Who doesn’t love a good story? When the world is in a bit of a state, it’s good to retreat to the comforting fiction of books, movies, and video games. It’s worth remembering, though, that plenty of fantastical fiction has been inspired by real-life events, both small and gargantuan.
Better yet, some myths and legends have turned out to be true, and in many cases, the reality has outmatched the stories. Last year, we delved into six ancient tales that were based on real events – so, for 2017, here are six more epics that science has found to have actually taken place.
Crater Lake and the Battle of the Gods
The Native American Klamath tribe believed that Crater Lake in Oregon was once a tall mountain named Mazama. Back then, it was inhabited by Llao, their deity of the underworld.
Engaging in an epic battle with Skell the sky god, fire and brimstone flew across the skies between Mazama and the nearby Mount Shasta. Llao lost the fight, and went back to the underworld. Skell collapsed the mountain on top of him and imprisoned him forever, before topping off this prison with a beautiful blue lake.
This myth is actually describing a 7,700-year-old volcanic eruption, one which geologists know was over 40 times the power of the famous May 1980 cataclysm at Mount St. Helens. A huge reservoir of magma ruptured the crust, blew a hole in the landscape, and left a massive crater to be filled in with rainwater.
Sri Lanka and the Ape-Men Army
The Ramayana, an Indian Sanskrit epic, features a classic ancient kidnap plot. Sita, the wife of the god Rama, is stolen and taken to Demon Kingdom on the island of Lanka. An army of ape-like men, along with his brother Lakshman, built a floating bridge (Rama’s Bridge) between India and Lanka, from which they crossed over and successfully vanquished Ravana, the demon king.
Although this elaborate tale is full of fanciful detail, the bridge itself actually exists. Aerial surveys clearly show a 48-kilometer-long (30-mile-long) submerged stretch of limestone shoals and sand stretching between the two landmasses.
This bridge – which is only a few meters below the water’s surface in some parts – is likely the inspiration for the ancient Hindu legend. It was reportedly above the water until a 15th-century cyclone brought a huge storm surge into the channel and sunk it beneath the waves.
The Guest Star
Around the year 1006, astronomers across the world spotted what they described as a “guest star” in the sky. Persian scholar Ibn Sina, however, gave a far more detailed account of the events than most others.
In the Kitab al-Shifa (the Book of Healing), he explained how the transient object, which could be seen in the sky for months, kept changing color. He added that it threw out sparks before finally fading away.
For a long time, the object was suspected of being a comet, but we now know that Sina was looking at a supernova, one that took place 7,200 years ago and whose visible light only reached Earth at the turn of the first millennium. Although its visible wavelengths have since dissipated from view, the high-energy remnants of SN 1006 can still be seen thanks to NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.
The color change in this case may refer to the merger of two white dwarfs, which would create a particularly energetic supernova bursting with color. This is exactly what Sina described, which means that not only is this legend true, but he provided modern astronomers with detail that may otherwise have been lost.
One of the most well-known myths in human history, and first described by Greek philosopher Plato, tells a tale of a civilization at its peak sinking beneath the waves, lost for all eternity. It’s heavily debated, but a number of archaeologists think that it could have been based on the collapse of the Minoan empire.
Around 3,650 years ago, a powerful volcanic eruption rocked Santorini, then referred to as Thera. The vast magma chamber was emptied so catastrophically quickly that the core of the island collapsed, sending a tsunami across to Crete and flooding much of Thera with the inflowing Aegean Sea. Suffice to say, the Minoan civilization sunk beneath the waves and was never heard from again.
Thunderbird and the Whale
Another Native American tale speaks of a Thunderbird, a benevolent supernatural being, swooping down into the sea and seizing a murderous whale, one that was depriving the Quileute tribe of resources.
During this struggle, powerful waves were generated, and many people on the land were killed in the chaos. Eventually, the Thunderbird managed to lift the whale out of the sea before dropping it onto the land with an almighty thud.
Incredibly, back in the 1980s, geologists uncovered evidence that a powerful earthquake occurred in the Pacific Northwest in 1700, one which dislodged enough of the ocean in order to cause a tsunami. Not only did this hit the American coast where the tribe would have lived, but it was so powerful that it managed to reach Japan.
Additionally, Aiornis, a prehistoric giant bird that early North American settlers would have seen, may have been the inspiration for the Thunderbird. With a wingspan of up to 5 meters (16 feet), it used to swoop down on whale carcasses to feast. Although it’s unlikely it would have lifted one onto land.
