Madame Pele Gives and Takes Away

I’ve only set foot on the Big Island of Hawai’i for two days, but I’ve seen Madame Pele.

Maybe that’s one reason I didn’t follow in the footsteps of most of my family, which is mostly scientists. I’ve always wavered between the rational, scientific way of analyzing the world, and the poetic, spiritual side that feels there’s some parts of life— like that non-physical experience called “I”— that  science can’t fully address.

The following is another small example, which has been on my mind often lately.

In 1986, returning from a trip overseas, my parents and I spent a two-day layover in Hawaii. Being nerds, we island-hopped to Hilo and made a beeline for the Hawaii Volcanoes Observatory. When we asked the on-duty scientist if anything was erupting, she ostentatiously checked her watch (!) and said, “Not right now, but check back in about four hours.”

Volcanoes aren’t normally that predictable. But at the time, this one had fallen into a surprisingly predictable routine. Pu’u O’o, a large vent on the shoulder of Kilauea Volcano, had been erupting every 28 days like clockwork. Was the moon’s tidal pull nudging a brimming magma reservoir over the edge? Was Pu’u O’o operating like a geyser, erupting when the pressure was high enough, emptying its magma store, then refilling and repeating the cycle? I don’t know.

In retrospect, I suppose the woman could have been pulling our leg. She might have known an eruption was imminent. Kilauea’s the most monitored volcano in the world, and instruments show when magma’s on the move.

At any rate, by 5PM, Pele was putting on a show I’ll never forget the beauty and power of a real-live volcano erupting just 7 miles away. Through binoculars, we could see a line of brilliant red lava fountains 500 feet tall, fanned across two newly-opened fissures over a mile long on either side of Pu’u O’o’s main cone. That night, we drove all the way around the island—the direct route was blocked— to watch a lava flow creeping down towards the ocean, burning through a forest at the edge of the Royal Gardens Subdivision.

I heard people saying that native Hawaiians never built there, because the land was sacred to Pele. They blamed a mainland developer for ignoring tradition. I don’t know whether that developer was mythical. I do know that mythology transmits a community’s collective wisdom about the natural world and local circumstances, described in non-scientific language.

But yes, I saw Pele, and she wasn’t just a scientific observation couched in the language of storytellers. We stayed until close to midnight, watching a bright orange lava flow as it slowly consumed stubborn trees that don’t yield easily to fire. Walking back to the car, my mother tapped my shoulder and pointed. I looked up. There, looming over us in the low ceiling of clouds, was an old woman’s face dimly illuminated by the red glow of the lava. She seemed to be looking down at us.

Mom and I didn’t say a word to one another. I just whispered “Mahalo,” thank you, to that face above me. There’s plenty of stories about Tutu Pele manifesting as a beautiful maiden or an old woman, whom you disrespect at your peril.

The next day, I cast some ohia berries into Halema’uma’u, the summit crater where Pele makes her home. Snagged on the edge of the crater were leis and other offerings, some coated by volcanic dust. Nearby, fresh fumaroles steamed.

Knowing it’s taboo to take lava from Kilauea, I brought back only my memories, as I wrote in a cheesy schoolgirl poem called “Mahalo to Pele” when I got home.

Sometimes, memories are more substantial than stones. Despite my humanities bent, I developed a lifelong fascination wotj volcanoes. After moving to California, where the ground sometimes shakes the house, I’ve become more and more interested in geology. Sometimes I need a break from humanity these days.

Over the years, I’ve kept an eye on Pu’u O’o. I felt like I had a personal stake in its progress after seeing it born. Not that that’s strictly true. It had been erupting periodically for three years before I laid eyes on it. But it’s almost never stopped erupting since then— until this May.

I feel guilty for having feelings of affection for a volcano that’s cause so much grief for the people of Puna, forcing them to evacuate, disrupting their lives, damaging their homes and property. It’s not really fair that I can sit in the safety of my own home, watching this eruption as a spectacle.

Luckily, Hawaiians know their volcano better than I do, and they know Pele. They cherish her gifts and accept her bouts of fiery temper. They know how volcanic soil, once it’s broken down, grows crops and flowers in abundance. The price of their paradise is that sometimes, they have move out of Pele’s way and let her remodel. It’s what built their island in the first place. She’s still building it.

Stories of Pele

How to Help the People of Puna

Respect for Pele helps ease heartache when she drives people out of their homes, but they still need help. Rather than donate to the big charities, I like to look for local groups. HawaiiNewsNow has an article on Puuhonua o Puna, volunteers from within the Puna community crowdsourcing help for those in need (everything from diapers to beds to meals).  See the FAQ at the top of their Facebook page for donation links (at the bottom).

