This Hawaiian story blends mythology with folklore. The goddess Pele discovers the true nature of human character when she disguises herself as the hag.
One of the disguises which Pele, the goddess of fire, was fond of assuming was that of an aged hag. In fact, it was hardly a disguise at all, for Pele was as old as the hills themselves; besides her quick temper and natural jealousy had furrowed her face with deep, hard lines, which a bitter disposition imprints upon a face, quite irrespective of its age. On this day Pele was intent upon a secret mission, and, taking a gnarled branch of the koa-tree for a cane, she trudged at a rather brisk pace down the mountainside. Only on approaching two Hawaiian houses of varying pretensions did she slacken her speed and finally pause at the outer palisade of the first.
It was a sizable house, or hale, as Hawaiian houses go, perhaps fifty feet long with its side thatched with ti-leaves—a sign of rank. Its only window, a small aperture about a foot square, looked out on a carefully planted taro patch, while rows of tasseled coconut palms and fruit-laden banana plants made a pretty background to the setting.
Pele paused for a moment to make a mental summary of the growing crop, and then grasping her cane, hobbled to the threshold.
"Aloha," she said to the small group of people sitting within the doorway.
"Aloha," was the reply in a not over-cordial tone of voice.
Pele waited—apparently there was to be no invitation to enter or to refresh herself.
"I have walked many miles," she said finally, assuming a small and feeble voice. "I am very hungry. Perhaps you have as much as a calabash of pots for me."
"We are very sorry, but we have no poi," said the Hawaiian chief, for such was the master of the house. "Besides our evening meal is pau."
"Then, perhaps, a small piece of salted fish?"
"No, nor fish," was the short rejoinder.
"Then, at least, some ripe ohelo berries for I am parched with thirst?'
"Our berries are all green, as you can see for yourself, providing your eyes are not too dimmed by age."
Pele's eyes were far from dim! She suppressed with an effort the flashes of fire that ordinarily blazed in their black depths at a moment's provocation and, bowing low, made her way in silence to the gate. Passing a few steps further down the hard road, she entered a smaller and less thrifty garden and paused on the threshold of a small hut. The work of the day as well as the evening meal was over, and the family of bronzed-skinned boys and girls played about the man and woman who sat watching in rapt attention the last golden rays of the sun sinking in a riot of color behind the gentle slopes of Mauna Loa.
"Ah, I see your evening meal is past;" sighed Pele. "I am sorry for I am both tired and hungry and had hoped for a little refreshment after a day's walk down the steep mountain."
"Neither fish nor awa have we," promptly said the poor fisherman, "but to such as we have you are most welcome."
Almost before he had concluded these few words, his wife had risen, motioned Pele to a place on the mat and set before her a large calabash of poi.
Pele did not wait for a further invitation but fell to eating with much relish. Dipping her fore finger in the calabash, she raised it dripping with poi, waved her finger dexterously in the air wrapping the mucilaginous poi about it, and placed it in her mouth. She seemed to finish the entire contents in no time and, looking up, remarked: "I am still hungry. Would it be too much to ask for another calabash?"
Again, the woman arose and placed before her a second calabash of poi, not perhaps as large as the first but filled to the brim. Again Pele emptied the calabash with great relish. Wishing to test the extent of their patience and generosity, she sighed as she finished the last mouthful, calling attention to the empty calabash in her lap.
This time a third calabash smaller than the second—but quite full, was placed before her. Pele finished half of the third calabash, arose heavily to her feet, and, pausing before the chief, she uttered these words:
"When your neighbor plants taro, it shall wither upon its stem. His bananas shall hang as green fingers upon the stalk, and the cocoanuts shall fall upon his favorite pig. When you plant taro at night, you may pull it in the morning. Your cane shall mature overnight, and your bananas ripen in one day's sunshine. You may have as many crops as there are days in the year!"
Saying these words, Pele trudged out of the gate and was seen to disappear toward Ha-le-mau-mau in a cloud of flame.
When the astonished fisherman passed beyond the threshold of his hut on the following morning, yellow bananas hung on the new plants, the full grown taro stood ready to be pulled, and the cane-cuttings reached to the eaves of his house. Looking across at his rich and powerful neighbor, he saw that, indeed, the curse of Pele had already descended upon him. In place of the rich man's prosperous acres stood the sun-parched remnants of but yesterday's proud crop.
