The volcanic landscapes in the disaster mythology of the ancient Mediterranean world 

by Amanda Laoupi

Biography of Amanda Laoupi

In the history of humankind, the mythological language and symbolism have
been functioning based both on survival instincts and communication skills. So, the
study of the historic evolution of hazards has shown that the cultural patterns and networks
are interdependent. Moreover, the characteristics, distribution, and complexity of
Earth's cultural mosaics all involve the parameter of disaster in their functional
processes. Apart from influencing totally the course of human history (e.g. acute
climatic episodes, epidemics), ‘fire' disasters had also influenced the division and
control of Earth's surface.

The volcanic landscapes, their formation, evolution and transformation, have
played a pivotal role in disaster dynamics, impacting on various patterns and
structures of past human civilizations. The Toba eruption, so far away from the
Mediterranean basin, being the largest eruption of the last few hundred thousand
years, caused a severe ‘bottleneck' in human population, leaving less than 10.000
individuals for a period of up to 20.000 years, but it was followed by a population
explosion and possibly migrations of modern humans (Homo Sapiens sapiens). The
genetic studies pointed out this putative marked reduction in the population of our
human ancestors, confirming the subconscious nucleus of tremendous fear and
reverence toward the volcanic powers, experienced by ancient populations. Later on,
mighty empires collapsed and vanished or shocked irreversibly, in the aftermath of
colossal explosions (i.e. Cycladic & Minoan due to Santorini's eruption in ca 1628
B.C.). Wide-ranging case studies have shown that those natural factors triggered the
demise of well organized social systems when their normal coping mechanism failed.
The chaotic violent forces of the mechanisms of volcanoes, with their primordial
impetus (burning heat, the phenomenon of ‘nuclear winter', darkness, catastrophic
accompanying phenomena like earthquakes or landslides and tsunami) gave birth to
deities, creatures and heroes who formed famous mythological cycles, narrations and
traditions (e.g. the Neolithic Goddess at Catal Hűyűk, Hephaistos/Vulcan, the
Atlantis' legend, the Titanomachy/Gigantomachy, the realm of Hades and the descent
into the Underworld, the ‘volcano' of the Biblical Exodus).

On the other hand, the positive response to hazardous volcanic phenomena
may vary considerably. During the aftermath of such catastrophes or environmental
changes, technological innovations are illustrated (e.g. sea-faring for the obsidian
trade, metallurgy), new lands discovered (e.g. fleeing through waterways, prehistoric
human migrations), new socio-cultural patterns (cooperation or conflict), new
subsistence strategies and more efficient techniques were adopted. In essence, crises
are wont to stimulate rather than devastate the cultural traits of a society. The emplacement
of nutrient-rich volcanic tephras and alluvial soils counterbalanced the spread of
malaria in marshy areas, the repeated repair attempts after the experience of severe
effects counterbalanced the dislocation of city's activities caused by volcanic

By detecting this mythological substratum in the volcanic landscapes,
unfamiliar, alien or hostile, of circum-Mediterranean areas (Anatolian plateau,
Ethiopian & Sub-Saharan lands, Greek Aegean Islands, Italian peninsula and adjacent
islands, Massif Central in France and SW Atlantic Europe), we try to focus on these
landscapes as perception spaces (imagined, sacred, educational/spiritual,
therapeutic). In general, we can group these disaster ‘cycles' into two major
categories of archetypal symbolism: a) the archetypal symbolism of chaos and
disaster (Toba eruption, Atlantis myth: Canary Islands, Thera & volcanic fields of sub-
Saharan Africa, the ten plagues of Egypt & the volcano of Exodus, Titanomachy &
Gigantomachy: Campi Flegrei, Etna, Vesuvius, Aeolian Islands & Nisyros), and b)
the archetypal symbolism of creation, transformation and move (the volcanism of
Massif Central and the Palaeolithic cultures of Europe, the Earth Goddess of the
Anatolian plateau, the Mesolithic/Neolithic trade of obsidian in the Aegean Sea, the
pelasgic cycle of Hephaestus: Lemnos – Sousaki – Methana, the Descend into
Underworld: a journey into our subconscious).
(.../...) The full paper in pdf
Biography of Amanda Laoupi
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