Monday, 10 November 2014

Mythology and Legend of Natural Disasters - Part Three - Tsunami

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Hokusai
The most famous Japanese Tsunami painting by the 18th Century artist Hokusai, full name Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). The painting depicts a tsunami passing in front of Mount Fuji.

Tsunami: a long, high wave caused by an earthquake or other disturbance.

Tsunamis and floods are, possibly, the most commonly shared subject in mythology and legend across the world.  Every culture has its own flood myth, and its likely that many of these stories have their roots in historical events of the past.  Today we'll look at some of these stories and the history that inspired them.

As I mentioned in yesterday's post on Earthquakes, in an effort to explain the reasons behind earthquakes and tsunamis, the Japanese created the legend of Namazu, a giant catfish.  It is said that the Namazu is secured by the kaname ishi, or 'keystone' but, when the Namazu rolls or lashes its tail, an earthquake, or in this case a tsunami, occurs.  The word 'tsunami' originates from the Japanese, who have a long history of tsunamis, with tsu meaning harbour and nami meaning wave.  Their meticulous records mean that we have a record of Japan's tsunamis going back to the year 684, which can be found here.

The term is believed to have originated with fisherman who returned from sea to discover the land around the harbour destroyed, despite having no sign of trouble whilst they'd been at sea.  While the Japanese term is widely use, there are several others which are used throughout the world: In Russia, ЦУНАМИ; in France, raz-de-marée, meaning 'violent rising of the tide'; Germany, Flutvelle and, similarly, Sweden, foldvag, both meaning 'flood-wave'.  The variety of terms for this phenomenon, as well as some of the legends we're about to look at, shpw how the tsunami has effected the globe.

Variations of the following tale feature in the traditions of Pacific Northwest tribes along the entirety of the Cascadia coast.  The story tells of two elemental beings of unreal size and power, locked in a battle to the death.  This version is the Hoh version:

The Thunderbird and the Whale

    You know Forks praries, Quillayute prarie, Little prarie, Beaver prarie, Tyee prarie and all the other praries of our country.  Well, there are places where the great, elder thunderbird had terrible battles with the killer whale of the deep.
    This what was a monster destroyer of the whales that furnished oil to the children of men it slaughtered the oil producing whales till none could be obtained for meat and oil.  What were the people to do?  There was no oil to drick and dip their bread and dried berries in.  What were they to do?  Were they to starve?
    Thunderbird saw their plight and soared from her nest in yonder dark hole in the mountains.  She soared far out over the placid waters and there poised herself high up in the air and waited for the 'killer' to come to the surface of the water as it chased its fleeing prey.  It came and as quick as a flash, the powerful bird darted and seized it in her flinty talons.  Then above the watery surface she lifted it and with great effort soared away toward the land areas.

    Passing beyond the oceans with her ponderous load, she, tiring, was compelled to alight and rest her wings; and each and every time the bulky beast was allowed to reach solid land there was a terrible, for it was powerful and fought for its life with terrible energy.  In addition, each time they fought in desperate encounter, they tore all the trees up by the roots and since that time no trees have grown upon these places to this day; they have been praries ever since.  Furthermore, the great thunderbird finally carried the weighty animal to its nest in the lofty mountains, and there was the final and terrible contest fought.  Here in this death dtruggle, they uprooted all the trees for many miles around the nest and also pulled the rocks down the great Hoh vallet.  Since then there has been no timber on the up-country; and the heap of debris they pulled down that vally is known as the bench; (the last terminal moraine of the Olympic glacier).  Thunderbird, however, finally triumphed.  It killed the beast and tore its great and mighty body to pieces; and, then, finding that it was not good to eat, it hurled the pieces from its nest in all directions, where the respective pieces turned to stone under the curse of the enraged bird.  You can see them there now.  They are the projecting points and rocky ridges of that high region.  Before that time that section was practically level.  Now you know what a brocken-up rocky place is.
    That is not all.  Killer whale had a son, called Subbus.  So after thunderbird had killed the parent whale, it set out to capture and destroy this beast also.
    This young monster was much smaller than its father, smaller on account of its not being fully developed.  Nevertheless, it was more agile and wary.  Consequently, it took days and days of towering over the sea before the bird of the upper sky could drop down upon it and seize it in its talons.  But the unfortunate day came to it also, as it had to the parent, 'killer'.  It was chasing a school when there was a rustling noise and then before it could dive to the lower depths of the watery ways, it fely itself being lifted into the air, as at the same time it felt the excruciating pain caused by the huge claws of the bird being sunk deep into its body.  It fought, but it was no match for its adversary.

