“What did people think caused earthquakes in the olden days?” Part Two

The terrible Fenrir Wolf. In Norse mythology this giant's wolf's fury at being trapped beneath a mountain were to blame for earthquakes.
The terrible Fenris Wolf. In Norse mythology this giant wolf is destined to bring on Ragnarök, the end of the world. Knowing this, the gods tricked Fenris into wearing a magic chain forged from the roots of the mountains, the sound of a cat’s footsteps, the breath of fishes, the tendon of bears, the spittle of birds and a woman’s beard. Naturally, Fenris is furious at being tied up like this. His roars shake the mountains, ripping open deep fractures in the Earth and raining rocks down the mountainside. (Image of a 17th century manuscript illustration of Fenris via The History of Geology)

If you’re just joining us, on Monday The Five-Year-Old asked her Daddyo what people used to think caused earthquakes back in the olden days. “Like when you were born.”

Turns out she meant the really olden days, when instead of seeking scientific explanations for natural disasters, people relied on the ancient art of storytelling to make sense of the traumatic upheavals reshaping and in some cases, completely devastating entire civilizations.

And that’s a really fun question, because the ancient explanations are all over the map. Literally.

The god Kashima using a rock to force the giant catfish to keep still. (Figure from LEWIS 1985).
The god Kashima using a rock to force the giant catfish Namazu to keep still. (Figure from LEWIS 1985).

Ancient Japan

In ancient Japan, the rumor was that earthquakes were caused by a very large and very twitchy catfish named Namazu who lived in the center of the Earth.

Namazu caused such devastation on the Earth’s surface with every thrash of his tail that a demigod was assigned the job of forcing the catfish to keep still. The demigod, Kashima, did this by squishing the catfish’s head with a giant rock.

This worked wonderfully, while Kashima’s strength held out. Unfortunately, every now and then Kashima wanted a break and allowed the stone to roll off Namazu. The earth quaked as a result.

Ancient Rome and Greece

Most of us are familiar with the ancient explanations blaming earthquakes on angry gods. The Greeks may have pointed the finger at Poseidon, the god of the sea, and the far more theologically pragmatic Romans at Vulcanus (the god of lava and smoke) or sive deus sive deá (the spirit of which roughly translates to “whichever god or goddess is mad at us right now”), but the basic storyline remains the same. Humans angered the gods, so the gods smote the earth with a mighty rage that destroys the humans’ homes and otherwise wreaks great devastation upon them.

The Maimas of Peru

The Algonquins believed that the Earth was supported by a noble tortoise. Earthquakes happened when the tortoise shifted around to find a more comfortable position. (Image via OPUS Archives & Research Center)
In Algonquin mythology, the Earth is supported by a noble tortoise. Earthquakes happen when the tortoise shifted around to find a more comfortable position. (Image via OPUS Archives & Research Center)

The Maimas of Perus also blamed their god for earthquakes, but in his case, it wasn’t because he had anger management issues. It was just his way of taking a headcount.

The Maimas believed that when the earth shook, it was because their god was walking the earth, taking a census of his true-believers. Which is why they responded to earthquakes by running out of their homes, shouting “Here I am, here I am.” They wanted to make his job easier so that things could get back to normal.

Perhaps not precisely the reaction you and I would have today, but all things considered, a fairly sensible one, as their homes weren’t known for their structural soundness. Exiting quickly would at least prevent the Maimas from getting hurt when the roof collapsed.


Aristotle. Even smarter than he looked.
Aristotle. Even smarter than he looked.

To my way of thinking, Aristotle’s explanation for earthquakes comes the closest to modern understanding. He believed that wind currents within the Earth’s surface were to blame. When glossed over by the very broad science-y brush we are so fond of using here at Caterpickles Central, Aristotle’s winds can be made to sound very much like the convection forces of modern plate tectonics.

Ok, so you have to use such a very broad brush to make the analogy work that really you’re in danger of using the very same sort of magical thinking that caused generations of Maimas to dash out in the streets when an earthquake struck. Still, the point is Aristotle was at least trying to base his theory on his observations of how the natural world worked. And in that he was centuries ahead of his peers.

If you or your Five-Year-Old would like to read more about how ancient cultures explained earthquakes, the San Jose Unified School District has posted a lovely summary of world earthquake mythology here.

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