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An Essential Field Guide to North American Earthquake Beasts

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


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It is not good that these stories are forgotten. Friends, you are telling them from mouth to ear, and when your old men die they will be forgotten. It is good that you should have a box in which your laws and your stories are kept. My friend, George Hunt, will show you a box in which some of your stories will be kept. It is a book that I have written on what I saw and heard when I was with you two years ago. It is a good book, for in it are your laws and your stories. Now they will not be forgotten.
American anthropologists Franz Uri Boaz in a letter to the Kwakiutl Indians of British Columbia, April 1897

Myths and legends maybe represent the oldest efforts to record and deal with geological phenomena.  The Japanese Namazu-myth is one of the most popular and remembers the tragic connection between society and earthquakes. However many other societies incorporated earthquakes into their culture and often the terrible forces shaping the earth appeared in animal disguise.

According to legends of the Duwamish people of the Cascade Range, some large boulders along the shores of the Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the area surrounding the city of Seattle are haunted by terrible “A´yahos”. A´yahos were shape-shifter sprits, appearing in our world sometimes as large snake, other times as double-headed snake with horns or in their preferred shape with the body of a serpent and the antlers and forelegs of a deer. They were very powerful and easy to enrage entities and young hunters were warned by elder ones not to approach an A´yahos dwelling place, as it would shake the earth and sea, generate large waves and throw large boulders to kill the foolish intruder.
Only experienced shamans could dare to catch a glimpse of an A´yahos appearance and only the most powerful could harness the A´yahos strength during a holy ceremony, when a fetish of an A´yahos was violently shaken to request spiritual assistance.

ARNOLD_2012_ayahofinalbigFig.1. An A´yahos could cause earthquakes and trigger landslides if disturbed, however this supernatural spirit displays an ambivalent nature – like many real natural phenomena – as its powers could also used by shamans to cure people. All the Earthquake Beasts as envisaged by artist and illustrator Tricia Arnold , images used with permission.

The Quileute people of western Washington know a similar dangerous entity, the “T´abale“, and the Kwakwaka’wakw (or Kwakiutl) of Vancouver Island tell stories about the double-headed water serpent “Sisutl“, which apart shaking the earth would also capture the souls of the people.

Many myths along the shores of Washington narrate the furious battles of A´yahos or related spirits with other mythical animals. According to the Suquamish Tribe

Long ago, when this land was new, the area we know as Agate Pass was much smaller than today. … There lived in this … body of water a … Giant Serpent.
The Double Headed Eagle flew over the pass and the Giant Serpent came up very angry. The two began to fight, and the earth shook and the water boiled … the people began to scream and cry until it was as loud as thunder.
Then, as if the earth was going to be swallowed by the waters, they began to boil and churn. Then, the Double Headed Eagle exploded out of the water and up into the sky with the body of the Giant Serpent in its claws. The Double Headed Eagle flew back into the mountain and behind him was left the wide pass ….

The powerful “Thunderbird” plays also an important role in other earthquake-myths.
Like serpent-spirits also Thunderbird was easy to enrage and it was better to avoid him when he flew above the sky to cause the thunder of the storm, but deep inside he was a friendly spirit.
Long time ago the monstrous Whale killed all the animals in the sea and the fishermen of the Quileute Tribe returned to the shores with empty baskets. Thunderbird noted that the people were starving and decided to interfere. He plunged from the mountains into the sea and a terrible battle arouse between him and Whale.

ARNOLD_2012_tbirdfinalbigFig.2. The mythical battle between Thunderbird and Whale is described in many myths from British Columbia to California, suggesting that earthquake and tsunami effects were widely recognized along the entire western coast of the U.S.

Waves devastated the shorelines, many canoes were catapulted into the air and people killed. Whale seemed too strong to be defeated, but Thunderbird eventually succeeded into lifting Whale out of the sea, carrying it high into the air and then dropping it onto the land. The earth trembled and cracked under the ongoing battle. Finally Thunderbird, assisted by Wolf and Serpent, succeeded to drag Whale back to the bottom of the ocean.

In other versions of the story it is Thunderbird starting the battle by attacking Whale, which supports earth on his back, with his sharp claws. Whale, in a desperate struggle to overcome Thunderbird, shakes the entire earth.

