"The Chieftainess and the Volcano." by Charlotte M. Yonge (1823-1901)
Few regions in the world are more beautiful than those islands far away in the Pacific which we have been used to call the Sandwich Isles. They are in great part formed by the busy little coral worms, but in the midst of them are lofty mountains, thrown up by the wonderful power that we call volcanic. In sailing up to the islands the first thing that becomes visible are two lofty peaks, each two miles and a half high. One is white with perpetual snow, the other is dark–dark with lava and cinders, on which the inward heat will not permit the snow to cast a white mantle. The first of these has been tranquil for many years, the other is the largest and most terrible active volcano in the world, and is named Kilauea. The enormous crater is a lake of liquid fire, from six to nine miles in circumference. Over it plays a continual vapour, which hangs by day like a silvery cloud, but at dusk is red and glowing like the Aurora Borealis, and in the night is as a forest in flames. Rising into this lurid atmosphere are two black cones, in the midst of a sea of fused lava, in which black and pink rocks are tossed wildly about as in a seething cauldron. The edge of this huge basin of burning matter is a ledge of hard lava, above which rises a mighty wall of scoria or cinder; in one place forming an abrupt precipice 4000 feet high, but in others capable of being descended, by perilous paths, by those who desire to have a closer view of the lake of flame within. Upon the bushes that grow on the mountaintop is found a curious fibrous substance formed by the action of the air upon the vapour rising from the molten minerals beneath; it is like cobwebs of spun glass. Tremendous is the scene at all times, but at the periods of eruption, the terrific majesty is beyond all imagination, when rivers of boiling lava, blood-red with heat, rush down the mountainside, forming cascades of living fire, or spreading destruction over the plains, and when reaching the sea, struggling, roars, thundering, in bubbling flames and dense smoke for the mastery with the other element.
Heathen nations living among such wonderful appearances of nature cannot fail to connect them with divine beings. The very name of Volcano testifies to the old classical fancy that the burning hills of the Mediterranean were the workshops of the armourer-god Vulcan and his Cyclops; and in the Sandwich Islands, the terrible Kilauea was supposed to be the home of the goddess Pele, whose bath was in the mighty crater, and whose hair was supposed to be the glassy threads that covered the hills. Fierce goddess as she was, she permitted no woman to touch the verge of her mountain, and her wrath might involve the whole island in fiery destruction.
At length, however, the islanders were delivered from their bondage of terror into a clearer light. Missionaries came among them, and intercourse with Europeans made them ashamed of their own superstitious fancies. Very gradually the faith of the people detached itself from the savage deities they had worshipped, and they began to revere the One true Maker of heaven and earth. But still their superstitions hung round Kilauea. There the fiery goddess still revelled in her fearful gambols, there the terrible sights and sounds, and the desolating streams that might at any moment burst from her reservoir of flame were as tokens of anger that the nation feared to provoke. And after the young King Liholiho, with all his court, had made up their minds to abandon their idols, give up their superstitious practices, and seek instruction from Christian teachers, still the priests of Pele, on her flaming mountain, kept their stronghold of heathenism, and threatened her wrath upon those who should forsake the ancient worship.
Then it was that a brave Christian woman, strong in faith and courage, resolved to defy the goddess in her fastness, and break the spell that bound the trembling people to her worship. Her name was Kapiolani, wife of Naihe, the public orator of Hawaii. There was no common trust and resolution needed to enable her to carry out her undertaking. Not only was she outraging the old notions that fearful consequences must follow the transgression of the tabu, or setting apart. Not only was the ascent toilsome and leading into cold regions, which were dreadful to a delicate Hawaiian, but the actual danger of the ascent was great. Wild crags and slippery sheets of lava, or slopes of crumbling cinders, were strangers to the feet of the tender coast-bred woman. And the heated soil, the groanings, the lurid atmosphere, the vapour that oozed up from the crevices of the half-cooled lava, must have filled any mind with awe and terror, above all, one that had been bred up in the faith that these were the tokens of the fury of a vindictive and powerful deity, whose precincts she was transgressing. Very recently a large body of men had been suffocated on the mountainside by the mephitic gases of the volcano–struck dead, as it must have seemed, by the breath of the goddess.
But Kapiolani, strong in the faith that He, as whose champion she came, was all-sufficient to guard her from the perils she confronted, climbed resolutely on, bearing in her hand the sacred berries, which it was sacrilege for one of her sex to touch. The enraged priests of Pele came forth from their sanctuary among the crags, and endeavoured to bar her way with threats of the rage of their mistress; but she heeded them not. She made her way to the summit, and gazed into the fiery gulf below, then descended the side of the terrible crater, even to the margin of the boiling sea of fire, and hurling into it the sacred berries, exclaimed: "If I perish by the anger of Pele, then dread her power; but, behold, I defy her wrath. I have broken her tabus; I live and am safe, for Jehovah the Almighty is my God. His was the breath that kindled these flames; His is the Hand which restrains their fury. Oh! all ye people, behold how vain are the gods of Hawaii, and turn and serve the Lord!"
Safely the brave woman descended the mountain, having won her cause, the cause of Faith.
In classic times, the philosopher Empedocles had leapt into the burning crater of Mount Etna, thereby to obtain an imperishable name. How much more noble is the name that Kapiolani gained for herself, by the deed that showed forth at whose command alone it is that the mountains quake and flow down, and the hills melt like wax.
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