Friday 4 January 2013

Volcano Gods and the Golden Boy - Katherine Langrish

I’ve been reading a remarkable book by Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T Barber, ‘When they Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth’, Princeton UP, 2005. It’s about the persistence of real physical information in ancient myths, and begins with a Klamath mythical story from Oregon, all about the creation of Crater Lake. The story, recorded in 1865 – even with allowances for European translation, rewording, and bias – describes a battle between ‘the Chief of the Below World’ and ‘the Chief of the Above World’ involving fire, burning ashes and the disappearance of an entire mountain, in such a way as almost certainly to encode an eyewitness account of the eruption of the volcano geologists deduce once stood 14,000 feet high between Mount St Helens and Mount Shasta.

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'?

Picture credits: 
Crater Lake, Oregon, Wikimedia Commons,
The Mold gold cape, Wikimedia Commons


Penny Dolan said...

Such an amazingly interesting and brilliant post - especially about real facts behind myths - that I can't add any useful comments. One doesn't often come across a book that opens eyes so widely across time.

The pillar of fire - and the golden boy from the hill! Wow!

Katherine Langrish said...

Thankyou - and do read the book, Penny! It's wonderful!

Freyalyn said...

What an interesting post you've done here - the hair on the back of my neck is standing up. That golden cape gives me the willies - I've seen it myself, and spoken to people who have tried on the reproduction that's been made, and they report a frightening and horrible feeling of being trapped and constricted. I've often thought there's something to do with sacrifice tied in with it... Thank you.

Katherine Langrish said...

Now there's a thought... it does look constricting. But beautiful. Who knows...?

Kit Berry said...

Yes, it made me horripilate too! Fascinating - thank you!

Karen Maitland said...

Thank you for a fasinating post. I really want to read that book now. It's interesting that in the early Anglo-saxon and Icelandic sagas there are accounts of a nightstalker or draugr, a human creature which emerges from the earth or rock and destroys everything in its path, humans and buildings, with fire. Living in that part of the world you can see why they would create such myths to explain what they or their ancestors witnessed.

I love the idea about the golden-boy too. But I think I will have nightmares about that cloak.

Susan Price said...

Sorry Kath - I'm going to dash you with cold water.
I don’t doubt that there is much truth behind myth, and I would love to read that book – but your ghostly boy in gold reminds me of something I read. A Bronze Age grave-mound was excavated in Scotland, revealing a man buried with a horse and a silver cup. Later, in the pub, the archaelogists were thrilled to hear of a local legend: every midsummer the mound opened and a man rode down to the river on a white horse, dipped a silver cup in the water, and drank. Could this be a millennia-old memory of the man buried in the mound?
The archeologists had links with a university with a folklore department, so folklorists were drafted in to research this local legend. An exhaustive search of surrounding archives failed to produce a single mention of this legend, even in collections of legends from that area. The folklorists interviewed locals and found an odd thing. Among the younger generation, almost everyone had heard this legend. But when they questioned the older generation – the very people who, supposedly, had passed this legend on in an unbroken whisper for 5 thousand years, hardly anyone knew it.
The conclusion? It was a modern myth. Archaelogists, in the pub, had talked of what they’d found to the younger generation of locals – and an instant ancient myth sprang into being as a result, which circulated rapidly among the younger people who frequented the pubs. But the older generation, who went to the pub much less often, didn’t know it.
People forget that oral folklore hasn’t died out – it’s constantly being invented and spread, just as it always was.
I would love to think that your ‘Golden Boy’ really was a folk-memory from 5 thousand years ago, but I suspect he was a modern invention, like the man with the silver cup. But I find this rather delightful! Folklore is alive and well – and even if our memories don’t go back so long, people obviously want them to, and find a satisfaction in these new ‘ancient’ stories. I’d pass them on!

Annis said...

The story of the "instant" Scottish legend is fascinating :) The "fairy cup" as a meme appears quite often in local legends - a few of them are listed here. It would be interesting to know their provenance!

