Myths of Natural Disasters

Humans have always needed stories to reassure them about what is really in the dark. Historically, no culture has yet been able to separate itself from myths, legends, religions and the other lore any society seems to love. We see that myths have arisen to explain away all the things we see but cannot understand; why the sun rises, why the moon then follows it, why the moon changes amongst a million little flames that always seem to burn every night. But these are everyday things; the sun will rise every morning, and the moon and the stars will chase it into the sky at the end of the day.

Imagine when we are confronted with something we have never seen before ourselves, something we have perhaps only heard tales of: massive acts of nature, those we now group as natural disasters. Imagine seeing a volcano erupt for the first time, but knowing nothing of what lies underneath the earth. Surely a force this great must be some kind of deity, or other great power. And from that comes the stories. Mythology has followed humans everywhere. We invent these little stories; it is in our nature to do so, the product of the ways we work. We would rather invent a tale to explain why something is, and then believe in that tale, than worry about it.

These tales get passed down from generation to generation; they are told to the children at their beds, they are recorded in holy writings. They evolve and change over time, reflecting the traditions, technologies and cultures of each particular age. One of he most prominent natural disasters is the volcano. When a volcano erupts, it is capable of releasing a massive amount of energy, equivalent to hundreds of Hydrogen bombs, easily the most powerful weapon mankind can bring to bear. As with all myths and legends, different cultures had different interpretations of the natural disasters.

To the ancient Greeks, volcanoes were passages into the underworld, where the dark god Hades, brother of Zeus and Poseidon, ruled over his kingdom of the dead. The volcano was also seen as the site of the forge of Hephaestus, the smith and craft god. Hephaestus was the son of Zeus and Hera, but he was said to have been cast from Mount Olympus as a child. He falls to the island of Lemnos, and breaks his legs on landing, thus rendering him lame. He is found by Thetis, the sea goddess, who then cares for him in her underwater cavern. Hephaestus then regains his place amongst the Olympian Gods through a clever trick; he sends Hera a golden throne, which the imprisons her when she sits on it. She is only released when all the Gods promise to allow Hephaestus back to Mount Olympus and accept him as a true God. Greeks thought that volcanoes were giant chimneys from Hephaestus forge, as he manufactured weapons, armour and great works of art for the gods and heroes of the Greek Pantheon.

The Romans knew Hephaistos by another name; they called him Vulcan. Vulcan’s forge was located underneath the island of Vulcano in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Sicily. It is from this that we get the word Volcano. The prevalence of Volcanoes in the Hawaiian island chain means that that area also has its fair share of volcano myths.

The Hawaiians mythology held that the frequent eruptions of their volcanoes were caused by the equally frequent fits of fury of the goddess Pele. When Pele was angry, the islanders would try and placate her by offering her gifts, which were then thrown into the volcano. Pigs were reported to be a particular favourite of Pele’s, and as a result, they often suffered an unfortunate demise in an attempt to please the fiery Goddess. Volcanoes are also present in Native American mythology. They interpreted the massive eruption of Mount Mazama, as well as the associated earth tremors and massive landslides, as a war between two gods, Llao and Skell. This was over 6,000 years ago, just highlighting how long mythologies have been with humans.

The other powerful natural disaster is the earthquake. The ancient Greeks attributed earthquakes to Poseidon , the god of the sea, known to the Romans as Neptune. When Poseidon was angry, he could cause earthquakes and earth tremors with his mighty trident.

The Native Americans also had myths about Earthquakes. These were mostly specific to the coastal areas, as their volcano myths where specific to areas of volcanic activity. The myths included tales of giant, two headed sea serpents, as well as battles between two mythological characters, named Thunderbird and Whale. These myths are thought to be related to earthquakes, and landslides and tsunamis caused as a result of them. Massive natural disasters are a large part of mythology, as they contain examples of great power that seems to be only explicable by tales of gods.

The Mayan mythologies contain tales of all human life being destroyed by massive natural disasters, only to be replaced in the next age. This could have come from a tale of an area devastated by a natural disaster in the past, extrapolated and amplified through the ages to include the entire world. Humans have always looked to myths to explain things that they cannot. And what more terrifying, inexplicable thing exists than a natural disaster?