Man, Mountains & Myth: Exploring Hawaii's Sacred Connection With Nature


By Bret Love for


Author Joseph Campbell once said, “Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.” There are few places in the modern world in which this connection between mankind, mythology and nature is more obvious than Hawaii.


More than 150 years before Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of the Species, Hawaiian kahunas (or priests) recited an ancient creation chant– the epic Kumulipo– which traced humanity’s origins to a cosmic night, and established the concept of biological evolution. As noted historian Herb Kawainui Kane stated in the PBS series, The Hawaiians, island natives believed that, “The entire universe was an orderly, fixed whole in which all the parts were integral to the whole, including man himself. Man was descended from the Gods, but so were the rocks, so were the animals, so were the fish. Thus man had to regard the rocks, the fish and the birds as his relatives."


This environmentally conscious point of view seems especially prominent on the east side of Hawaii’s Big Island, whose ecologically diverse landscape features 11 of the planet’s 13 climactic regions. From lush rainforests and spectacular ocean vistas to the desert landscape of Ka’u and the snow-clad summits of the tallest mountains in the Pacific, the Big Island’s bevy of natural wonders make it a must-see for eco-tourism aficionados.



Boasting over 2,000 species of plants, the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden is set seven miles northeast of Hilo along the shores of Onomea Bay. Onomea means “the best place,” and it’s an apt description for this fertile 40-acre valley, a natural greenhouse blessed with over 160 inches of rainfall a year and remarkably fertile volcanic soil. Here, enormous mango trees and coconut palms tower above lush jungle filled with rare and endangered plants from Africa, Australia and Indonesia.


Built by Dan Lutkenhouse, a retired trucking business owner with no formal botanical training, the property was cleared by hand to avoid disturbing the natural environment, with Lutkenhouse and three assistants working seven days a week for eight years (1977-1984).  To protect the environment, there’s no electricity in the garden, and no cars or buses are allowed into the valley; visitors park a half-mile from the entrance and are transported into the Garden by mini-bus. The result is an Eden-like tropical paradise in which every step produces some new visual marvel, surrounded by brilliant flora, a gorgeous three-tiered waterfall, and historical remnants of Onomea Valley’s past, including unmarked gravesites.


At the bottom of the path lies the Bay, where legend has it a chief of the village of Kahali’i once spotted canoes heading to shore as if to attack. The elders decided to build a reef to prevent a beach landing, but when they ran out of time they asked a young man and woman from the village to give their lives in order to protect the village. That night the villagers remained indoors, and when they emerged the next morning they found the lovers gone, and in their place two gigantic rock formations at the entrance to the bay, as if on guard. Today, these “Twin Rocks” serve as a stunningly picturesque backdrop for weddings at Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden.




No figure in Hawaiian mythology looms larger over the Big Island than Pele, the passionate, volatile goddess of fire referred to in sacred chants as “She Who Shapes the Land.” It is believed that Pele was exiled from her Tahitian homeland by her father after seducing the husband of her water-goddess sister, Na-maka-o-Kaha’i. Pursued by her angry older sibling, Pele sailed from Tahiti in a canoe, creating new volcanic homes at each island she landed upon only to have Namaka flood them out.


Eventually she landed on Mauna Loa, which, at 13,677 feet, is the Earth’s most massive active volcano. Here, safe from Namaka’s waves, Pele is said to have taken up residence in the fires of the massive Halema’uma’u Crater on the Kilauea Volcano, where she continues to live today, revered by locals and shrouded in superstition. Nearly every geological formation in this area is tied to some Pele legend, with tear-shaped lava droplets called “Pele’s tears” and fine golden strands of volcanic glass referred to as “Pele’s Hair,” and offerings of flowery leis and crowns are frequently left at the Crater’s rim in an attempt to garner the goddess’ blessing.


The most active volcano on the planet, Kilauea has been in nearly continuous eruption since 1983, and a drive through the 330,000-acre Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park reveals an otherworldly landscape of calderas, pit craters, cinder cones, spatter ramparts, lava flows, tree molds, lava tubes, black sand beaches and thermal areas. The park is also home to numerous significant archeological sites, and a post-sunset viewing of the glowing Kilauea lava flow exploding as it reaches the Pacific is an unforgettable reminder of the legendary battles between Pele and her sister.




No trip to the Big Island would be complete without making a trek up to the summit of Mauna Kea (“White mountain”), the dormant volcano believed to be the sacred home of the snow goddess Poli’ahu.


Revered for a power and beauty that rivaled the majestic peaks of her home, Poli’ahu was sometimes called “Cold Heart,” but revealed a softer side of herself on the fertile, sunny cliffs of Hamakua, where she trimmed the landscape with winding streams and waterfalls that led to the sea. It was here that Poli’ahu and her sister Lilinoe (goddess of the mists) took off their white snow cloaks to challenge the chiefs to a sled-riding contest, and where Poli’ahu was confronted by a jealous redhead who proved to be Pele herself. Pele’s fires chased Poli’ahu back up the cliffs, where she summoned a mantle of frost to cover the flames. Today, it is said that the goddesses keep each other in check, with Pele ruling the southern half of the island and Poli’ahu ruling the northern region.


With its height (13,796 feet), distance from city lights and dry conditions, Mauna Kea has become a hotspot for astrological observation, with its alien landscape dotted with an international array of working telescopes. Tour companies such as Arnott’s Lodge ( offer guided adventures of the mountain, making a 30-minute acclimatization stop at the Onikuza Visitor Center before ascending the last 4,400 feet to the end of the winding road, where hardy hikers can climb to the summit for a spectacular view of sunset above the clouds. The rapturous reverie is brief, as the dizzying altitude necessitates a descent back to the Visitor Center, where you conclude your evening with a guided Starshow to the celestial bodies that guided the ancient Polynesians to this heavenly paradise more than a millennium ago.


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