This month's history lesson is a story about an incredible woman and a beautiful piece of Hawaiian history. Read on below!
The story of the high chiefess Kapiolani and her conflict with Pele, the goddess of Kilauea, in December, 1824, is historic. It belongs, however, to the volcanoes of the Hawaiian Islands, and is more important than any myth.
Kapiolani was the daughter of Keawe-mau-hili, who was the high chief of the district of Hilo. He was the uncle of Kiwalao, the young king of the island Hawaii, who was killed by Kamehameha's warriors when Kamehameha became king of that island.
Kapiolani as a little child was in the camp with her father at the time of the battle. She was in danger of death, but some men carried her over the mountains through a multitude of difficulties back to Hilo. She became a tall, portly woman, with keen black eyes and an engaging countenance, a queen in appearance when with other chiefs or chiefesses. She was not a queen, nor was she even a princess, although by blood relationship she belonged to the royal family. She was the wife of Na-ihe, who was the high chief of the district of Kona on the western side of the island Hawaii.
Na-ihe (The spears) was said to be the national orator or best speaker on government affairs among the chiefs. Kapiolani (The-bending-arch-of-heaven) was very intelligent, quick-witted, and fearless. They were both so influential that they were chosen by the great Kamehameha, as members of his council of chiefs and were retained by his son Liholiho, or Kamehameha II.
When the missionaries of the American Board from Boston arrived, April 4, 1820, at Kailua Bay on the western coast of Hawaii, they landed in territory nominally controlled by Na-ihe and Kapiolani, although at that particular time the young king, Liholiho, and his court were in Kona, and were the real rulers.
However, when the missionaries had reduced the language to writing and had begun to print leaflets for spelling and reading, in 1822, Na-ihe and Kapiolani were among the first chiefs to welcome instruction and accept Christianity as far as they could understand it.
In 1823 a delegation of missionaries went around the island Hawaii. They visited the volcano Kilauea and wrote the first really good description of the crater and its activity. The natives were astonished to see the perfect safety of the missionaries, although the worship and tabus of Pele were absolutely ignored. Ohelo berries and strawberries growing on the brink of the crater were freely eaten and the lake of fire explored without even a thought of fear of the goddess.
In the course of their journey the missionaries met a priestess of Pele. The priestess, assuming a haughty air, said: "I am Pele, I shall never die. Those who follow me, if part of their bones are taken to Kilauea, will live in the bright fire there." A missionary said, "Are you Pele?" She said, "Yes, I am Pele," then proceeded to state her powers. A chief of low rank who had been a royal messenger under Kamehameha, and who was making the journey with the missionaries, interrupted the woman, saying: "Then it is true, you are Pele, and have destroyed the land, killed the people, and have spoiled the fishing-grounds. If I were the king I would throw you into the sea." The priestess was quick-witted [1. Vaccinium penduliformis--var. reticulatum.] and said that truly she had done some harm, but the rum of the foreigners was far more destructive.
All this prepared the way for Kapiolani to attempt to break down the worship of the fire-goddess. It must be remembered that Kapiolani had been under the influence of thoughtful civilization only about three years when she decided that she would attack the idolatry which, of all idol worship, was the most firmly entrenched in the hearts of her people because it was founded on the mysterious forces of nature. She accepted implicitly the word of the missionaries, that their God was the one god of nature. Therefore she had rejected the fire-goddess with all the other deities formerly worshipped in Hawaii. She was, however, practically alone in her determination to strike a blow against the worship of Pele.
Priests of Pele were numerous on the island Hawaii. Women were among those of highest rank in that priesthood. Many of the personal followers of Kapiolani were worshippers. Even Na-ihe, her husband, had not been able to free himself from superstitious fears. When Kapiolani said that she was going to prove the falsity of the worship of Pele, there was a storm of heartfelt opposition. The priests and worshippers of Pele honestly believed that divine punishment would fall on her. Those who were Christians were afraid that some awful explosion might overwhelm the company, as a large body of warriors had been destroyed thirty-four years before.
