Volcano Folklore

The great eruption at Santorini in 1500 BC may be the origin of the Atlantis myth.
This photo of an engraving shows the 1866 eruption of NaeKameni, Santorini.
Photo credit: National Geophysical Data Center (P. Hedervari).

Volcanic features and phenomena have often been described in legends. These legends provide a connection between a cultural or spiritual view of nature and the scientific study of Earth's natural processes. Careful study of these legends may even yield faint clues about ancient eruptions. The legends in this section are all believed to describe or relate to volcanic features or events.


Volcano Myths and Legends of the Alaskan Eskimo 

The Eskimo 

Alaska has always been a very active area for volcanoes. Located right on the ring of fire there are many historically active volcanoes. There are also 40 active volcanoes that occur in the state, mostly in the Kodiak and Aleutian Islands. Alaskan volcano legends are primarily Eskimo in origin. Eskimo is a term for the people that are the native inhabitants of the Artic regions of Alaska, Greenland, Siberia, Nunavut, Quebec, and the Northwest Territories. These people are divided into two groups the Inuit and the Yupik. The Inuit live in the northern part of Alaska and speak Inuktitut; the Yupik people live in the western part of Alaska and speak Yup'ik. While these two groups share some similarities in language and region they have different ways of life and culture. 

An Eskimo Family

Image taken from Wikipedia http://wikipedia.org

The Legends of Old Willie

For many generations legends were passed down through oral history, or storytelling. This legend was finally put on record by William A. Oquilluk or "Old Willie." This legend recounted the actual eruption of Skaptar Jokull in Iceland in June of 1783. The summer that never came was when the cloud of ash and sulfur from the volcano was brought by prevailing winds to the northern tip of Alaska. 

The legend tells of the cloud coming across the sky just as the hunting season was about to begin. This brought cold weather that kept summer and the hunting season from ever coming. Only ten of the villagers of the region survived and my next two legends are of four of the survivors. 

Two of the survivors were a grandmother and granddaughter named Nasaruhk and Paniruhk. They were alone in a small house with no one to hunt for them. The other villagers were kind though and took pity on them giving them meat and fish. The grandmother saved as much food as she could for the winter by drying the meat and preserving it in skin bags filled with seal oil. The grandmother and daughter also picked as many plants and fruits as they could in the summer too and saved them for the long winters. However as summer was coming the warm weather was swept away by a cloud from the north. With the cold cloud no one came to visit them anymore and the grandmother and daughter survived on what they had saved. They went out into the village to find that everyone else had starved to death and the two survived by eating the skin off a sealskin boat. 

Legends also tell of two other villagers who survived the summer that did not come. The two, a mother and small son traveled two hundred and fifteen miles through the cold with no food to reach another village that had food to offer. 

Both of these legends were written down by Old Willie but were nearly lost in a fire that destroyed his home. His stories that he had spent nearly twenty years recollecting and writing were all lost. All of these legends would have been lost if it hadn't been for author Laurel L. Brand who convinced Willie to write his stories again which are now published as the book People of Kauwerak: Legends of the Northern Eskimo. 

The Legend of the Eagle

Another Eskimo legend is that of the giant eagles. The giant eagles were said to once live in the volcanoes of Alaska until the last of the giant eagles captured a woman as food for her children. However the woman was the wife of a celebrated hunter who came to rescue his wife and destroyed the last of the giant eagles. That is why there are no more giant eagles living in the volcanoes of Alaska. 


With so many Alaskan volcanoes, it is not surprising that Volcanoes are an integral part of the Eskimo way of life. Most Eskimo history is passed down from generation to generation in stories and songs and it is difficult to find written records. However, because of people like Old Willie, these stories are occasionally written down and can be shared with the rest of the world.


Article "A summer that wasn't" by Lee Dye
Canku Ota- A newsletter Celebrating Native America
May 6, 2000 Issue 9

The White Archer: An Inuit-Eskimo Legend
By: James Houston

The Artic and the Inuit
Calgary Board of Education website
Author: M. Speight

Alaska Volcano Observatory

Volcano World Assignment: Volcano Myths, Legends and Folklore
Hilary Strater
May 2, 2006
Spst 438 Volcanism: A Planetary Process I


The Eruption of Santorin (Thera) and Greek Myths 

The Santorini volcanic archipelago is made up of five islands located in the Aegean Sea between Greece and Crete. The two larger islands are called Thera and Therasia and the three smaller islands are called Aspronisi, NeaKamen, and Palaea. (Zeiling de Boer and Sanders, 2002). 

