Deadly Volcanoes: The Eruptions that Reshaped the World and Became Legends – Part I

Erupting Volano

When man grows overconfident and full of hubris in his accomplishments and importance, mother nature, or the gods, remind mankind who is really in charge. Or so it may have seemed to the ancients, who witnessed the awesome and raw power of erupting volcanos, and sent out warnings through time in the form of religious lessons, myths, legends and chronicles.

These amazing, violent occurrences were so traumatic and unnatural (or supernatural) to early cultures that since prehistoric times myths and legends have sprung up throughout societies in attempts to explain the events, or protect against them. We explore a few of the more explosive cases here.

Vesuvius – The Destructive Power of Jupiter

Mount Vesuvius had what is probably the most infamous volcanic eruption on August 24, 79 AD. This multiday event was an unmitigated disaster for the Roman cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and others.

Notably, the people of Pompeii suffered greatly as the 300 degrees centigrade (572 Fahrenheit) clouds of gas moved down the volcano and seared them alive— when the ash didn’t choke them, or the flying molten rock and debris didn’t crush, pummel or ignite them.

Some of the victims of Pompeii were sitting, some lying when the superhot gas cloud enveloped them. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The eruption was a hundred thousand times more thermally energetic than the Hiroshima atomic bombing, and there remains only one surviving witness account to the cataclysm: Pliny the Younger, nephew to ancient historian Pliny the Elder, left behind letters describing the event, and told how his uncle perished in the eruption, as did countless others.

Prior to the eruption of 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius had a long historic and mythical tradition. The mountain was considered a divinity, and was related with serpent imagery, as seen in the preserved frescoes from Pompeii. Vesuvius had connections to the power of Jupiter—god of sky and lightning—and Hercules. During his labors, legend had Hercules passing through the “plain of fire”, “from a hill which anciently vomited out fire … now called Vesuvius.” It was said to be inhabited by giants (which might explain loud noises, rumbling, or spewing debris). It is not known for certain if Herculaneum was named after the divine hero, but certainly the Romans regarded Mount Vesuvius as being devoted to the demigod.

Fresco of Bacchus and Agathodaemon with Mount Vesuvius, as seen in Pompeii's House of the Centenary. Note the serpent imagery.

Fresco of Bacchus and Agathodaemon with Mount Vesuvius, as seen in Pompeii’s House of the Centenary. Note the serpent imagery. (Public Domain)

Thera – Origin of Atlantis?

The island of Santorini in the Greek Cyclades was once known as Thera. Thera was also the name given to the volcano which violently erupted in the middle Bronze Age and engulfed the sophisticated urban center of Akrotiri between 1650 and 1550 BCE. Scholars do not have a precise date for the eruption, and we only know of Akrotiri due to its amazing state of preservation beneath the blanket of ash. This important settlement was rediscovered as recently as 1967. How Atrotiri and Pompeii differ is that when archaeologists cleared the rubble of the Akrotiri, no human remains were found—only the exceptionally preserved remnants of an ancient trading center frozen in time. Clearly the people of Akrotiri had advanced warning enough to evacuate, leaving few possessions behind.

Akrotiri-greece-feve.jpg

Remarkably preserved artifacts are revealed from the ruins of ancient Akrotiri, Greece. (CC BY 2.5)

The myths of both Theseus and the Minotaur, and Jason and the Argonauts have connections to Thera. The Minotaur’s defeat at the hands of Theseus is said to reflect the fall of the Minoan empire, and Jason on his voyages faced an indestructible island guarding, Talos. Talos could grow very hot, throw rocks at ships, and once slain he leaked vital fluids – does this allude to a hot, violent volcano?

But the most compelling myth connected to Thera is that of Atlantis. Some researchers propose that Santorini might have been the location of the legendary island that sank into the sea. The riches and sophistication of Bronze Age Akrotiri certainly disappeared suddenly and without a trace.

Elaborate and colorful fresco revealed at Akrotiri.

Elaborate and colorful fresco revealed at Akrotiri. (Public Domain)

Hekla – the very gateway to Hell

Iceland sits on a high concentration of active volcanoes, but the most devastating in Iceland’s recorded history for the area was Skaftáreldar (fires of Skaftá) in 1783-84, as a quarter of the population died due to the event itself, in addition to the environmental changes, and illnesses, in following years.

In the Middle Ages, so notorious was another active and frequently erupting volcano, Hekla, that it was referred to as “The Gateway to Hell.”

Detail of Abraham Ortelius' 1585 map of Iceland showing Hekla in eruption. The Latin text translates as

Detail of Abraham Ortelius’ 1585 map of Iceland showing Hekla in eruption. The Latin text translates as “The Hekla, perpetually condemned to storms and snow, vomits stones under terrible noise”. (Public Domain)

Also referred to as “Hell’s Chimney”, the lava, steam and ash must have been disconcerting at least to witnesses. Christians interpreted the erupting fissure as a doorway to the underworld, and the hissing, spitting lava bombs were believed to be spirits flying from hell and screaming out in agony. It was considered a meeting place of witches and demons up until the 1800s.

The eruption of Iceland’s Fimmvörðuháls in 2010.

The eruption of Iceland’s Fimmvörðuháls in 2010. (CC BY 3.0)

Many Icelandic legends have sprung up around Hekla. The rugged terrain was likened to an ancient battlefield where immortal gods fought each other in battle. Their blows with weapons and fists tore up and reshaped the jagged landscape.

The ‘faces’ that can be seen in the lumpy, eroded rock became legends of Ice Trolls and other such monsters who possessed strange and evil powers.

Even the modern radar satellite imagery of Icelandic volcano cauldrons might stir nightmares. Eyjafjallajökull during Eyjafjöll 2010 eruption.

Even the modern radar satellite imagery of Icelandic volcano cauldrons might stir nightmares. Eyjafjallajökull during Eyjafjöll 2010 eruption. (Public Domain)

Fuji – The Miraculous Mountain

Japan’s long relationship with its mountainous landscape and volcanic activity has resonated throughout time and their myths and legends feature volcanoes in abundance. The small country has over one hundred volcanoes in varying states of activity, with Mount Fuji featuring not only as the highest (at 3776 meters or 12,388 feet), but as the most venerated. As such, this behemoth appears widely in Japanese culture and myth. The name “Fuji” itself is believed to come from “Huchi” or “Fuchi”, invoking the Goddess of Fire.

Mount Fuji on a serene day.

Mount Fuji on a serene day. (Midorisyu/CC BY 2.0)

Luckily for those living near the currently-dormant volcano, the last eruption was in 1707. Pilgrims make the trek up the mountain annually to observe a tradition that stems back to June of 1500 AD, as revealed in historical record.

The legend has it that Mount Fuji was born in a single day. In the tale, a woodsman named Visu is astonished to witness his flat land jump up and become a mountain overnight. He named it “Fuji-yama”, the “Never-Dying Mountain”.

Geology dates the mountain’s formation at approximately 8500 BC, but the legends insist it was created in 86 BC. Researchers think the discrepancy makes sense, as the geologic record shows an explosive eruption around the more recent timeframe. Thus, the myth was probably influenced by a very real disaster that rocked the population.

Traditional Japanese artwork with Mount Fuji in the distance. 1856, woodblock print.

Traditional Japanese artwork with Mount Fuji in the distance. 1856, woodblock print. (Public Domain)

Learn more about the warning stories and legends of volcanoes in Part II – HERE

Featured image: The dramatic eruption of Mt Vesuvius. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Liz Leafloor

Originally published at Ancient Origins.

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