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Poli`ahu and Pele: Legend as information science
by Keawe Vredenburg

Myths and legends
One of the first things we have to do when we discuss storytelling, is distinguish between myths and legends. Often we use the terms interchangeably. I’ve heard different definitions, so I will just say how I define myth and legend. A myth is a story with a religious basis describing events, creatures, places whose description and existence at a particular time cannot be known for certain. For example, the origin of the earth or a particular custom. A series of myths may have their own relative time frame — people were created after the world was created, and so forth. All myths are sacred and are equally true, whether Estonian, Christian, Navaho, Jewish or Korean. Further, all cultures and religions are based on myths.

A legend concerns an event, person, or place that was, or is considered to be, historical. The basic story in a legend is true although details may be added over time. Pele is both myth and legend. She is part of the creation mythology of Hawai'i, but she is also a historical personage whose genealogy extends to people in the present day.

Both myths and legends are used to teach and both have a place in storytelling — whether for children or adults. Stories of any kind are intended to be easy to listen to, so they can be good teaching tools.

The story of Pele and Poli`ahu
I am now going to talk about geology through a story that involves mythology. When I first heard this legend, I did not know it was about geology. I thought it was just a nice story for kids about Pele and Poli’ahu having a battle.

Pele and Poli’ahu are kupua. That word, kupua, is roughly equal to Moslem and Christian angels — a being that is human with supernatural powers, but is not God. I use the Hawaiian term because English words are “loaded” with false impressions — angel, demigod, goddess, spirit, etc.

Poli`ahu is one of the four female kupua on Mauna Kea — she is associated with, and controls, snow. Another is Lilinoe, who is the mist that comes from the mountain. Waiau is the kupua of the underground reservoir of water that comes from Mauna Kea. Finally, there is Ka Houpo o Käne (“bosom of Käne”), who represents the springs of the island of Hawai'i.

Poli`ahu and her three friends went one day to an area above where Laupähoehoe now is, to go hölua sledding. At that time, the cliff was a lot lower and there was no “lau” in Laupähoehoe — no leaf of lava extending into the ocean. There was nothing down below the cliff but deep water.

The hölua slide started way up on the mountain. Such a slide is perhaps eight feet wide and shaped like a shallow trough. It was made by clearing the big rocks off the slide area, putting smaller rocks and gravel down instead. Over that went a layer of pili grass to make it slippery. You pick up your six-inch wide, seven-foot long hölua, run a few steps, then throw it down and jump on it full length, holding on with your fingers tucked under your chest. You hope you can keep your fingers and toes off the rocks, and that you have good balance or you will die. You can get up to maybe 50 miles an hour on a good hill and when you get to the end, you and the hölua go off into space. You shove the hölua away quickly and both it and you dive into the water.

The four ladies were having a good time that day, racing each other, diving into the cool water, and climbing back up for another ride. There were a number of local farmers and fishermen watching, talking to the four women, and all trying to decide who was faster. After perhaps an hour, a woman came up to the top of the slide, a stranger, and talked with the ladies. She said she was visiting from the southern part of the island, had not brought her hölua with her and asked if she could borrow one. Lilinoe said, “Of course, use mine. What name may we call you by? You are so beautiful.”

“Some call me Keahilele,” replied the stranger with a little smile. Keahilele went to the top of the slide, ran, and dropped onto the hölua. They all watched in admiration as she expertly guided the sled up onto the sides of the slide when there were curves. So fast was she going that they could clearly see wisps of smoke coming from the runners when she went off the end of the slide.

Poli’ahu could hardly wait for her turn. She loved competition, and this Keahilele lived up to her name, “flying fire.” The five women decided to pick two judges who would separately decide who was fastest on the next two runs. Poli’ahu would go first, then Keahilele. Poli’ahu flew down the course as though it were solid ice, with a thin layer of water to make it slippery. The judges made a mark in the dirt to indicate their counting. Keahilele went next. So fast did she go that the two sled runners trailed sparks when she reached the end of the course.