Map of Santorini (Courtesy of Santorini-Web).

Myth 1: Theseus and the Minotaur 

Athens was once a Mycean City ruled by King Minos. It is said that Poseidon gave a great bull to King Minos as a gift. The kings' wife, Pasiphae, fell in love with the bull and seduced him, the result was the Minotaur. When King Minos discovered the Minotaur he locked him in a great maze (this maze is thought to possibly be the palace at Knossos. Minos had rule over much of the Mediterranean, and when his son, Androgeus was killed by the Athenians he forced them to send a tribute of seven men and seven women Crete as prey for the Minotaur. Theseus, son of the Athenian King Aegeus, volunteered to go to Crete, where he defeated the Minotaur, lead the people out of the maze, and freed the Athenians in Crete. (Zeiling de Boer and Sanders, 2002). It is said that this myth could reflect the fall of the Minoan empire. 

Figure 2: Theseus killing the Minotaur

Myth 2: Jason and the Argonauts. 

After Jason had retrieved the golden fleece, he was traveling near Crete and Thera (the volcano). On his way to Crete he was stopped from getting close to the island by the island guardian, a giant named Talos, who was made of bronze. Talos was almost indestructible except for a weak spot near his ankle. Talos stood on the mountain top and threw rocks at ships on the sea. Hephaestus, god of fire and metal working, had made Talos for King Minos to keep intruders away from his kingdom. Talos could make himself very hot, he would then grab intruders killing them. When the Argonauts came upon the island they had to run away from the rocks being throw at them. As they were fleeing, Medea, Jason's wife, cast a spell on Talos dimming his vision. As Talos was preparing to throw another rock, he slipped and fell, all his vital fluid leaked out and he died. (Zeiling de Boer and Sanders, 2002)

Talos could be a mythical representation of Thera. Talos is also known as Circinus, the circle, which could represent the shape of the island. The rocks could be volcanic bombs, and the leaking of his vital fluids could be lava leaking out (Zeiling de Boer and Sanders, 2002).  

After the Argonauts left Talos, they were enveloped in darkness, which could have been the ash cloud.It was also said that Talos had a son, Leukos (the white one). Leukos drove away the king of Crete and destroyed parts of the Island. Leukos could represent the white ash that covered Crete. Talos also had a daughter, Kleisithera, or key of Thera (Zeiling de Boer and Sanders, 2002).

Myth 3: Atlantis

Most people have heard about the lost city of Atlantis and there is a lot of speculation as to the location of the lost city. One such location is in the Atlantic Ocean near the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea (Vitaliano, 1973). Another location is Santorini and the island of Crete (Zeiling de Boer and Sanders, 2002). Greek seismologist Angelos Galanopoulos proposed that the island of Santorini was Atlantis in 1969 (Christopher, 2001). The city of Akrotiri was found on Santorini by archaeologist, and this could be the fabled city Plato was referring to (Christopher, 2001).  

Plato is the first person to write about this great city. He heard the story from someone else, who heard it from his grandfather, etc. Atlantis was a prosperous place, full of wealth and peace. They built great ships and traded throughout the area (Zeiling de Boer and Sanders, 2002).

Many of the myths described about Atlantis seem to follow closely with Crete and the Minoans, including their sudden demise (Zeiling de Boer and Sanders, 2002).

The location of Atlantis is hard to predict by using the ancient texts. Plato could be wrong about his dates, or the city could have never existed at all. The correlation between Santorini and Atlantis does seem to fit in that an ancient city fell into the sea due to the collapse of the caldera. If this is the great city of Atlantis then it will take a lot more then theory to prove it.




Iceland: Fire and Ice

Iceland is located in the Northern Atlantic Ocean along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. For millions of years the lava from this ridge continually piled up and eventually Iceland was formed. 

Map of Icelandic Volcanoes

The volcanoes on the island were relatively quiet in the beginning of recorded time, but when the fires of Hekla began to burn in 1104, people around the world were terrified. 

