Volcanic mountains

Dinosaur bones became griffins, volcanic eruptions were godfights – geomythology turns to ancient stories for clues of scientific truth


(THE CONVERSATION) Everyone loves a good story, especially if it’s based on something true. Consider the Greek legend of Titanomachy, in which the Olympian gods, led by Zeus, defeat the previous generation of immortals, the Titans. As the Greek poet Hesiod said, this conflict is a compelling story – and it can preserve kernels of truth.

The eruption around 1650 BC of the Thera volcano could have inspired Hesiod’s story. More powerful than the Krakatoa, this ancient cataclysm in the southern Aegean Sea would have been seen by anyone living hundreds of kilometers from the explosion.

Science historian Mott Greene argues that the key moments in the Titanomachy map up to the “signing” of the eruption. For example, Hesiod notes that loud rumblings emanated from the ground when armies clashed; seismologists now know that harmonic tremors – small earthquakes that sometimes precede eruptions – often produce similar sounds. And the impression of the sky – “Wide Heaven” – trembling during the battle could have been inspired by the shock waves in the air caused by the volcanic explosion. Therefore, Titanomachy can represent the creative misreading of a natural event.

Greene’s conjecture is an example of geomythology, an area of ​​study that gleans scientific truths from legends and myths. Created by geologist Dorothy Vitaliano almost 50 years ago, geomythology focuses on narratives that can record, even weakly, events such as volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and earthquakes, as well as their aftermath, such as than the odd-looking bone exhibit. These events seem to have been, in some cases, so traumatic or inciting to wonder that they may have inspired pre-literate peoples to “explain” them through fables.

I have just published the first textbook in the field, “Geomythology: How Common Stories Reflect Earth Events.” As the book shows, researchers in the sciences and humanities practice geomythology. In fact, the hybrid nature of geomythology can help bridge the gap between the two cultures. And despite its orientation to the past, geomythology could also provide powerful resources for addressing environmental challenges in the future.

Tales transmitted that explain the world

Some geomyths are relatively well known. One is from the Moken people in Thailand, who survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, a disaster that killed some 228,000 people. On that terrible day, the Moken listened to an old tale about the “lab” or “wave of monsters,” a legend passed down to them over countless campfires.

According to the fable, every now and then a devouring wave of humans would surge and move far inland. However, those who fled to the heights in time, or, counterintuitively, emerged into deeper waters, would survive. Following the advice of legend, the Moken saved their lives.

Other geomyths might have started as explanations for prehistoric remains that did not easily match a known creature.

The Cyclops, the tribe of one-eyed ogres who terrorized Odysseus and his crew, may have been born from the discoveries of prehistoric elephant skulls in Greece and Italy. In 1914, paleontologist Othenio Abel pointed out that these fossils have large facial cavities in the front, from which the trunk would have protruded. Eye sockets, on the other hand, are easily overlooked on the sides of the skull. To the ancient Greeks who unearthed them, these skulls might have looked like the remains of giant monocular humanoids.

The seemingly whimsical griffin – the eagle-headed, lion-bodied hybrid – may have a similar origin story and may be based on the creative misunderstanding of the Protoceratops dinosaur remains in the Gobi Desert.

Still other geomyths can indicate natural events. Native tales speak of “fire demons” that descended from the Sun and plunged into Earth, killing everything nearby when they landed. These “demons” were probably meteors observed by the Australian Aborigines. In some cases, the tales anticipate the discoveries of Western science by decades or even centuries.

Many African tales attribute harm to certain lakes, including the lakes’ apparent ability to change color, change location, and even become fatal. Such legends have been corroborated by actual events. The most notorious example is the “explosion” of Lake Nyos in Cameroon in 1986 when carbon dioxide, long trapped at the bottom, suddenly surfaced. In one day, 1,746 people, along with thousands of birds, insects and livestock, were suffocated by the cloud of CO2 the lake caused. Lakes are also sometimes associated with death and the underworld in Mediterranean stories: Lake Averno, near Naples, is mythologized as such in Virgil’s “Aeneid”.

Encounters with animals can inform other geomyths. The “Histories” of Herodotus, written around 430 BC. In his 1984 book “The gold of the ants: the discovery of the Greek Eldorado in the Himalayas”, the ethnologist Michel Peissel discovered the possible inspiration of Herodotus: the mountain marmots, which to this day ” extract gold by overlaying their nests with gold dust. .

Fantastic stories that fuel science

Geomythology is not a science. Old stories are often distorted or contradictory, and there is always the possibility that they preceded the real events to which researchers today link them. Imaginative prescientific peoples could very well have imagined various accounts from scratch and only later found “confirmation” in events or discoveries on Earth.

Yet, as noted, geomyths like the Griffin and Cyclops originated from specific geographic regions that are not found elsewhere. The likelihood of illiterate peoples first inventing tales which then somehow closely correspond to later fossil finds seems to be an astonishing coincidence. More likely, at least with some geocontes, the discoveries preceded the narratives.

In any case, geomythology can be a precious ally of science. More often than not, this can help corroborate scientific findings.

Yet geomyths can sometimes go further and correct scientific results or raise alternative hypotheses. For example, geologist Donald Swanson argues that the legends of Pele in Hawaii suggest that the Kilauea volcanic caldera formed considerably earlier than previous studies indicated. He alleges that “volcanologists have gone astray” in their research into the age of the caldera “by not paying particular attention to Hawaiian oral traditions.”

Although focused on the past, geomythology can also help define future science programs. Today’s researchers could familiarize themselves with myths about strange creatures or extreme weather conditions, and then examine the places of origin of the stories for geological and paleontological clues. Such accounts could provide invaluable links to real events that took place long before a scientist was around to record them. Indeed, such stories could have endured precisely because they commemorated a traumatic or heartbreaking incident and were therefore passed down from generation to generation as a literal warning.

Creating geomyths today for future generations

Another exciting area for geomythic study is not only the search for old myths, but the creation of new myths that could alert future generations of potential dangers, as these peoples live in tsunami-prone areas nearby. nuclear waste sites like Yucca Mountain, or in an equally risky area.

Nuclear waste can remain radioactive for mind-boggling periods of time, in some cases up to tens of thousands of years. Although affixing warning labels to radioactive material deposits seems reasonable, languages ​​are constantly changing and there is no guarantee that those of today will even be spoken, let alone understandable, in the future. distant. Indeed, even stranger to contemplate is the extinction of the human race, an event some philosophers see as potentially closer than we think. How, if at all, could we warn our distant descendants or, beyond them, our possible post-human successors?

Creating notification systems that persist over time is one area where myths could be helpful. Famous tales often last for many generations, sometimes proving to be more enduring than the languages ​​in which they were first told or spoken. Indeed, CS Lewis wrote that a feature of the myth is that it “would delight and nourish equally if he had attained [us] by a medium that did not imply any words – say by a mime or a movie. “

Because they are less related to language than literature, myths can be easier to convey across cultures and over time. The oldest currently recorded is an Aboriginal tale about a volcano; it may be 35,000 years old.

Geomythology could thus contribute to a linguistic field known as nuclear semiotics, which struggles with the problem of alerting distant generations to hazardous waste. An intentionally created geomythe could preserve and transmit crucial information from the nuclear age to our descendants, with considerable efficiency.