pacific had thrown them a lifeline. What they saw when they landed, though, confirmed the supernatural: On this lone outpost, in an unending ocean, the ground itself was alive.

The settlers had no written language, so we can only guess at the events that inspired early legends of a god who devoured forests. But some sights seem to have sparked such awe in the islanders that they left an invisible mark. Recently, the rich oral history of the native Hawaiians has begun to receive scientific attention. It seems that, preserved in the ancient tales of volcano gods, there could be something very real — relics of the two most incredible eruptions the Big Island has witnessed since humans first floated ashore.

In 1790, Captain Cook became the first outsider to meet — and be killed by — the inhabitants of what he called the "Sandwich Islands." Thirty years later, another Englishman — William Ellis, a missionary — spoke to them in their own tongue. (No hatchets this time.)

Instead, the islanders showed him their volcano — the immense, lava-scarred pit of Mount Kilauea — and told Ellis stories about a mythology revolving around the goddess Pele, who they revealed as jealous, volatile and eruptive.

Scientists aren't used to wading through poetic metaphor, but when Don Swanson, a former director of the scientific observatory which overlooks Kilauea, read Ellis' accounts, he saw more than just superstition — he saw a record.

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His volcanologist's eye was drawn to one legend in particular. Pele had fallen in love. Steaming in her pit atop Kilauea, she demanded that her sister, Hi'iaka, fetch the object of her affections from his island home in the North. His name was Lohi'au, and he doesn't come out of this well. Hi'iaka agreed, on one condition: that her sister keep her fires away from a grove of flowering trees that she valued above all else.

Hi'iaka excelled in her task — first bringing Lohi'au back to life, and then back to Kilauea. But she had taken too long. Pele's temper flared (nobody said volcanoes were reasonable), and Hi'iaka returned to find her treasured forest ablaze. But her sister wasn't done. The goddess then proceeded to murder Lohi'au, and cast his body into the depths of her volcano. In response, grief-stricken, Hi'iaka began to dig. Frantically. Rocks were flying out of the crater. She delved so deep, she was warned that if she didn't stop, she would hit water, and put out Pele's fire.

Burning forests. Spitting craters. People should write what they know, I suppose — even if oral tradition takes the place of writing.

It doesn't take a huge leap to imagine, as Swanson did, that the story of Hi'iaka's burning forest might contain echoes of an ancient lava flow. But why would something as dull as a lava flow (of all things!) have diffused into myth? They're regular episodes above a volcanic hotspot, after all. Perhaps, though, there had been one worth remembering. [In Images: Hawaii's Mount Kilauea Erupts ]

In the 1980s, a team of geologists stumbled across a flow that had been emitted from an extinct vent on Kilauea's east flank, sometime in the 15th century. It was huge — the lava had reached the sea, more than 25 miles (40 kilometers) away. But its length wasn't the only thing that caught Swanson's eye. Using carbon-14 analysis, he pinpointed the exact year that the flow had begun — 1410. Almost unbelievably, the end date was not years, but decades, later, in 1470. This single, gigantic stream of basalt had persisted for three generations. It would have changed the landscape forever. Enough, perhaps, to etch itself into legend.

Incredibly, though, the final act of this mythical quarrel could be hiding something even bigger. Hi'iaka's furious digging, Swanson realized, might be describing the single biggest volcanic upheaval at Hawaii since humans arrived: It was the perfect metaphor for a caldera collapse — the catastrophic slumping which turns a "traditional" volcanic crater into a huge, disfigured scar.

At the time of the megaflow, Kilauea had a relatively small summit crater. By the time Cook landed, however, it had morphed into a cauldron: 2 miles (3 km) wide and 400 feet (122 meters) deep.

Today, scientists can confidently say that the caldera formed due to the drainage of magma-filled chasms beneath the volcano. But if you're a fifteenth-century Hawaiian, and all you know is that the Earth itself is sinking around you in a chorus of explosions, then a god digging isn't a bad guess.

It's an inspired piece of detective work; but also a fascinating insight into how myths begin. Swanson's respectful treatment of the story of Pele allowed him to see it for what it partly was: a theory. Formed by regular people striving to explain the incredible — a best guess at a time when the accessible Earth ended at the surface. Anything below, like the unknown void above the stars, was given over to the gods.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.