Ragnarök and Lava Flows

Earlier today, Sunday, I spent time in an online group with a number of people arguing that Loki shouldn’t be hailed because…Ragnarök: “Twilight of the Gods,” Loki riding in on a ship made of “dead men’s nails,” and all the rest of that “evil” stuff. Sigh…

Pele, by David Howard Hitchcock, c. 1929. Public domain.

And in the course of these discussions I began to mention my previous association with another “difficult” deity, namely Tutu Pele, the volcanic goddess of Hawai’i. And how people in Pele’s country, Hawai’i Island (aka “Big Island”), show her much respect and love. Even many people who are otherwise Christianized will acknowledge Pele. Especially in Lava Zones 1 and 2 in the Puna district, many people will clean their homes and make them beautiful for her, as an honored guest, if she is on the move.

I moved away from the Puna district in September 2017. Just a few months later, on May 3rd, 2018, the Leilani Estates (about eight miles from my former house) erupted into a massive, months long series of earthquakes, fissures, eruptions, and huge, swift rivers of lava. Halema’uma’u, Pele’s home at Kilauea Caldera in Volcanoes National Park was practically emptied of lava. It all spilled out over miles of Puna and flowed into the sea.

[60] Pele dwells in the chaos, 

Resounding down below in the pit,

Kilauea is overturned, adrift like a canoe.

Puna is branded, burned, the sand blazing hot.

Puna is destroyed, destroyed by fire.

[65] Charred by the fires of the woman.

Puna is blighted, burned by fires.

The Epic Tale of Hi’iakaikapoliopele, Woman of the Sunrise, Lightening-skirted Beauty of Halema’uma’u. As told to Ho’oulumahiehie. Translated by M. Puakea Nogelmeier. Awaiaulu Press, 2006. p. 346

One of my friends had actually lived on the property that later turned into the most active fissure (fissure 8), spilling millions of tons of lava over several months. As the lava flow continued it took out Green Lake (known as the Wai O Pele, her bath, one of only two fresh water lakes on the island), the vacation neighborhood of Kapoho, the Wai’opae tidepools, the Ahalanui warm pond, the Hawaiian language charter school, and hundreds of homes and acres of forest preserve. One man lost half his leg to a lava bomb! Others lost…everything. And with all this, people pulled together in amazing ways, even when they were homeless and governmental response was clearly inadequate.

And still they love Pele! 

I can’t help but contrast this kind of spirit and courage of people who live so close to spontaneous destruction on a daily basis with people who are too timid to even be in the same room with people who hail Loki. The timid ones speak of Loki’s supposed role in Ragnarök as the major reason why.

Ragnarök as a Tale of Volcanic Eruptions

Here is a chronology of volcanic eruptions in Iceland, starting from 870. I’ve been looking for a similar chronology for Norwegian volcanoes. (The last Norwegian eruption was 2014.) The noted scholar, Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson (1914-2006), linked the story of Ragnarök with volcanic activity. Another important scholar, Dame Bertha Surtees Phillpotts (1877–1932), proposed a theory that Surtr was a volcano demon, inspired by Icelandic volcanoes. Some Icelandic place names seem to confirm this.

Obviously Davidson and Phillpotts weren’t just scholars, they had heaps of common sense. They understood the relationships of landscapes and natural processes to the stories told by human beings. I think their theories sound very plausible. I’m going to enjoy learning more about them.

My Lee M. Hollander (1962) translation of The Poetic Edda says that the collected poems were compiled around the beginning of the 12th century but were probably written across a span of four centuries. He also says that the poems seem to have orginated in several countries–possibly most came from Norway and only one was confirmed for Iceland. Now this is an old book I’ve got here and scholarship must have advanced, but since this is not a blog on Norse lore (which I am not qualified to write anyway) I am going to ask readers to play nice if they make corrections in the comments section. I am hoping to get a copy of Jackson Crawford’s translation soon. Thank you.

So let’s just note the twenty-two or so volcanic eruptions in Iceland from 870 til 1188, just before the beginning of the 12th century. These eruptions, or news of them, may have had an impact on several countries in the old Norse world, particularly if they affected climate and crops. They are dramatic so some poets may have been tempted to reference them.

Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) wrote the Prose Edda in Iceland around the year 1220. There were twelve volcanic eruptions in Iceland during his lifetime, including one at Katla the year he was born.

Looks like this evening’s UPG is possibly verified by geologic and scholastic sources. But my main interest in this blog post is in comparing cultural/community reactions to Pele and Loki.

Destruction, Renewal: Norse Style, Hawaiian Style

Volcanoes are impressive natural events and it’s not hard to imagine that they would make an impression on any writer’s mind. They are very much like the end of the world. There are earthquakes, spewing fountains of lava and lava flows, poisonous gases…not to mentioned a sun which seems to go dark and other disruptive weather patterns which might cause crop failures and starvation. When I hear the phrase “ship made of dead men’s nails,” I have to admit I think of obsidian shards raining down from a volcanic eruption.

And in the poems and the prose, Loki is linked with some of this phenomena. Bound in a cave at the end of the Lokasenna he shudders from dripping snake poison and makes earthquakes (linked to volcanic activity). He is linked with fire and lightening. He’s said to be the avenging force behind Ragnarök, a battle of the gods and the end of life as we know it (temporarily, anyway). Fortunately there is a renewal of life afterwards. The seeress exclaims, “I see green again—–with growing things” (Hollander, p. 12).

It’s interesting to note that one of the most important tales in Hawaiian literature involves Pele and her youngest sister, Hi’iakaikapoliopele (“Hi’iaka in the bosom of Pele”) (see the quoted poem above). It’s an enormous saga, a world class epic, and at the end there is also a fierce battle between the two sisters, partially because Pele has killed Hi’iaka’s same sex lover, Hopo’e, for no good reason.  Their battle devastates the land with flowing lava, burning forests, etc. Finally other gods and goddesses step in and tell them to quit it. And at that point Hi’iakaikapoliopele becomes a goddess in her own right, bringing vegetation and new life to the lava flows of her eldest sister. Destruction, renewal; the cycle of life we endure and sometimes celebrate as human beings.

(You can watch a stunning dance performance of this story, Holo Mai Pele, here. The hula teachers for this performance are direct descendents of Pele, who is an ancestral goddess as well the volcano goddess. Production by Halau O Kekuhi.)

As you can see, Hawaiians embrace this story and love both goddesses in spite of their flaws, including Pele’s potential to create real-life catastrophes! This is pretty interesting to me when I compare this with fearful attitudes toward Loki among American neopagans who worship Norse gods. Meanwhile, back in the countries with volcanic histories that may have inspired the story of Ragnarök, I hear the people there are mostly chill when it comes hailing Loki. Are we weird here in the U.S. or what?

So I do think it’s regrettable that unlike Pele in Hawai’i, Loki–also connected with natural forces and cycles–gets little respect or celebration except from those who are particularly devoted to him (or who at least hail him from time to time). I find myself wishing that people who worship Norse gods would have a little more aloha for Loki, which is a value somewhat comparable (though not equivalent) with frith.

We cannot escape the natural forces that rend and rule our planet. Those who are theists (of any kind) might also argue that we cannot escape our deities. I look out every morning at Mt. Konocti, a high threat volcano just a few miles on the other side of Clear Lake in California. Sometime in the distant past a whole side of one of Konocti’s peaks slid into the lake, creating a giant concave scoop and probably triggering earthquakes and a flood. Every day I bless and thank that mountain. Why not? What else am I to do?