"There, children," said Alec, the old half-breed guide, "Whether [you believe] in the ole lady Pele or not, don't you ever [forget] to be nice to the ole folks. It just might be Pele. [You] can't always [tell]."
“A Calabash of Poi.” Originally published in 1924 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Thorpe, Coral Wells. In the Path of the Trade Winds. New York/London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1924. pp. 93-97.
In most of the stories examined thus far, we’ve focused on the old woman as a secondary figure. We have seen her as a grandmother, as the crone or simply a wise old woman. Usually she helps the protagonist achieve success in his or her journey. Sometimes, in the case of “Frau Holle” or “Baba Yaga,” we see her serving as a judge to determine whether the heroes in the story are worthy of success. If the answer is yes, she helps; if not, she thwarts or punishes their efforts. But in all these stories, the wise crone simply waits for the action to occur. She doesn’t seek the heroes out; she waits until they arrive. We don’t quite know what she is doing in the meantime, for she doesn’t appear prior to the hero’s arrival. But we can guess that she is living her life: cooking, gardening, waiting at the side of the road, or flying around the forest – whatever it is she likes to do best. When the protagonist arrives, however, she shifts quickly into action, providing what is needed, to aid, help or scare them into doing the “right” thing.
But in “A Calabash of Poi,” we appear to see an old woman, a hag, as a protagonist. She becomes an “unlikely hero.” Unlikely only because old folks aren’t supposed to take the center stage. In most stories, they are only able to react, rather than to act. Pele is a different sort of character for she is both the protagonist and the one who metes out justice. Who is Pele? Pele, otherwise known as Pelehonuamea (“she who shapes the sacred land”), is the goddess of fire and volcanoes. She has a quick and fiery temper. She appears in folktales as either a beautiful young woman or as an old woman. In this story, she transforms herself into a “hag.” It’s a term often used in European folklore and is defined as an ugly and malicious old woman. Sometimes the hag practices witchcraft. Sometimes she has supernatural powers and may be aligned with the devil or the dead. The crone and hag have similar characteristics so in this story the terms might be used interchangeably.
Pele visits her people to determine their worth. While they live on her island home, they have not sought her out. In in this story, it is she who comes to them. It’s a story in which she determines the worth of her people. She discovers who is kind and generous and who is not. She comes as the hag so she can ascertain their true nature. The wealthy family is not concerned about appearing inhospitable, selfish or stingy. Who cares about an old hag? No one sees her as a person. Yet in the poorer household, she receives the respect she expects and deserves. It is the respect that should be given to any human being in need whether hag or goddess.
Kathleen Ragan writes of this story in her book Fearless Girls, Wise Women and Beloved Sisters. She compares “A Calabash of Poi” to similar European stories in which either Jesus or St. Peter disguises himself to test the rich and the poor and judge them on their merit. She contrasts these stories in this way, “Jesus and St. Peter are not the heroes; they are the hero-makers. They set the standards for the hero’s test. They are part of the structure of the tale, the background; it is simply assumed that they are powerful and just. In this Hawaiian story, the judge-the goddess Pele- is female. Because she is powerful and just, she sets the standards. Yet it was so unusual to have a woman in the role of divine judge, I viewed Pele as the heroine. To me she was not simply part of the structure, the background. I felt relief and freedom when I identified with the person in control rather than the person having to measure up. This gender reversal of the judge made me recognize how implicit the male’s power is and how much influence this assumption has had on my subconscious.”
Pele is both the hero and the judge. She isn’t waiting in the volcano to take action. She engages with two families, rewarding one for their hospitality and punishing the other for their greed and lack of compassion. The story ends with these words. "Whether [you believe] in the ole lady Pele or not, don't you ever [forget] to be nice to the ole folks. It just might be Pele. [You] can't always [tell]."
Perhaps Pele encourages all wise crones to leave their homes (at least occasionally). When people have lost their way, and some can no longer tell right from wrong, the wise crone makes the best judge of righteous action. Is she invisible? Should we count her out? Pele’s fiery eyes, indicate a resounding “NO!”