Author of the Month

Godpyre: The Cosmology of North African Paleovolcanism (cont.)
By R. Avry Wilson @2005-2006

When an eruption occurs, it is hard to miss. In most cases, increased earthquake activity usually precedes an eruption, but sometimes there is just no telling, as in the case of a Mexican farmer named Dionisio Pulido. Out tilling his cornfield one day in 1943, a sudden hissing accompanied by clouds of sulfuric smoke sprang out of a small depression. After one day there was a cinder cone of ash nearly 10m high in his field. After a week it had reached 170m, and in a year – 370m. When the newly named ‘Paricutin’ finally went to sleep nine years later its elevation had reached 2,272m. All from nothing and without warning of any kind. On the opposite side of the scale, volcanoes like Vesuvius in Italy gave fair but unheeded warning in the days and weeks leading up to its terrestrial wrath, eventually raining down instant havoc and devastation onto the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79AD. These different types of eruptions are categorized (in one way) by an interpretation of the amount of tephra ejected, with each successive eruption being 10 times the lesser. The scale is called the Volcanic Explosivity Index or ‘VEI’. Table 1 gives some examples for comparison.

Table 1. Volcanic Explosivity Index examples
VEI Tephra Volume (km3) Volcano
0 Effusive Mauna Loa (Hawaii)
1 > 0.0001 Poas (Costa Rica)
2 > 0.001 Ruapehu (New Zealand)
3 > 0.01 Nevado del Ruiz (Columbia)
4 > 0.1 Pelee (West Indies)
5 > 1 Vesuvius (Italy)
6 > 10 Krakatau (Indonesia)
7 > 100 Tambora (Indonesia)
8 > 1000 Yellowstone (USA)

Historic Memories

If ancient Egypt is to be investigated for signs of volcanic lore and reverence, it certainly helps to look at other known volcanoes or regions in order to develop a sense of how the relative myths were formed. It also helps later to identify iconography and wording in the proper context when examining the ancient Egyptian landscape.

Mauna Loa – Hawaii

“The awesome results of volcanic eruptions, the Hawaiians believed, were the work of a fearsome deity named Pele, the goddess of fire … When annoyed, she would stamp her foot, and the earth would shake. When enraged, she might hurl fiery boulders (volcanic bombs) at offending mortals … sometimes [her] lava would flow down to the Sea and create new land. Pele’s power was equaled only by that of her sister Namaka o Kahai, the goddess of the sea, who could quench Pele’s fires and erode the land created by her cooled and hardened lava … [Pele’s] mother was Haumea, who personified the earth. Pele emerged from Haumea as molten lava. Her father was Ku-waha-ilo, the ‘man-eater’ who represented the destructive forces of nature. Pele and her sister were born on a mythical island somewhere in the South Pacific. Just as fire and water are incompatible, the sisters were always in conflict. To escape this sibling rivalry, Pele sailed away from their homeland in a great canoe provided by her brother Ka-moho-alii, the shark god. Namaka went off to a high peak on another island, where she could command all the seas. Pele had a magic digging tool called Paoa. Wherever she landed, she struck Paoa into the earth and opened a volcanic crater where she could live. At first these small volcanoes were near the seashore, on the flanks of mountains rather than at their tops, and Pele’s sister the sea goddess inevitably sent waves that doused the fires. In the Hawaiian islands, many of them were formed by the explosive interaction of magma and seawater that seeped through fractures.” – [De Boer and Sanders: 22, 32]

Vesuvius and the Phlegraean Fields of Italy

Centered on the eastern flank of the Bay of Naples’ arc-line is the world famous Mount Vesuvius, while on the northeastern end of the arc lies a broad inland field of vastly ancient (some, not so ancient) volcanic cones – aptly named the Phlegraean Fields. (Etymologically speaking, the term ‘flagrant’ means ‘to burn’.) As for Mount Vesuvius the famed poet and author Virgil (70-19BCE) decidedly claimed that after the wars between the gods and giants (a literary appropriation of numerous earthquakes in and around the Bay of Naples, and is seen reflected in the Greek war of Gods v. Titans) one of them was imprisoned under Vesuvius, his anger and fury of incarceration thereafter echoing through the mountain’s outer walls.

Turning to the Phlegraean area 20 kilometers to the northwest, these fields contain at least two very notable references: the first is a cone now filled with water (Lake Averno), which is mentioned in Virgil’s Aeneid as being the entrance to the Roman underworld, while the second reference is to La Solfatara which the Romans saw par excellence as the forge of Vulcan. It is quite clear where the term ‘volcano’ comes from. These fields of fire even inspired the great work of Dante Alighieri – his Inferno – wherein humanity and its souls are introduced to the nine levels of hell.

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