The women all gathered around the two judges. They sat, looked at their timing numbers; first one, then the other, pointed to Poli’ahu as the fastest. Keahilele was furious. She stamped her feet, saying, “She was not faster than me! I won! I am much better than she was.” She glared at Poli’ahu. “You cheated!” she cried. Everyone was shocked — the woman had been so lovely and friendly earlier, now she was furious for no good reason. Keahilele stamped her foot again and the ground shook — an earthquake. Keahilele hurled Lilinoe’s hölua to the ground and, where the tips of the runners struck the ground, cracks appeared and smoke emerged from within the earth.

Poli’ahu realized now who “Keahilele” really was — she was Pele. Mauna Kea had been free of volcanoes for many years by this time and Poli’ahu’s soft blankets of snow slept silently on the high peaks, melting their water into Lake Waiau during the summer heat. Pele pointed at the snow-capped hills and said, “I will destroy you and your mountain!”

The four women began to run back up Mauna Kea, followed by Pele, who screamed at them and hurled burning chunks of lava. They wrapped themselves in their soft kïkepa of fine white kapa to ward off the burning cinders that blistered their skin. Pele’s fingers grasped a corner of Waiau’s garment and flames spurted from the kapa; Waiau tore it from Pele’s fingers and ran faster. Poli’ahu reached the top of Mauna Kea and immediately called forth the snow.

By the time all four women were on Pu’u Poli’ahu, thick snow blanketed the ground and more was falling, so much snow they could barely see each other. But then, just a few hundred yards away, Pu’u Hau Kea began to erupt hot red lava. A little later, Pu’u Lilinoe also erupted. Below Lake Waiau, cracks appeared and rift eruptions began, lines of lava fountains spilled fiery streams that melted the snow.

Pele decided to destroy the hölua slide at Laupähoehoe, knowing Poli’ahu would be unable to stop her. Eruptions began along the eastern side of Mauna Kea and a broad wave of ‘a’ä raced down toward the coast. The lava poured over the edge of the cliff into the ocean, piling up higher cliffs along the edge. At Laupähoehoe, where the hölua slide was, Pele forced an enormous amount of lava into the ocean. So much rock went down that a peninsula about a hundred feet high formed above the waves. The hölua slide was never seen again.

Poli’ahu called on Lilinoe to create a thick blanket of mist that stayed close to the ground. Then Waiau and Ka Houpo o Käne brought forth their waters. The icy mist froze the water as it spread out on the ground. Meanwhile Poli’ahu continued to cause the snow to fall. Soon the water from Waiau and Ka Houpo o Käne and the snow from Poli’ahu, all frozen together by Lilinoe, began to get thicker. It was two miles wide, four miles long and twenty, then sixty feet thick, a huge mass of hard ice. Pele continued her lava eruptions that blazed and flowed from Pu’u Lilinoe to Lake Waiau, but the upper edges of her lava army hardened and turned black where it met the block of ice.

Pele did not suspect that the heat of her own lava would soon defeat her. The ground under the thick ice sheet was warm and the heat caused a very thin layer of ice to melt into water. With the great weight of ice above, the entire mass of ice, now a glacier, began to move downward toward Pele’s rift fountains and vents. With more ice and snow filling in behind it, the glacier gained speed and – too late – Pele saw that the ice was sliding over all her sources of hot lava. She poured out lava as fast as she could, but the ice merely hardened it with icy cold water. Pele could not move the ice away and in a little while, the lava had forced itself upward against the bottom of the glacier. Unable to gain release, the hot gases that make lava liquid were dissolved, leaving only very hard stone pressing up against the glacier.

Pele had no more lava to bring to this battle; without liquid rock, she had no means of fighting. Pele was defeated. Whatever remained in her underground reservoir was turned away from Mauna Kea forever, and used to fill the lava pools of Kïlauea.