Na-ihe, still strongly under the influence of superstition, urged her not to go. All this opposition arose from her warm friends. When her determination was seen to be immovable, some of the priests of Pele became bitterly angry and in their rage prophesied most awful results.
When Kapiolani left her home in Kona her people, with great wailing, again attempted to persuade her to stay with them. The grief, stimulated by fear of things supernatural, was uncontrollable. The people followed their chiefess some distance with prayers and tears.
For more than a hundred miles she journeyed, usually walking, sometimes having a smooth path, but again having to cross miles of the roughest, most rugged and sharp-edged lava on the island Hawaii. At last the party came to the vicinity of the volcano. This was not by the present road, but along the smoother, better way, used for centuries on the south side of the crater toward the ocean.
Toward the close of the day they crossed steaming cracks and chasms and drew nearer to the foul-smelling, gaseous clouds of smoke which blew toward them from the great crater. Here a priestess of Pele of the highest rank came to meet the party and turn them away from the dominions of the fire-goddess unless they would offer appropriate sacrifices. She knew Kapiolani's purpose, and determined to frustrate it.
Formerly there had been a temple near the brink of the crater on the southeast side. This, according to Ellis, bore the name Oala-laua. He says, "It was a temple of Pele, of which Ka-maka-a-ke-akua (The-eye-of-God), a distinguished soothsayer who died in the reign of Kamehameha, was many years priest." The temple was apparently deserted at the time of the overthrow of the tabu in 1819, and the priests had gone to the lower and better cultivated lands of Puna, where they had their headquarters. However, they still worshipped Pele and sacrificed to her.
This priestess who faced Kapiolani was very haughty and bold. She forbade her to approach any nearer to the volcano on pain of death at the hands of the furious goddess Pele.
"Who are you?" asked Kapiolani.
"I am one in whom the God dwells."
"If God dwells in you, then you are wise and can teach me. Come and sit down."
The priestess had seen printed pages or heard about them, so she drew out a piece of kapa, or paper made from the bark of trees, and saying that this was a letter from Pele began to read or rather mumble an awful curse.
The people with Kapiolani were hushed into a terrified silence, but she listened quietly until the priestess, carried beyond her depth, read a confused mass of jumbled words, and unintelligible noises, which she called "The dialect of the ancient Pele."
Then Kapiolani took her spelling-book, and a little book of a few printed hymns, and said: "You have pretended to deliver a message from your god, but we have not understood it. Now I will read you a message which you can understand, for I, too, have a letter." Then she read clearly the Biblical sentences printed in the spelling-book and some of the hymns. The priestess was silenced.
Meanwhile, the missionaries at Hilo, a hundred and fifty miles from Kona, heard that Kapiolani had started on this strenuous undertaking. They felt that some one of the Christian teachers should be with her. Mr. Ruggles had been without shoes for several months and could not go. Mr. Goodrich, the other missionary stationed at Hilo, was almost as badly off, but was more accustomed [1. Plants used for kapa were wauke, olona, mamaki, poulu, akala, hau, maaloa, and the mulberry.] to travelling barefoot. So he went up through the tangled masses of sharp-edged lava, grass, strong-leaved ferns, and thick woods to meet the chiefess as she came to the crater.
Kapiolani passed the priestess, went on to the crater, met Mr. Goodrich, and was much affected by the effort he had made to aid her in her attempt to break down the worship of Pele. It was now evening, and a hut was built to shelter her until the next day came, when she could have the opportunity of descending into the crater.
Mr. Richards, a missionary, later wrote as follows: "Along the way to the volcano she was accosted by multitudes and entreated not to proceed. She answered, 'If I am destroyed, then you may all believe in Pele, but if I am not, you must all turn to the true writings.'"
The great crater at that time had a black ledge or shelf, below which the active lakes and fountains of fire, in many places, broke through and kept turbulent a continually changing mass over five miles in circumference. Here in the large cones built up by leaping lava, the natives said, were the homes of the family of Pele. Here the deities amused themselves in games. The roaring of the furnaces and crackling of flames was the music of drums beaten for the accompaniment of the household dances. The red flaming surge was the surf wherein they played.