"Great is the power of the Prince of Darkness. Now he has flung open that horrible inferno Eclafeld out of Hyslandia, where the souls of the damned in flames of eternal fire, never thence to return, except when from time to time Satan drags them from the glowing embers to cool them in the piercing chill of the polar ice enclosing that dreary island, lest they become too inured to the fires of Hell." 
Hekla on Fire: Sigurdur Thorarinsson

Christians of Europe saw Hekla as a doorway to the underworld and as one of two known entrances to Hell or Purgatory. When people would see lava bombs and other projectiles fly from the volcanoes crater, they believed the fragments were actually spirits. These bombs often hissed as they flew (due to the cooler temperature of the air) and these noises were interpreted as the souls screaming out in pain. Because Hekla was associated with the underworld, people abroad also thought that it was a meeting place for witches and magicians and patrons of dark magic. 

Hekla throws "souls" out into the air. 

Although many legends center around Hekla being an opening to Hell, there are some more light-hearted myths as well. In one story a magician transformed himself into a whale to swim to Iceland with hopes of putting the entire island under his spell. Luckily for the Icelanders, he was startled and eventually scared away when he found that the land spat fireballs and spirits at him! He decided that these spirits would fiercely protect their beautiful land and he did not stand a chance against them. 

Still others saw Iceland's jagged lava flows and rugged mountains as an ancient battlefield. It was on this battlefield where immortal gods had once waged war against one another. As they fought, they had shaped the land with blows of fists and swords. The terrain also contributes to stories of ice trolls. In some places the rocks have been eroded in such a way that they seem to resemble human forms, although decidedly uglier. These "trolls" are said to have strange and often evil powers. 

Hekla has not had a very glamorous past. Nearly every myth and legend about the volcano is in some way connected to evil and the demonic. These days, however, Hekla has become a major tourist attraction on the island of Iceland. It is surrounded by beautiful green meadows and is sometimes drapped with snow. This elegance has put to rest many of the horrifying stories of trolls and witches. Hekla is still volcanically active, although today the eruptions are better understood and people come from around the world to witness (from a safe distance) the volcano throw up fantastic fire fountains that light up the night sky as lava flows down the volcanoes flanks. 

Helka illuminates the night 


Anna Worden 
Volcano Myths, Legends, and Folklore 
May 2, 2006 
SpSt 438 Volcanism: A Planetary Process I 



"Legend has it that the great Tengger Crater was dug out with just half a coconut shell by an ogre smitten with love for a princess. When the king saw that the ogre might fulfill the task he had set, which was to be completed in a single night, he ordered his servants to pound rice. This caused the cocks to start crowing, thinking the dawn had broken. The coconut that the ogre flung away became Gunung Batok, and the trench became the Sand Sea - and the ogre died of exhaustion."
From: Java a Lonely Planet travel survival kit by Peter Turner.


Volcano Myths and Legends - Japan

Japan is a country steeped in myth and legend. Considering the country is 71% mountainous terrain, it is easy to understand why much of Japans' folklore concerns the mountains on the islands (2). Japan has 109 volcanoes, in differing states of activity (3).   Mt. Fuji is also the highest and most venerated mountain in Japan, standing at 3776 meters tall (2)  Mount Fuji is also perhaps the worlds most well known mountain.   From the beginnings of recorded history in Japan, Mt. Fuji has been important to Japanese culture, tradition, myth and legend (2).   The mountain was considered a sacred place for the people of Japan, until the Meiji Restoration, which occurred in 1868 (2).   Indeed, the importance of the mountain is stated rather elegantly in a passage from Myths and Legends of Japan (F. Hadland Davis): 

"Fuji dominates life by it's silent beauty: sorrow is hushed, longing quieted, peace seems to flow down from that changeless home of peace, the peak of the white lotus." (1)


"Red Fuji" By Hokusai Katsushika 
The name Fuji is believed to be derived from "Huchi" or "Fuchi", the words for the Aino Goddess of Fire (Davis 141)

There are many folk tales surrounding Mt. Fuji, known popularly as Fuji-san in Japan (san meaning mountain, not to be confused with the male honorific San(2)Mt. Fuji is a stratovolcano located in Honshu, Japan's largest island. The last  eruption occurred in 1707 when a main vent eruption deposited 6" of volcanic ash on Edo (Tokyo) (3)  Though it has been dormant since then, it is still a very important symbol in Japanese culture(2). Pilgrims have been climbing the mountain as a show of religious piety for generations, as shown by a record from June of 1500 A.D. describing the masses of people making journeys up the sacred mountain (2). Now every summer, close to 500,000 people make trips up the mountain; however, unlike the pilgrimages of old, women are now permitted to ascend the mountain (2).


Photo by Tom Pierson, 1995 (U.S. Geological Survey).

