Pele And Poliahu

by Betty Fullard-Leo

PELE - Goddess of Fire. Herb Kawainui Kāne

Pele has survived as the best-known, most-revered goddess of ancient times, but in legends, she was anything but a kind and lovable being, and she had many competitors. Among those generally considered her enemies were four mythological maidens attired in luxurious white mantles, the goddesses of the snow-covered mountains. Three of these beauties have fallen into obscurity. Lilinoe was known as both a goddess of Haleakala on Maui and as a goddess of Mauna Kea. Her husband was thought to be Nana-Nu'u, a survivor of a great flood who lived in a cave on the slopes of Mauna Kea. Another snow maiden of Mauna Kea, Waiau, was associated with Waiau Lake, a glistening pool of water in a cinder cone on the mountain. The third snow goddess, Kahoupokane, was associated with Mount Hualalai. But it was Poliahu, a snow-goddess who loved to cavort with mortals along the eastern cliffs of Mauna Kea, who was Pele's primary nemesis.

One day, it is said, Poliahu and her friends had come down from Mauna Kea to a grassy sloping hillside south of Hamakua for holua sledding. Pele loved he'eholua, the exhilarating race that took place on sleds with runners set only six inches apart. A narrow piece of matting attached to sticks lashed to the runners provided a place for the racer to rest his chest. A racer held the holua sled in his right hand as he ran pell-mell to the crest of the downhill track, hurled himself upon the sled, grabbing a hand-hold on the left side of the sled, as well, and then plummeting down-slope toward the ocean.

On this day, Pele appeared in the guise of a beautiful young woman and the unsuspecting Poliahu welcomed her to join in their sport. As the ground grew hotter and hotter, Poliahu realized the beautiful stranger was none other than Pele, her arch enemy. Pele called forth fire from the depths of Mauna Loa, sending fire fountains after Poliahu as the terrified goddess fled to the summit. Red hot lava licked at the edges of Poliahu's white mantle, but she grasped her robe and managed to escape.

Regaining her strength, she flung her white mantle over the mountain peak. The grounds trembled, fire licked the heavens, and the snow goddess unleashed snow from frozen clouds overhead. Pele sent rivers of lava down the hillside, which cooled and hardened so quickly it choked the yawning chasms that spewed the molten rock and drove the streams of lava underground into Kilauea and Mauna Loa, but not before the land masses that comprise Laupahoehoe and Onomea were formed.

From time to time, Pele continues to hurl fire and lava from Mauna Loa and Kilauea, but legend says that Poliahu always gains the upper hand in these battles. She and the other snow goddesses keep the mountain tops barren under their icy mantles, allowing melting streams to form the rivers that feed the fertile valleys and give the Hamakua Coast and North Kohala a green, misty surrealistic beauty. Ironically, Pele's hot, lava-strewn domain is limited to the southern part of the island of Hawai'i, to much of the area now dotted with grand resorts for sun-loving visitors.

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Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.