The catastrophic explosion of its magma chamber pulverised the entire mountain and formed the giant crater which now forms Crater Lake. And here’s the thing: the eruption has been ice-dated (from ash layers) to nearly 7,700 years ago. So the Klamath explanation of this event has been handed down for several millennia.
According to the Barbers, this isn’t even unusual. Hawaiian mythical accounts of battles between various of their chiefs and the volcano goddess Pele can be closely correlated to radiocarbon dates for different lava flows. I was absolutely fascinated by their chapter on the massive eruption of Thera in the Mediterranean, in around 1625 BC (four times more powerful than that of Krakatoa): check out this passage from Hesiod’s poem ‘The Birth of the Gods’, about the battle between the gods and the Titans:
…wide heaven groaned, shaking, and great Olympus shook… and heavy quaking reached gloomy Tartarus… And the cry of both sides reached the starry sky as they bellowed and came together with a great battle shout. Nor did Zeus hold back his might, but now indeed…from Olympus he came, hurling lightning continually, and the bolts flew thickly amid thunder and flashing from his powerful hand…and all around the great boundless woods crackled with fire. …The hot blast surrounded the earthborn Titans, and a boundless flame reached to the bright upper air… and it seemed, facing it, as if Earth and wide Heaven above collided, for so huge a boom would roll forth, as if Earth were being hurled up while Sky were falling down from above…
Hesiod was writing about 700 BC, so nine hundred years after the eruption – but most poetry had been oral up to his time, and it’s highly likely his account dates back much, much further.
After all, wouldn’t it be odd if such a cataclysmic eruption hadn’t been talked and wondered and sung about by the peoples ringing the Middle Sea, for centuries and centuries? The Barbers point also to the Exodus account in the Bible, in which Moses leads his people out of Egypt, guided by a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. ‘For people moving north down the Nile valley to where the Delta opens out, an eruption pillar from Thera would indeed be ahead of them.’ (I've checked this on Google maps, and Thera - modern Santorini - is indeed pretty much in line with the Nile valley and/or the Red Sea, on a north-north-west alignment.) The Barbers go on to caution: ‘whether the Exodus… actually occurred in 1625 BC is another matter. Time often gets foreshortened in the telling of myths… thus Exodus as we have it may contain details from several different time periods.’
In recent years, we've all grown accustomed to the psychological exploration of myths, the discovery (or re-discovery) of their emotional relevance, but it’s refreshing to be reminded that some myths may have sprung from simple matters of fact. Mythologizing is all part of the long struggle of humanity to make sense of the world. A natural calamity requires an explanation, which nowadays is promptly delivered by science, via experts appearing on our television screens, details about plate tectonics and so on. Interesting and accurate as these explanations are, I don't know how much comfort they provide. But without any scientific knowledge of the physical causes, the best way to make sense of the event – to bring it to some kind of proportion – is to inject it with emotion, and by analogy with human passions suppose it to be caused by the anger of gods or of God. And this is consolatory, because understandable. Even today, when the causes of natural disasters are understood by most people, we still struggle to ‘make sense’ of the unbearable loss of innocent lives.
'... human kind
Cannot bear very much reality'.
I recommend the Barbers' book, which is wise and fascinating and wonderful. And here’s an epilogue, not part of the book at all. In the British Museum is an utterly gorgeous golden cape. It dates to somewhere between 1900 – 1600 BC, and was found by workmen in Mold, Wales, in 1833. (They threw away the bones it clothed, tore it to pieces and shared it out, and it had to be painstakingly reconstructed, but that’s another story.) I’ve seen it myself and the gold is as bright and yellow as summer buttercups.
It was one of the 100 objects in BBC Radio 4’s ‘History of the World In 100 Objects’, so you may have heard about it there. The gold is so fragile that it could only have been used ceremoniously: and it’s too small for a man, so must have belonged either to a woman, or a youth. Maybe a teenage king or priest was buried in it.
But the mound those workmen were digging into was in a field called Bryn-yr-Ellyllon, which means ‘the Hill of the Fairies’: and the legend of the hill was that it was haunted by a ghostly boy, all clad in gold. Just think of that for a moment...
Isn't it possible that the sight of a young man being laid to rest in his shimmering golden cape so impressed and touched the onlookers, that for nearly four thousand years, if a child said, ‘Mother, who’s buried in that hill?’ the answer was: ‘A boy all dressed in gold'?
Crater Lake, Oregon, Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Zainubrazvi
The Mold gold cape, Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:AndreasPraefcke