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Volcano Watch — Strong ties between volcanoes and religion

January 7, 2010

As the first decade of the 21st century has come to a close, the effect of human civilization on the Earth has become increasingly apparent.

Such issues as climate change and resource management dominate the headlines and are the source of much political and social debate. We need only look to recent disastrous earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions to see that Earth has also had an obvious impact on humanity.

Less evident, however, is the fact that the Earth has been a source of constant inspiration and awe for humanity and has motivated a range of creative endeavors. The proclamation by Big Island mayor Billy Kenoi of January 2010 as Volcano Awareness Month provides an opportunity to focus on different aspects of the relation between volcanoes and society.

Over the next four weeks, we will explore, through this column, how volcanoes have influenced and shaped human experience, as seen through the lens of literature, movies, and art. This week, our focus is on the links between volcanoes and religion.

Given their combination of destructive and creative forces, volcanoes have a strong link to religion around the world. Making an offering to a volcano for protection from an eruption is a common practice in Indonesia. At Mt. Bromo, the most worshipped volcano in Indonesia, people climb the slopes of the volcano to pray and give offerings each year on Buddha's birthday. In Japan, however, volcanoes do not have a direct religious role in society, but instead are venerated by the Japanese. Mount Fuji, near Tokyo, is considered a lucky image in dreams (along with the falcon and the eggplant).

Residents near a volcano commonly appeal to local religious figures for protection from a volcanic eruption. For instance, on occasions when Mount Vesuvius, in Italy, erupts or threatens to erupt, the residents of nearby Naples bring forth the relics (a skull and a vial of blood) of Saint Januarius, a Catholic Bishop who was martyred around A.D. 300. Parading the relics through the street and presenting them to the volcano is said to have stopped eruptive activity on several occasions.

Similarly, in Hawai`i, Kamehameha made offerings of breadfruit, fish, and even a pig to Pele in an attempt to stop the destructive eruption of Hualālai Volcano in 1801. Only when the King threw a lock is his hair into the lava, symbolically offering a part of himself, did the eruption stop. Eighty years later, Kamehameha's granddaughter, Princess Ruth Ke`elikolani, who never accepted Christianity, chanted and left offerings to Pele at the front of a lava flow that threatened Hilo during an eruption of Mauna Loa. The eruption soon stopped, although some might argue that Christian prayer meetings being held in Hilo at the time were responsible for saving the city.

Volcanoes do have a prominent role in Christianity. In the year 1000 in Iceland, there was bitter debate over whether the country would become Christian or continue to worship Norse gods. During one parliamentary session on the subject, a messenger arrived with news of a volcanic eruption occurring near the city of Reykjavik. Believers in the old religion took that as a sign of anger from their gods. This prompted a Christian leader to ask what might have angered the gods during previous eruptions which formed the lava plains on which they stood. This question ended the debate, and the nation converted to Christianity.

A comparable event may be familiar to residents of Hawaii. In 1824, Chiefess Kapi`olani traveled to the rim of Halema`uma`u Crater, where she prayed to the Christian god, in defiance of the Pele beliefs of her followers, to demonstrate the power of Christianity over traditional beliefs.

Perhaps surprisingly, religious leaders have often provided important scientific information about volcanoes. In Iceland, the daily activity of one of the largest historic eruptions on Earth, that of the Laki fissure in 1783-84, was documented in exceptional detail by the Reverend Jon Steingrimsson, who lived nearby (his impassioned sermon on a night when his town was threatened by lava is said to have stopped the flow in its tracks). Likewise, much of what we know about the activity of Hawaiian volcanoes in the 19th century comes from the writings of missionaries like the Reverends William Ellis and Titus Coan.

Regardless of one's personal beliefs, it should be clear that volcanoes have played, and continue to play, an important role in religion. Next week, we will continue our exploration of the impact of volcanoes on society when we look at the connection between volcanoes and art.


Volcano Activity Update

Lava stopped entering the ocean entry at the Waikupanaha, west of Kalapana, early last week as the lava supply from the TEB vent dwindled. Small lava flows were active above the pali starting mid-week.

Glow above the collapse pit inset within the floor of Halema`uma`u Crater, at Kīlauea's summit, has been bright at night from the Jaggar Museum this past week. The lava surface deep within the collapse pit has been fluctuating in height, episodically rising up to form a small lava pond at the bottom of the pit. This activity has been visible, primarily at night, in the Webcam perched on the rim of Halema`uma`u. Volcanic gas emissions remain elevated, resulting in high concentrations of sulfur dioxide downwind.

One earthquake beneath Hawai`i Island was reported felt during the past week. A magnitude-1.8 earthquake occurred at 10:22 p.m. on Wednesday, January 6, 2010, H.s.t., and was located 6 km (4 miles) east of Captain Cook at a depth of 8 km (5 miles).

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