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.