Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Volcano Mythology in Asia Pacific Region (Glossary)

That the people living in the "Ring of Fire" in Asia and the Pacific region should hold volcanoes in awe should come as no surprise.

From Mt. Kilauea in the far eastern Pacific to Mt. Fuji in Japan and southwest to Mt. Agung in Bali, the volcano has been held in reverence since time immemorial.

Nicholas Tapp and Michel Strickmann have mentioned the prevalance in Southeast Asia and South China of beliefs in underground networks of "grotto-worlds." Each world was linked to a particular sacred mountain beneath which it resided, and each was connected to other grotto-worlds by a labyrinth of underworld tunnels.

Descriptions of the grotto-worlds conveyed visions of an otherworldly paradise, and it was thought that hidden passages often linked with caves and caverns allowed humans to travel to this underground network.

Such belief also existed in early northern China but faded during the Han period. The grotto-worlds were associated with sacred mountains like Mt. Tai and Mt. Fengdu, the sources of sacred rivers.

In such mythology, the underworld "city" resembles a large fortress or castle with all people living in a large connected structure.

Journeying to the grotto-worlds by the living was almost universally described as extremely challenging and dangerous requiring the crossing of many obstacles.

Sacred caves

In many areas of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, caves associated with sacred mountains had special significance. Burial in certain prominent caves was considered an honor and ships passing by such locations visible from the sea would stop in reverence of the sacred place.

When Mt. Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines, many of the local Ayta residents retreated into sacred caves on that mountain. They were buried alive by lahar, most reduced to ashes. Some believe that these people thought they would be protected in the caves by the presiding deity of Pinatubo, the Creator God of the Ayta. However, it is still a mystery as to what belief system compelled them to stay in the caves despite the danger. One could say that they did know what would eventually happen to them.

Numerous belief systems in this region describe sacred caves and the rivers said to flow within them as leading to the Underworld, the land of the dead.

Such caves are visited by shamans and other healers who hope to become empowered by the spirits that dwell in the caverns and in the mountain itself.


Volcanic eruptions with their seeming convulsions of fire and water have naturally been interpreted in a dual way by peoples with a dual worldview.

One of the best examples of this in Austronesia comes in the legends of the goddess Pele in Hawai`i.

Hawaiians believed that humans had a kino ahi or fire body that would emerge if a dead person was thrown into a fire pit for burial. In such cases, the person would go on to join the Pele family in the afterlife.

Pele herself was said to change at will into a towering flame, and the fires near an erupting volcano's crater were often described as goddess herself dancing the hula.

In opposition to Pele was Kamapua`a, the pig-human demigod. While Pele represented fire and lava, Kamapua`a was associated with the sea and rain.

When the two met in battle/marriage, new land was formed as the waters of Kamapua`a cooled the glowing hot lava of Pele into new terra firma. The union of opposites thus resulting in new creation.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Pukui, Mary Kawena & Elbert, Samuel H. Hawaiian Dictionary : Hawaiian-English, English-Hawaiian, University of Hawai?i Press, 1986.

Strickmann, Michel. "The Tao among the Yao: Taoism and the Sinification of South China," in: Rekishi ni okeru minshu to bunka- Sakai Tadao sensei koki jukuga kiben ronshu, Tokyo: Kokusho kankokai, 1982, pp. 23-30.

Tapp, Nicholas. "Hmong Religion," Asian Folklore Studies 48, 1989, 59-94.


Greekgeek said...

Lovely, thoughtful post on volcano mythology. I'm particularly interested in the "fire body" idea in Hawai'ian mythology -- I hadn't run into that motif before.

(Sorry for such a belated commen, but I just discovered this post while searching the web for other pages on volcano mythology.)