Godpyre: The Cosmology of North African Paleovolcanism (cont.)
By R. Avry Wilson @2005-2006
Figure 3. Mapping of concentrated volcanic fields in northern Africa. All 15 depicted here have experienced early Holocene-to-modern Era volcanic activity.
Figure 3 Legend: 1. Algeria VF I 2. Algeria VF II 3. Algeria VF III 4. Niger VF 5. Libya VF I 6. Libya VF II 7. Libya VF III North 8. Libya VF III South 9. Libya VF IV North 10. Libya VF IV South 11. Chad VF West 12. Chad VF East 13. Sudan VF I (‘Marra’) 14. Sudan VF II (‘Meidob’) 15. Sudan VF III (‘Bayuda’).
Sudan VF III: Bayuda and more
Seen along the southeastern arc of desert expansion are at least two notable VFs – Marra and Meidob – while just off this arc and to the east we find the Bayuda VF nestled within a curve of the Nile River (Figure 3: items 13, 14 and 15 respectively). The time frame of activity of these fields and their location along natural hominid migration routes suggest very strongly their volcanic eruptions were undoubtedly witnessed. Considering a long history of lore reaching back many more thousands of years and that grouped volcanism would have an equal or greater affect to the witnessing of a single sequestered eruption (e.g. Krakatau, Kilimanjaro, etc.) it is difficult to think such real-world experience would not have had an impact on the people lucky (or not so lucky) enough to be there.
Thus, the Bayuda VF’s prominent position next to the Nile gives us ample reason to investigate the later extant cosmological concepts of the ancient Egyptians who had definitive roots at this comparatively southern Nile location. Indeed, this bend in the Nile has an extensive history in the post-Unification epoch. Two immediate examples are: [a] the reverence for Gebel Barkal whose prominent stone ‘spike’ reminded the locals of the cobra symbol associated with a version of their sun god, and [b] the royal focal point of Meroe, the latter of which held control of Egypt in late antiquity. In fact, a few miles downriver from Meroe and actually buttressed against the western flanks of the Nile is the 15 mile-wide aa deposit (a specific type of volcanic flow/deposit; first given the name in Hawaii) of Umm Massart. The late geologic history of this volcano was most certainly not missed during the 3000-year existence of the Egyptian kingdom and might well – in part – explain the choice of the late pharaonic retreat to the area. The idea would be that a connection between the volcano and cosmology was not lost on them over the centuries, making it a sort of pilgrimage to an old stomping ground of the gods. With a practically ‘bubbling’ earth at Bayuda as a hub for the small region, the notion of volcanism being found in Egyptian myth takes little imagination, if any.
Figure 4. Image mosaic of the Chad (West), Meidob and Bayuda volcanic fields. For all intents and purposes, the areas where the earth practically ‘bubbled’ with volcanic activity in recent millennia.
Affecting the psyche
In Myth and Text
In its most general form the Egyptian creation myth has an emerging mound as its central feature. Rising from the primeval waters is the mound which would lead to all life and matter of environment on earth. That this is different from a mound rising from the ground is explained by way of myth creation: When first contemplating where all solid ground came from, it would have been assumed there was no ground in the beginning, thus implying water must have come before. Observing a volcano shows ‘new’ ground coming from below the surface, so with the simple back-stepping of ground emergence one can only conclude water is what the first mound emerged from. We note here that the first god is Geb, which in his capacity is the personification of earth. Further to this, a volcanic eruption releases material, be it clouds of ash or lava flows, and since these can generally translate into air and liquid (i.e. moisture) it is no surprise the next two gods to emerge from the rising mound (‘Geb’) are Shu and Tefnut, the gods of air and moisture, respectively. Visualizing a volcano in action blends quite well into the creation myth. Even a brief expose of a destruction myth has the people receiving their judgment (i.e. ‘death’) after being brought to a mountain [Budge: 392].
In the Pyramid Texts we find the king ascending to the sky in what appears to be an unusual way. Normally consistent throughout these archaic texts is that the king ascends by means of the air, an ethereal ladder, a ‘sun’ barque and so on. Such things are very much metaphysical, and were manifest due to a need to fulfill the unknowns of nature prevalent at the time of writing. In the instance of Utterance 509, however, “ … the sky thunders, the earth quakes, Geb quivers, the two domains of the god roar …” [Faulkner: 1998, 184]. With this as a mode of ascension the king eventually gets to his destination – the sky. What makes this a clear description of a volcano is that earthquakes (common enough in northeast Africa) aren’t synonymous with a thundering sky. However, these two quaking entities do appear together during a volcanic eruption (thunder and lightning are born out of the kilometer-high smoke plume, which essentially takes on the role of a thunder cloud). The witness reports of Pliny the Younger concerning Vesuvius, recent modern accounts and the basic science of volcanology today show this to be true. Utterance 510 [Faulkner: 1998, 186] may well be describing a volcanic plume in the form of the arms of a god: “ … while Geb, with one arm to the sky and the other to the earth, announces me to Re [the sun god] … “. Later in the same Utterance Geb is the form of the king, which in turn appears to describe a volcano: “ … The Gods come to me bowing, the spirits serve me because of my power; they have broken their staffs and smashed their weapons because I am the great one [a comparison of power; the king’s mode in ‘volcano’ form is much greater than any weapon], the son of the great one, whom Nut bore. My strength is the strength of Seth [archaic god of chaos and destruction] and Nubet [female compliment to the masculine deity of creation; Wilkinson: 156] … I am the flowing fluid, I have issued from the creation waters; I am a snake, multitudinous of coils; I am this head-band of red colour … ”, the last parts very reminiscent of lava flows. This theme continues in Utterance 511, and armed with the view of volcanism we can – perhaps – unravel other heretofore ‘confusing’ textual excerpts (NB: Faulkner surprisingly doesn’t see nor refer to the idea of volcanism even though the above examples are explicit). This trend continues in the later Coffin texts, where in Spell 336 we read, “ … Fifty cubits along its side are fire, the tip of its flame crosses the land from the sky and the gods have said of it: ‘It means blackness(?)’ …”. At this point Faulkner puts a question mark beside ‘blackness’, and explains in his footnote the word seems to be a corruption of ‘charcoal’ or ‘soot’ [Faulkner: 2004, 269-271]. The remaining context of the Spell 336 and others in the Coffin Texts (e.g.: Spell 316) reveal stunning imagery that can only be a volcano. Interestingly, the only mention of a ‘Lake of Fire’ in the Coffin Texts occurs in Spells 335 and 336. However, allusions to it and other volcanic attributes can be found throughout.