Field of Science

The (possible) Geological Origin of the Minotaur Myth

According to myth the Minotaur was a terrible creature, born from an unnatural union between queen Pasiphaë of Crete and a sacred bull, send by the Greek god Poseidon to the island. The monster, half man and half bull, with an appetite for human flesh, was so dangerous that it was imprisoned in a subterranean labyrinth, so complex nobody could escape from it. The poet Callimachus of Cyrene (320-303 BC) describes the angered roars of the Minotaur coming from this prison - and only human sacrifices could calm the beast. 

Fig.1. Wall paintings dating to the 16th century BC from Tell el-Dab (Egypt) showing the bull-leaping ritual.

The oldest descriptions of the Minotaur also note that the bull made tremble and shake the earth. It´s also curious to note the relationship between the Minotaur and Poseidon, Greek god of the sea. Poseidon could also generate earthquakes with his trident, as one name describes him as Enosigeo, the earth-shaker. Also the labyrinth is an old symbol of earth´s unknown interior, the womb of the goddess Gea. So the Minotaur myth shows some remarkable connections to earth or earthquakes.

For sure the Greek Minotaur myth was inspired by much older stories from the Minoan Civilization. The antique culture of Crete (3650-1400 BC) did worship the bull, as paintings discovered in the excavated ruins show a strange ritual involving young men jumping over the back of a bull. Bull cults are generally associated to fertility, but possibly on Crete it was also a response to the common earthquakes.
Weak earthquakes are common on Crete, as the island is located on the border of two important tectonic plates, the African Plate in the South and the Aegean Plate in the North. Stronger events happened in past times (~365 AD) as suggested by a 10m displacement observed along the coasts of the island.

Fig.2. Crete´s location above a subduction zones makes it vulnerable to earthquakes, map from PLATT et al. 2007.

So was the Minotaur – including his associations to earth – a personification of the mysterious, at the time unexplainable, forces of nature?


KAPLAN, M. (2013): The Science of Monsters: The Origins of the Creatures We Love to Fear. Scribner: 256

McINERNEY, J. (2011): Bulls and Bull-leaping in the Minoan World. Expedition. Vol.53(3): 1-13

The Volcano as Crematory - Paolo Gorini´s strange geological-anatomical experiments

Paolo Gorini (1813-1881) was an Italian mathematician and naturalist, interested in medicine and geology, trying to combine in a quite unusual way his two passions. 

Gorini  worked on methods to conserve corpses, in part for medical purposes, in part for more practical reasons  - as he supervised also crematoriums in Italy and in Britain it was sometimes necessary to preserve a body until it could be cremated (in one case, due bureaucratic problems, he had to hold a body for over two years). 

After 1842 Gorini also started to work on a theory to explain the formations of mountains. Gorini believed that rocks and mountains were formed from crystallization of a liquid, or molten substance, following James Hutton´s suggestions. Like in an organism, fluids (which he called plutons) would feed the earth from within and over time a mountain would form or “grow”. Gorini had some evidence from the field, like solidified dikes and veins seen in outcrops or hollow conduits, now empty but once filled with molten magma.
Fig.2. Vein in granite, observed on the Naabranken (a mountain in Bavaria), first depiction of its kind published in 1868 in GÜMBEL, von W.: Geognostische Beschreibung des Königreichs Bayern: II. Abt. Ostbayerisches Grenzgebirge. Such veins form when fluids crystallize, so Gorini was right that some minerals and rocks form in such a way and his theory may also explain (in part) volcanoes, but it can´t explain entire mountain ranges, formed by tectonic deformation of earth´s crust over time.

