Geomythology is the study of alleged references to geological events in mythologyDorothy Vitaliano, a geologist at Indiana University, coined the term in 1968.

“Geomythology indicates every case in which the origin of myths and legends can be shown to contain references to geological phenomena.  The venerable Mrs. Vitaliano indicated that geology and geological events, especially catastrophes like earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcano eruptions, are often explained in oral traditions and folklore, and it would behoove us to study these traditions, a position held in ancient Greece by Euhemerus around 400-300 BC.  He maintained that myths about divinities and their activities were poetic accounts of real people and events” (“history in disguise”).  His followers rationalized myths by stripping away supernatural and impossible details to reveal an underlying core of facts.  

The claim is that oral traditions about nature are often expressed mythologically and may contain genuine and perceptive natural knowledge based on careful observation of physical evidence. Geomythology can offer valuable information about natural disasters and other events which are otherwise difficult or impossible to trace.

Up until 2002 it was thought the Greek myth about the Oracle at Delphi was a poetic allegory.  A team of archaeologists and geologists, however, found that intoxicating methane and other gases escaped from the ground below the site, which explained how the priestess Pythia became “fuzzy-headed” and “was inspired” by the vapours seeping from the Earth.

Then of course there was the case of the tsunami in 2004, which swept across the Indian Ocean and killed almost 228,000 people.  One hard-hit area were the Andaman Islands, south of Bangladesh.  When scientists visited the islands, they feared the worst, as the indigenous people there had no warning of the impending wave.  To their surprise, all but one community survived with minimal casualties.  The islanders related a cultural myth that told them if the ocean rapidly receded, they needed to get to high ground so they would not “be eaten” by the huge waves, a myth that saved their lives.  The only community to suffer heavy casualties had been converted to Christianity and many of their oral traditions were lost (Australian Aboriginal Geomythology: Eyewitness Accounts of Cosmic Impacts? Hamacher & Norris, 2009).

Patrick Nunn has done pioneering work in the field.  Though the example used below might not have the impact that others do, we have included it, and the example following it, for a far more important and relevant reason:

Nabukelevu (Mt. Washington) is a domed volcano at the western end of Kadavu Island in Fiji which was last thought by geologists to have erupted tens of thousands of years ago.  The people of the neighbouring Ono Island had a legend that left that up for debate. In their story, the Ono chief went to watch the sunset from a beach on the island, as was his wont, but found his view blocked one day by a mountain (Nabukelevu) that had suddenly appeared on Kadavu to the west.

He was peeved, and promptly flew to Kadavu to battle the chief of the new mountain, but was overwhelmed.  This story naturally implies people were around to see the appearance of the mountain, which meant the eruption and consequent forming of the mountain must have happened within the last 3000 years. It seems the legend invalidated the science.  Years later, a road was cut around the foot of Nabukelevu, and a section through the volcano’s flanks was exposed.  It showed buried soil with pottery fragments (a sure sign of human occupation) overlain by freshly deposited volcanic scoria rock.  Clearly the legend was a more accurate indicator of the age of this volcano than science had once been (Geomythology—How A Geographer Began Mining Myths, Patrick D. Nunn, The Conversation December 8 , 2017).

Another convincing geomyth of surprising antiquity is the Klamath Indians’ oral tradition about the largest Holocene eruption in North America, the volcanic explosion of Mount Mazama in the Cascades Range of southern Oregon. About 7,500 years ago, the spectacular eruption blew off the top of the mountain and rained ash over a half million square miles. The resulting caldera formed Crater Lake. Surviving paleo-Native American witnesses created a detailed oral tradition of the violent event, expressed in a mythological story that has been transmitted in the original Native American language over some 250 generations. The Klamath myth contains geological facts about the eruption and collapse of the mountain that were unknown to scientists until the early twentieth century  (GEOMYTHOLOGY, Adrienne Mayor, Enclopedia of Geology, Forthcoming, Elsevier, fall 2004.

According to the myth of the Klamath Indians, Llao, the chief of the Below World, standing on Mt Mazama, was battling Skell, the chief of the Above World, who stood on Mt Shasta in California, about a hundred miles away (Clark 1953). They hurled rocks and flames at each other, and darkness covered the land. The fight ended when Mt Mazama collapsed under Llao and hurled him back into his underworld domain. The large hole that was created then filled up to form Crater Lake. (Geomythology: Geological Origins Of Myths And Legends,  DOROTHY B. VITALIANO , Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 273, 1-7, 1 January 2007)

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