The Great Flood
No, of course the boat full of animals of every kind wasn’t real. However, as is often the case with apocryphal texts, the epic biblical flood may have at least been based on an earlier tale. In this case, the Epic of Gilgamesh comes to mind.
In this Mesopotamian saga dating back to the 7th century BCE, many gods conspired to create a great flood and destroy the world. One of the gods, Ea, told a man named Utu-napishtim to make a boat to save himself and his family, along with a whole host of animals. The story, part of the first great work of literature in human history, unfolds in pretty much the same way as the biblical equivalent – so is there any evidence that the floods themselves happened?
Geological records show that the Black Sea, north of Turkey, was starved of its glacier meltwater source towards the end of the last glacial maximum, 11,500 years ago. They melted into the North Sea instead, and the Black Sea’s water began to dry up. Around the same time, the Mediterranean Basin was refilling with seawater from the Atlantic Ocean. The two were separated by dry land.
Eventually, the Mediterranean Sea overflowed into the Black Sea. It forced the sediment barrier between the two to open in a fairly dramatic manner, and anyone nearby at the time would have seen a waterfall 200 times the volume of the Niagara Falls filling the basin up so fast that in a single day, an area the same size of Manhattan would have been completely covered twice over.
Could this be the inspiration for these literary floods? Perhaps, but if you’re looking for a direct link between a legendary cascade and its real-life geological event, look to the origins of the Chinese state.
A thrilling study recently confirmed that the worst flood of the last 10 millennia took place along the Yellow River at the exact date referenced in ancient texts. Not only that, but archaeological evidence uncovered at the source also hints that the mythical first line of monarchs in China – the Xia dynasty – may have really existed.
Myths are often beautiful, breathtaking narratives. Science, though, is something far more empowering. It doesn’t just tell stories that are real – it also reveals that fairy tales, just sometimes, aren’t tales at all. They’re true.
The Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Head over to southern France, and you may find yourself near the Chauvet-Pont D’Arc cave, one that was once inhabited by our ancestors 37,000 years ago. At this point in time, humanity had yet to engender any sort of advanced civilization – we were largely nomadic, and our cousins, the Neanderthals, had just died out.
This cave wall is an archaeological and anthropological treasure trove. Its walls are adorned with pigmented artwork depicting a plethora of wildlife. From giant deer and bears to lions and even wooly rhinoceroses, these animals are surrounded by images of people going about their vagabond lives. Thanks to this, this site is sometimes referred to as the cave of forgotten dreams.
In 1994, a rather unusual mural was found on one of the cavernous walls, one that was partially overlapping a few of those giant deer. It’s hard to describe, but it looks a lot like a spray of something rising up into the sky. For several decades, most thought this was an abstract image, but this was long thought to be unusual – the imagery in the cave mostly depicted literal things.
A team of researchers stumbled on a marvelous thought. What if it depicted a volcanic eruption? As it so happens, the remnants of a powerful eruption just 35 kilometers (about 22 miles) down the road were found in the Bas-Vivarais volcanic field.
Dating techniques revealed it to have taken place around the time these cave drawings were made – and it would have been so explosive that the people living back then would have certainly been inspired to etch it into stone for all to remember.
The Disappearance of Teonimanu
Solomon Islanders tell the tale of Roraimenu, a man whose wife decided to elope with a man on the island of Teonimanu. Clearly vexed, he got ahold of a curse and traveled to the island with four wave murals adorning his canoe.
When he got there, he planted two taro plants and kept one for himself. According to the curse rules, once his own plant began to sprout, a disaster would strike the island. Indeed it did: Watching from a mountaintop, he saw a series of waves smash into the island, causing it to sink beneath the waves.
Teonimanu was indeed a real place that disappeared, although it’s not entirely clear when. Waves alone can’t wash away small but tall volcanic islands, but an undersea tremor can. As it so happens, the island was always balanced on the edge of an unstable, underwater slope. A sizable earthquake shook the region, which collapsed this weak foundation and caused the island to collapse beneath the waves.
This island-sized landslide would have forced a lot of water out of the way as it took place, which would have generated a massive series of megatsunamis. So although those vengeful waves did take place, they were the result of the event, not the cause of it.
Vampirism in the Korean Sky
Philosophical texts spoke of an explosion of light in the skies over Korea back on March 11, 1437.
