Abstract: Pele (pell-ay) is the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes. The reason this is both a myth and a legend is because the story takes place in both the real world and outside of it. The origin story of how volcanoes in Hawaii came to be and the fact that Pele is a goddess and acts sort of like Greek Gods reason that she is mythological. However, she is a shapeshifter that normally takes the place of an older woman on Earth, so this would make her a legend.
Background: DM is a 20 year-old Hawaiian American going to college in California. She grew up her entire life in Hawaii and is very accustomed to the folklore there. She can not trace back the origin of the folklore or when she learned it because it has surrounded her for her entire life. After one piece of Hawaiian folklore came up on a work retreat, I asked her to share the most important ones to her on a later date. DM compares the Hawaiian gods, like Pele, to Greek mythology. They all have their own responsibility on Earth. She dives into the effects of what Pele can do from a story from her father.
DM: She is the goddess of volcanoes and takes many forms, but her most common form is an old Hawaiian lady. For context, the only volcano that has a chance of erupting is Kileaua on the big island. Anyway, my dad’s cousin was getting married there, and they were driving home from some party or something a few days before the wedding. And on the main highway, they see this old Hawaiian lady with long gray hair walking on the side. They thought maybe it was Pele, but they were scared so just kept driving. And then on their wedding day, the volcano erupted.
S: So is she someone to be scared of in person like does she cause immediate danger in human form?
DM: Well, I mean, she is a fiery goddess, but she isn’t dangerous. But like you’re supposed to be nice to her, and when they didn’t pick her up she reacted. There are some legends that when a volcano erupts, the lava will go around houses of people who have been nice to her.
S: But like, how do you tell her apart from any other old Hawaiian woman?
DM: You don’t.
Interpretation: Pele seems to have undeniable power and garners a lot of respect from the people of Hawaii. The lesson underlying this goddess is to respect your elders. Especially when told to young kids, Pele seems like a mean old lady that can destroy your house and kill you in a fiery pool of lava if you do not show kindness. Since no one really knows what she actually looks like, the people of Hawaii must learn to be nice to all elderly women or possibly suffer the consequences. This portrays Hawaii to be matrilineal and caring of the females, especially the elders, in the community. If Pele was only a myth, there would be no real lesson to treat elders with respect. Since she take the form of an old lady, and, at this point, becomes a legend, citizens will apply the respectful manner to almost all old women to not take any chances of having a really bad day with some lava.
For more on Pele, see Legends and Myths of Hawaii by David Kalākaua, 1888, page 46.
Kalakaua, David. Legends and Myths of Hawaii. Book On Demand Ltd, 2013.