“Please take this sand and put it back somewhere on your island. I have had very bad luck since it came into my life and I’m very sorry I took it. Please forgive me and I pray that once I send it back to where it came from my bad luck will go away.”
This letter by Timothy Murray is among thousands of apologetic correspondence received by Hawaii Volcano National Park (and local post offices) annually. Packages returning rocks and sand, accompanied by letters telling of the misfortune and calamity they caused, flood Hawaiian mailboxes at a rate that would give pause to even the most skeptical among us.
Can a rock or sand souvenir really bring misfortune to the unsuspecting tourist who casually pockets it from a Hawaiian beach or park? While some scoff at the notion that bad luck can be blamed on a rock, others have come to believe that rocks and sand taken from Hawaii do, in fact, fetch with them a curse of epic proportion.
Whether or not you believe in bad luck, below are a few reasons why you may want to think twice before taking some sand (or rocks) home with you as a souvenir.
Pele is the goddess of fire and volcanos who, according to legend, resides in the crater of Kilauea on Hawaii Island (which, today, is Hawaii Volcano National Park). There are numerous stories equating Pele’s wrath to volcanic eruptions or calamitous lava flows. This visible and active power has resulted in respect (and even worship) for Pele to far outlive those of any other gods. After all, it was her fires that developed and redeveloped the island through volcanic activity.
Even today, native Hawaiians and new island residents, leave gifts of gin, berries and red flowers for Madame Pele to show respect and ensure good luck. (As the saying goes, “Pele will either embrace you, or spit you out… and you will know if you are meant to be here or not soon after you arrive.”)
Pele has long been revered as the island matriarch and it is through her creative and protective power that the curse of Pele was said to have been born. Since Pele is (reportedly) zealously protective of her lands and her children.
According to legend, Pele views the lava rocks as her children, and when the rocks / her children (or anything else that belongs to her) get taken away, she is so angered she exacts terrible revenge on the thief. Moreover, her revenge (like that of any woman scored) is not a mild-mannered one.
This isn’t a spilled-your-coffee, lost-your-car-keys type of curse. The bad luck associated with Pele’s curse is more of the egregious variety: Pets dying (one of the more common reported calamities), relationships ending, loved ones suddenly falling ill, etc.
The sudden downpour of bad luck can continue for months, or even years, until the “stolen” items are returned to the island (and to Pele).
You see, Hawaiians believe that everything has life force, or “Mana”, and that certain spirits or life forces can inhabit inanimate objects. In fact, many of the Hawaiian words regarding stones are anthropomorphic (attributing human characteristics to a non-human being or thing). This is comparable to how, in Western culture, we see certain “human” traits in our animals. We know our pets aren’t human but, in some ways, we care for them (and even regard them) as if they were.
It’s in this way that Hawaiians view their environment. It feeds them, provides for them, and is a part of them. They belong to it and vice-versa. Almost as if it’s a part of the family — and we must care for our family, in it’s many forms.
Therefore, all rocks in Hawaii are considered sacred. For this reason, the building of structures on the island (Heiaus and such), were undertaken by specialists in that field, and Kahunas (or priests) who knew the correct protocol to remove and use only certain types of rocks.
So, back to Pele’s curse. Whether you believe it or not, the foundation of that story is true in the sense that Hawaiians have long considered it unlucky or ill-advised to disturb/remove rocks from a place unless certain protocol is followed or ceremonies are performed or someone skilled (like a Kahuna) does it for you.
Cursed or Credulous?
While some swear by Pele’s curse, others believe the legend is of twentieth century origin — invented by park rangers who were fed up with watching an increasing amount of visitors take rocks (and other pieces of the island) home with them.
Another version about the legend’s origin is that it was made up by bus drivers who grew tired of cleaning the dirt, sand, and rocks left behind by tourists (and their rock collection / sandy souvenirs).
Whether the legend’s genesis is ancient or modern, it all comes back to respecting the land and the old adage of leaving a place the way you found it — rocks, sand, and all.
My Two Cents
While there’s no denying the mana of Hawaii (the islands’ creative and restorative “energy” — for lack of a better word — has always been evident to me), I don’t presume to know how far that energy extends and what misfortune may or may not await those who disrupt the islands’ delicate ecosystem (even if as minutely as by taking sand or rocks).
Nor can I say whether it’s Pele or paranoia that drives thousands of people to mail purloined rocks and sand back to the islands every year.
However, what I do know is that the state of Hawaii receives 9 million visitors annually. And perhaps, to one person, taking a jar of sand or handful of rocks may not seem like a big deal. However, if all 9 million visitors arrived with that mentality and left with a jar of sand (or, in total, 9 million jars of sand) it would, in fact, have an impact on the island and its beautiful natural resources.
So, whether out of respect for the island or fear of Madame Pele, please leave the rocks and sand (and plants, and animals, and anything else) alone for future generations to enjoy. And when you leave, please only take with you memories and photos (and maybe a souvenir keychain or coffee).