Active volcanoes tell us their stories through earthquakes, deformations, gas emissions, and lava flows. We interpret those stories through a myriad of scientific instruments and record them in journals and news for generations to come.
But what if a volcano is not active and has not been for hundreds or even thousands of years? How can we learn their stories when they sleep now?
Geoscience is full of tools to help us investigate the past. Using geochemistry and geochronology, we can reconstruct ancient magma chambers from their eruptive products even millennia after their formation. However, there is an important tool that can sometimes be overlooked: oral history.
Long before we were writing books or reading seismographs, our ancestors recorded events in their memories and passed them down through stories, poetry, and song. Today we call them myths, legends, or oral traditions, and we can imagine these colorful stories told to entertain.
Good stories are often based on true events, if you know how to look. Hawaiian oral traditions are full of fascinating stories, such as that of the two Kahuku chiefs who became the two hills of Nāpuʻuapele. In some cases, they can be traced directly back to the eruptions they record.
In other parts of the world, the connection is not so simple. Time and artistic embellishments have disguised many volcanic eruptions in oral traditions. Let’s look at examples from Australia and Iceland.
The dream stories of the Bungandidj (Boandik) people tell of a giant named Craitbul who traveled southeast Australia with his family in search of a home. First, they settled on Mt. Muirhead. They dug out their cooking oven and settled in for the night when they were awakened by a screeching bull (bird) warning them of an evil spirit. They ran away from home and built a new kitchen oven on Mt. Schank.
Once again the bull screeched and chased the family from their rest. Eventually, they settled on Mt. Gambier. All was peaceful until one day when water gushed out of the ground and destroyed their cooking fires. They dug their ovens over and over again, four times! – and each time the water rose to put out the flames, leaving holes where their ovens once stood. Finally, Craitbul and her family moved out for the last time and settled permanently in a cave on the side of the peak.
This dream recalls several eruptions, which ended with the formation of four crater lakes in a maar volcano, Mt. Gambier in southeastern Australia, about 4,500 years ago. Many dream stories from eastern Australia describe volcanic eruptions that Aboriginal people had witnessed and passed down in history for thousands of years.
Another legend, passed down orally for hundreds of years in Iceland before being written down by Snorri Sturluson, tells of a great duel between the god Thor and the giant Hrungnir.
It begins with the pounding of hooves as Thor’s father, Odin, raced Hrungnir from Jötunheim, the land of the giants, to Asgard, the land of the gods. The gods invited Hrungnir to a feast, but he soon became loud and boastful, saying that he would kill the gods. He challenged Thor to a duel and the two clashed brutally in the night.
At one point, Hrungnir tries to protect himself by standing on his large stone shield, thinking that Thor would attack him from below the Earth. Instead, Thor hurled the mighty hammer at him from above. He collided with Hrungnir’s whetstone in midair with a thunderclap, showering the earth with sparks and shattered shards.
The noise of hoofbeats, the bellowing of giants on huge stone shields, sparks and broken stones raining down from above… sounds like an eruption, doesn’t it? So why not call it that? Why cover up these events with flowery language and turn them into myths or legends? Because that’s how we will remember them for thousands of years.
Earth events fade from memory in a generation or two, but the great stories become myths, legends, or oral traditions that are remembered much longer. We are wise to listen to the stories our ancestors have passed down to us for clues to Earth’s history. The next time you come across a tale from long ago, imagine what real events may be hidden in the story.
Volcano Watch is a weekly feature and activity update written by scientists and affiliates with the US Geological Survey’s Hawaii Volcano Observatory. This week’s feature was written by Hawaii Volcano Observatory gas technician Christine Sealing.