Field of Science

Earthquake - myths: North America

"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

Oral tradition and legends all over the world maybe represent the first efforts to record and explain geological phenomena. In all cultures it was tried to explain why things happen as they happened, catastrophic events were no exception and during centuries a rich collection of stories were told and retold.
The Japanese Namazu-myth is one of the most popular and remembers the tragic connection between society and geology in the form of earthquakes, but many other myths on the various continents try to explain why earthquakes occur and kill people.

However myths address lesser the question how something happens (as for example modern science) than why it happens - 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, even if some minor traces remain back in the "real world."
Also the apparent connection between ancient myths and modern concepts is often biased by interpretation, if a certain term is translated from an ancient language and modern terms used, like "earthquake", we can not be sure to exactly "catch" the quintessence or meaning intended by the original author - so the following selection of mythical stories and creatures is surely biased by my interpretation or "earth trembles" and other "earthquake effects".
Despite these considerations, myths can be wonderful stories worth to be at least remembered:

The Duwamish people, natives of the Cascade Range, tell of the terrible "A´yahos", spirits with the body of a serpent and the antlers and forelegs of a deer. Old folks warn to look directly to an A´yahos because it could shake the ground or turn people to stone. The Quileute people know a similar entity, the "T´abale", a vicious guardian spirit on the north-western Washington coast. The Indigenous group of the Kwakwaka'wakw tell stories about the two-headed "Sisutl".

The bay of Lituya is a remote place situated in Alaska. It is a narrow, only 2 kilometres broad, but 11 long bay open to the Pacific Ocean. The native Tlingit Indians tell that in a cavern, deep in the underground, lives a demon, similar in appearance to a great toad or frog. If someone dares to disturb the tranquillity of the bay the demon will rip apart the sea and shake the earth and catch the intruder and transmute him into a bear.

Many catastrophes however were not the acts of demons, but an essential part of creation - these events were necessary to form a world habitable by us humans.

The Yurok Indians, once native in the Cascade Range, tell about the creation of the world by "earthquake" and "thunder":

"One day earthquake and thunder decided to venture south, but doing so they reached only a desolate and thirsty plateau. Earthquake saw that the land was located much to high in the sky for humans "They will have no food, if there is no place for the creatures of the sea to live in!" Earthquake begun to shake, stronger and stronger, until the earth finally collapsed and the sea inundated the land. Earthquake was satisfied "From here, they will obtain what they need to live, where prairie has become water…. This is what brings people to live." Thunder acknowledged what earthquake had done "It is true. So they will survive!" and so they went further north and together they lowered the land and created the sea."

Unfortunately gods often were moody and their fights were carried out on or below the surface of the earth.
The Klamath people of Oregon tell of the time when the chief of Above World - called Skell- and the chief of Below World - called Llao- decided to settle the dispute which of them was stronger. For many days the fight raged over the land, the two adversaries' hurled rocks and flames at each other and soon darkness covered the land.
To better see his adversary Llao decided to climb on the highest mountain he could find - Mount Mazama - but as soon he reached the peak the mountain collapsed with terrible vibrations and thunders under him and hurled him back into his underworld domain. The large hole that was created then filled up and became known as Crater Lake.

Many tribes from Vancouver Island until northern Washington know of the fight of gods in the guise of animals. He is remembered under many names, the Lakota call him "Waki-ya", the "sacred winged being", the Nuu-chah-nulth called him "Kw-Uhnx-Wa" and today we call him the powerful "Thunderbird".
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 and helpfully spirit.
One day a monstrous whale begun to kill all the animals in the sea depriving the Quileute tribe in Washington of meat and oil. Thunderbird saw from its home high in the mountains that the people were starving and decided to interfere. Thunderbird plunged into the ocean and a terrible battle arouse between him and Whale. The ocean receded and rose again, many canoes were flung by waves into trees and many people were killed. Thunderbird eventually succeeded in lifting Whale out of the ocean, carrying it high into the air and then dropping it onto the land.
The earth trembled under the ongoing battle, finally Thunderbird succeeded with the help of wolf and serpent to throw Whale back into the sea and dragging him to the bottom of the sea.

In other versions of the story it is thunderbird starting the fight by attacking whale, which supports the earth on his back, and droving his claws deep into his flesh. Whale in his struggle shakes the land until he finally drags thunderbird to the bottom of the sea.


LUDWIN, R.S. & SMITS, G.J. (2007): Folklore and earthquakes: Native American oral traditions from Cascadia compared with written traditions from Japan. In Piccardi, L. & Masse, W.B: (eds): Myth and Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 273: 67-94
VITALIANO, D.B. (2007): Geomythology: geological origins of myths and legends. In Piccardi, L. & Masse, W.B: (eds): Myth and Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 273: 1-7


  1. Karl Popper, who appears to be very out in this day and age, thought that myths are proto-scientific explanations of natural phenomena; your post would appear to support his theory.

  2. A refreshing post.

    Levi Strauss closing words in "The Structural study of Myths" are of interest in regard to that remark Thony.

    "the kind of logic which is used by mythical thought is as rigorous as that of modern science, and that the difference lies not in the quality of the intellectual process, but in the nature of the things to which it is applied....improvement lies,
    not in an alleged progress of man's conscience, but in the discovery of new things to which it may apply
    its unchangeable abilities."


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