Field of Science

Of Love and Lava: A Geomythological Tale of Kilauea

The first colonists arrived on Hawai´i probably in the years 800-1.000. Lacking a written history their nevertheless developed a rich oral tradition, inspired in part by past events. 
One of the most important stories involves the volcano goddess Pele and her youngest sister Hi‘iaka. Once, so the myth, they arrived on Hawai´i and after a long search Pele decided to settle on the summit of Kilauea, since then also named Kalua o Pele, the pit of Pele. She send her youngest sister  Hi‘iaka‘aikapoliopele (generally shortened to Hi‘iaka) to search for Lohi‘au, a man Pele loved. The sister promised to bring him back to her and Pele promised as reward to her sister to spare the beloved forest of Hi‘iaka from fire and lava. Hi‘iaka had to overcome many obstacles, but finally she managed to bring Lohi‘au back to  Kilauea. However Pele had grown tired in the meanwhile and in a moment of anger she burned the entire forest.  Hi‘iaka for revenge take Lohi‘au and Pele, seeing the two together, became so envious that she killed Lohi‘au during a furious eruption. Hi‘iaka desperately searched for many weeks the corpse of Lohi‘au between the lava and rocks send by Pele.

Fig.1. On the rim of Pele´s pit, painting by P. Hurd, 1824.

It maybe is possible to interpret this myth in a geomythological way, linking it with features really found in the landscape and the geological history behind the formation of such features. The caldera of Kilauea is dated to 1470-1500 and also the Aila‘au flow (named after another Hawaiian deity), a large lava flow covering the north side of Kilauea, formed around 1470. Morphology and a well developed network of lava tubes suggest it formed during a single, prolonged volcanic eruption of Kilauea. The historic date makes it seems reasonable to assume that the event was watched by the locals and possibly the event was recorded and passed from generation to generation in form of a myth. The destruction of Hi‘iaka´s forest by the furious Pele could describe the lava burning down the vegetation around the crater, suggesting also that before this eruption enough time passed from the previous eruption to grow a dense forest. Also the last part of the myth is interesting.  Hi‘iaka moves and throws rocks into air during her search, maybe the description of an explosive eruption or explosions resulting from the lava coming into contact with groundwater or the sea.


The interpretation of myths in geological light helps also to better evaluate the risk, as eruption style of former volcanic events and the impact on the society can be reconstructed in more detail than just from studying the volcanic deposits.

Interested in reading more? Try: 

SWANSON. D.A. (2008): Hawaiian oral tradition describes 400 years of volcanic activity at Kilauea. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 176: 427–431

From Rocks to Angels

Fig.1. Medieval engraving of a scala naturae showing the "ladder" concept. The words on the steps read: rocks, flame (as a chemical reaction), plants, beasts, humans, heaven, angels, god.
The scala naturae or great chain of being placed all natural objects in a supposedly divine order and can be traced back to the ancient Greek Aristotelian philosophy. A common scala naturae in the 18th century started with less complex objects, like the (supposed) elements air, water, earth, to proceed towards metals, salts, rocks, corals (as half plants, half rock), lichens, higher plants, animals and finally Homo sapiens (just outclassed on the highest steps of the scala naturae by angels). 
Until the 19th century also science reflected this chain, as it was divided in physics, chemistry and natural history, the latter including the study of animal, plants and rocks. Still in the various disciplines a certain order, from the inanimated to animated, is present. Around 1800 for the first time it was suggested that the science of “biology”, or the philosophy of life forms, should study the laws that rule and circumstances that enable life as we know it and, more important, be distinguished from geology as the study of earth and its lifeless matter. However the idea didn´t at first attract much interest and still in 1842 German botanist Matthias Jacob considered the proposed distinction between the animated an inanimated world an absurdity, as there could be found a gradual transition between every single object. However Jacob was among the last opponents, as indeed biology had started to become an own, distinct scientific discipline. 

However still some interdisciplinary ideas survived. Like in crystallography, many biologists believed at the time that there exists, like for crystals, a smallest possible unit of life, a physiological unit or like Darwin proposed in 1867, a “gemmules”. Ernst Haeckel even named this supposed smallest entity (even smaller as a cell, at the time the smallest observable organic structure) Kristalloid” in 1876. Like a crystal forms and can grow by putting together the basic unit cells, an organism was composed of smallest units, each possessing the “lifeforce” and so giving life to the entire being. 

Only at the beginning of the 20th century and discovery of cellular organelles and DNA the idea of such "living basic units" was abandoned.