Thursday, June 16, 2011

Geomythology - Part II

Yesterday, I talked a bit about the first two of the following three categories of geomythology:

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

Today, I want to cover the third item on the list.

But first some background... Our college participates in a one-book/one-college program where a committee chooses a book each semester and everyone's supposed to read it.  This culminates with a week-long series of presentations (mostly by faculty at the college) on the book and relating it to their various fields.

Last spring the book was Grimm's Fairy Tales and that's what got me to thinking about geomythology because that's basically what I presented a talk about (I was also asked to present it at a Phi Theta Kappa ceremony).  One connection between geology and Grimm's that I found interesting had to do with dwarves.

As a side note, when reading Grimms I frequently stopped after reading a particularly gruesome story and thought "What the fuck?  Were these really written for children?"

Dwarves are a common feature of Teutonic (Germanic/Scandanavian) mythology and Jacob Grimm was certainly familiar with this having written a massive four-volume scholarly (for the time) set of books on Teutonic Mythology.

In mythology, dwarves aren't the cute, lovable characters we're familiar with from Disney movies.

Dwarves are much darker, black elves in some stories, and the original readers of Grimm would have envisioned dwarves as being much more unpleasant creatures.

One thing I found particularly interesting about dwarves is their association with mining.  Even the Disney dwarves went off to mine with their "Hi-ho" song.  If you love Tolkien's Middle Earth, as I do, you'll also know that dwarves in his story (and Tolkien was a scholar of mythology as well) built their cities in mines.  It's not just Germanic and Scandanavian mythology either, other cultures also had stories of little people who lived in the mountains mining precious metals and jewels.

Why this association between mining and dwarves?  Where did it come from?  I did a bit of searching and was unable to find much information.  This is an example of what I meant by the third type of geomythology - An association between a mythic figure or object and a geologic feature or phenomenon.

So, bottom line, I don't know why mining and dwarves go together.  If you have ideas, let me know!  Here are a couple of speculations...

Mines are mysterious.  Here locally, there are mines in the Shawangunk Ridge dating back to the 1700s mining primarily galena (PbS) for lead - there was also sphalerite, a zinc sulfide (ZnS), but I don't know if they had much use for zinc back then.  Anyway, there are now a number of abandoned adits, mostly flooded, and associated stories floating around the area that simply aren't true.  Some people are convinced they mined silver and gold in the area, for example, but it's most likely a layperson's misidentification of silvery galena or the iron sulfide (FeS2) pyrite ("fools gold").  One of the mines was known as the Old Spanish Mine with a preposterous legend about it being dug by the Spanish Conquistadores looking for gold.

Mine tunnels, especially old ones dug by hand, are generally small (ever try to tunnel through quartzite - it's harder than steel!).  It looks like they were dug by little people.  For all I know, maybe in ancient times naturally little people were used for mining because it would have been easier for them to maneuver around.

One of the classic books in geology is De Re Metallica by Georgius Agricola (1494-1555).  Agricola has some really interesting woodcuts in his book illustrating mining in Medieval Germany (click to enlarge).  Don't those miners look a little like the stereotypical image we have of mythical dwarves? Pointy shoes, funny hats, small stature? Does reality reflect mythology or vice versa?

A belief in little people in the mines may have even had a practical purpose.  Welsh and Cornish miners told tales of the tommyknockers.  While convenient foils to blame missing tools on ("the tommy knockers must have pinched it"), they also warned miners of impending cave ins by knocking on the mine walls.  Cracking open of fractures is indeed a warning sign of rock failure so it may well have been a good sign to leave if the tommyknockers started acting up!  Today, tommyknockers are mostly remembered by dint of their being mascots for a number of brew pubs out west.
Tomorrow, I'll talk abou another aspect of geomythology.  How discoveries of fossil bones may have inspired the legends of many mythological creatures we're all familiar with today.

1 comment:

  1. Nice essay!
    Mining and "dwarves" have been associated since classical antiquity.
    you can read about this in Sandra Blakely, "Myth, Ritual and Metallurgy in ancient Greece and Recent Africa"