Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Geomythology - Part I

Geomythology was a term coined in 1968 by the late Dr. Dorothy Vitaliano, a geologist who worked for the United States Geological Survey and Indiana University.  Here's a paper explaining the concept if you're interested in learning more:  Geomythology: Geological Origins of Myths and Legends.

Here's one common definition of geomythology by L. Piccardi (2007):

Geomythology indicates every case in which the origin of myths and legends can be shown to contain references to geological phenomena and aspects, in a broad sense including astronomical ones (comets, eclipses, meteor impacts, etc.). As indicated by Vitaliano (1973) "primarily, there are two kinds of geologic folklore, that in which some geologic feature or the occurrence of some geologic phenomenon has inspired a folklore explanation, and that which is the garbled explanation of some actual geologic event, usually a natural catastrophe"

I would define geomythology a little more broadly than this and break it into three general categories:

1. A garbled explanation of some actual geologic event, usually a natural catastrophe
2. A geologic feature or phenomenon which has inspired a folklore explanation
3. An association between a mythic figure or object and a geologic feature or phenomenon

An example of the first category might be the story of Noah's flood.  Geologists have known for over a century that there's no geological evidence for a global flood as recounted in Genesis.  Floods, however, are a common occurrence and most cultures have flood legends.  Some geologists have argued that the flooding of the Black Sea around 5600 BCE have have inspired the story in the Mesopotamian cultures.

The Great Flood by Bonaventura Peeters the Elder

Another might be the story of Atlantis as recounted by Plato in 360 BCE.  While his story just doesn't work historically, it may be a garbled remembrance of a massive volcanic eruption on the Aegean island of Thera (also called Santorini) around 1600 BCE which may have triggered the downfall of the Minoan Civilization.

Santorini (Thera) caldera from space in 2000

A final example is the eruption of Mount Mazama in 5677 BCE to form Crater Lake in Oregon.   The Klamath Indians, who lived in the area at the time, had a legend passed down to recent times of a battle between gods of the mountains who threw fiery rocks off the summit.

Crater Lake caldera

In this way, myths may shed some light on real historical events (but have to be taken with a grain of salt because they're overlain with cultural influences and religious beliefs).

The second category of geomyths are geologic features or phenomena which have inspired folklore explanations.  These are perhaps interesting to ethnographers but probably not as much to geologists.

The Lakota (Sioux), for example, have stories about how the grooves on the side of Devil's Tower in eastern Wyoming were formed by a giant bear.  Grooves geologists attribute to cooling of magma and formation of columnar jointing.

The Lakota name - Mato Tipilia or Bear Lodge - is a much better name, by the way, than the stupid "Devils Tower" (most likely named after the Devil because the Lakota viewed it as a sacred place).

Another example might be Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland attributed to Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) who supposedly built the causeway to walk to Scotland.

Of course geologists just talk about boring old magma intrusions and columnar jointing again.

The final category of geomythology I mentioned at the beginning of the post is a bit more odd.  I'm going to leave it for tomorrow's post...


  1. I'm enjoying these posts on Geomythology!

  2. Typical dodge by resorting to obvious mythology of an Indian tribe or the musings of Plato or a bit of Irish blarney when discussing Flood Geology versus the Uniformitarian model of geology. If you really want to know what Creation Geology looks like, research Tasman Walker or Steve Austin just for a start. The standard geological column posted in textbooks and taught to school children is found in less than 1% of the world and certainly is not uniform anywhere in the world. The real world of geology involves massive sedimentary rock formations that can span continents and show all the signs of water formation and in many places far too massive to ascribe to local flooding.

    Geomythology is the idea that the sedimentary rocks were laid down over millions of years. Layers out of order, cross-bedding, polystrates, megabreccias and other evidence that points to the Flood are conveniently ignored or explained away with arguments that will satisfy those not aware of what is actually out there in the field. So really you are the geomythologist. But you do take fantastic pictures!

    1. I know all about "creation geology" and have extensively read Steve Austin (Stuart Nevins), Tas Walker, Henry and John Morris, Duane Gish, Ken Ham, etc. (see other blog posts).

      Creation geology is, in a word, complete and utter bullshit. It in no way reflects what the real world looks like out there. It only appeals to people who have little to no knowledge of geology and are blinded by a religious ideology that requires a literal reading of Genesis.

  3. I suppose my comment will be blocked as it disagrees with your worldview. On my blog I let all people comment and only block bad language. Do you believe in the first amendment or censorship?

    1. I don't block comments simply for disagreeing. I only moderate because otherwise people try to post spam advertisments all over my blog. It took a couple of days because I'm travelling at the moment and in a hotel room!

  4. You are vindicated per first amendment. When my comments did not show up I thought you were blocking them. So I completely retract my follow-up. You are one of the good ones in that you do accept alternate opinions.

    As to Flood geology being utter BS, I know better because I have been in the field studying sedimentary rocks since I was a child. I am amazed you have read the work of these people and continue to adhere to some kind of uniformitarian/local catastrophic view. As an amateur geologist/paleontologist for about 52 years now, I have found so many formations and fossils that completely support a huge Flood and post-Flood scenario that your viewpoint astonishes me. But it is America and I thank you for valuing the First Amendment on your blog!

  5. This controversy is due to the common fact that any natural scientist (biologists, geologists, ecologists, paleontologists)he can not convince any religious fanatic, but the opposite is true, any religious fanatic he can not convince any natural scientist, since they are based on different and opposing interpretations of all naturalistic observations. Any scientific interpretation of an observable fact is based in one approach naturalist, materialist and rationalist, while one fanatical interpretation is based in one approach supernaturalist,inmaterialist and irrationalist.

  6. Geomythology has nothing to do with religion or religious beliefs. It has to do with geological occurrences and events recorded (documented) in myth and legend, empirical observation that is now coded in cultural perspective.