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Earthquake Origin Myths (Part 1)

Earthquake origin myths can be found throughout the world. Myths are a type of traditional story typically concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, often involving supernatural beings or events. Different cultures worldwide have different myths explaining the origin of earthquakes and some of them are still alive in the cultural milieu. In some cultures, weather is a precursor to an earthquake, while in others, earthquakes are caused by mythical animals.

Let’s look at the most famous earthquake myths from Greece, New Zealand, Aztec culture, India, and China.

 

Greece

According to Greek mythology, earthquakes occurred when Poseidon, the god of earthquakes, also known as “Earth-Shaker,” was furious. He showed his anger, causing not only earthquakes but also tsunamis1. Besides being known for causing earthquakes, Poseidon was also appreciated as the ancient Greek god of horses, the sea, rivers, floods, and drought. He was Zeus' brother and one of the 12 Olympian gods in Greek mythology. He was depicted as a mature man with a sturdy build and dark beard holding a trident (a three-pronged fisherman's spear used as a tool and a weapon)1. Ancient Greek texts provide us with the information that Poseidon had the power to create earthquakes by striking the ground with his mighty trident.


Picture 1: Poseidon with his trident

 

New Zealand

New Zealand’s indigenous Polynesian people are called Māori. They left precious texts of ancient earthquake occurrences on the island. Among them, it was recorded that Māori experienced “the shaking of the land centuries before Europeans arrived.” They believed that the god of earthquakes was Rūaumoko (also known as “Rūamoko”), the son of Ranginui (also known as the “Sky”) and his wife Papatūānuku (also known as the “Earth”). They were commonly called Rangi and Papa, and they became separated by their sons. When that happened, Rangi cried, and his tears flooded the land2. To stop the flooding, the two sons decided to turn Papa face down, so Rangi and Papa could no longer see one another's sorrow in an effort to quell their suffering. At that moment, Rūaumoko was at his mother's breast and was carried into the world below. To keep him warm, he was given fire. It was believed that his rumblings were the ones that disturbed the land and were caused as he walked about2.

Another myth says that he remained in Papa’s womb to keep him company after the loss of Rangi. It is recorded that his movements in the womb caused earthquakes. These earthquakes are also responsible for the changing of the seasons. Depending on the time of year, the earthquakes cause the warmth or cold of Papa to come to the land’s surface resulting in the warming or cooling of the Earth3.


Picture 2: Rūaumoko, god of earthquakes

 

Aztecs (Mexico)

According to Aztec mythology, the god of earthquakes was Tepeyollotl (also known as the "Heart of the Mountains,” which refers to the sound Earth makes when an earthquake arrives). He was also the god of darkened caves, echoes, and jaguars4.

According to the book Tepeyollotl, the heart of the mountain and the lord of the echo by Guilhem Olivier, this is the sound that the jaguar generates when it comes out of its cave and tears the earth with its claws, which causes the terrestrial movements5.

In Aztec tradition, an earthquake is also an integral part of the creation myth, the so-called “Five Suns” myth. The Aztecs associated Earth’s mode of destruction with the name of the day that the world would end. The First Sun (creation) ended on a day 4-Ocelot by a jaguar consuming all the people in the world. The Second Sun ended on a day 4-Ehecatl (Wind), destroying humans with a mighty wind. The Third Sun ended on a day 4-Quiahuitl (Rain), when the world ended by a rain of fire. The Fourth creation ended on a day 4-Atl (water), when a great flood destroyed the world. The present era, the Fifth Sun, was predicted to end on a day 4-Ollin (Movement) and, thus, would be destroyed by a movement of the earth, i.e., an earthquake. This sequence is shown pictorially on the Aztec Sunstone, erroneously called “the Aztec Calendar Stone”5.


Picture 3: The sequence of the first four ‘Suns’ in the Aztec Sunstone

 

India

India holds several earthquake-origin myths. Let’s have a look at some of them.

