Archaeology and Volcanism

VII. Geomythology: Volcanoes in Prehistoric Oral Traditions

A. Greco-Roman Myths

Dealing with the social customs and belief systems of ancient cultures, as well as their tangible remains, archaeology encompasses the relatively new discipline of geomythology, the study of oral traditions that perpetuate memories of prehistoric geologic events, such as earthquakes, floods, and volcanic eruptions. Geomythology provides not only some of humanity's oldest surviving verbal responses to volcanic activity but also some basic terminology for describing volcanic phenomena. The term "volcano" derives from the name of Vulcano, an Aeolian island in which Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and metalcraft, was believed to have set up his blazing smithy. When busy working, Vulcan employed a giant bellows that roared and sent huge sparks rising skyward. Vulcan's earlier Greek counterpart, Hephaestus, similarly a god of fire and the forge, was said to have landed on the volcanic island of Lemnos when Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, threw him from heaven, presumably accounting for the long-lived thermal activity there.

As the tale of Vulcan's noisy workshop implies, the myths of classical Greece and Rome reflect the volcanic nature of the eastern Mediterranean. In his Theogony, an epic poem about the origin of the Greek gods, Hesiod (c. 750 B.C.) describes a cosmic battle between Zeus and his giant enemies, the Titans, that depicts the conflict as it were a violently explosive eruption, perhaps a mythic echo of the Thera paroxysm. Hesiod also narrates Zeus's defeat of another fiery opponent, the dragon Typhoeus, using similar volcanic imagery. According to the dramatist Aeschylus in his Prometheus Bound, Zeus finally imprisons Typhoeus, an embodiment of primal chaos, under the bulk of Mount Etna, Europe's largest and most active volcano. Aeschylus's etiological account thus explains Etna's outbursts as Typhoeus's struggles to escape his subterranean prison, his fiery breath melting rock to produced outpourings of lava that endanger human settlements.

B. A North American Myth: The Formation of Crater Lake, Oregon

The largest Holocene eruption in North America, that which decapitated Mount Mazama about 7500 years ago to form the caldera holding Crater Lake in the Cascade Range of southern Oregon, deposited ash over a half million square miles and, without a doubt, had an impact on the lives of countless prehistoric Native Americans. Although researchers have not yet been able to correlate the physical effects of Mazama's eruption on the flora and fauna of eastern Oregon, native survivors of the volcanic holocaust apparently were so deeply impressed by it that they created an exceptionally long-lived oral tradition about the event. However improbable it seems, oral accounts of the eruption must have been transmitted through approximately 250 generations!

In 1865, Lalek, an aged member of the Klamath tribe, told William M. Colvig, then a young soldier stationed at Fort Klamath, Oregon, the story of a battle between Llao, an underworld deity who inhabited Mount Mazama, and Skell, a sky god who dwelt atop Mount Shasta, 125 miles to the south. Although it ascribes volcanic phenomena to the tempestuous rivalry between two supernatural figures, Lalek's tale includes geologic facts then unknown to white settlers, including the extreme devastation wrought by Llao's flaming mountain and its subsequent collapse to create the basin now occupied by a lake almost 2000 feet deep. The fact that Mazama once towered high above neighboring peaks and that its former summit subsided rather than blew apart was not generally recognized by geologists for many decades after Lalek's time.

C. The "Bridge of the Gods" and Cascade Volcanism

About 200 miles north of Crater Lake, native tribes living along the Columbia River Gorge of the Pacific Northwest transmitted to early missionaries other ancient myths involving seismic and volcanic events. Perhaps the best known of these concerns the "Bridge of the Gods," a natural formation that reputedly once spanned the Columbia River near the present site of Cascade Locks, Oregon. Although it is probably now impossible to disentangle later embellishment and Caucasian interpretation from the original tradition, a Klickitat account reflects some of the region's actual geologic history. According to Klickitat storytellers, long before white people appeared on the scene, native tribes were able to cross the Columbia via a land "bridge" that was tomanowos, a creation sacred to the gods. But when the tribes became greedy and quarrelsome, Tyee Sahale (commonly translated the Great Spirit) took steps that eventually led to the bridge's destruction. First, he caused all the fires in their lodges to go out. Only the fire maintained by Loowit, an aged lady who avoided the violence that divided her people, remained burning, so that all her neighbors had to come to her to reignite their campfires. When Tyee Sahale asked Loowit to name a reward for her generosity, she instantly demanded youth and beauty. Transformed into a lovely young woman, Loowit inadvertently rekindled the fires of war, attracting two intensively competitive brothers, Pahto, who ruled over territory north of the Columbia, and Wyeast, who led the Willamette people south of the river.

When Pahto and Wyeast contended furiously for Loowit's favor, hurling red-hot boulders at each other, Tyee Sahale separated them by destroying the tomanowas bridge linking their two territories, its fragments creating the cataracts for which the neighboring Cascade Range was later named. The Great Spirit also changed the three principals of this love triangle into volcanic mountains: Pahto became the broad-shouldered giant that white settlers called Mount Adams; Wyeast became Mount Hood; and Loowit, Mount St. Helens. Although St. Helens's two alpine suitors repeatedly thundered their passion, the temperamental St. Helens (whom some tribes named Tahonelatclah, fire-mountain) remained active longest, her 1980 outburst continuing the lovers' saga into the late 20th century.

An etiological myth explaining the eruptive behavior of three sentinel peaks guarding the lower Columbia, the Bridge of the Gods tradition also evokes memories of an enormous avalanche (the Bonneville Landslide) that completely dammed the river between about A.D. 1100 and 1250, forming a causeway that allowed the Indians to cross the river dry-shod. (Because the local tribes had no word for "bridge," the notion that this formation was a soaring natural arch is a Caucasian invention.) It is possible that some of the large basaltic blocks forming the landslide dam remained in place long after the river cut a new channel through its southern toe. If so, the famed Bridge of the Gods was in fact a chaotic pile of lava slabs (a native leader described the formation to a French missionary as "a long range of towering and projecting rocks") before it collapsed, possibly in the Cascade Subduction Zone earthquake of January of A.D. 1700.

GlossaryVolcanoes as Preservers of Archaeological SitesHerculaneum and Pompeii: Cities of the Early Roman EmpireAkrotiri: An Aegean Bronze Age CityCatal Huyuk: The Earliest Representation of a Volcanic EruptionMesoamerican Archaeological SitesNorth American Archaeological SitesGeomythology: Volcanoes in Prehistoric Oral TraditionsSummary

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