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How Volcanoes became a Symbol for Revolution


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More than a year ago a wave of uprisings and insurrections in the North African countries of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya inspired a cartoon (still visible on the geology blog “Pawn of the Pumice Castle“) comparing the rage of the people with a sort of magma chamber ready to erupt.

The use of natural forces as metaphor has a long tradition, especially phenomena as fire, floods or storms were often associated with negative historic events like war, invasions or plagues.
During the 18th century the European revolutions against aristocracy and monarchy, especially the French revolution of 1789-1799, changed this negative to a positive view. Now fast occurring social changes were like the positive aftermaths of a disaster or a crisis – the old is destroyed to make place for the new.
It was still under the impressions left by the great earthquake of Lisbon in 1755 that the metaphors of earthquakes to describe the social revolutions of the time became popular. Like the news of the earthquake the possible social implications of the French revolution were discussed by people from all over the old continent.

Many parts of Europe are in obvious disorder. In many others there is a dull rumble coming from [the] underground, a faint movement that threatens the political world like a general earthquake.
Edmund Blurke (Irish philosopher, 1729-1797)

The picture of the volcano as positive symbol of insurrection against social injustice needed more time to become popular. Despite travel accounts and pamphlets, an erupting volcano was a rare event in Central Europe and mostly unknown to the larger public. In contrasts the tumults in Naples of 1647, with the well-known active volcano Vesuvius nearby, were promptly compared to a volcanic eruption by local historians.

Only during the French revolution the term “éruption” and the metaphor of the volcano is widely adopted by the revolutionaries. Like a volcano spreads unstoppable fires over the landscape also the revolution will spread a purifying fire over the nations, burning to ashes the old establishment and governments.

In the Royal Palace the most violent invocations followed with tremendous speed, the most violent orators jumped on the tables, inflamed the minds of their audience, which gathered around them, to spread then into the city like the burning lava of a volcano.
Histoire de la Revolution de 1789 et de l´Establissement d´une Constitution en France.” (1790)

Fig.1. “Third eruption of the volcano of 1789, to take place before the end of the world, which will shake all thrones, and overturn a horde of monarchies” by Auguste Desperret (1804-65), lithography published in the magazine “La Caricature” of June 1833. Only after 1795 depictions of eruptions became commonly associated with social revolutions (see also “the Volcanism blog” for a further analysis of the image; image in public domain).

Bibliography:

THÜSEN, J.v.d. (2008) : Schönheit und Schrecken der Vulkane – Zur Kulturgeschichte des Vulkanismus. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt: 239

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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