Thousands of pounds of rocks stolen from Hawaii are returned by mail to the island each year because former tourists fear their fortunes have been reversed by a wrathful goddess. What makes the myth so powerful?

No batteries or booze. No snakes or turtles, cats or dogs, hamsters, mice, guinea pigs, or rats. Pheasants are fine, but only April through August. Honeybees, gold fish, crickets, and worms are allowed, so are chicks, doves, ducks, emus, geese, guinea fowl, partridges, pigeons, quail, swans, and turkeys. Blood, saliva, stool, and urine are permitted, cremated remains, too, “provided they are in a strong and durable container,” but no fireworks, dynamite, grenades, ammonia, chlorine, carbon monoxide, or gasoline. Knives, razors, and switchblades are OK, along with rifles and shotguns, so long as they are unloaded, but no handguns. Safety matches are all right too, but not strike-anywhere matches.

There are real restrictions on what you can mail, and Alton Uyetake knows all of them. He has worked for the United States Postal Service for almost 20 years, the last five of which he has spent as postmaster at a tiny office on the Big Island of Hawaii, where more than what you cannot mail, he’s learned about what you can. Every week, without fail, a box or an envelope arrives at his office. Addressed to “postmaster” with just the city, state, and zip code beneath it, Uyetake knows what’s inside even before he opens it: rocks, sand, sticks, stones, and sometimes tikis. They are all being returned, not to Uyetake specifically, but to Hawaii.

The curse, as propagated by guidebooks and online tourism sites, states that the goddess Pele will bring bad luck to anyone who removes anything from around her volcanoes.

Uyetake’s post office, Keaau, is not far from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, from which all sorts of artifacts are removed every day, and to which many tourists around the world hope Uyetake will return them. Their hope, though, is self-interested: They are returning what they took from Hawaii because they believe that their fortunes were altered by the theft. “I think I’m a little more lighthearted about the returns than other offices. Some don’t think it’s funny or strange at all, and they take it very seriously,” Uyetake says, though even he admits some of the return stories give him goosebumps. He’s sensitive to the reasons postal customers mail back what they have taken, even sympathetic to the possibility that returning a few rocks or grains of sand might well reverse misfortunes.

Superstitions blow through Hawaii like the trade winds, arriving and leaving in curious ways. While Alton Uyetake doesn’t remember learning this particular superstition as a child, he did learn to avoid cutting his toenails or whistling at night. “It’s really something,” Uyetake says: “The idea that what’s natural to Hawaii should stay in Hawaii.”

That idea has been known for the last few decades as Pele’s Curse, and while thousands of pounds of rocks are returned to Hawaii every year because of it, as many people, if not more, scoff that it is nothing more than the recent invention of frustrated park rangers and tour guides. The curse, as propagated by guidebooks and online tourism sites, states that the goddess Pele will bring bad luck to anyone who removes anything from around her volcanoes.

Pele’s Curse is why thousands of pounds of rocks are returned every year—not only to local post offices and town halls, but directly to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. There is even a return service that advertises online, inviting small donations and offering a post office box in the town of Volcano to which returns can be mailed. The stories of the returns are then posted on the same site, along with photographs of the objects returned. Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park shares some of the letters they receive too.

Often these letters are addressed to Pele herself, but some are addressed to the volunteers who will be the ones to return the objects to their landscapes and seascapes. Addressees aside, the stories found in these letters are sometimes generic, but often quite specific, with detailed bits and fits of bad luck that the senders want reversed.

In their beautiful book, Powerstones: Letters to a Goddess, Linda Ching and Robin Stephens include copies of letters long and short, handwritten and typed, serious and comedic. The misfortunes are many: death, divorce, depression, pains and infections, cancer, car accidents, prison time, and unemployment. “We won the $600,000 lottery,” one note begins. “[W]e would have won the $2,000,000 one if it wasn’t for this—please take the rocks back before more bad luck.” Another letter includes a litany of examples of bad luck and then concludes: “I am now asking Pele for forgiveness. I will never doubt a superstition again, and the next time I am advised against doing something, believe me, I will not do it.”

Many of the letter writers are trying to reason themselves into or out of belief in Pele’s Curse. “Although I don’t believe in the Polynesian Gods or their legions, I’m not in a position to argue,” one writes. Another includes the postscript: “I can’t believe I’m writing this.” Some of the others are simply hedging their bets, including one written 20 years after the lava rock was taken: “I’ve been quite fortunate over the years—except for a few broken hearts—but perhaps by returning this to Pele, I’ll find my true love.”

Wanting to take some of paradise, even a small piece of it, is understandable. Souvenirs are as ancient as travel itself, but the lava rocks found on Pele’s sacred ground started disappearing at an alarming rate when Hawaii boomed as a tourist destination over the last half-century. According to the Hawai'i Tourism Authority, more than eight million people now visit the islands every year.

