Myths and legends were often result of mankind’s attempt to explain natural phenomenon. For instance, the ancient man knowing not that the yellow ball shining above was a hydrogen-star, used allegories of gods and kinds to explain what the sun was and where it went. Similarly, all such things that boggled the mind, and could not be answered or explained by the means of stories and tales.
Earthquakes were one such occurrence, devastating and destructive, the ancients explained it through a variety of tales, using animals and other worldly creature as motifs. Here’s how they tried to explain the shift in the tectonic plates:
According to the Greeks, Poseidon is the cause and god of earthquakes. Whenever he is in a bad mood, he would strike the ground with a trident, causing earthquakes. Apparently, he also used earthquakes to punish and inflict fear upon people as revenge. His unpredictable, violent behaviour earned him the nickname “Earth-Shaker”. Similarly, the Romans ascribed earthquakes to the restlessness of the giants whom Jupiter buried under high mountains.
Considering his unpredictable nature, he does not find place in Mt. Olympus and Zeus rather has him in the oceans.
In ancient Egypt Gebb (the rare earth god that is a male) is the god earth and supplied the minerals and precious stones found in the earth as a god of mines and caves. Whenever he was happy and ecstatic, and laughed, it caused earthquakes.
The Buddhist believe that the earthquake is an indicator of a great passing or demise of someone great. Not only that great events are accompanied by earthquakes as well. Immediately after Buddha attained Nirvana (at Kushinagara in 483 BC), the earth trembled, stars fell down and celestial music was heard. Three months prior to this final act, the traditional texts state that when Buddha was camping in a grove to the north of the village Upabhoga, there was an earthquake. Buddha himself is said to have interpreted the earthquake as the sign that he would soon pass away into Nirvana.
Considering the increased frequency of quakes now, wonder if the idea that earthquakes are harbinger of something important is valid or not.
Somehow, Indians love many or anything single. For everything there have ‘many’ options, like many gods, many foods and similarly many explanations for earthquakes. According to one tale, there are eight elephants (Mahapadma) that support the earth on their back. They are balanced on the back of turtle which stands on the coils of a cobra. Whenever the elephants are tired and shake its head, or any of these creatures shift, an earthquake is caused.
The Rig Veda has another interesting explanation, in the olden ancient times, mountains could fly and move. And to top it all they were frequently falling on the earth causing earthquakes continuously. On the request of Prajapati, Indra cut the wings of the mountains with his Vajra. But yet, a few hid and were saved (like Meru), and they are still causing earthquakes apparently.
The amazing thing about the Indian mythology is the great balance of the animals that manage the earth. No wonder it is so unstable, and no wonder there are so many earthquakes.
It is the fish (rather the catfish) in Japanese Mythology that are responsible for the quakes. According to legends, the island of Japan rests on the back of a giant catfish Namazu, the god Kashima guards Namazu and restrains it with a stone. But whenever there is a lapse on the part of Kashima, Namazu thrashes its tail sending out violent earthquakes.
Could that be a reason why catfish sushi is not such a popular delicacy in Japan?
According to the Chinese, the earth rests on the back of a giant frog that quakes periodically, producing earthquakes.
South American Mythology:
According to the ancient Mayans, the world was actually shaped like a square and held at each of the four corners by the Vashakmen (gods) who maintained watch over the number of people in the world. When the world became overcrowded and overpopulated, one of the four Vashakmen would merely tip the square and the excess people would fall off planet. This act of tipping is actually the earthquake.
In Chile, earthquakes were attributed to two snakes. One snake dug holes in the earth to store water in, but the other snake filled them in with stones. This caused the reptiles to fight, which caused the earthquakes.
For one, I really liked the population and earthquake correlation, the metaphor was truly ahead of its time.
The trickster god Loki was punished for killing Baldur by being tied to a rock. Where Overhead, Skaði placed a venomous snake which dropped poison onto Loki’s head. Sigyn, Loki’s wife, sat with him holding a basin beneath the dripping venom, yet when the basin became full, she carried the poison away; and during this time the poison dripped on to Loki, causing him to writhe with such violence that all of the earth shook from the force, resulting in earthquakes.
In another version, at the root of the World Tree, Yggdrasil, is the serpent Nidhog gnawing at its roots which makes its stability uncertain.
Ultimately, Loki got free and went on to fight the Great War Ragnarok, but somehow the earthquakes have not yet stopped. Guess will have to ask Odin why, if and when I meet him next.
Maori & Polynesian Mythology:
In the Maori myth, when the kids manage to separate Rangi (sky) & Papa (earth), Rangi cried, and his tears flooded the land. To stop this, the sons decided to turn Papa face down, so Rangi and Papa could
no longer see each other’s sorrow. Rūaumoko (the god of earthquakes) was at his mother’s breast when this happened, so he was carried into the world below. He was given fire for warmth by Tama-kaka, and his movements below the earth cause earthquakes and volcanoes. In some versions, he is still in the womb of his mother Papa, and the kicks in the tummy cause the earthquake.
Meanwhile according to the Polynesian myth Ngendei is the creator, and head of all the original gods of Fiji and the supporter of the world. He is described as half snake and half rock. Every time he moves there is an earthquake.
Interesting other myths:
In East Africa a cow stood compliant on a stone, all on back of a giant fish. The earth balanced on one horn, caused her neck to ache. A bovine toss to the other horn caused the earth to quake.
People of Kamchatka (Siberia-Russia) believe that a god named Tuli drives an earth-laden sled pulled by dogs. The earth is located within the sled. BTW, the dogs are infested with fleas, and when the dogs stop to scratch, it caused an earthquake.
Meanwhile, the Kukis of Assam have an interesting legend. According to them, there is a race of people who lives inside the earth. They sometimes shake the earth to find out if anyone still lives on the surface. Thus whenever the Kukis felt a quake, they shout “Alive! Alive!” to assure the people within the earth that someone was still there.