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia

The creation of Mt. Fuji is itself a matter of legend in Japan - the tale goes that the mountain was born in a single day (1). The story relates the experiences of a woodsman named Visu. He was awoken one night by a loud noise, seemingly coming from under the Earth.   The woodsman believing it to be an earthquake, grabbed his family and ran from their home  (1).  When he emerged from the doorway, he saw that the land near his home, which had been flat and dead, had become a mountain! Visu was so in awe of this occurrence, and the majesty of the mountain, that he named it "Fuji-yama", the Never-Dying Mountain  (1). While geologically, Mt. Fuji dates back to around 8500 B.C. (3), this myth places the legendary creation of Mt. Fuji in (2)86 B.C. (4).   This later date roughly coincides with the geologic record of an explosive eruption that occurred around this time frame (3). While it is not known what the true source of this myth is, it is not outside the realm of conjecture to suggest that the myth could have been influenced by the aforementioned eruption.
Mt. Fuji is the source of many myths, underscoring its importance in Japanese society; it has been the home of multiple deities, including the goddess Sengen, also known as the Goddess of Fuji, whose temple was once said to reside on the summit of the mountain  (1).   In the days of religious pilgrimages to Mt. Fuji, it is said that Sengen would throw from the mountain any pilgrims that were impure of heart  (1). 

A Shinto shrine dedicated to Sengen, the Goddess of Fuji, who is said to reside within the main building of the shrine (city.fushiyoda)

Mt. Fuji, Fuji-san, or Fuji-yama; no matter the name, it is clear that the mountain has been an important part of Japan from time immemorial (2). The mountain is home to many more myths not covered here, and the reader is encouraged to find out more on his/her own, and discover that the tales of its creation were truly only the beginning for this mountain.


  1. De Mente, Boye Lafayette. "Japan Encyclopedia". Chicago, IL,: Passport Books, 1995.
  2. Hadland, Frederick. "Myths and Legends of Japan". New York, N.Y. : Dover Publications, 199(2).
  3. Hokusai Katsushika. "Red Fuji". (2)(2) October (2)004. Online Image. April (2)(2) (2)006. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Hokusai-fuji7.png>
  4. NASA, ASTER Image Gallery, April (2)006, < http://asterweb.jpl.nasa.gov/gallery-detail.asp?name=Fuji>
  5. "Position of Mount Fuji". Online Image. Wikipedia. April (2)(2), (2)006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Position_of_Mount_Fuji.png#file
  6. "Sengen Shrine". Online Image. April (2)(2) (2)006. <www.shizuoka-cci.or.jp/english/kanko_0(2).htm
  7. Tom Pierson. Online Image. April (2)(2) (2)006. <http://www.volcano.si.edu/world/region.cfm?rnum=08>
  8. U.S. Geological Survey, Volcanoes of the World, April (2)006,  <http://www.volcano.si.edu/world/region.cfm?rnum=08>

Kurt Jones
Volcano Myths
SpSt 438: Volcanism: A Planetary Process


Popocatepetl (the Smoking Mountain) and Iztaccihuatl (the White Lady) are adjacent volcanoes at the south end of the Valley of Mexico.

The Aztecs believed the two volcanoes were lovers that could not bear to be out of each others sight. Iztaccihuatls profile looks like a reclining women. The names of the volcanoes summit reflect the legend: Cabeza (head), Pecho (breast), Rodillas (knees), and Pies (feet). From Vitaliano (1973).

Photo by Steve O'Meara of Volcano Watch International.


Postcard of Iztaccihuatl.

See also these published sources:


New Zealand

Volcano Legends of New Zealand 

Rachel Robinson, 2006

New Zealand has been occupied by a group of Polynesians, known as the Maoris, since about the fourteenth century (Anderson, 1969).  Since this time, the Maoris have created myths and legends involving several volcanoes in their native land. 

Taupo, Tongariro and Maui the Fisherman

One of these legends tells of a man named Maui who, one day, went fishing with his brothers.  Maui used a jawbone as a hook and some flax soaked in blood as bait.  Maui pulled up a gigantic fish called Hahau-whenua; the fish was so big that there were fires burning and people walking on its back.  Maui's brothers started to cut and crimp the fish, but it began to struggle.  The fish thrashed back and forth, and its back was thrown into wrinkles and folds.  The land that was created from this fish is now known as Te Ika-a-Maui, or the fish of Maui, and it is covered in mountains and valleys.  Of these mountains, the volcanoes Taupo and Tongariro make up the belly of the fish (Anderson, 1969).