Not nearly as many pounds of material leave the islands with them, but what returns is enough to frustrate those who handle the volume, from postmasters to park rangers. Jessica Ferracane, a public affairs specialist at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, told me that she worries about Pele’s Curse. The park receives returns every day by mail, but every so often there is a “surge,” which Ferracane blames on “tabloid-style stories” about it.

“It’s almost impossible to dispel,” she says: “Even though there is no foundation in the myth or history of Hawaii’s indigenous cultures to indicate Pele cursed rocks.” For Ferracane the frustration is more than just the additional work for the park’s staff and volunteers. “It’s so important,” she says, “when we’re talking about a living, indigenous culture to be sensitive. A lot of what’s said is actually very offensive to their beliefs.”

“Rocks from the volcano are made by Pele and they are kapu, that is they have a kind of sanctity, and it is definitely bad luck to take them away from the volcano.”

It’s also, she says plainly, “illegal to take anything from parks: rocks, plants, minerals, anything.” Removing things from Hawai'i Volcanoes or any national park doesn't just represent a loss of the physical artifacts, but something much deeper. “When people remove things,” Ferracane explains, “they are taking away resources but also part of the park’s story. If you take a lava rock from somewhere specific in the park, even if we return it, the story of thousands of years of geologic events is altered.”

In Powerstones, Ching and Stephens date the curse to 1946, when “a park ranger, tired of visitors taking rocks as souvenirs, created the story of the 'curse' as a way of discouraging the practice.” That is the earliest date that anyone has offered, and it predates the earliest newspaper mentions of the curse by a few decades. In an article for the journal Pacific Studies, H. Arlo Nimmo notes a news story from 1974 about daily returns to the Volcano House Hotel, another from 1976 about a package with nine pieces of lava sent from California to "The Mayor, Kona, Hawaii, USA," as well as a report in 1978 about a family in Buffalo, New York, that had bad luck until they returned all the rocks they had taken from the islands.

The curse might be modern, but it does have some loose connections to Hawaiian mythologies. According to Lilikala Kame-eleihiwa, the director of the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies, “rocks in Hawaii have their own personalities.” “Male and female, and they don’t like to be disturbed,” she explains over email. “Rocks from the volcano are made by Pele and they are kapu, that is they have a kind of sanctity, and it is definitely bad luck to take them away from the volcano.”

But Rubellite Kawena Johnson, a retired historian from the University of Hawaii-Manoa, told the authors of Powerstones that, while Pele’s Curse is connected to the mythology around the lava rocks, she doesn’t think returns are necessary. “If you took a stone,” she said, “perhaps unknowingly or without meaning disrespect, I would recommend a ceremony rather than sending the rocks back. Say, ‘Release me from this kapu I oki (end) this.’ Just let it go.”

An echo, of course, of Lady Macbeth: “Things without all remedy should be without regard: what’s done is done.” Yet it’s hard to live with regret, and harder still to resist the possibility that a simple return might salvage luck and livelihood. It’s also easier to believe that Pele is punishing you than to acknowledge the capriciousness of health and wellness, happiness and success. So, for instance, many of the return letters describe coming to Hawaii while on honeymoon, and then seeing the resulting marriage fail: the difficulty of melding two lives into one is reduced to some stolen grains of sand.

But the tourists who mail back their sand and stones are not alone. Thieves return things, not all of the time, but sometimes. Take a couple of years ago, when some computers were taken from Sexual Assault Services in San Bernardino, California. They were brought back within a few hours, and the rape crisis center found the stolen equipment with a note that read like a William Carlos Williams poem:

We had
no idea
what we were
takeing. Here
your stuff back
we hope that
you guys can
continue to make
a difference.
in peoples live
God Bless.

Before that, a digital camera and a gaming system were returned to a couple in Guelph, Ontario, along with an apology and 50 dollars. “Dear Family I Have Wronged,” the note began. More recently, a Boy Scout troop in Billings, Montana, found a letter with two addresses where the camping equipment and cargo trailer that had been stolen from them could be found. Buyer’s remorse is no more powerful than stealer’s remorse, only the thieves mailing things back to Hawaii have more than guilty consciences: They have faulty fortunes.

What’s done is almost always what we are trying to undo, whether it’s returning an X-Box or trying to restore a failed relationship. We want to believe that there is nothing without remedy. Not even death goes unmentioned in the return letters to Pele, as if resurrections were possible if only a lava rock found its way back to the volcano. Pele’s Curse is powerful because there will always be regret, and a few dollars worth of postage is a very small price to pay for reversing it.

Lead photo: A volcanic vent in Hawaii. (Photo: geofiz/Flickr)