Hawaiian legends and early scientific work

The distinctive northwest-southeast alignment of the Hawaiian chain was known to early explorers of the Pacific Ocean, including the Polynesians who first settled the islands. The ancient Hawaiians were superb sailors, excellent navigators, and keen observers of nature, including volcanic eruptions and their effects. They noticed the extent of erosion from island to island, the amount of vegetation on the slopes of the various volcanoes, the freshness of lava flows, and other indicators of the relative ages of the islands. The legends of the early Hawaiians clearly reveal that they recognized that the islands are progressively younger from the northwest to the southeast.

Hawaiian legends tell that eruptions were caused by Pele, the beautiful but tempestuous Goddess of Volcanoes, during her frequent moments of anger. Pele was both revered and feared; her immense power and many adventures figured prominently in ancient Hawaiian songs and chants. She could cause earthquakes by stamping her feet and volcanic eruptions and fiery devastation by digging with the Pa'oa, her magic stick. An oft-told legend describes the long and bitter quarrel between Pele and her older sister Namakaokahai that led to the creation of the chain of volcanoes that form the islands.

Above: Pele, the Goddess of Volcanoes, as portrayed by artist D. Howard Hitchcock. (Photograph by J.D. Griggs with permission of the Volcano House Hotel, owner of the original painting.) Below: Night view (time exposure) of Pele's home during the 1967-68 eruption within Halemaumau Crater. (Photograph by Richard S. Fiske.)


Pele's home

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Maintained by John Watson
Updated 05.01.97