Dinosaur bones became griffins, volcanic eruptions were gods fighting – geomythology looks to ancient stories for hints of scientific truth

Everyone loves a good story, especially if it’s based on something real.

Akkharat Jarusilawong / iStock via Getty Images Plus – Conversation

Consider the Greek myth of the Titanomaki, in which the Olympian gods, led by Zeus, conquered the previous generation of immortals, titans. As told by the Greek poet Hesiod, this struggle makes for a thrilling story—and may preserve the kernel of truth.

The eruption of Thera volcano around 1650 BC could have inspired Hesiod’s narrative. Stronger than Krakatoa, this ancient disaster in the southern Aegean could have been witnessed by anyone living hundreds of miles from the explosion.

Aerial view of the Santorini Caldera
The massive eruption of Thera volcano more than 3,500 years ago left a hollow island, known today as Santorini.
Steve Jurvetson, CC BY

Science historian Mott Greene argues that key moments from the Titanomachy map to the “signature” of the eruption. Hesiod, for example, notes that a loud crackling sound was emanating from the ground when the armies clashed. Seismologists now know that harmonic tremors—small earthquakes that sometimes precede eruptions—often produce similar sounds. And the impression of the sky – “the vast paradise” – shaking during battle could be inspired by the shock waves in the air caused by the volcanic eruption. Hence, Titanomachy may represent the creative misreading of a natural event.

Greene’s conjecture is an example of geoscience, a field of study that gathers scientific facts from myths and legends. Created by geologist Dorothy Vitaliano nearly 50 years ago, geology has focused on tales that, however faint, might record events such as volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and earthquakes, as well as their after-effects, such as exposure of odd-looking bones. It appears that these events were, in some cases, so distressing or inducing as wonder that they may have inspired earlier peoples to “explain” them through superstition.

In 2021, I published the first textbook in the field, “Geology: How Common Stories Reflect Earth Events.” As the book explains, researchers in both the sciences and the humanities practice geomythology. In fact, the hybrid nature of geology may help bridge the gap between the two cultures. And while geared towards the past, geology may also provide powerful resources for meeting environmental challenges in the future.

Moken children playing on the beach, small boats tied up in shallow water
The legend of the wave of monsters told by the Moken people gave them a foothold during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP via Getty Images

Inherited tales that explain the world

Some geomyths are relatively well known. One comes from the Moken people of Thailand, who survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, a disaster that killed about 228,000 people. On that terrible day, the Moken heard an old tale of the “laboon” or “savage wave,” a legend passed down to them through countless campfires.

According to the tale, from time to time a wave devouring people would rush in and move far inside. However, those who escaped to the higher lands in time, or, contrary to what was expected, to the deeper waters, would survive. Following the advice of the legend, the Muken saved their lives.

Other Geomyths may have started as interpretations of prehistoric remains that were not easily drawn to any known creature.

The Cyclops, the one-eyed ogres that terrorized Odysseus and his crew, may have originated from discoveries of prehistoric elephant skulls in Greece and Italy. In 1914, paleontologist Othnio Abel noted that these fossils feature large facial cavities in front, from which a trunk could have protruded. By contrast, the eye cavities on either side of the skull are easy to overlook. To the ancient Greeks who dug them up, these skulls may have looked like the remains of one-eyed giants.

The seemingly fictional griffin – a hybrid with an eagle’s head and a lion’s body – may have a similar origin story and could be based on a creative misunderstanding Protoceratops Dinosaur remains in the Gobi desert.

Still other geomyths may refer to natural events. Aboriginal tales tell of “fire demons” that descended from the sun and landed on the earth, killing everything around when they landed. These “demons” may have been meteorites witnessed by Aboriginal Australians. In some cases, the tales anticipate the discoveries of Western science over decades, even centuries.

People on a small boat and raft to prepare scientific equipment
Researchers have installed monitors in Lake Nyos, Africa, that will sound an alarm if carbon dioxide levels become dangerous again.
Louise Gubb / Corbis Historical via Getty Images

Many African folk tales attribute mischief to specific lakes, including the lakes’ apparent ability to change color, transform locations, and even become deadly. These legends have been confirmed by real events. The most famous example of this is the “explosion” of Lake Nyos in Cameroon in 1986 when suddenly carbon dioxide, trapped at the bottom for a long time, suddenly appeared. Within a day, 1,746 people, along with thousands of birds, insects, and livestock, were suffocated by the carbon dioxide cloud created by the lake. Lakes are sometimes associated with death and the underworld in Mediterranean stories as well: Lake Avernus, near Naples, is legendary as such in Virgil’s “Aeneid.”

