History for the fantasy buff: Mythology of volcanoes

Volcano 2One of my favorite things to study about history is the mythology behind real-life forces and real-life events. And it’s highly relevant to creating fantasy worlds, since nearly every fantasy world is going to need a mythology, some collection of stories and ideas the people use to explain their world.

So, the mythology of volcanoes. There are (at least) three places in the world where volcanoes are so ubiquitous that they play a central role in the local people’s mythology. In Hawaiian mythology, volcanoes are said to be caused by the fire goddess Pele. Pele has a sister, Namaka o Kahai, goddess of the sea, and the two sisters are in constant conflict. Places along the shore where irregular masses of lava jut from the ground are thought to be places where the two sisters fought. Pele is  an angry goddess, who when offended causes the mountains to erupt with lava, and stomps her foot to shake the earth.

The Vikings in Iceland describe, in the Poetic Edda, a final disaster called Ragnarok, which results in the death of the gods. It is described thus:

“The sun begins to be dark; the continent falls fainting in to the Ocean; they disappear from the sky, the brilliant stars; The smoke eddies around the destroying fire of the world; the gigantic flame plays against heaven itself.”

Sounds a lot like a major volcanic eruption, and Ragnarok is described as being followed by three years’ winter–a typical consequence of such an eruption. A catastrophic eruption is believed to have happened in that area during the 9th century, and the Icelandic people may have been describing, through their stories, the actual event.

And then there are the Javanese, who, like the Hawaiians, saw the sea and the fire of volcanoes as counterparts, although not as bitter enemies. The Javanese believe the god of the volcano has a loving sexual relationship with the queen of the ocean, and volcanic eruptions are seen as spectral ejaculations. This may reflect the fact that volcanoes, for all their destruction, fertilize the land around them and even the seas, increasing catches of fish and other seafood.

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4 Responses to History for the fantasy buff: Mythology of volcanoes

  1. I like that the two groups on the water had different versions of their myth – one a fight and one love making 🙂

    I have two different peoples in my novel who worship the same volcano. The people directly on the coast want to appease the volcano so it doesn’t blow up (which causes tidal waves in their area). The other people want to sacrifice a changeling to make the volcano blow up, because they live further inland and it spreads iron and obsidian and good soil for crops.

    Both groups fear the changeling children that seem to follow an eruption though.

    • Amy Raby says:

      That sounds like a great setup! The book I read (Volcanoes in Human History) mentioned that the Hawaiians may have seen the relationship between volcanoes and ocean as more acrimonious because their volcanoes are close to the water. The volcanoes in Indonesia tend to be more inland, so the Javanese may have taken more notice of the increased fertility of the land and seen fewer devastating effects of the interaction of volcanoes and ocean.

  2. Amy Raby says:

    Rebecca–I’m glad you like it!

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