The most known Indian myth about earthquake origin talks about a weak vulture that carries a snake, which in turn carries a tortoise, and this tortoise balances eight elephants that hold the earth. When any of these creatures get tired and move, the ground shakes violently. In the Indian earthquake origin myths, a turtle is always the center of attention; sometimes, just the number or the order of these creatures changes6.


Picture 4: Indian earthquake occurrence depiction

Another myth involves Lord Vishnu’s incarnation as a boar (also known as the “Varaha avatar”) and how he protected the earth from sinking by holding it on his tusks6.

There is yet another story that offers the possible causes of an earthquake. The hundred-headed snake holding Lord Vishnu, who in turn carries the world, can cause a violent shake by moving its head too much6.

Lastly, there is a myth about the Goddess Kali. When she killed a terrible demon, she began to jump and dance with joy at her victory, which brought about a massive earthquake. But before things worsened, her consort Lord Shiva came to the rescue of human beings. Even today, a calamity of any sort is alluded to as part of a divine dance6.

 

China

The ancient Chinese believed earthquakes were caused by the 'imbalance of yin and yang' and were directly related to the acts of human beings, especially the emperors. Earthquakes were considered a warning from heaven to human beings. It was recorded that "the vital energy qi of yin and yang between the heaven and the Earth is balanced and orderly; if it gets disordered, the yang qi will sink and will not be able to come to the surface again, since the yin qi will oppress it and prevent it from rising. This causes earthquakes7.”

In Chinese tradition, yin and yang are often depicted by Fuxi and Nüwa. Nüwa stands for heaven with a round compass, while Fuxi symbolizes Earth with a square ruler; the male as the yang on the left and the female as the yin on the right; the sun as the yang at the top, and the moon as the yin in the bottom8.

Picture 5: Fuxi and Nüwa
 
Sources:
1) Şahin, Murat. Elitez, İrem. Yaltırak, Cenk. 2017. How angry was the ancient Greek god Poseidon in 141/142 A.D.? Accessed on 30-Nov-2022. Available at: https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2017EGUGA..1911964S/abstract
2) Teara. Story: Historic earthquakes. Accessed on 30-Nov-2022. Available at: https://teara.govt.nz/en/historic-earthquakes/page-1
3) EQ-IQ. Ruaumoko - God of Earthquakes. Accessed on 30-Nov-2022. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20120509182933/http:/www.eq-iq.co.nz/eq-intro/eq-stories/eq-stories-ruaumoko.aspx
4) Bressan, David. 2021. A 500-Year-Old Aztec Manuscript Is The Oldest Written Record Of Earthquakes In The Americas. Accessed on 30-Nov-2022. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidbressan/2021/08/26/a-500-year-old-aztec-manuscript-is-the-oldest-written-record-of-earthquakes-in-the-americas/?sh=2658027167b2
5) Mexicolore. 2013. How did the Aztecs know that this (fifth) world would end in an earthquake? Accessed on 30-Nov-2022. Available at: https://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/ask-experts/how-did-the-aztecs-know-the-fifth-world-would-be-destroyed-by-an-earthquake
6) Folomojo. 2014. The ‘World Turtle’ moves again: What Indian myths tell us about earthquakes. Accessed on 30-Nov-2022. Available at: www.folomojo.com/the-world-turtle-moves-again-what-Indian-myths-tell-us-about-earthquakes/
7) Wangchao. Superstitious interpretation of earthquakes in ancient China 【Zhōngguó gǔdài duì dìzhèn fāshēng de míxìn jiěshì 中國古代對地震發生的迷信解釋】 Accessed on 30-Nov-2022. Available at: www.tc.wangchao.net.cn/junshi/detail_65873.html
8) View of China. 2019. Nuwa and Fuxi in Chinese Mythology. Accessed on 30-Nov-2022. Available at: https://www.viewofchina.com/nuwa-and-fuxi/
9) Feng, Rui. Wu, Yuxia. 2010. Research on history of Chinese seismology. Published in Earthq Sci (2010)23: 243-257

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