Taupo and the Lizard, Hotupuku

There is another legend involving the area around Taupo.  In this legend a huge lizard named Hotupuku lived near Taupo, and he ate people who traveled between Taupo and the village of Rotorua.  Villagers became angry and set out to find Hotupuku.  Hotupuku was eventually killed by men from the Rotorua village (Anderson, 1969).


Ngauruhoe, Tongariro, White Island and the Fire Demons

The volcanoes Ngauruhoe, Tongariro and White Island are present in a Maori legend.  A medicine man named Ngatoro was climbing up Tongariro with a woman named Auruhoe.  He told his followers not to eat while he was gone in order to give him strength on top of the cold mountain.   When Ngatoro didn't return for some time, his followers thought him to be dead, and they broke their fast.  Ngatoro and Auruhoe immediately began to feel the cold, and Ngatoro prayed to his sisters in the faraway land of Hawaiki.  The sisters called upon fire demons that began swimming underwater toward Ngatoro.  They first came out of the water at White Island to see where they were, and the land burst into flames that are still burning.  The demons continued on underwater until they reached Ngatoro and burst through the summit of the mountain, thus creating the volcano Ngauruhoe.  Ngatoro was saved by the warmth, but Auruhoe had already died.  Ngatoro then took Auruhoe's body and threw it into the volcano.  The underwater path of the fire demons can still be seen, for everywhere they surfaced is now a thermal area (Vitaliano, 1973).


View near the top of Mount Tarawera (photo by Jordan Bremer)


The Giants: Tongariro, Taranaki, and Ruapehu

In another myth, the volcanoes Tongariro, Taranaki, and Ruapehu were all giants.  Taranaki and Ruapehu fell in love with Tongariro and proceeded to fight for her.  Taranaki threw himself at Ruapehu, but Ruapehu sprayed scalding water from his lake one Taranaki.  In retaliation, Taranaki threw stones at Ruapehu destroying his once beautiful summit.  Ruapehu was able to swallow the fragments of his cone, melt them, and spit them back at Taranaki.  Taranaki retreated up the coast to where he lives now, plotting his revenge (Vitaliano, 1973).


Eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886

There are two myths involving the recent eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886.  One of these legends blames the eruption on the people of Te Ariki village for eating forbidden honey.  Those in the village that ate the honey were killed, while people in nearby villages who did not eat it were allowed to live.  The other myth involving Mount Tarawera is similar, but more creative.  A man-eating demon named Tamaohoi once lived on the flank of Mount Tarawera. He was imprisoned on the mountain by Ngatoro. Tamaohoi slept for many centuries. Under the influence of the white man, the morals of the local people declined until there was a call for Tamaohoi to return and punish the sinners. Tamaohoi exploded from the mountain and killed many people in the village of Te Ariki. From Vitaliano (1976).


Kakepuku, Kawa, and Karewa

The Maoris also have a legend involving two extinct volcanic cones made of basalt named Kakepuku and Kawa.  Kakepuku loved Kawa but had to fight several opponents in order to win her over.  Kakepuku went up against Karewa, who was another basaltic hill.  Kakepuku defeated Karewa in a great battle causing Karewa to back off into the sea to where he lives today.  Karewa is now known as Gannet Island (Vitaliano, 1973).



Papua New Guinea


Volcano Myths and Legends - Papua New Guinea 

The island of New Britain, part of Papua New Guinea, lies on the very edge of a tectonic micro-plate, causing the eastern edge of the island to be a volcanic hot spot. (Please see figure 1) 

The eastern corner of the island, as it turns out, is in itself one large caldera, with multiple cones rising out of the waters on three sides. (Please see Figure 2) The island itself sports eighteen recognized volcanoes, according to the Smithsonian Institution, ranging from submarine varieties, to calderas, to pyroclastic shields, to complex cones. Papua volcano mythology was documented in a collection of periodical newspaper columns, both translated and edited by Thomas H. Stone. Titled "Folktales from Wantok Newspaper," the book contains two rather large volumes, the dates of the collection running from 1972 to 1997.

The Polynesian "triangle" has an immensely long history, steeped in culture and tradition. Though the myths in my source were, in fact, published works in a local newspaper, the tradition in the area was to pass down stories, mythology in particular, orally (Kirch 2002). As such, most of the myths in the collection had the feel of being spoken. Slightly improper grammar and colloquialisms are abundant with references to local lore that may be otherwise unknown to a reader. 