Poem: The Historian

History repeats itself, history unmakes itself.
Seething masses struggle and swelter and starve.
The boy flees floods, one mote among billions.
But gradually, year by year,
Turbulent skies grow gentle,
Seas subside.
Burnt brown lands grow green.
There is food, there is air, there is breathing room.
The nights are cool.

Saved but sorrowing,
He begins to taste true doom.
He haunts museums.

The young man leans on a rail, surveying mammoth bones.
“I will see you someday,” he tells the whorled tusks.
“I will meet you, Matriarch.”
He will not look over his shoulder at thunder lizards.

Vistas and frontiers open.
Cities drain away.
One day he stands weeping at a glacier’s toe
Snow falling on his cheeks.
He kneels and kisses the ice.

He hurries now, hurtling forward.
He scours the web of words,
Learning, studying, preparing,
Committing lore to memory.
Where the world will have been,
He recites it all.

His clew of thread
In the labyrinth of legend
Is a glacier of knowledge
He cannot take with him
When it melts away.

In a darkened cinema he gazes upward
Rubbing the stubble on his cheeks
Repelled and drawn to some playacting hero
A sword, a stone, a saga
Woven and rewoven a billion times
In humanity’s dreams.
“I will see you someday,” he tells the warrior,
“I will meet you, O King.”
He wonders how far beneath the legends
The worth of that man will be.

Wars rage around him.
At first, he flees them as he fled tides,
But this, too, is knowledge,
So he masters savagery
Rushing against refugees of time
Running the other way.
Cradling a body on a sodden battlefield
He spies his reflection in a blood-pool,
Glimpses first streaks of gray.

The modern world disintegrates
However he clutches the days.
The glowing streets,
Skyships and landships,
The web of knowledge
Shrink and melt away.
Conveniences, inconveniences,
Cars and medicine and machines,
All vanish into the fairy-hills of fancy
Until the pace of unravelling progress
Grows dizzying, terrifying.

He stays up nights, talking to streetlights
Until they transform into gaslamps
And wink out, one by one.

He travels on foot in empty valleys
Once paved with wall to wall cities.
He rides among people
Who have not yet learned to fly.
They are forgetting, faster and faster,
Everything they knew,
Everything they built.

He begins to tour the world’s great monuments
To see them all before they melt to stone.
“I will remember you,” he tells towers,
“I will remember you,” he vows to domes.

The stories change.
The stories remain the same.
Battlefields become intimate affairs.
Disease kills millions, then thousands,
As people dwindle and the world widens.
The city-shorn landscape is vast:
Forests and fields, flora and fauna,
Four seasons like clockwork
In a land where clocks are stones.

His beard is white, his face lined
With wisdom and fear.
He squares his shoulders
For a meeting he’s dreaded
For three thousand years.
No lord could live up to legends
That flow forward to meet his feet.

And yet he is not ready
For the love and gentle reproach
In the eyes of a dying stranger
A kingly figure, broken on a battlefield,
Who greets him with a kiss
And forgives his tardy return.

Merlin sees his doom and flees it,
Hides in a cave in shame.

At last, a girl comes to find him,
Surprises him, gives playful thanks for
Gifts not yet given.
Bemused by time’s paradox,
He promises to tutor her,
Takes her hand, steps out into the sun.
Her aptitude is astounding.
At first, there is nothing he can teach her.
Little by little, there’s more.

His steps turn at last to legend.
In a fort whose gates yield to him
He passes unhindered by swords.
He takes his place at the king’s side,
As if he has always been there
(He has always been there).

The warrior is only a man,
A provincial soldier, no great hero,
Clutching desperately at vanished days.
Once, this land held cities and roads.
Once, civilization flourished here,
Learning, lore, books, machines,
Rome’s rigid, imperfect imperialism
Now falling to ruin,
Now shrinking like melting glaciers.

“I will not see tomorrow,” Arthur tells him,
“But I would preserve yesterday.”
Merlin loves him then.
He embraces every instant,
His Camelot,
The idylls of his old age.
He watches the man become a boy,
Weeps when he, too, melts away.

Merlin is old, his bones chilled.
He stands on towering white cliffs
Watching an angry deluge.
He thinks he will cast himself in.
But he has one promise to keep.

So he leans on a stick and watches
The surging seas roll back,
Green fields unfurl before his feet
Where armadas once foundered.

Slow-footed, childlike,
He picks his way down to the high green grasses,
Towards distant, shambling shapes on the horizon.
Tears track his cheeks as he gazes upward
Into wise old eyes and a whorl of mammoth tusks.
He reaches out and brushes her long, red hair.
“I have come back,” he says.
The Matriarch leans against him,
And the man lays down to sleep.

He need not fear thunder lizards any longer.
His old age has iced over.
Glaciers grind his bones to dust.


