February 22, 2018

When Geography is Mythology by William Gilmer

How did that get there?
It’s an honest enough question, considering we live on a world where pieces of the ground shoot
miles into the sky, chasms form beneath our feet, and land appears in the middle of the ocean for no apparent reason. When faced with the breathtaking splendors of the world, what imagination wouldn't run wild with stories of giants and demi-gods? Physical geography is the starting place for some of the most interesting myths on the planet. These are some of my favorites, they mix cultural tradition with sheer fantasy to make a perfect slurry of folklore.

One of the best examples, and probably the one with the most landmarks to his credit, is Paul Bunyan. Paul was said to be a giant lumberjack who could chop down a forest with a single swing of his ax. His legend got its start around the logging campfires of Southern Canada, quickly spread into Michigan, and eventually the rest of the United States. Some of the landmarks he is credited with making are; The Grand Canyon which he carved by dragging his ax behind him as he walked, the Finger Lakes that formed when he pressed his hand into the ground to brace himself from a fall, Mount Hood was formed when he stacked up stones to extinguish a campfire, and Niagara Falls, constructed from the Niagara River so he could have a place to bathe his equally large babies. There are no less than a dozen other North American features attributed to this big man and his blue ox, making him one of the most prolific characters in American folklore.

Moving over to the Northern Island of New Zealand, home of some of the country’s most iconic mountains, the Māori tell an interesting story of how the mountains ended up where they are today. The most beautiful of the mountains was Pihanga, who was covered in lush forests of the deepest green. The other mountains pursued her affection rather aggressively, culminating in a fight between the two mountains Tongariro and Taranaki. After a battle that shook the island, Tongariro defeated Taranaki and forced to him to flee to the coast. His retreat carved out the Whanganui river. The people of the island don’t advise living between the two mountains, claiming that one day Taranaki will return to battle Tongariro again.

Islands are odd things themselves. How does land appear in the middle of an ocean? Well the Hawaiian Islands were supposedly formed by Māui, an ancient chief and avid fisherman. One day he took his brothers fishing, and with the help of his magical fishhook Manaiakalani, managed to snag the bottom of the ocean floor. He told his brothers that he had hooked a giant fish and they all pulled until the ocean floor separated and floated to the surface. Māui was successful in repeating this trick until all the Hawaiian Islands were hauled up from the bottom.

Although it is larger than what we think of when we hear the term “island”, all of North America was generally referred to as Turtle Island by the Indigenous people. The story of its creation uses a familiar theme in mythology, the flood. Like most other flood myths, the Creator, in this case The Great Spirit, became angered with the chaos and violence present in the world, and attempted to wash the Earth clean. In this version of the story a loon, a beaver, and an otter all tried to swim to the bottom of the ocean to gather dirt for a new land. Everyone who tried failed, until the humble muskrat answered the call. Though smaller and weaker than the animals that had tried before, the muskrat, through its resolve and bravery, managed to reach the bottom and gather the dirt that would be formed into Turtle Island.  
In the same way that it is curious when land appears in the middle of the water, likewise, it’s a wonder when water forms in the middle of the land. Crater Lake is a caldera lake in Oregon. It is the deepest lake in the United States, so deep in fact, that it might reach down into the underworld. The indigenous Klamath people of the region describe the creation of the lake after a fierce battle between Llao, the god of the underworld, and Skell, the god of the sky. The caldera of Mount Mazama served as a gateway to the underworld that Llao would use to terrorize the surface world. After a fierce battle that involved two medicine men sacrificing themselves to end the struggle, Skell was able to force Llao back through the caldera. The god then sealed up the pit and placed Crater Lake on top of it to ensure that Llao would never be able to return.

Traveling over to the always entertaining mythology of Ireland, we find Lough Sheelin, one of the Ireland’s largest county lakes. Local lore says that a spring favored by fairies used to flow here. The fairies allowed the nearby villagers to drink from the spring as long as they replaced the rock that served as a stopper. One day a careless villager forgot to put the stone back in place, and as punishment, the fairies allowed the spring to flow until it caused a flood that covered the village and formed Lough Sheelin. If mythology can teach us anything, remember to always listen to fairies.

Landscapes have always been an inspiration.
They spark an almost ancient curiosity as people struggle to understand why the world looks the way it does. This is just a small sample of the myths that cover famous geological structures. Chances are there is a legend or two floating around your local area about the lakes, mountains, or rivers. Do some research, you might be surprised to find folklore sitting right outside your door, and when you do find it, turn it into a Fairy Tale Flash story and send it in to us!
William Gilmer is a contributing editor at Enchanted Conversation Magazine and a writer and poet currently living in Michigan.
Follow him on Twitter @willwritethings 

Cover layout by Amanda Bergloff


AMOffenwanger said...

Fascinating, thank you for sharing these! When I was in elementary school in Hesse in Germany, we were taught a legend of a local rock which carried the devil's claw marks - he got angry at something and tried to throw the rock, but didn't achieve his aim. I'll have to look that up now to remind myself of the details!

Enchanted Conversation said...

If you find that legend of the devil's claw marks, please share it with us!