Batt, James R. (ed.) / Wisconsin Academy review
Volume 20, Number 4 (Fall 1974)
Book reviews, pp. 32 ff.
BOOK REVIEWS Soaping the Cliffs LEGENDS OF THE EARTH: THEIR GEOLOGIC ORIGINS by Dorothy B. Vitaliano; Indiana University Pr e s s, Bloomington, Indiana, 1973. 305 pp. $12.50. Take a professional geologist who has had a life-long interest in mythology, who knows several languages, who works with the Translation Center of the U. S. Geological Survey, and who has investigated many sites that are archeologically important and rich in legend, and you have the well-qualified writer of this book- Dorothy B. Vitaliano. She belongs to the much-appre- ciated minority of scientists who share their knowledge and dis- coveries with the general public. As she states in her preface: " I firmly believe it is our obligation as scientists to explain our subjects in terms the nonscientist can un- derstand. If we do not, who will?" And so this book is not only edu- cational; it is enjoyable to read. That is, if you like geology and mythology and history-mostly ancient. Here these are mixed in the exploratory and explanatory science the author calls "geomy- thology." It is the study of the actual geologic origins of natural phenomena that have been ex- plained in terms of myth or folklore (or sometimes even "fakelore"). Stories have been passed on, through early writings or by word of mouth, relating how certain striking landforms or other geo- logic features came to be-moun- tains, hills, boulders, lakes, rivers, c a n y o n s-or describing circum- stances relating to geologic catas- t r o p h e s, especially earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and floods. The author tells these stories, interprets them, and gives their 32 derivation insofar as it is known. They fall into two main categories: etiological and euhemeristic. The etiological ones are "ex- planatory myths," stories that are obviously made up out of thin air to account for geologic features or events. A short example: Accord- ing to a North Frisian legend, the White Cliffs of Dover are white because of what happened when a giant's ship tried to pass through the narrow English Channel. It nearly became stuck, and to help it squeeze through the crew soaped its sides heavily. So much of the soap scraped onto the cliffs that they remained white forever, and waves dashing against them are usually foamy. The real reason for the cliffs' whiteness, of course, is that they are chalk. There are three chapters of such made-up tales that purport to tell what caused certain landforms and certain phenomena associated with earthquakes and volcanoes. Ms. Vitaliano's repertory contains these geologically inspired tales from, it seems, all parts of the world-from Iceland to New Zea- land, Scotland to Hawaii, the Cas- cades to the Dead Sea, the Rhine to the Congo. In each case, she first relates the explanatory story and then gives the true account of how the particular feature was formed or of what really occurred. She considers these purely invent- ed stories less interesting than the second category, the euhemeristic ones; and the reader will agree. Euhemerus was a Sicilian phi- losopher of about 300 B.C. who theorized that the gods of mythol- ogy were actually deified mortals. Euhemeristic myths and legends are those that are interpreted to be traditional accounts of historical persons and events. Those events on which authentic legends are based must have been catastrophic in order to give rise to narratives as dramatic and long-enduring as many of these are. Interpreting the perhaps-true stories, and learning what p r o m p t e d them, requires real detective work. Scientific tech- niques are used to locate the key events in place and time, and to search for confirming geological and archeological evidence. In the chapter "The Deluge" the author recounts and analyzes var- ious legends of the Flood that have come from many parts of the world, and tells why she believes there was not one world-wide flood but rather a number of regional ones. Her greatest interest seems to lie in the book's concluding section which deals with the tremendous eruption of the volcano Santorin in the southern Aegean Sea. She examines the theories that this erupt io n and its repercussions may have been responsible for the decline of the Minoan civilization of nearby Crete, the plagues of Egypt, and various phenomena ,described in myths of the Medi- terranean area. Also considered is the possibility that this island- destroying eruption may have been the source of the legend of the vanished island of Atlantis. The author plainly debunks some myths, and presents pros and cons in scientific fashion while letting her own beliefs show through. She intimately knows her history and characters. Gods, god- desses, and classic figures of the ancient world enter frequently in the scenes she portrays. Included are brief discussions of the direc- tion-finding sunstone used by the Vikings before the invention of the magnetic compass; the Piltdown and B e r i n g e r hoaxes; and Si- beria's frozen Ice Age mammoths. There are good maps, diagrams and photos, a long list of refer- ences, and an index. The author deserved a better job of editing than her book received. - Gwen Schultz, Madison.
Copyright 1974 by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.| For information on re-use, see http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/Copyright