Katherine Langrish said...

Ah,I must rise to the challenge here, Sue! (Though I agree with you that folklore is continually being invented and reinvented!) However, the cape was discovered in 1833, and here's a link to an 1836 account of the discovery, from the journal of the Society of Antiquities, London. It includes a letter from the Vicar of Mold, who mentions - and back-dates - both the ghost story and the mound being known as the Hill of the Elves (Bryn yr Ellyllon) to a time 'many years ago'. Now this may or may not have been the actual case - but at least it shows the story is not a recent accretion. Anyway, the account is interesting in itself and well worth a look!

Katherine Langrish said...

Part of the 1836 letter runs:

"Connected with this subject, it is certainly a strange circumstance that an elderly woman, who had been to Mold to lead her husband home late at night from a public house should have seen, or fancied, a spectre to have crossed the road before her to the identical mound of gravel, of unusual size and clothed in a coat of gold, which shone like the sun, and that she should tell the story next morning many years ago, amongst others to the very person, Mr John Langford, whose workmen drew the treasure out of its prison house. Her having related this story is an undoubted fact. I cannot, however, learn that there was any tradition of such an interment having taken place; though possibly this old woman might have heard something in her youth, which still dwelt upon her memory, and associated with the common appellation of the Bank 'Bryn yr Ellyllon' (the Fairies or Goblins' Hill, and a very general idea that the place was haunted, presented the golden effigy to her imagination."

Well - we'll never know!

Susan Price said...

But there are scores of 'Fairy Hills', Kath. That name in itself doesn't connect to the golden cloak or a ghostly boy (though I wish it did.) And nothing about the Vicar's account makes it certain that the legend about the golden ghost wasn't invented very soon after locals became aware of the discovery. One of the great things about the Scottish excavation is that, by chance, the birth of a local legend was recorded.
Ronald Hutton did some interesting research about the Padstow Hobby-Hoss. When he asked locals about it, the younger people, those under about thirty, told him that it was a survival of an ancient fertility rite, connected to ancient gods. When he asked the older generation, they knew nothing of this, scoffed at the idea and - I think - remembered the custom being revived in the 20s or 30s. The older people saw it as being a local custom, rather like pasties. It's in his book about English customs.
I was shattered to learn that the Long Man dates to about 1642 and is probably a political lampoon. I wish I didn't know that.

Susan Price said...

I was once also told, to my face, by a modern Pagan that his Welsh family had always been Pagan. What, for more than 2000 years? Resisting all temptation of better jobs and more safety if they became Christian - remaining Pagan through all the upheavals of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolution? He solemnly assured me that this was so.
Yeah, okay, I said.
Again, my romantic side would love it to be true - but I am cursed with this carping rationality that just won't have it.

Jane Borodale said...

Being Christmas it's the prime time for telling stories about the dead... your golden cape reminded me somehow of Dylan Thomas's Child's Christmas in Wales, Kath:

'...Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse...etc.'

Thank you very much, really loved this post.

Katherine Langrish said...

I throw my hands up, Sue. You are more than probably right. And of course, I don't believe for one moment the old woman ACTUALLY saw a ghost, golden-clad or not. I'm a fair old sceptic myself, but for me at least, in this particular tale, there's just about enough room for the possibility of some kind of shadowy folk memory of the golden cape, and - well, wouldn't it be nice if it were so? And I do agree with you about knowing the true tale of the Long Man. Shattering! At least the Uffington Horse is truly and proudly ancient.

Jane, that's a lovely reminder of one of my favourite Christmas books!

Leslie Wilson said...

I find this post, and the discussion, really interesting and thought- provoking. It demonstrates that mythopoeia - is that the correct word? is a truly complex area!

Leslie Wilson said...

I find this post, and the discussion, really interesting and thought- provoking. It demonstrates that mythopoeia - is that the correct word? is a truly complex area!