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Batt, James R. (ed.) / Wisconsin Academy review
Volume 20, Number 4 (Fall 1974)

Book reviews,   pp. 32 ff.

Page 32

       Soaping the Cliffs
 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
   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
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
   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.

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