In the Steps of Finn MacCool (Giant’s Causeway)


Ellen Brundige Giant's Causeway

This October I had a chance to mix two of my hobbies, geology and mythology, on the Giant’s Causeway in northern Ireland.

Geologists tell us that the Giant’s Causeway is a beautiful example of columnar basalt, lava that cooled slowly and cracked into enormous columns of four to eight sides. The audio guide provided by the visitor’s centre suggested that part of the reason for this long-term cooling is that the lava flowed into a river valley, so that the surface cooled off, capped and insulated the interior of the flow for an unusually long time. The formation is 60-50 million years old, created during the enormous lava eruptions that heralded the opening of the Atlantic Ocean.

As usual, traditional mythology attempted to explain the natural world through stories, the easiest way to explain things prior to the invention of the scientific method for testing and verifying hypotheses. And as so often, a local folk hero was given credit for distinctive landforms. However, Finn MacCool (Fionn mac Cumhaill) was not the bravest hero in this myth— in fact, that honor goes to his wife!

Continue Reading »

How an Ice Butterfly Taught Me Time

Not Japanese, but a beautiful ice sculpture entitled "Mysterious Pearl."  G.Goodwin Jr. and Snark, Creative Commons (Wikimedia)

Not Japanese, but a beautiful ice sculpture entitled “Mysterious Pearl.” G.Goodwin Jr. and Snark, Creative Commons (Wikimedia)

When I was about ten years old, my parents traveled from Pennsylvania to California. Naturally, they took me to Disneyland. I learned an important lesson that day. Not how to dress like a princess, or that it takes willful suspension of disbelief to enjoy myths re-imagined for the purpose of merchandising.I learned about time.

The city of Anaheim was holding a festival in honor of its adopted sister city in Japan. Disneyland joined in with Japanese-themed events and kitsch.

Around noon, my parents and I stopped to watch a Japanese artist working on the edge of the lake. He was carving a six-foot-tall butterfly out of a pillar of ice. I was fascinated by his meticulous yet swift chisel-work. I marveled at how the sun shone through the ice like crystal. Yet I was troubled.

“But it will melt,” I said. It was a warm, sunny California day.

“Yes,” said he. “That’s the point.”

I understood what he meant almost at once— with my head, not my heart. My heart is still struggling to understand. I have trouble letting go of places, things, people, ways of being. If I had a time machine, I used to say, I would copy every manuscript in the Library of Alexandria. All my life, I’ve been haunted by a nightmare of forever climbing a staircase whose steps close just behind my feet.

That is the story. And yet it is not the story.

Ten years after that trip to Disneyland, I met a girl in college who was a kindred spirit. One day I told her this story. To my surprise, my tale was not new to her.

She had grown up in California. She used to visit Disneyland. She remembered a special day when Disneyland threw a party for Anaheim’s sister city in Japan. She remembered a Japanese artist carving a sculpture of a butterfly out of ice. She remembered my question and his answer.

We had grown up 3,000 miles apart. We met ten years later when she moved east to attend a college an hour from my home. We were together for a good 15 years. Work called me out to California, and work kept her back east. Our bond slowly faded. Distance, as well as time, can melt butterflies.

That is the story. And yet it is not the story.

I have the same conflicting feelings about the web— and computers, and much of our modern world— that I did with that butterfly.

My writing and art are saved on floppy discs and on hard drives. Hard drives fail. Discs deteriorate. Computers that can access them fail. These technologies have been around for only a few decades. Do we really think our data files will be intelligible to any devices in a hundred year’s time?

We are transferring our work to the web, but there is no guarantee that webhosts will last much longer. Of course, paper and books also decay, but so far they have proved longer-lived than ephemeral technology.

Nor is the web the whole story. Our world may be melting.

When the most adamant climate change skeptic, the very one who manufactured the “climategate” scandal, does his own research with the goal of disproving climate change, only to find his data confirms it— we cannot be arrogant enough to assume that the world our great-grandchildren inherit will be just like ours today. Our accelerating 7 billion population is straining the world’s resources already. As a classics major who studied the decay of the Roman Empire, I see the shadow of the past cast darkly upon our future. I wonder whether the global economy and advanced infrastructure currently sustaining our technology will survive these pressures.

I wonder if anything we do or create will outlast the next few centuries, or whether so many unreadable hard drives, flash drives and floppies will be ground up for raw materials, like the manuscripts of Alexandria burned for fuel or stuffed into mummy wrappings as paper mâché.

When these thoughts nag me, I remind myself how the sunlight shone through an ice butterfly’s wings. I try hard to remember the words of an old Japanese man— who may well be dead by now— and tell myself, It doesn’t matter, as long as you’ve sculpted at least a few ice butterflies.

That is the story. And yet it is not the story.


Flower Crowns: Ancient & Modern

Cultural appropriation, according to this blog post.