At the time, the peninsula wasn’t divided into two nations, but it was united under the rule of the Joseon Dynasty. It was certainly an advanced imperial state, one in which language, writing, currency, and law were quite well developed. Science, too, had made a debut – particularly in the form of astronomy.
Back on that night in 1437 some of its star-gazers spotted a flash above their heads, and it appeared to last for two whole weeks before disappearing. At the time, some thought it was a divine event; the more grounded suspected it was the birth of a new star.
Until 2017, no one was any the wiser – until a team of researchers solved the mystery. Intrigued by the descriptions of this perhaps legendary event, the team tracked the remnants of the explosion to the Constellation of Scorpius. The glowing embers of the long-gone blast, along with some old photographic plates, revealed that it wasn’t a newborn star, but a nova.
A nova is the result of a white dwarf – the dead core of an ancient star – and a companion star dancing destructively around each other. The dense dwarf steals hydrogen gas from its partner until it reaches a critical mass, wherein it collapses under the influence of gravity and triggers an unstoppable fusion reaction.
This culminates in a massive blast, one which can clearly be seen as far as Earth. So it wasn’t a birth that was witnessed all those centuries ago – it was an act of stellar vampirism gone awry.
The Fires of Queensland
Aboriginal people have a tradition of passing down stories orally, meaning that they are usually never written down. They are often extremely vivid and describe events that were both cataclysmic and colorful in equal measure.
One such story has been passed down through 230 generations of Gugu Badhun Aboriginal people. It’s a spectacular 7,000-year-old story, one that predates most of the world’s great civilizations.
A tape recording made in the 1970s documented an elder talking of a huge explosion shaking the land, followed by the reveal of a massive crater. An acrid dust swept through the skies, and if people walked into the haze, they were never seen again. The air was boiling, and all along the rivers and the coast, everything was ablaze.
A curious research team serendipitously found that Kinrara, a now-extinct but once violent volcano in northeastern Australia, erupted at the time this story was first told. This particular blast would have smothered the region in hot ash, as well as generating huge lava flows that would have burned the very earth in which the Aboriginal ancestors walked.
Amazingly, the eyewitness account has survived for millennia to this very day.
The Mischief-Making Catfish of Doom
Although the Chinese-imported dragon figure used to be seen as the primary antagonist in Japanese folklore, during the 18th Century it was gradually decided that a giant catfish known as Namazu was the real culprit. Known as a yo-kai, a creature that brings about misfortune, it was said that the wiggling of his tail caused catastrophic earthquakes.
Sometimes the god Kashima was able to immobilize him, but sometimes when he wasn’t looking, that catfish managed to do some serious wiggling. Back in 1855, Edo (now Tokyo) was hit by a shallow 7.0M quake, whose record-breaking shaking intensity destroyed much of the city and killed up to 10,000 people – and it was thought that Namazu’s deadly jiggle was responsible.
In reality, this was caused by the sudden rupture along the complex juncture of the Eurasian and Philippine Sea Plates. This type of earthquake will happen again someday, but we know now that it’s the forces of nature at work, not the whim of an aquatic beastie.
The Tears of Pele
Pele is the Hawaiian goddess of volcanic fire, and it’s said that she first arrived on the island of Hawai’i to flee from her mercurial older sister. She concealed herself in hideaways on each and every island until she buried herself in a pit at Kilauea.
That’s why, legends say, Kilauea is Hawaii’s active volcanic center – at least on land – today. It’s a visually resplendent story, but in reality, the volcanism is caused by a superheated, upwelling mantle plume that’s triggering a lot of crustal melting just beneath Kilauea.
It’s also said that the tears and hair of Pele can be found scattered around the volcano, but the real story here is one of physics.
When lava cools incredibly rapidly, particularly when its quenched in water or a small amount of it flies through the air, it turns into volcanic glass. When they get stretched through motion and then cool, they sometimes form tear-shaped droplets; on other occasions, they are stretched thin to form vitreous hairs.
Hawaii’s a volcanic archipelago known for fire fountaining – huge streams of lava shooting up from an active vent. It’s a good place to find both of these phenomena, and indubitably a great place to weave a beautiful story of gods and sibling rivalry.
These types of stories all fit under a single academic umbrella: geomythology. Back in 2007, the world’s first collection of fantastical-sounding folklore relating to earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions was published. Scientists may be the purveyors of facts, but trust us: No one’s immune to a good, old-fashioned legend.