The myth describing the origins of thunder,originally published on March 21, 1973, in the Wantok newspaper, is thought to refer to the New Britain Volcano of the Rabaul Caldera. 

"Once there was a short and strong man. He though about going into the forest to find some wild game. He went to many places in the forest and became tired... Suddenly a man…appeared and wanted to kill him. The two of them fought fiercely and they climbed a steep mountain. On top of the mountain was a small house. This house was unusual and belonged to the second man. The man of the forest said "today, you didn't catch any game because I didn't desire it. The man of the forest gave the short man a charmed bow, and with it he was able to kill much game. The next day, he came to find his bow stolen, the only possible culprit his own younger brother. After tracking him down, the two fought for the bow, and the younger brother ran away. When the siblings had held their battle, there was an explosion on the mountain, and so now, when we hear thunder, we know that it is the two brothers fighting again. (Story summarized from Slone's work)

So, it would seem that the brothers fighting caused the mountain to have an eruption, and though one would think that there would be some sort of myth explaining why a mountain was on fire, it appears that an explanation as to the origin of thunder, or what it means, works just fine. 

Many stories had been cataloged by Slone (some two thousand of them!) in their original form just as they were passed from parent to child through the years without altering their original spoken feel. 


Dani Thompson
Volcano Myths in Papua New Guinea, specifically on New Britain Island
SpSt 438: Volcanism: A Planetary Process


Kamchatka, Russia Volcano Myths and LegendsMap of Kamchatka Holocene volcanoes

The Kamchatka Peninsula in Far East Russia is one of the most volcanically active locations in the entire world. Part of the Ring of Fire, Kamchatka has the highest density of volcanoes and associated volcanic activity in the world. This place, deemed Russia's Yellowstone, is home to over 130 volcanoes, 29 of which are still active today. The land's beautiful scenery and wildlife along with the numerous outdoor activities available draw thousands of visitors each year. It is known for its amazing diversity and abundance of wildlife and nearly pristine frontier land. The peninsula, surrounded by the Pacific Ocean to the east and the Sea of Okhotsk to the west, is a 1,250 kilometer long portion of the 2,000 kilometer long Kuril-Kamchatka island arc, which contains nearly 10% of the world's active vKutkholcanoes. 

First "discovered" in the 17th century by Russian explorer Ivan Kamchatiy, Kamchatka is currently inhabited by over 400,000 Russians. However, the peninsula has been the home of people for thousands of years. Several distinct groups of people call this fiery land home. The native people of this land are divided among tribes known as the Koryaks, Itelmens, Chukchis, and Tunguses. Today Kamchatka is populated by mostly Russian people, with the native people of the region making up a minority that represents 10% of the population. The region thrives off of tourism and recreation while its base industry is solely in fishing and fishing industries. 

The root of mythology pertaining to volcanic activity in Russia finds itself in the stories and beliefs passed on from generation to generation in the tribes of original inhabitants of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Each tribe carried a different lifestyle, based in large part on the location with in the peninsula that they called home. The way the native people lived and the specific land features that made up their territory in the peninsula led to different beliefs and concepts of life, death, and creation. Many of the beliefs of these tribes revolve around the frequent volcanic activity surrounding their land, explKutkhaining the reason for volcanic phenomena. Explanations of volcanic eruptions and other activates sparked the formation of the beliefs of the people. 

The Koryaks, the largest population of native people, call the northern part of Kamchatka home. It is in the north that large volcanoes shadow beautiful valleys of green pasture and forest. Koryak, which literally translates to "reindeer people", describes the means by which these people live. The Koryaks are reindeer herders, harvesting deer to provide all of their necessities. The people used deer resources for everything from clothes to shelter. It is from this lifestyle that their understanding of volcanic activity takes shape. The central figure of Koryak belief is Kutkh, the great raven god. Koryak beliefs describe Kutkh, the Great Raven, as the first man, father and protector of the Koryak. Almost every Koryak myth and story deals with the life, travels, and adventures of Kutkh. The Koryak believe that creation began when the great raven swooped over the sea and dropped a feather, thus creating Kamchatka. Once he established land he created men to inhabit his creation. After some time Kutkh created a woman and placed her within the land for the men to continue creation. She was very beautiful and all of the men fell in love with her, desiring her affection deeply. As the men died they became mountains, turning the originally flat land into mountains. The mountains turned to volcanoes as the hearts of the men with in each mountain still burnt with fiery love for the woman. It is the hearts of these original men that created the mountains, which shaped the peninsula into what it is today. According to the 2002 census, there were 8743 Koryaks left in Russia. Visit Koryak.Net for more information on the Koryak people, history and culture. 