He designed also some experiments to support his explanations. In public shows he heated liquids until forming bubbles "quite similar to the real ones [volcanoes]”. Gorini hoped that his experiments would prove useful in time. In 1865 Mount Etna erupted,  causing death and devastation, and Gorini criticized that people rely on superstition, offering flowers and prayers to the volcano, instead of science, trying to understand the mechanics behind volcanic eruptions and so may avoid or even prevent them.
He published his theory in 1851 in the book "Sull´Origine delle Montagne e dei Vulcani - Studio Sperimentale" (On the Origin of Mountains and Volcanoes - An Experimental Approach), followed by a series on papers over the years.
Fig.3. Gorini’s first work (1851) concerning mountains and volcanoes.

Despite his success with the public, the “experimental approach” shows were quite popular, his scientific publications were meet with skepticism. Some scholars considered his “experimental geology” an important contribution to better understand volcanoes, other considered Gorini a respectable anatomist, but just a  “geological showman”.
In 1872 Gorini tried to model volcanoes using molten magma. Seeing how insect burst into flames when coming into contact with the incandescent material, he also tried to cremate human corpses, or at least parts, with this artificial lava. However it was difficult to melt and handle enough material to burn an entire human - also lava doesn´t quite work the way as depicted in movies - and Gorini soon abandoned these experiments.  

Fig.4. The dramatic death of Pliny the Elder consumed by fire during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, from "Histoires prodigieuse" (1560). Contrary to the common myth, the most lethal effects of a volcano are not lava flows and disposing of a corpse in it is quite difficult. Curious side note - there is also no documented case in history where humans were sacrificed in a volcano or volcanoes used to cremate corpses.

Gorini continued his career as respected anatomist and mummification-specialist, however his geological contributions were soon forgotten – a shame, as if even many of his conclusions are wrong (one must also consider the limit knowledge of volcanoes at the time), his ideas and especially his rational approach, using experiments to explain observations in the field, are nevertheless timeless.
LORUSSO, L.; FALCONI, B.; FRANCHINI, F.A. & PORRO, A. (2013): Geology, conservation and dissolution of corpses by Paolo Gorini (1813–1881). In DUFFIN, C. J., MOODY, R. T. J. & GARDNER-THORPE, C. (eds) “A History of Geology and Medicine. Geological Society, London”. Special Publications, 375: 469–474

Geological Prospecting Following The Tales Of Haunted Mines

Myths were already used to reconstruct the geological risk of certain areas and may also be of interest for prospecting geologists. Still many modern localities bear names associated to past mining operations, precious metals or ore. A lateral valley of the South Tyrolean Ahrntal is known as Röttal, “Röt" meaning red and named after the reddish rocks found there. These rocks are ore-rich greenschists, the reddish colors caused by alteration and weathering over time of iron- and sulfur-minerals (often associated with more valuable minerals). Probably this and other geological clues (like rivers poisoned by traces of copper and poor plant growth) helped once to discover the copper deposits deep within the mountain. 
Fig.1. View of a small creek in the "red" valley.

According to a local legend the nearby mine of Prettau was discovered when a wild bull throw some large rocks into the air. The owner of the animal noted some shiny minerals inside the rocks and even if not gold, so he had found a rich deposit of copper- and iron sulfides. Maybe this legend reflects the idea of using such well visible geological clues, like minerals or alteration products, do discover the hidden treasures of a mountain.

Mining for metals in the Alps dates back at least for 4.800 years (a 25m long gallery in North Tyrol was dated to 2.800 B.C.), in South Tyrol slag remains were dated to 1.200-1.000 BC for sure. Slag remains found in Ahrntal possibly date back to the early and middle bronze age (3.300-1.800 BC), even if the provenance of the used copper ore is unknown. The extraction of copper ore in the Ahrntal became important only in medieval times, especially in the 15th century. 

Fig.2. Medieval prospecting pit in ore-bearing greenschists (prasinitic) rocks.

So it´s interesting to note that some galleries found in the Ahrntal are, according to local folklore, associated to the Roman dominion. The galleries excavated in gneiss are not especially deep, the longest recorded is just 40m. It´s for sure only superficial prospecting, soon abandoned.

