Mountain Myths

Goal: To help students understand why, in the absence of scientific understanding, human beings have created mythology to explain natural phenomena, and to encourage an appreciation of this literature.

Objectives: Students will

  1. Become familiar with Native American myths and legends created to explain volcanic activity


  2. Apply the clustering, writing process and peer-editing techniques to the writing of an original myth about Mount St. Helens


  3. Illustrate an original myth.


Key Concepts: To explain natural phenomena, various cultures have created myths in which natural phenomena and features in the environment are assigned human-like personalities and qualities. 

Summary: Students explore the function of myths. Imagining themselves to be members of the Cowlitz (or other) Indian tribe, students do a practice exercise in which, as a group, they write a simple myth to explain rumblings from Mount St. Helens. After reading a sampling of Northwest Native American myths on the subject, students analyze the various identities that have been assigned, in past times, to mountains and other natural features. After brainstorming other possible identities, students select and develop a characterization, and create an original storyline, employing a clustering technique, a writing/rewriting process, and peer-editing strategies. Students illustrate and prepare their myths for an audience.

Content Areas: Composition, literature, science, history, anthropology, geography, art

Materials Needed:


Instructional Strategies: 


  • Paper and pencils
  • fabric crayons
  • fabric, t-shirts (optional) 


Evaluation: Evaluation of students' myths should relate to writing skills currently being taught in class, as well as effort, originality and creativity displayed. 

Instructional Sequence:

  1. Ask students to imagine themselves members of a Native American tribe living within sight of a volcano, before the white man came. The mountain, quiet and serenely beautiful for as long as anyone can remember, has recently begun to change. Occasionally, light-gray puffs that seem different from other clouds have been appearing around the peak. Strange rumblings that seem to come from deep within the earth have been heard. Nothing in the legends and lore of the tribe explains these occurrences.


  2. Ask students to respond, individually or in small groups, to such questions as:
    • How would the you be likely to feel about these developments? (list likely feelings)
    • What would you have to do in order to feel comfortable and secure?
    • How might you and your companions make sense of or explain what was happening to your familiar natural environment? (list some possible explanations)


  3. Allow time for brainstorming and discussion. Together, select the best idea and write a brief narrative on the board.


  4. Compare and contrast students' ideas with the Cowlitz Indians' legend that tells of a time when Mount Rainier had two wives, Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens, and of an argument between the wives in which Mount St. Helens became jealous, "blew her top," and then knocked off Mount Rainier's head! (The Cowlitz called Mount St. Helens "Lavelatla," or "smoking mountain.") Note that such accounts help us reconstruct eruptive history.


  5. Share other examples of early cultures' explanations for eruptive and earthquake activity; for examples:
    • Before Magellan sailed, one common belief was that the earth was flat and held up by two elephants standing on a turtle's back. When the earth shook, it was because the creatures supporting it were moving about.
    • Others believed that giant whales, slapping their immense tails against the ocean floor, caused the earth to tremble.
    • Some believed such activity was evidence that sea monsters were fighting.
    • The ancient Romans believed that Vulcan, god of fire and metalworking, had a blacksmith shop a mountain on an island near Sicily, named Vulcano. This is where the word 'volcano' came from.


  6. Read or provide copies to students of handout, Native American Myths.


  7. Identify common characteristics of identities assigned to mountains by Native Americans (ex: Mount St. Helens was always a person, rather than an animal; always had a "reason" for erupting.) Have students brainstorm other possible identities for a volcano, either human or animal. Refer back to ideas generated in step 1. Instruct students to select an identity to write about.


  8. Allow time for students to 'cluster' on paper the words and phrases they want to associate with their chosen identity before, during, and after the eruption. Students will then list in an 8-step sequence what happens to their identify from before to after the eruption. Encourage them to include colorful adverbs and adjectives, additional 'characters' (other natural features,) and action verbs. This will provide a framework for their writing an original myth about the eruption of Mount St. Helens.


  9. Arrange for an audience to which students may target their work. (For example, students might work in partners to simplify the language of their myths, condense them to one page, create a full-page illustration for each, and bind them in a booklet for younger children; or study the art of storytelling, and arrange to read their original myths aloud to each other or another group.) 


  10. Allow class time for writing the first drafts of original myths and/or for the revision process using peer editing groups (See: Peer Editing.)



  1. Use fabric crayons to make illustrations depicting students' myths, to be transferred onto t-shirts, or onto fabric squares that may be used to make a class quilt.


  2. In pairs, have students take turns playing the role of a) interviewer, and b) character from a student myth, using questions prepared in advance. Record or videotape the interviews.