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As 1,800 of the best endurance athletes from around the world swim the waters of the Pacific before biking and running through the lava fields of Kona this weekend, the mystery of the nature of the island will surround them.
Written by: Bethany Leach Mavis
In years past, the goddess Madame Pele, who is believed to live in the Halemaʻumaʻu crater at the summit caldera of Mount Kilauea at Volcano National Park, is purported to have caused poor weather on race weekend. And when the winds hit the runners along the Queen K, it’s believed that Pele is trying to discourage them. Natives of the island claim to see her walking the streets in the disguise of an elderly woman.
The Hawaiian Islands are steeped in ancient legend, and perhaps one of the few who acknowledges the power of the gods of Kona is six-time Ironman world champion Mark Allen. After a seven-year losing streak—credited to horrible luck—Allen approached the 1989 Ironman World Championships with a new attitude.
Allen had battled mechanical problems in 1982, wound up in the hospital with internal bleeding in 1987 and his bike flatted twice in 1988. But before the 1989 race, Allen and Julie Moss, another Ironman legend, went to the little church at the five-mile mark the night before the race. They brought herbs and feathers and asked for the blessings of the gods.
“He feels a connection with this island,” said Moss in a Sports Illustrated article from that year. “To do well, he had to make his peace with it.”
For the last two decades, Allen has been known for the emphasis he’s placed on spirituality, crediting his 1989 win to his connection with nature. “When I began my career as a professional athlete in 1982, I judged my success in terms of the minutes and seconds I could shave off my competitive times. For the first six years of my career, I focused on the fitness of my body, and I won plenty of races, but I always fell short of my goal—the Ironman World Championship,” Allen wrote in his book “Fit Soul Fit Body.”
Allen recounts the final moments of the marathon in the epic 1989 race, remembering that it was an inner peace that pulled him through and allowed him to pass up Dave Scott. In those final miles, just before he passed Scott, Allen had a vision of an old Huichol man from Mexico. He credited his victory to that fleeting moment of being in tune with nature, the foundation of Huichol beliefs.
While not everyone that competes in the Ironman World Championships believes in the power of the gods and Madame Pele, it doesn’t hurt to know a little bit about the sacred land of Kona just in case your triathlon career takes you there.
The Legend of the Gods
“Of the first Hawaiians, we know only that they were Polynesians, possibly from the Marquesas Islands two thousand miles away,” wrote Herb Kawainui Kane in his book “Ancient Hawai’i.” All we know of them is through archaeology because their names and traditions were overshadowed by high-status chiefs from the Tahitian Islands, probably Ra’iatea, Bora Bora and Huahine. “With these new rulers, the Hawaiian traditions begin. Histories are composed by conquerors.”
According to their traditions, the world comes from Earth Mother Papa, who came from the darkness, and Sky Father Wakea, who came from the light. From dark and light came the gods and goddesses:
— Tane is the spirit of creation, who also rules over sunlight, fresh water, forests and is the male ancestor of all living things.
–Tangaroa is the god of the ocean
–Tu comes in many guises and is the patron of the works of men
–Rongo is the patron of agriculture and healing
–Haumea is the patroness of fertility and women’s works, and mother to Pele
–La’ila’i is the mother of lesser gods and humankind
–Na-maka-o-Kaha’i is Pele’s older sister and the goddess of the sea and water
–Hi’iaka is the spirit of the dance and Pele’s younger sister
–Pele is the spirit of the volcanoes
As legend has it, Pele was born to Haumea in the ancient homeland and traveled to Hawaii with her siblings in a great canoe, guided by an elder brother in the form of a shark. She was driven out of the homeland by her older sister after Pele had seduced her husband. It was a battle between Na-maka-o-Kaha’i’s water and Pele’s fire.
When Pele first hit land, she was at the northernmost tip of the archipelago. She sought to protect her sacred fires by burying them into the islands, but each crater she dug her angry sister flooded. She kept moving along the island chain until a battle in Maui, in which Pele’s mortal body was torn apart. Her spirit was freed and elevated to godly status, and she made her permanent home on Kilauea, near Mauna Loa, on the Big Island.
Pele’s biggest rival is Poliahu, goddess of the snow-capped mountain. She dwells on Mauna Kea, where her white mantle of snow is spread over its crest. She frequently invades Pele’s territory by covering the top of Mauna Loa with snow. Mauna Kea is listed by geologists as an extinct volcano, and according to legend, it’s the result of a furious battle between the two goddesses. It’s suspected that the battle began with Pele’s envy of Poliahu’s incomparable beauty and power to seduce handsome young chiefs.
Pele attacked first, bringing all her force to bear on Mauna Kea, causing the mountain to erupt and melt the snow. Poliahu counterattacked, covering the mountain with deep snows and quenching Pele’s fire at Mauna Kea forever.
The Curse of Pele
The storybooks are filled with stories of Pele’s battles with other goddesses over lovers, usually caused by her own jealousy. “Her personality is volcanic—unpredictable, impulsive, given to sudden rages and violence,” wrote Kane.
And it is because of this fiery personality that visitors to Hawaii can testify to her curse. Every year, Volcano National Park receives black lava rocks in cardboard boxes, all sent back to the place from which they were taken. Each rock is accompanied by a letter of explanation, telling of financial problems or bad health, all attributed to Madame Pele.
She has an impressive power over the island on which the biggest event in triathlon takes place. And for those who visit her, it’s probably best to respect the natural world of Hawaii and Pele’s home. “Hers is both the power to destroy and the power to create new land,” wrote Kane. “Born in the awe experienced by an ancient people, her majestic presence is felt by those who visit her domain today.”
Information was taken from “30 Years of the Ironman World Championship” by Bob Babbitt; “Pele: Goddess of Hawai’i’s Volcanoes” by Herb Kawainui Kane; “Ancient Hawai’i” by Herb Kawainui Kane; “Fit Soul Fit Body” by Brant Secunda and Mark Allen; and “Big Splash in Hawaii,” a Sports Illustrated article by Kenny Moore from October 23, 1989.