Volcanic mountains

Geomythology looks to ancient stories for clues of scientific truth

Huntington: 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 gripping 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.

The historian of science, Mott Greene, argues that the key moments of the Titanomachy map 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 may 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 exhibition of strange bones.

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 this terrible day, the Moken heeded an old tale about the “lab,” or “monster wave,” a legend passed down to them over countless campfires.

According to the fable, from time to time 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.

Still other geomyths can indicate natural events. Native tales speak of “fire devils” who descended from the Sun and plunged into Earth, killing everything nearby when they landed. These “devils” 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 apparent ability of lakes 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.

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 earthly events or discoveries.

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.”

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.

Create geomyths 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. While 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. Geomythology could thus contribute to a linguistic field known as nuclear semiotics, which struggles with the problem of alerting distant generations to hazardous waste.

(To receive our electronic paper daily on WhatsApp, please click here. We allow sharing of the PDF document on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.)

Posted on: Monday August 09, 2021 12:00 am IST