As the morning light brought a wonderful view of the Lua Pele (The-pit-of-Pele) with its great masses of steam and smoke rising from the immense field of volcanic activity below, and as the rush of mighty waves of lava broke again and again against the black ledge with a roar exceeding that of a storm-driven surf beating upon rocky shores, and as fierce explosions of gases bursting from the underworld in a continual cannonade, deafened the ears of the company, Kapiolani prepared to go down to defy Pele.
This must have been one of the few grand scenes of history. There was the strong, brave convert to Christianity standing above the open lake of fire, the red glowing lava rolling in waves below, with rough blocks of hardened lava on every side, the locks (Pele's hair) of the fire-goddess, torn out and whirling around in the air, the timid fearful faces of the people and their attitude of terror and anxiety showing the half-hope that the tabu might be broken and the half-dread lest the evil spirit might breathe fire upon them and destroy them at once.
Mr. Richards says: "A man whose duty it was to feed Pele, by throwing berries and the like into the volcano, entreated her to go no farther. 'And what,' said she, 'will be the harm?' The man replied, 'You will die by Pele.' Kapiolani answered, 'I shall not die by your god. That fire was kindled by my God.' The man was silent and she went onward, descending several hundred feet, and there joined in a prayer to Jehovah. She also ate the berries consecrated to Pele, and threw stones into the volcano."
Bingham in his "Sandwich Islands" says: "Then with the terrific bellowing and whizzing of the volcanic gases they mingled their voices in a solemn hymn of praise to the true God, and at the instance of the chiefess, Alapai, one of Kapiolani's attendants, led them in prayer."
The party returned to the brink of the crater, and journeyed down to Hilo.
Alexander in the "History of the Hawaiian People" says, "This has justly been called one of the greatest acts of moral courage ever performed."
Richards states that the leader of Kapiolani's party said to him: "All the people of the district saw that she was not injured and have pronounced Pele to be powerless."
The influence of Kapiolani against this most influential form of idolatrous worship was felt throughout the whole nation.
In 1836, twelve years later, Rev. Titus Coan wrote about the coming of many natives into a Christian life. He says: "In 1836, twelve years after the visit of Kapiolani, among these converts was the High Priest of the volcano, He was more than six feet tall, and was of lofty bearing. He had been an idolater, a drunkard, an adulterer, a robber, and a murderer. His sister was more haughty and stubborn. She, too, was tall and majestic in her bearing. At length she yielded and with her brother became a docile member of the church."
But it was Lord Tennyson who set down for posterity the heroic deed of the great queen in the following beautiful poem:
When from the terrors of Nature a people have fashion'd and worship a Spirit of Evil
Blest be the Voice of the Teacher who calls to them,
"Set yourselves free!"
Noble the Saxon who hurled at his Idol a valorous weapon in olden England!
Great, and greater, and greatest of women, island heroine Kapiolani
Clomb the mountain, and flung the berries and dared the Goddess, and freed the people
A people believing that Peelè the Goddess would wallow in fiery riot and revel
Dance in a fountain of flame with her devils or shake with her thunders and shatter her island,
Rolling her anger
Thro' blasted valley and flowing forest in blood-red cataracts down to the sea!
Long as the lava-light
Glares from the lava-take,
Dazing the starlight;
Long as the silvery vapor in daylight,
Over the mountain
Floats, will the glory of Kapiolani be mingled with either on Hawa-i-ee.
What said her Priesthood?
"Woe to this island if ever a woman should handle or gather the berries of Peelè
Accursed were she!
And woe to this island if ever a woman should climb to the dwelling of Peelè the Goddess!
Accursed were she!"
One from the Sunrise
Dawned on His people and slowly before him
Gods and Goddesses,
None but the terrible Peelè remaining as Kapiolani
Ascended her mountain,
Baffled her priesthood,
Broke the Taboo,
Dipt to the crater,
Called on the Power adored by the Christian and crying, "I dare her, let Peelè avenge herself!"
Into the flame-billows dashed the berries, and drove the demon from Hawa-i-ee.