Fig.3. A supposedly haunted pit, entrance to a short gallery excavated into the weathered grey gneiss, in yellow alteration rim.

In local folklore the galleries are called antrischen Löcher”, "antrisch" an old term to describe something spooky or haunted and "Löcher" simply meaning hole. The antrischen Löcher were inhabited, so the legend tells, by descendants of the first man and women. However as Adam and Eve tried to hide their illegitimate children before god, they now are damned to live in the underground. They are the guardians of underground treasures and eventually will donate the hidden treasures to good people, if they deserve such gifts.

According to historic archives some galleries date back for sure to the year 1530, when a mister Franz Widmair requested permission to prospect for ore in this area. Mines dating back to Roman times are a possibility, even if highly unlikely, as there exists no written record or artifact made of the extracted ore to prove Roman mining operations.

Folklore also tells of silver-veins, even if the petrological composition of the rocks would suggest copper. The found ore is anyway of no economic value nowadays.

Now even if geology contradicts some speculations based solely on local tales (like the galleries dating back 2.000 years and the search for silver), it´s nevertheless interesting to note that without the legends surrounding these artificial galleries and pits these would have probably soon be forgotten. By following and evaluating tales provided by locals a geologist may discover some interesting additional information to include in a geological map, be it abandoned mines, quarries or minerals- and ore-associations. 

Ernst Haeckel, Evolution and Japanese Anime

Ernst Haeckel, German naturalist and artist, was born February 16, 1834. He was one of the first biologists to accept the theory of evolution and created phylogenetic trees to show the relationships of various animals (including humans). 

It´s curious to note that one of Haeckel´s drawings features also in the 1995 anime „Ghost in the Shell“, when the puppet master - a sentient A.I. - discusses evolution as descent with modification:

A copy is just an identical image. There is the possibility that a single virus could destroy an entire set of systems and copies do not give rise to variety and originality. Life perpetuates itself through diversity and this includes the ability to sacrifice itself when necessary. Cells repeat the process of degeneration and regeneration until one day they die, obliterating an entire set of memory and information. Only genes remain. Why continually repeat this cycle? Simply to survive by avoiding the weaknesses of an unchanging system.” 

Ghost in the Shell, the final battle in the museum.

How Groundhogs Can Change A Landscape

We don’t know how much wood a woodchuck would chuck if he could chuck wood, but we know how much sediment he moves per year…
Biogeomorphology, also referred as ecogeomorphology or sometimes as zoogeomorphology, is the study of the links between ecology and geomorphology, or in simple terms between life-forms and landforms. Such interactions range from simple tracks left by an organism in the landscape to the complex cycles of energy and matter transfer (like for the element carbon) between the biosphere and the lithosphere.
The role of animals in the evolution of a landscape is still poorly studied, but one of the most interesting processes modifying a landscape involves digging animals. Read On...

The Origin Of Geological Terms: Feldspar


“What’s in a name?” asked William Shakespeare in his play Romeo and Juliet. It may also be of interest to explore the origin of some common terms used in geology in an upcoming series, like feldspar, the most common mineral on earth´s surface Read On

Charles Darwin And The Search For Extraterrestrial Life

In August 1881, the journal Science (a short-lived predecessor of the modern journal) published an article based on letters exchanged between two amateur geologists – British Charles R. Darwin and the German Otto Hahn – discussing the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Just some years earlier, Darwin had published On The Origin of Species, arguing that complex life forms evolved very slowly over time from simple ones.
However, Darwin faced a major problem with his theory. At the time, based on erroneous calculations of the cooling rate of earth by physicist Lord Kelvin, the Earth was believed to be just some million years old.
Accordingly, the planet seemed too young to explain the modern complexity and diversity of life. However, if already complex microorganisms existed in space (the existence of which would predate the formation of Earth), and only later they evolved in terrestrial animals, could solve this apparent contradiction.