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Volcano Watch: Hawaiian oral stories of legends can provide light on past eruptions

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Active volcanoes tell us their stories through earthquakes, deformation, gas emissions and lava flows. We interpret those stories through myriad scientific instruments and record them in journals and news reports for generations to come.

But what if a volcano isn’t active and hasn’t been for hundreds or even thousands of years? How can we learn their stories when now they slumber? 

When a water lake began forming at the base of Halema‘uma‘u at the summit of Kīlauea, scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory looked to Hawaiian chants for mention of a crater lake before western contact and whether it was associated with explosive eruptions. (Hawaiian Volcano Observatory)

Geoscience is full of tools to help us investigate the past. Using geochemistry and geochronology, we can reconstruct ancient magma chambers from their eruptive products even millennia after they formed. There is one important tool, however, that can sometimes be overlooked: oral history.

Long before we were writing books or reading seismographs, our ancestors were recording events in their memories and passing them down through stories, poetry and song. Today, we call them myths, legends or oral traditions, and we can imagine these colorful stories being told for entertainment.

Good stories are usually rooted in real events, if you know how to look. Hawaiian oral traditions are full of riveting stories — like the two chiefs of Kahuku who became the two hills of Nāpuʻuapele. They can be traced in some cases directly to the eruptions they record.


In other parts of the world, the connection is not so straightforward. Time and artistic embellishment have disguised many volcanic eruptions in oral traditions. Let’s examine examples from Australia and Iceland.

The dreaming stories of the Bungandidj (Boandik) people tell of a giant named Craitbul who traveled across southeastern Australia with his family in search of a home. First, they settled at Mt. Muirhead. They dug their cooking oven and were settled in for the night when they were awakened by a shrieking bullin (bird) warning them of an evil spirit. They fled their home and built a new cooking oven at Mt. Schank.

Again, the bullin shrieked and chased the family from their rest. Eventually, they settled at Mt. Gambier. All was peaceful until one day water rose from the ground and destroyed their cooking fires. They dug their ovens again and again — four times! — and each time water rose to douse the flames, leaving gaping holes where their ovens once were. Finally, Craitbul and his family moved one last time and settled for good in a cave on the side of the peak.

This dreaming recalls several eruptions, ending with the formation of four crater lakes at a maar volcano, Mt. Gambier in southeast Australia, about 4,500 years ago. Many dreaming stories from eastern Australia describe volcanic eruptions that Aboriginal people had witnessed and passed down in story for thousands of years.


Another legend, passed down orally for hundreds of years in Iceland before being scribed by Snorri Sturluson, recounts a great duel between the god Thor and giant Hrungnir.

It begins with the pounding of hooves as Thor’s father Odin raced Hrungnir from Jötunheim, the land of the giants, to Asgard, the land of the gods. The gods invited Hrungnir for a feast, but soon he became loud and boastful, saying that he would kill the gods. He challenged Thor to a duel, and the two clashed brutally into the night.

At one point, Hrungnir tries to protect himself by standing atop his great stone shield, thinking Thor would attack him from beneath the Earth. Instead, Thor hurled his mighty hammer from above. It collided with Hrungnir’s whetstone in mid-air with a thunderclap, showering the land with sparks and shattered fragments.

Rumbling hooves, bellowing giants on enormous stone shields, sparks and shattered stone raining from above… sounds like an eruption, doesn’t it? So, why not just call it that? Why cloak these events in flowery language and turn them into myths or legends? Because that’s how we’ll remember them for thousands of years.


Earth events fade from memory within a generation or two, but great stories become myths, legends or oral traditions that are remembered far longer. We are wise to listen to stories that our ancestors have passed to us for clues about Earth’s history. Next time you come across a tale from long ago, imagine what real events may be hidden in the story.

Volcano Watch is a weekly article and activity update written by scientists and affiliates with the U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. This week’s article was written by Hawaiian Volcano Observatory gas technician Christine Sealing. 

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