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Geomythology (also called “legends of the earth," "landscape mythology," “myths of observation,” “natural knowledge") is the study of oral and written traditions created by pre-scientific cultures to account for, often in poetic or mythological imagery, geological events and phenomena such as earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, tsunamis, land formation, fossils, and natural features of the landscape.[1] Dorothy Vitaliano, a geologist at Indiana University, coined the term in 1968.[2]

"Geomythology indicates every case in which the origin of myths and legends can be shown to contain references to geological phenomena and aspects, in a broad sense including astronomical ones (comets, eclipses, meteor impacts, etc.). As indicated by Vitaliano (1973) 'primarily, there are two kinds of geologic folklore, that in which some geologic feature or the occurrence of some geologic phenomenon has inspired a folklore explanation, and that which is the garbled explanation of some actual geologic event, usually a natural catastrophe'."[2][3]

Oral traditions about nature are often expressed in mythological language and may contain genuine and perceptive natural knowledge based on careful observation of physical evidence over generations. In some instances, geomyths can provide valuable information about past earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, impact events, fossil discoveries, and other events.[4]

Geomyths include folk explanations of conspicuous geological features, and sometimes garbled or metaphorical descriptions of catastrophic geological events that were witnessed in antiquity. In the case of massive geomorphic events in the pre-human past, such as mountain formation, observations and imagination combined in mythic explanations that were handed down orally over millennia. In the case of natural catastrophes within living human memory, descriptions were handed down over generations. Both types of geomyth often include supernatural details. Because the descriptive narratives were expressed in mythological language, scientists and historians have not been aware of the real events and rational concepts embedded in geomythological stories. One type of geomyth includes tales arising from imagination or popular misconceptions, for example, beings magically transformed into stone to account for landforms. As more studies are done in geomythology, however, scientists and historians are finding accurate insights about geological processes. And datable events such as tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions have been found to be recorded by eyewitness accounts, some from thousands of years ago.[1]

Some myths transmitted real information about real events and observations, preserving geological data over millennia within non-literate cultures. A well-documented example of a datable geological event recorded in myth is the creation of Crater Lake in Oregon when Mount Mazama collapsed. Geologists’ scientific interpretation of how the volcanic cataclysm long ago resulted in Crater Lake, is echoed point for point in a local myth of its origin, told by members of the Klamath Indian tribe who saw it happen almost 8,000 years ago.[5]

In August 2004 the 32nd International Geological Congress held a session on "Myth and Geology",[6] which resulted in the first peer-reviewed collection of papers on the subject (2007).[7]



The Norse mythological tale of the unending winter - the Fimbulwinter - has been posited to be an example of geomythology.[8] Here the Fimbulwinter is seen as a Viking folk memory of a much earlier time when an eruption in South America at Lake Ilopango caused a long winter throughout the world. The eruption spewed eighty-seven cubic kilometres of ejecta into the atmosphere, blocking out the sunlight. Trees withered for lack of sun and crops failed. In Scandinavia, a region already low on agricultural land, many people starved to death: as many as half the population of Scandinavia died during the long winter, according to one estimate, and the effects went on for at least three years.[9] Archaeologist Neil Price has argued that the Fimbulwinter myth is likely a folk memory of this time, although he is careful to point out that "Geomythology is by its very nature an inexact concept: inherently unproveable, prone to confirmation bias, and hampered by a lack of precise dating in both textual and archaeological sources."[8] Price gives several examples as to why the Fimbulwinter myth is an example of geomythology. One example is from Snorri's poem the Poetic Edda:

First of all that a winter will come called Fimbulwinter.

Then snow will drift from all directions.

There will then be great frosts and keen winds.

The sun will do no good.

There will be three of these winters together

and no summer in between.

