A huge proportion of the world's people are living in the vicinity of a volcano. Waiting for the second shoe to drop, as it were. Always aware of danger. Under the constant threat of fire — an uneasy truce at best. It must be like living with an abusive parent or spouse. Never knowing when they might just go off. Knowing you can't control the situation. Yet not wanting to leave because of love, loyalty, tradition, lack of support, procrastination, a thousand reasons. Pretty scary to contemplate. Conciliation might seem the only protection.
Fire, out of fear, out of deference, is always treated with utmost respect. And the deities who personify a fickle, fiery omnipotence inspire worship of particular passion, for the smallest lapse of attentive reverence could result in wretched disaster. There is clear understanding that She who grants life could also, at the slightest whim, take it away again. Better not to take any chances of incurring the flaming wrath.
Pele, the Hawaiian Volcano Goddess, is notorious for Her capricious temper. Her lusts and desires are enormous and Her sexual appetite is legendary. She is said to appear in the form of a beautiful woman right before an eruption. She likes to pick up sailors. Any rejection or imagined slight infuriates Her. So special care is taken to appease Her. One walks very carefully around Lady Pele. You don't mess with Mama Lava. You really don't want to upset Her. When She is pleased, She rewards you with life in paradise. And if She's pissed she blows her top.
Alas, there's no stay to the smoke
I must die mid the quenchless flameThe priestesses who served Pele wore robes whose hems and sleeves had been singed in a fire, and they carried digging sticks, which represented the sturdy digging stick which Pele employed to create the volcanic craters. Pigs used to be offered to Her, and the songs and dances of the hula. Today practitioners of the old religion still bring Her gifts of flowers, incense, the Ohelo berries which She loves, and, of course gin or a bottle of brandy.
Deed of the hag who snores in her sleep,
Bedded on lava plate oven-hot.
--- The Saga of Pele
The worship of Pele has been discouraged since the early Nineteenth Century when the Hawaiian Queen Kaahumanu converted to Christianity. Later, in a public display, Kapiolani, the woman chief of the Puna District, challenged Pele to punish her. She taunted the goddess by throwing rocks into the sacred crater. Her answer was an eruption of Mouna Loa. Luckily all the old lore was not lost.
Princess Ruth Keelikolani, who was sixty-three years old at the time, climbed to the edge of the threatening lava flow. She bore gifts of silk and brandy, and was, most importantly, able to offer the ancient chants of obeisance to placate Pele. The disturbances stopped the very next day, saving the town of Hilo. When the village of Kapoho was jeopardized in 1955, people offered food and tobacco to the smoking mountain with the same results. The lava stream stopped the next day before doing any damage.
Every year the National Park Service is inundated with packages containing small bits of rock and volcanic glass accompanied by a plea to the rangers to return them to their proper place — Mount Kilauea, the dwelling place and seat of power of Lady Pele. These souvenirs had been taken by hapless tourists who either became racked with guilt and foreboding, or had suffered a series of calamities which they grew to attribute to the punishing fury of Pele. One such anguished note reads, "Five years later, ten car accidents later, two unsuccessful business ventures later and twice broken heart later, I admit the place for the enclosed rock of lava is there where it belongs."
Pele's capricious counterparts, the Flaming Furies, the Volcanic Valkyries of other cultures, portray almost identical attributes, and their ceremonies, too, are similar. She is Fuji who sits on Her mountain throne, Fujiyama, on the Japanese main Island of Honshu. She is the Goddess Apo Namallari who rules Mount Pinituba in the Philippines. To the Maori people of New Zealand, She is the goddess Mahuea, She Who Keeps Fire in Her Fingertips. And to the Aztecs, She is Coatlicue, Mother of All Deities, Lady of the Lava Altar.
Her name is Hel, Hella, Holla, in Northern Europe and Scandinavia, namesake of the Icelandic volcano, Mt. Hekla and its nearby town, Hella. From Her name we also get the root words for holy, heal, hallow, hello, whole, all, halo and holly. She is associated with both the healing hearth fire and the burning fires of the underworld. A split personality writ large, like all of Her sisters — the beautiful princess and the ugly old witch. The nun and the whore. The bimbo and the brain. The damsel and the dyke. (Yike!) Two peas in the same pod. Smooth when stroked. Stormy when provoked. Siamese twin soul sisters joined at the heart.
Our Lady of Lava has been trying to get our attention lately. Trying to tell us something extremely important. She is gesticulating desperately. Her temper's shot. Her nerves are raw. Her fury is boiling over. She's furious, overwrought with exhaustion from Her urgent production of enough ash to create enough cloud cover to lower the earth's temperature enough and in enough time to counteract the coming green house effect.
Perhaps it's time to listen.
Mama Donna Henes is an internationally renowned urban shaman, eco-ceremonialist, ritual expert, spiritual counselor, award-winning author, popular speaker and workshop leader. She currently writes for the Huffington Post, Beliefnet and UPI Religion and Spirituality Forum.