All these myths seem to possess some kernels of truth in geological reality. In 1985 seismologist Ruth S. Ludwin noted in an article published in the “Seattle Weekly“, describing a “spirit boulder” located west of Seattle, the similarities between the environmental effects of an earthquake, like a tsunami or landslides, and the actions of an A´yahos: “At the spot where A’yahos came to a person the very earth was torn, landslides occurred and the trees became twisted and warped. Such spots were recognizable for years afterward.

Ludwin mapped various cursed boulders and recognized a connection between the dwelling places of A’yahos and the alignment of various shallow faults, most notably the east-west striking Seattle Fault Zone.

Fig.3. Locations of supposed A’yahos dwelling places after local lore and simplified tectonic setting of  the area of Seattle; shallow faults in red, other faults in orange (True Marble Global Dataset, modified after various references, image in public domain).

The city of Seattle was never struck in historic times by a major earthquake and the fault zone was considered almost inactive. However the myths of A´yahos often refer to historical figures and probably date back only some generations. Also geological evidence and dated archaeological sites provided compelling evidence that eastern Washington was struck by stronger earthquakes in a not so remote geological past.

The mythical battle between Whale and Thunderbird also remembers the environmental effects of a tsunami, maybe as generated by seismic activity of the Cascadia Subduction Zone. Earthquakes generated by this large fault zone could also explain the presumed existence of another mythical being along the western coast of North America.
The bay of Lituya in Alaska is a narrow, only 2 kilometer wide, but 11 kilometer long bay open towards the Pacific Ocean. A legend of the native Tlingit Indians tells about  a cave, deep in the underground, inhabited by a spirit, similar in appearance to a great toad or frog. If someone dares to disturb the tranquillity of the bay (and presumably the slumber of the toad) this spirit will shake the earth and rip apart the sea to catch the intruder.

Fig.4. Don’t disturb a sleeping toad as toads and earthquakes seem to have a deep connection….

Maybe the tale of this malevolent sprit was influenced by ancient eyewitness testimony of an exceptional geological event. July 9, 1958 an earthquake triggered a landslide with an estimated volume of 40 million cubic meters along the steep cliffs of the bay. The landslide caused a 524 meter high wave – the largest wave ever to be documented in historic times and maybe not the first in the land of the Earthquake Beasts.

Bibliography:

KRAJICK, K. (2005): Tracking Myth to Geological Reality. Science Vol. 310: 762-764
LUDWIN, R.S.; THRUSH, C.P.; JAMES, K.; BUERGE, D.; JONIENTZ-TRISLER, C.; RASMUSSEN, J.; TROOST, K. & de los ANGELES, A. (2005): Serpent Spirit-power Stories along the Seattle Fault. Seismological Research Letters Vol.76(4): 426-431
LUDWIN, R.S.; DENNIS, R.; CARVER, D.; McMILLAN, A.D.; LOSEY, R.; CLAGUE, J.; JONIENTZ-TRISLER, C.; BOWECHOP, J.; WRAY, J. & JAMES, K. (2005): Dating the 1700 Cascadia Earthquake: Great Coastal Earthquakes in Native Stories. Seismological Research Letters Vol. 76(2): 140-148
LUDWIN, R.S. & SMITS, G.J. (2007): Folklore and earthquakes: Native American oral traditions from Cascadia compared with written traditions from Japan. From PICCARDI, L. & MASSE, W.B. (eds.): Myth and Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 273: 67-94

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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  1. 1. Raoul 12:17 pm 10/30/2012

    Are myths part of Science?

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  2. 2. David_Bressan 10:49 am 11/1/2012

    “We wish to find the truth, no matter where it lies. But to find the truth we need imagination and skepticism both. We will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact.” – Carl Sagan

    Some historians and philosopher have suggested that myths are “proto-science” – as myths were regarded – in contrast to tales – by all cultures as true events, based (somehow) on observations and used to explain the order of the world.

    However myths address not the question how something happens (as for example modern science) than why it had to happen – humans tend to interpret phenomena in relation to a presumed end-cause, if for example a supernatural forces causes an earthquake it is often to establish the lost equilibrium of creation – it is not important how it is done, but the results in the supernatural world and the minor traces which remain back in the “real world.”

    Myths are therefore at least a subject worth to be studied by modern science

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