"The description of this terrible distortion of the seasons," writes Price, "is remarkably similar to the cycle scientists postulate for the immediate effects of the eruptions."[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Mayor, A. (2004). "Geomythology". In Selley, R.; Cox, R.; Palmer, I. (eds.). Encyclopedia of Geology. Elsevier.
  2. ^ a b Piccardi, Luigi (2007). "Preface". In Piccardi, Luigi; Masse, W. Bruce (eds.). Myth and Geology. Special publication - Geological Society of London. Vol. 273. London: Geological Society of London. p. vii. ISBN 9781862392168. Retrieved 2017-10-10. [...] the study of the geological foundation to human myths, an emerging discipline in the Earth sciences galled 'geomythology'. This term was coined by Dorothy Vitaliano, in her pioneering book Legends of the Earth: their geologic origins (1973), as, 'the study of the actual geologic origins of natural phenomena which were long explained in terms of myth and folklore'.
  3. ^ Vitaliano, Dorothy (1973). "dustjacket text". Legends of the Earth: their geologic origins.
  4. ^ Burbery, T. (2021). Geomythology: How Common Stories Reflect Earth Events. Routledge.
  5. ^ Barber, E. W.; Barber, P. (2005). When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth. Princeton University Press.
  6. ^ Piccardi, L. (2004). A Legendary Session: Myth and Geology (PDF). 32nd IGC Informs. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-03-07.)
  7. ^ Piccardi, Luigi (2007). "Preface". In Piccardi, Luigi; Masse, W. Bruce (eds.). Myth and Geology. Special publication - Geological Society of London. Vol. 273. London: Geological Society of London. ISBN 9781862392168.
  8. ^ a b Price 2022, p. 77.
  9. ^ Price 2022, pp. 75–77.
  10. ^ Price 2022, p. 78.


  • Price, Neil (2022). The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. London: Penguin.

Further reading[edit]

  • Burbery T. (2021). Geomythology: How Common Stories Reflect Earth Events. Routledge.
  • Hamacher, D.W. (2014). Geomythology and Cosmic Impacts in Australia. West Australian Geologist, No. 505, pp. 11–14.
  • Hamacher, D.W. and Goldsmith, J. (2013). Aboriginal oral traditions of Australian impact craters Archived 2018-08-20 at the Wayback Machine. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, Vol. 16(3), pp. 295–311.
  • Hamacher, D.W. and Norris, R.P., (2009). Australian Aboriginal Geomythology: eyewitness accounts of cosmic impacts? Archaeoastronomy, Vol. 22, pp. 60–93.
  • Mayor, A., (2011). The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times. Princeton University Press.
  • Mayor, A. (2005). Fossil Legends of the First Americans. Princeton University Press.
  • Piccardi, L. (2000). Active faulting at Delphi: seismotectonic remarks and a hypothesis for the geological environment of a myth. Geology, Vol. 28 (7), pp. 651–654. doi:10.1130/0091-7613(2000)28<651:AFADGS>2.0.CO;2
  • Piccardi, L. (2001). Fault-related sanctuaries. EOS Transactions, American Geophysical Union, 52 (47), U52B-03.
  • Piccardi, L. (2005). Paleoseismic evidence of legendary earthquakes: the apparition of Archangel Michael at Monte Sant’Angelo (Italy). Tectonophysics, Vol. 408, pp. 113–128. doi:10.1016/j.tecto.2005.05.041
  • Piccardi, L. (2005). The head of the Hydra of Lerna (Greece). Archaeopress, British Archaeological Reports, International Series, Vol. 1337/2005, pp. 179-186.
  • Piccardi, L. (2007). The AD 60 Denizli Basin earthquake and the apparition of Archangel Michael at Colossae (Aegean Turkey). in Piccardi, L. and Masse, W.B. (eds) (2007). Myth and Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications No. 273, pp. 95–105. doi:10.1144/GSL.SP.2007.273.01.08
  • Piccardi, L., Monti, C., Vaselli, O., Tassi, F., Gaki-Papanastassiou, K., Papanastassiou, D. (2008). Scent of a myth: tectonics, geochemistry and geomythology at Delphi (Greece). Journal of the Geological Society, London, Vol. 165, pp. 5–18. doi:10.1144/0016-76492007-055
  • Piccardi, L. (2014). Post-glacial activity and earthquakes of the Great Glen Fault (Scotland). Memorie Descrittive della Carta Geologica d’Italia, vol. XCVI, pp. 432–446.
  • Stewart, I.S., Piccardi, L. (2017). Seismic faults and sacred sanctuaries in Aegean antiquity. Proceedings of the Geologists Association, vol. 128, pp. 711–721.
  • Vitaliano, D. B. (1968). Geomythology. Journal of the Folklore Institute, Vol. 5, No. 1 (June 1968), p. 11.
  • Vitaliano, D. B. (2007). “Geomythology: Geological Origins of Myths and Legends”. In: Myth and Geology. Piccardi, L., Masse, W. B (ed). GSL, Special Publications. 273: 1–7.