The Itelmen are one of the least populous but one of the most ancient peoples of the North. The earliest known archaeological sight of the Itelmen presence on Kamtchatka peninsula is 5200 years old!! The Itelmen made their home in the southern tip of the Peninsula, the Lopatka Cape. Itelmen translates into "living here", becoming the nationality of the tribe upon settlement of the rugged mountain region of the south. A very primitive people, the Itelmen were nomadic hunter and fishers, living this lifestyle as late as the 18th century. The summer months had the Itelmen taking carved boats into the rivers and ocean to fish and hunt whale while the summer months had them taking to the mountains to hunt animals. The Itelmen provided their necessities through animal resources, forcing them to move from location to location in the peninsula frequently, dwelling in half dug homes as they stopped temporarily. The Itelmen have a pagan belief system, meaning they have many gods to represent their creation, life and death. The Itelmen believe that all dangerous places, such as volcanoes, hot springs, forests, water, etc., are inhabited by devils, which they fear and respect more than their gods. The gods only explain their existence; it is the demons that dwell with in the volcanoes that govern their lives. Volcanic eruptions are explained by the belief that mountain demons, called gomuls or kamuli, lived on fish. The demons fly down from the mountain tops at night and into the sea to sleigh fish and whale to bring back to the mountain tops, cooking and eating the catch. This explained why the volcanoes light up the night. The Itelmen are very fearful of the mountain demons. They will not climb to the mountain tops as it is believed that the tops are a wasteland of fish and whale bone. If too close to the top, the demons will explode out of the mountain. The Itelmen pay the demons respect by sacrificing food, throwing bits of meat onto the mountains, in order to bargain for safety. It is believed that the sacrifices will keep the demons, or "eruptions", from harming the people during the night raids. Today, the Itelmen language is now highly endangered, and most speakers are aged over sixty and live in scattered communities. However there is a movement to revive the language, and educational materials are being developed.

Dogs are also very important in Kamchatkan mythology. This is probably because the dog was such an important figure in life of the peoples of Kamchatka as the only available animal available for hunting and pulling sleds. Because of this, the Itelmens believed that dogs were participants in the creation of the world. Itelmens myths say that the mountains and valleys were formed when the first ancestor Kutkh was riding in dog sleds. When a dog named "Kozei" shook the snow from his coat, an earthquake happened. 

The Chukchis (Iygoravetlyan) and Tunguses carry a similar understanding and explanation of volcanic activity. These two tribes are closely related to the Koryak. The ChukIygoravetlyanchis are the Koryaks' neighbor to the north. They carry a similar culture as the Koryaks, only differing in the way they support themselves. The Chukchis settled the coast lines of the north and survived by fishing and hunting marine mammals. The Tunguses, the Koryaks' neighbor to the south, are also like the Koryaks in several ways. The most significant similarity is they are both reindeer herders. The similarity between the beliefs of the Chukchis and Tunguses and the beliefs of the Koryak is apparent by the fact that they all believe in the creator Kutkh. However, the Chukchis and Tunguses believe that Kutkh created Kamchatka in a different way. They believe that Kutkh was the first being on the earth, settling the land of Kamchatka. Kutkh had a family, but one day left his wife and children and disappeared form the land. It is not understood where Kutkh left to, but it is believed that as he left his footsteps sank into the soft earth forming mountains and hills in between where his feet stepped. The Chukchis and Tunguses do not pay homage, and in fact only speak of Kutkh in derision because they believe that his betrayal of his family is the reason for the volcanic activity and swift, dangerous rivers. They scold him for making too many mountains and causing the inconveniences that volcanoes bring to the people. 

It is apparent that volcanism has a significant role in the lifestyle of the people who inhabit the Kamchatka Peninsula. The mythology behind this region is as diverse as the people who live there, providing a good indication as to how the people lived. Today, the mythology surrounding the region is not as prominent as it once was; yet the teachings are still passed on within the tribes who call themselves the native people of Kamchatka. 


