Pele's Cursed Tourist Rocks
Volcano, Big Island, Hawaii
Nothing beats watching a volcanic eruption -- and living to talk about it. The volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii seem to offer that possibility, although because of their mercurial eruption habits, most visitors go home with just a photo of distant steam plumes.
After settling for a gift shop DVD of a spectacular prior eruption, get ready for another disappointment: Cursed Tourist Rocks and accompanying letters of human misery are no longer on display. For years they were exhibited in the Volcanoes National Park visitor center.
We spent a bit of time asking around about what happened to these popular oddities -- small lava rock samples taken by tourists from the volcano's edge, in spite of warnings that they might carry a curse from the fire goddess Pele (who regards the rocks as her children) when removed from the island.
The rocks still show up, months or years later, sent back via US mail to the National Park by mainland visitors experiencing streaks of horrible luck. The letters they arrive with describe businesses and homes lost, marriages shattered, health decimated. Take back this rock!
We approached two rangers at the front desk at Volcanoes National Park visitor center, across from a painting of an angry goddess Pele wading through molten lava, holding a volcanic egg-rock in one hand. The rangers revealed interesting tidbits about what piles up each week in the incoming mail: "People mail things that aren't even from Hawaii. We looked at something and it was slag from a furnace." They've received "Ceramic tiki heads and bottles with things in them." But the center's Cursed Rock display had been gone for a long time.
Further along the crater rim drive, we wandered around the Kilauea Military Camp, looking for an exhibit of Cursed Rocks reported by a tipster. Three women in the recreation center insisted the curse was real. One of them used to work in a hotel in Kona. People would mail their cursed souvenir rocks there, too (the Curse apparently applies to every rock and grain of sand on any Hawaiian island).
But no, they hadn't seen any Cursed Rocks in the Camp for years.
At the Jaggar Museum, along the Kilauea Caldera, there are educational displays, but no rocks labeled as cursed. According to park ranger "G." (name obscured to prevent Curse Blowback), who we cornered near a scenic overlook, the "curse" has no basis in Hawaiian culture. The claim is traced back to early park rangers and tour guides who wanted to discourage visitors from removing rocks.
"It's the power of suggestion. People get cancer, and then they remember at some point years earlier they took a rock from the volcano."
The ranger told us that the returned rocks accumulate quickly, filling a table every week, sent in packages opened by park volunteers. They're kept in several piles behind the visitor center (we couldn't find them in a publicly accessible area).
In Hilo, a woman working in the Information Center told us the resurgence of Hawaiian culture -- people even sign checks in Hawaiian now -- has led to more sensitivity around touristy excesses. Ranger G. agreed that some native Hawaiians felt the Cursed Rocks exhibits were disrespectful to Pele and their culture and asked for the park to remove them all. But that has led to another dilemma: many native Hawaiians now accept the curse -- whatever its origins -- as part of their culture, so the removal of the Rocks and suppression of curse information is also seen as a sign of cultural disrespect.
Tourists ask about the Cursed Rocks frequently, but the park service has no plan to return them to public display. If you visit and happen to end up accidentally taking a rock off the island, keep this address handy: Pele, c/o Headquarters, Volcanoes National Park, Volcano, HI 96785
Another urban legend, apparently started because of the historic liquor concession at the Volcano House, is that visitors wanting good luck should leave offerings of gin for Pele. This particular practice drives the rangers crazy, because they have to throw away all the little glass and plastic bottles left on outcroppings all over the park.