Cultural appropriation, according to this blog post.

The interwebs are an ever-changing culture, and the blooming trends of today will have withered by next week. Nevertheless, the recent fad of Photoshopping “flower crowns” on popular figures from TV, film and other media has caught my eye.

It’s a consciously ironic way of claiming ownership of a cultural icon, expressing devotion while showing that you don’t take the object of adoration too seriously. Nevertheless, I see that it has deeper roots in—


Er… come again?


Oh, dear.

Do you mean to tell me that when students of Bryn Mawr College participate in our college’s one-hundred-year-plus May Day celebration, a fine old tradition imported (SEE!?! SEE?!!) from England, those wreaths we wear are actually Hawaiian?

President Mary Patterson McPhearson and members of BMC's senior class, May Day, 1990. (My photos)

President Mary Patterson McPhearson and members of BMC’s senior class wearing flower garlands, May Day, 1990. (My photos)


Morris Dancer at Oxford University May Day celebrations, © Matthias Rosenkranz, Creative Commons.

Photo by: Matthias Rosenkranz (CC)

Is the medieval English tradition of “Bringing in the May,” gathering flowers and weaving them into garlands to wear, Hawaiian, too? (Left: Morris Dancer in Oxford, England.)

And when Catholics honored the Virgin Mary by adapting the old May Day tradition of crowning the May Queen, which this traditional hymn commemorates—

O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today!
Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May.
O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May.

— were they unwittingly borrowing a tradition from a far-away island?

How about  First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln?

Mary Todd Lincoln cropped

And the ancient Greeks and Romans, not to mention the Minoans?

But you, O Dika, wreathe lovely garlands in your hair,

Weave shoots of dill together, with slender hands,

For the Graces prefer those who are wearing flowers,

And turn away from those who go uncrowned. — Sappho, c. 600 BCE

(The ancient Greek word for garland/flower crown is Στέφανος, by the way, giving us the modern names Stephen, Steve and Stephanie.)

Antinous Pio-Clementino Inv256 n8
Antinoous, Roman emperor Hadrian’s boyfriend, photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC.

Amazing! I had no idea that the ancient Sumerian Queen Pu’abi and the slightly-less-ancient Assyrians buried at Nimrud were actually Hawaiian flower-crown wearers, despite predating the first human settlements in Hawaii by some 3000 years to 1500 years, respectively!

It gets better. The kanzashi tradition of Japan, which dates back thousands of years, also predates Hawaii. In this case, different flowers are used at different times of the year, and may ward off evil spirits or celebrate love and the arrival of spring (which is roughly the meaning of medieval May Day crowns).


Kanzashi, photographed by Joe Baz, Creative Commons License.

In the New World we find an Atzec goddess, Xochiquetzal, whose name means “flower feathers,” since she (and her worshipers) wore a wreath of flowers and feathers in her hair:

Sure enough, she’s the goddess of love, spring and flowers: the maiden-archetype is often associated with flowers and flower-wearing.

I could belabor the point, that flower crowns appear in many traditions around the world, but this commenter to the original “cultural appropriation” blog post said it best:

“…as someone who HATES cultural appropriation, can I just say

are you ****** kidding

You realize that by stomping your feet about something that isn’t actually cultural appropriation, that you do damage to actual attempts to stop cultural appropriation, right?”

Asha, who cites a 1945 photo of her Yugoslavian grandmother wearing a flower crown for her wedding.

Well said.

However, that’s actually not the point I want to make. This Mythphile blog is about the intersection of mythology, psychology, and modern culture. When I see fans  Photoshopping flower crowns onto images of their favorite fandom icons, I see an innocent echo of a very old tradition.

Since ancient times, people around the world have worn flower crowns for communal ceremonies, sacred rites like weddings, festivals in which worshipers embody the May Queen or Xochiquetzal or Persephone.

However, there’s another way in which garlands are used: to decorate sacred statues. I’m most familiar with this practice in Greek, Roman and Hindu traditions, but the more I look at traditions around the world, the more examples I see of cult objects being spruced up with garlands (sometimes as crowns, sometimes as collars).


An image or statue is not alive. Yet it represents something alive, numinous. That’s why worshipers often gift their icons with that natural symbol of life, flowers. It’s both a gift of life and a way of imbuing an inert image with life-energy.

Many modern mythographers have observed that with the breakdown of monocultures — self-contained societies united by shared myths, religions and customs that helped affirm and inspire their communal identity — modern people instinctively reach for stories in popular media from Star Wars to Spirited Away to provide meaningful symbols, stories and characters. The struggling folk hero rings true for us, even if it’s Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen.

No wonder fans feel the urge to crown their fan totems with virtual garlands. An age-old impulse has reappeared in a playful, digital form.