Why make a simple sacrifice and merely hope that it pleases Pele, the fiery volcano goddess, when you can ensure the deity’s satisfaction while also plugging up that volcano for good? Now that’s thinking!

I suppose that if they didn’t have one extremely large person to sacrifice, they could just toss in a bunch of skinny people and achieve the same result.

The Hawaiian people have long had a rich history of myth and legend with a plethora of divinities, culture heroes, and their own unique take on ideas seen throughout Polynesia. One of these uniquely Hawaiian gods is Pele, the ambitious young goddess forever linked to the volcanoes of the Hawaiian islands. In many versions of her origin story, Pele is the daughter of Kanehoalani and Haumea where she lives on a mysterious free-floating island in a region known as Kahiki. In these stories, she is usually drawn toward fire and heat, preferring to keep near the fireplace in her family home and is depicted as a passionate and ambitious young woman. Pele, in a moment of passion, seduces the husband of her sister, the sea goddess, whom she quarrels with quite fiercely. Because of her temper, Pele’s father decides to send her away from Kahiki with some of her brothers in a canoe. The group eventually lands in Hawaii, much of which is just reefs and shoals at this time. She sends one of her brothers to build up the land so that people might one day make a living there. Pele settles on the islands and uses a digging stick to create “fire pits” and uses a divining rod which she strikes into the ground to create volcanoes. Eventually, her sister finds her and the two fight in one final epic battle. Pele is torn apart and her bones are scattered, but her spirit remains and resides in Hawaii where she becomes a goddess.

Pele, in her new form, acts much as she did in life. She is impulsive and temperamental. She is destructive and dangerous, but she is also a creator goddess. People fear the power of her fire and lava, but she is also seen as the driving force that created Hawaii in the first place. In this respect, Pele is much like the Hindu Shiva: a divinity that deserves respect and fear for its destructive power, but though this power may destroy the works of man, it is also a transformative force that makes way for new things and new life.

When Europeans first came to Hawaii in the late 1700’s, they returned with amazing stories about the islands. Later visitors would keep records and write about some of the religious practices of the people that lived there. Out of the many rituals observed, one of the most iconic has been human sacrifices to Pele thrown directly into the opening of a bubbling, lava-filled volcano. It’s an image people in the west are familiar with from books, television, and film, but, like many of the more outrageous things Europeans recorded in those days, it seems unlikely that it happened often if it happened at all. While it’s true that there were some (pretty rare) human sacrifices to the gods on the islands of Hawaii, there haven’t been any reliable recordings of this particular ritual being performed. There is, however, some substantial evidence that people would offer the bones of deceased loved ones to volcanoes or place the bones in volcanic vents so that they might be one with the gods of the islands. It’s possible that this image was distorted and has become the dramatic sacrifice to Pele or some other god that we know and love today.