Encounters with animals may teach other geomets. Herodotus’ “History”, written around 430 BC, claims that dog-sized ants guarded certain gold deposits in areas of East Asia. In his 1984 book Gold Ants: The Discovery of the Greek Eldorado in the Himalayas, ethnologist Michel Bissell revealed Herodotus’ possible inspiration: the mountain-dwelling badger, which to this day remains the “royal” of gold by setting its nests with gold dust.

Fictional stories that fuel science

Geology is not a science. Ancient stories are often distorted or contradictory, and it is always possible that they predated the real events that today’s scholars associate them with. Pre-scientific fictional peoples may have dreamed of various stories from a whole piece of cloth and only later found “confirmation” in the events or discoveries of the Earth.

However, as noted, geomyths such as the griffin and Cyclopes originated from specific geographic regions that are still a feature not found anywhere else. The possibility that earlier peoples invented tales first that somehow corresponded closely with later fossil discoveries seems to have been a startling coincidence. Most likely, at least with some geomatics, the discoveries predated the novels.

Etruscan pottery with black motifs that blind the giant with a spear
Pottery from the fifth century BC depicting the giant’s uncle.
DEA / G. Grace of God / De Agostini Editorial via Getty Images

Either way, geomythology can be a valuable ally to science. Most often, it can help confirm scientific findings.

However, geomyths can sometimes go further and correct scientific findings or put forward alternative hypotheses. For example, geologist Donald Swanson argues that the Hawaiian Pele legends indicate that the Kilauea volcanic caldera formed much earlier than previous studies indicated. He claims that “volcanologists have lost their way” in their research on the age of the caldera “by not paying close attention to Hawaiian oral traditions”.

Despite the focus on the past, geology may also help set future scientific agendas. Today’s researchers may become familiar with legends containing strange creatures or extreme weather, and then examine the places of origin of stories for geological and palaeontological evidence. Such tales may provide invaluable links with true events that occurred long before there was a world around them to record them. In fact, such stories would have persisted precisely because they commemorated a traumatic or traumatic incident, and were thus passed down from generation to generation as an actual cautionary tale.

Create geomyths today for future generations

Another exciting area of ​​geophysical study is not just searching for ancient myths but creating new ones that can alert future generations of potential dangers, whether these peoples live in tsunami-prone areas, near nuclear waste sites like Yucca Mountain, or in some equally dangerous areas. .

Radioactive waste warning sign
What if, thousands of years from now, no one could read or understand a sign like this?
Department of Energy – Carlsbad Field Office, CC BY

Nuclear waste can remain radioactive for mind-boggling periods, in some cases up to tens of thousands of years. While putting warning labels on deposits of radioactive material makes sense, languages ​​are constantly changing and there is no guarantee that current languages ​​will be spoken, let alone understood, in the distant future. Indeed, it is strange to think of the extinction of the human race, an event that some philosophers see as closer than we think. How, after all, can we warn our distant descendants, or even further, our eventual posthuman successors?

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Creating notification systems that last all the time is an area where myths can be useful. Famous tales often last for many generations, and sometimes prove more enduring than the languages ​​in which they were first told or spoken. Indeed, C.S. Lewis writes that one of the distinguishing features of the myth is that it “would delight and nourish in equal measure if it came to [us] By a medium that does not include any words at all – say by mime or a movie.”

Since it is less closely related to language than literature, it may be easier to pass on myths across cultures and time. The oldest one currently recorded is an Aboriginal tale relating to a volcano; It may be 35,000 years old.

Thus geology can contribute to a field of language known as nuclear semiotics, which grapples with the problem of warning distant generations of hazardous waste. A purposely created Geomyth may preserve and pass on important information from the nuclear age to our descendants, very effectively.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts. Written by: Timothy John Burberry, Marshall University.

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Timothy John Burbery does not work for, consult, own or receive funding from any company, organization or organization that may benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations after their academic appointment.


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