Humans above all else are storytellers, and myths and legends ignite our imaginations.
The Lord of the Rings, a well-known contemporary fable, tells of a dark, terrifying mountain full of fire. The fire fountains emerging from Stromboli, a Sicilian volcano dubbed the “Lighthouse of the Mediterranean,” made such an impression on Tolkien that he was inspired to create the fictional volcano for his novels.
In a way, this modern mythical mountain is based on something real. As it turns out, there are plenty of far older tales that have more than a kernel of truth to them – here’s a selection of some of the most vivid.
Crater Lake and the Battle of the Gods
The Native American Klamath tribe believed that Crater Lake in Oregon was once a tall mountain named Mazama. Back then, it was inhabited by Llao, their deity of the underworld.
Engaging in an epic battle with Skell the sky god, fire and brimstone flew across the skies between Mazama and the nearby Mount Shasta. Llao lost the fight, and went back to the underworld. Skell collapsed the mountain on top of him and imprisoned him forever, before topping off this prison with a beautiful blue lake.
This myth is actually describing a 7,700-year-old volcanic eruption, one which geologists know was over 40 times the power of the famous May 1980 cataclysm at Mount St. Helens. A huge reservoir of magma ruptured the crust, blew a hole in the landscape, and left a massive crater to be filled in with rainwater.
Sri Lanka and the Ape-Men Army
A Landsat 7 image of Rama's Bridge, sometimes known as Adam's Bridge, based on another myth in early Islamic texts. NASA
The Ramayana, an Indian Sanskrit epic, features a classic ancient kidnap plot. Sita, the wife of the god Rama, is stolen and taken to Demon Kingdom on the island of Lanka. An army of ape-like men, along with his brother Lakshman, built a floating bridge (Rama’s Bridge) between India and Lanka, from which they crossed over and successfully vanquished Ravana, the demon king.
Although this elaborate tale is full of fanciful detail, the bridge itself actually exists. Aerial surveys clearly show a 48-kilometer-long (30-mile-long) submerged stretch of limestone shoals and sand stretching between the two landmasses.
This bridge – which is only a few meters below the water’s surface in some parts – is likely the inspiration for the ancient Hindu legend. It was reportedly above the water until a 15th-century cyclone brought a huge storm surge into the channel and sunk it beneath the waves.
The Guest Star
Around the year 1006, astronomers across the world spotted what they described as a “guest star” in the sky. Persian scholar Ibn Sina, however, gave a far more detailed account of the events than most others.
In the Kitab al-Shifa (the Book of Healing), he explained how the transient object, which could be seen in the sky for months, kept changing color. He added that it threw out sparks before finally fading away.
For a long time, the object was suspected of being a comet, but we now know that Sina was looking at a supernova, one that took place 7,200 years ago and whose visible light only reached Earth at the turn of the first millennium. Although its visible wavelengths have since dissipated from view, the high-energy remnants of SN 1006 can still be seen thanks to NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.
The color change in this case may refer to the merger of two white dwarfs, which would create a particularly energetic supernova bursting with color. This is exactly what Sina described, which means that not only is this legend true, but he provided modern astronomers with detail that may otherwise have been lost.
One of the most well-known myths in human history, and first described by Greek philosopher Plato, tells a tale of a civilization at its peak sinking beneath the waves, lost for all eternity. It’s heavily debated, but a number of archaeologists think that it could have been based on the collapse of the Minoan empire.
Around 3,650 years ago, a powerful volcanic eruption rocked Santorini, then referred to as Thera. The vast magma chamber was emptied so catastrophically quickly that the core of the island collapsed, sending a tsunami across to Crete and flooding much of Thera with the inflowing Aegean Sea. Suffice to say, the Minoan civilization sunk beneath the waves and was never heard from again.
The Guest Star, which was actually a type 1a supernova, SN 1006. NASA
Thunderbird and the Whale
Another Native American tale speaks of a Thunderbird, a benevolent supernatural being, swooping down into the sea and seizing a murderous whale, one that was depriving the Quileute tribe of resources.
During this struggle, powerful waves were generated, and many people on the land were killed in the chaos. Eventually, the Thunderbird managed to lift the whale out of the sea before dropping it onto the land with an almighty thud.
Incredibly, back in the 1980s, geologists uncovered evidence that a powerful earthquake occurred in the Pacific Northwest in 1700, one which dislodged enough of the ocean in order to cause a tsunami. Not only did this hit the American coast where the tribe would have lived, but it was so powerful that it managed to reach Japan.
Additionally, Aiornis, a prehistoric giant bird that early North American settlers would have seen, may have been the inspiration for the Thunderbird. With a wingspan of up to 5 meters (16 feet), it used to swoop down on whale carcasses to feast. Although it's unlikely it would have lifted one onto land.
Native American totems of the Thunderbird near Vancouver, Canada. Tom Clausen/Shutterstock
The Great Flood
No, of course the boat full of animals of every kind wasn’t real. However, as is often the case with apocryphal texts, the epic biblical flood may have at least been based on an earlier tale. In this case, the Epic of Gilgamesh comes to mind.
In this Mesopotamian saga dating back to the 7th century BCE, many gods conspired to create a great flood and destroy the world. One of the gods, Ea, told a man named Utu-napishtim to make a boat to save himself and his family, along with a whole host of animals. The story, part of the first great work of literature in human history, unfolds in pretty much the same way as the biblical equivalent – so is there any evidence that the floods themselves happened?
Geological records show that the Black Sea, north of Turkey, was starved of its glacier meltwater source towards the end of the last glacial maximum, 11,500 years ago. They melted into the North Sea instead, and the Black Sea’s water began to dry up. Around the same time, the Mediterranean Basin was refilling with seawater from the Atlantic Ocean. The two were separated by dry land.
Eventually, the Mediterranean Sea overflowed into the Black Sea. It forced the sediment barrier between the two to open in a fairly dramatic manner, and anyone nearby at the time would have seen a waterfall 200 times the volume of the Niagara Falls filling the basin up so fast that in a single day, an area the same size of Manhattan would have been completely covered twice over.
Could this be the inspiration for these literary floods? Perhaps, but if you’re looking for a direct link between a legendary cascade and its real-life geological event, look to the origins of the Chinese state.
A thrilling study recently confirmed that the worst flood of the last 10 millennia took place along the Yellow River at the exact date referenced in ancient texts. Not only that, but archaeological evidence uncovered at the source also hints that the mythical first line of monarchs in China – the Xia dynasty – may have really existed.
Myths are often beautiful, breathtaking narratives. Science, though, is something far more empowering. It doesn’t just tell stories that are real – it also reveals that fairy tales, just sometimes, aren’t tales at all. They’re true.
Sometimes, fact is stranger than fiction. LanaBrest/Shutterstock