The geological sources of myths

Sitting on top of the Kremlin in Red Square is a huge five-pointed red star that is illuminated at night.  This is not just a relic of Stalin’s Soviet Union, but has its origins in a common myth that shows up concretely in archaeological digs, particularly in the Middle East, in the form of collections of fossil sea urchins and starfish. They, of course possess the five-fold symmetry unique to the Echinodermata, which also figures in the emblematic pentagram of Denis Wheatley’s awful novels about satanism and on the pointed hats of latter-day wizards and warlocks. I learned of this fascinating link between geology and symbolism at a session on Geology and Mythology at the 32nd International Geological Congress in Florence (August 2004). This branch of geoscience seems destined to thrive, and Kevin Krajik has helped ensure that it does by reviewing a range of geo-inspired myths (Krajik, K. 2005. Tracking myth to geological reality. Science, v. 310, p. 762-764). His examples range from Pitman and Ryan’s hypothesis linking the flood myth of the Near East, first recorded in the Epic of Gilgamesh, to catastrophic filling of the Black Sea basin as sea level rose and spilled through the Bosporus around 7600 years ago, to the Oracle of Delphi. The most interesting and useful are those myths that incorporate an implicit warning of risk. Among these are pictograms of two headed serpents US which are reputed to shake the ground by native people of the NW who carved them. These a’yahos are found around major active fault zones. Cameroonian taboos include some that relate clearly to exhalation of carbon dioxide from crater lakes, as happened with disastrous effects at Nyos in 1986. The seafaring Moken of western Thailand have a tradition that a rapidly falling tide presages a man-eating wave: no Mokens died during the 26 december 2004 Tsunamis, despite living on the shore that was badly hit.

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