In rural Hawaii neighbourhoods where lava from Kilauea volcano has burned down or threatened to consume the homes, a name often comes up: Pele. "You can't really predict what Pele is going to do," said Julie Woolsey, who evacuated on May 3 as a fissure opened on her street, oozing lava.

Who is Pele?

Pele, known as the goddess of volcanoes and fire, is an important figure in Hawaiian culture. She represents all the phenomena related to volcanoes - the magma, steam, ash, acid rain. Pele is an akua, or goddess, but not in the way people outside Hawaii might think of gods and goddesses. "A lot of people translate the word akua as god. But we feel that word has kind of a western connotation to it, so we use the word element," said Kuulei Kanahele, researcher at the Edith Kanakaole Foundation, which focuses on Native Hawaiian cultural preservation and education. According to chants, Pele and her family migrated from kahiki - an unspecified land outside of Hawaii. She first landed in the northwestern Hawaiian islands and made her way through the main Hawaiian islands, starting with Kauai, then Oahu, then Maui, before settling in Hawaii Island. She dug craters on the islands, including Maui's Haleakala and what's known as Punchbowl and Diamond Head on Oahu. "She didn't find a crater that was suitable to her liking," Kanahele said, until Kilauea's Halemaumau crater, where she now resides.

How Hawaiian artist Herb Kawainui Kane sees Pele. Photo / AP
How Hawaiian artist Herb Kawainui Kane sees Pele. Photo / AP

Why is she revered?

"In Hawaiian thinking and Hawaiian culture, Pele is the foundation, the creation of land," said Piilani Kaawaloa, who teaches traditional Hawaiian literature, chant and hula at the Hawaii Island campus of Kamehameha Schools. "People know she exists," Kaawaloa said. "And because we have these genuine stories and legends and chants that talk about who she is." She has two forms, Kaawaloa explained, one that stays at the crater tending to her fire pit and another that goes "holoholo" or leisurely exploring, around Puna, a district on the slopes of the volcano.

Legends of pele

A popular legend tells the tale of a frail, old woman who asks for food from two girls cooking breadfruit. One girl said they didn't have food for strangers, but the younger girl shared the breadfruit. The woman told the younger girl that strange things would be happening on the mountainside and to tell her family to hang bits of cloth made from bark to stay safe. The younger girl's grandmother said that woman was Pele and heeded the advice. A neighbour told them Pele is angry and she's stirring her fire pit on Mauna Loa, according Hawaii Island Legends, edited by Mary Kawena Pukui. Pele sent her lava to destroy those who made her angry. The lava stream broke in two and flowed on each side of the younger girl's home. "When our myth writers observe nature and what's happening, it's easy to put feelings and emotions and romance into it," to make the stories interesting and stand the test of time while also incorporating morality lessons, Kanahele said.

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Four laws

Pele has four laws, Kanahele explained:

1 The lava will always flow in order to create new land. Lava will always migrate to new spots.

2 When there's evidence of volcanic activity - earthquakes, the smell of sulfur - the land belongs to Pele. "If she's in residence, then it's best for humans to not be there."

3 Once Pele moves on and the area is free from kapu, or prohibitions, then humans can go into that land.

4 Land is suitable for human use after land burned down has reforested.

- AP