Tyler Bohan
Russian Volcano Myths
May 2, 2006
SpSt 438: Volcanism: A Planetary Process

United States



The Battle of Two Chiefs: Mount Mazama and Mount Shasta

The Klamath Indians of the pacific Northwest tell a legend about a fight between two chiefs. Llao was the chief of the Below World and was at Mount Mazama in Oregon. Skell was the chief of the Above World and stood at the summit of Mount Shasta in northern California. The two mountains are only a hundred miles apart. As darkness covered the land the two chiefs threw rocks and flames at each other. Llao, injured, fell back inside of Mount Mazama and was never seen again. A huge hole was left where he fell into the Below World. Over time, the hole filled with water to make Crater Lake. Volcanologists now know that Crater Lake is a caldera that formed by large explosions and collapse about 6,800 years ago. From Vitaliano (1973). 


The Origin of Mount Shasta

The Modoc Indians of northern California have lived in the area a long time and have seen the volcano erupt. Their oral tradition explains how the volcano formed. The Chief of the Sky Spirits was cold in the Above World. One day he used a rotating stone to drill a hole in the sky. Once the hole was finished he pushed in snow and ice. The snow and ice piled up and almost reached the sky. Then, the Chief of the Sky Spirits stepped down to the Earth. He created the trees, rivers, animals, fish, and birds. He even brought his family down and they all lived in the mountains. The sparks and smoke from their fires blew out of the hole in the top of their lodge. When Chief of the Sky Spirits tossed a BIG log on the fire sparks flew up even higher and the Earth trembled. The Chief eventually put out the fire and returned to the Above World. From Vitaliano (1973).

See also these published sources:


  • Atwell, Jim, 1973, "Tahmahnaw," The Bridge of the Gods: Chicago, Adams press.
  • Balch, F.H., 1890, The Bridge of the Gods: A Romance of Indian Oregon: Binfords and Mort.
  • Bunnel, C.O., 1935, Legends of the Klickitats: A Klickitat version of the Story of the bridge of the Gods: Portland, Metropolitan press.
  • Clark, Ella, 1953, Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest: Berkeley, California: University of California Press.
  • Lawrence, D.B., and Lawrence, E.G., 1958, The Bridge of the Gods Legend, Its Origin, History, and Dating: Mazama, v. 11, (13): p. 33-41.
  • Vitaliano, Dorothy B., 1976, Legends of the Earth: Their Geologic Origins: Secaucus, N.J.: The Citadel Press.

Devils Tower, Wyoming

Once there were seven brothers, one day the wife of the oldest brother was carried off by a huge bear to his cave. Her husband mourned her loss greatly. The youngest brother who had great power told him to make 4 arrows with a special design. Then he and the other brothers went to the cave, where they found the bear asleep with his head resting in the wifes lap. They helped her escape. When the bear awoke and found the woman gone he was so mad that he rounded up all the bears in the area, as he was the leader and set out to find the Indians. The youngest of the brothers (who was a holy man) saw the bears coming and he took a small rock from his pocket, sang a sacred song and made the rock grow to the size it is today. The leader bear kept jumping up the sides of the rock trying to get to the top of the rock where the Indians were seeking protection, his claws marking the sides of the tower. On his forth jump they shot an arrow into his head and that killed him. The story ends with the brothers capturing the last two bears and telling them never to bother people again. To make sure, he cut off their ears and tails. That is why to this day bears have short ears and no tails.

From a tourist postcard.


Sunset Crater, Arizona


See Malotki, E. (1987). A Hopi Legend of the Sunset Crater Eruption. Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Press.




Pele, Hawaii's goddess of fire, can take many forms.
In this photo she is the lava that pours across the ground.
She can also be a white dog, and old woman, or a beautiful young woman.


Papalauahi and the Origin of the Lava Trees

Pele is a skilled rider of the holua, a wooden sled that slides down steep stone ramps. Papalauahi and and other chiefs challenged Pele to see who was the best holua rider. Papalauahi proved by far to be the most skilled. Pele lost her temper. She produced a great flood of lava which overran many of the other chiefs and onlookers. These stone pillars are lava trees in lower Puna.

Taken from Vitaliano (1976).


See also these Published Sources:

 Vitaliano, Dorothy B., 1976, Legends of the Earth: Their Geologic Origins: Secaucus, N.J.: The Citadel Press.

Westervelt, W. (1963). Hawaii Legends of Volcanoes. Rutland, VT: Charles Tuttle Company.