That is the end of the story.

Hawaiian legend as information science

A few years after I rewrote this story, I decided to research Mauna Kea, Laupähoehoe and the volcanoes on Mauna Kea. I found this quote:

“The cones and flows at the summit are part of the Laupahoehoe Volcanic series. The Laupahoehoe volcanism occurred both during and after the late Pleistocene Makanaka glacial episode at the summit. In addition, a few Laupahoehoe cones have been glacially eroded as evidenced by oversteepened slopes, which suggests that they predate the Makanaka glacial period (16-20,000 yrs). Two notable examples of possible preglacial cones are Puu Waiau and Puu Poliahu. These two cones are also significantly altered, most likely by hydrothermal activity that has weakly cemented the materials on the cones.” [1]

[1] Mapping Lithologic Units Exposed on the Summit of Mauna Kea Using AVIRIS Hyperspectral Reflectance Data – Dept of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Washington University, St Louis, MO; and NASA-Johnson Space Center, Houston TX

The geologist’s interpretation is that the volcanoes started on Mauna Kea, first, to build the Laupähoehoe Point. Then came the glaciers. Meanwhile the volcanoes continued to erupt until the glaciers covered them (“hydrothermal” = water and heat).

That’s where the adze quarry basalt came from, directly from this battle between Poli`ahu and Pele. A thousand years ago, Hawaiians knew all about the geological history of Laupähoehoe, the glaciers, and the forces that made adze rocks. They created that story to teach their children this science of geology.

The story of Pele and Poli’ahu illustrates just how important storytelling can be.

Recently, storytelling has received considerable recognition from information scientists. Information Science is not really new, except for the name. People have handled information for centuries. However, what is new is that information is now a commodity, much like beef, tomatoes, or shoes. People buy and sell information. The entire Internet is for, about, and by information. Information is what propels TV networks, publishing, stock exchanges.

The biggest problem in Information Science is what to do with the information: how to classify it, store it, retrieve it, and do all those things quickly and accurately. Some of the concepts used in Information Science are so complex they cannot be adequately explained without producing both textual and graphic explanations in books and journals, each of which explains a small part of the problem, solution, or concepts involved in the solution. Then other explanations may integrate or unite some of these small pieces and eventually we may have the entire set, of problem definitions, solution concepts, and solutions down to just a few thousand pages of explanation. Most people have trouble understanding a dozen pages, let alone a thousand pages, of detailed explanation. There is a famous saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Both academic and business professionals have taken that to heart. In order to make complex information understandable, the books and journals are converted to graphic presentations – charts, cartoons, briefing slides. The success of these efforts has been brutally summarized by a term, “Death by Powerpoint” where a speaker will “brief” complex ideas for hours using brightly colored slide projections.

The most recent proposed solution? Storytelling! That’s right, scientists are turning to stories to get their point across because charts, graphs, briefing slides – all of those tools of the modern age – cannot make complex information as understandable as it needs to be. While pictures may seem helpful for adding descriptive detail, they also disconnect the listener’s imagination from the tasks of reflection and interpretation. Listener interaction during and after the storytelling is vital to understanding complex ideas – the more a listener’s own experience is tied to the explanation, the more likely he is to internalize the ideas into his own knowledge base. Stories can compress information in the telling, allowing the listener’s mind to expand it later on. A good story, in other words, will use the listener’s background to provide much of the necessary information, reducing the need to spell all that out in detail.

Hawaiians of ancient times knew the difference between types of lava – some lavas had air (or gas) holes, the hard rocks did not. Why would lava not have air in it? Only if it never reached the air. I will leave you to discover what else is unsaid in the story, that you probably already know.

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Read other versions
of the story of Pele and Poli’ahu

Pele and the Snow Goddess by W. D. Westervelt, Paradise of the Pacific, 1910

Poli’ahu – Snow Goddess of Mauna Kea, by Deborah Melvin, published in 1988


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