  High into the air the bird carried it over the land, finally dropping it to the land surface at Beaver prairie. Then at this place there was another great battle. Subbus was at length killed and his body torn to pieces; Moreover, its huge body damned the original channel of the Soleduck river and caused it to make the big bend to the southwestward at that place. And the huge pieces of blubber, now stone, cover the ground in the direction of its longitudinal extension. (This is a lateral moraine of the Selkirk-Mt. Baker glacier that crosses the region here--Reagan.) You can see the line of rock (boulder train) there at any time.
    My father (father of the medicine man who related this story to the writer) also told me that following the killing of this destroyer of the food-animals of mankind, there was a great storm and hail and flashes of lightning in the darkened, blackened sky and a great and crashing "thunder-noise" everywhere. He further stated that there were also a shaking, jumping up and trembling of the earth beneath, and a rolling up of the great waters.

For more flood legends from Native America, this site is fantastic.

This story again originates from Native America.  This particular account comes from the Makah Indians and was related by J. G. Swan in the book The Indians of Cape Flattery.  Swan tells us that this tradition is 'relative to a deluge or flood which occurred many years ago' and is the only case 'respecting any migratory movement among the Makahs':

''A long time ago," said by informant, "but not at a very remote period, the water of the Pacific flowed through what is now the swamp and prairie between Waatch village and Neeah Bay, making an island of Cape Flattery. The water suddenly receded leaving Neeah Bay perfectly dry. It was four days reaching it lowest ebb, and then rose again without any wave or breakers, till it had submerged the Cape, and in fact the whole country, excepting the tops of the mountains at Clyoquot. The water on its rise became very warm, and as it came up to the houses, those who had canoes put their effects into them, and floated off with the current, which set very strongly to the north. Some drifted one way, some another; and when the waters assumed their accustomed level, a portion of the tribe found themselves beyond Nootka, where their descendants now reside, and are known by the same name as the Makahs in Classett, or Kwenaitchechat. Many canoes came down in trees and were destroyed, and numerous lives were lost. The water was four days regaining its accustomed level." 

When we think about tsunamis, many of us would refer to 2011 earthquake off the Pacific coast of Thhoku, the most powerful recorded earthquake to hit Japan and the fourth most powerful earthquake in the world since modern record-keeping began in 1900, and the tsunami which followed.  The waves reached heights of 40.5 metres in places and travelled up to 6 miles (10km) inland, destroying everything in its path and killing over 15,000 people.

However, there is evidence for a mega-tsunami more than ten times larger along the coastline of eastern Australia.  The height of the tsunami would have exceeded the height of the largest earthquake-generated tsunami documented anywhere in the world in the past 5,000 years.  While there is no historic scientific record of this tsunami, Aboriginal legends give us plenty of accounts.  The following legend is believed to relate a comet-generated tsunami:

An Aboriginal Legend

    It was a stifling hot day, and all the Burragorang people lay prostrate around their camp unable to eat.  As night approached, no one could sleep because of the heat and the mosquitoes.  The Sun set blood red and the Moon rose full in the east through the haze.  With just a remnant of red in the western sky, the sky suddenly heaved, billowed, tumbled, and then tottered before crumbling.  The Moon rocked, the stars clattered, and the Milky Way split.  Many of the stars - loosened from their places - began to fall flashing to the ground.  Then a huge ball of burning blue fire shot through the sky at enormous speed.  A hissing sound filled the air, and the whole sky lit like day.  The the star hit the Earth.  The ground heaved and split open.  Stones flew up accompanied by masses of earth followed by a deafening roar that echoed through the hills before filling the world with complete noise.  A million pieces of molten fire showered the ground.  Everyone was awestruck and frozen in fear.  The sky was falling.  Smaller stars continued to fall throughout the night with great clamoring and smoke.  The next morning when all was quiet again only the bravest hunters explored beyond the campsite.  Great holes were burnt into the ground.  Wherever one of the largest molten pieces had hit, it had piled up large mounds of soil.  Many of these holes were still burning with flames belching out.  Down by the sea, they were amazed.  Fresh caves lined the cliffs.
    Soon stories reached them from neighboring tribes that not only had the sky fallen, but also the ocean.  These neighbors began talking about the great ancestor who had left the Earth and gone into the sky, and who had traveled so fast that he had shot through the sky.  The hole he had made had closed up.  This ancestor had tried to get back through the sky, by beating on top of it, but it had loosened and plummeted to the Earth, along with the ocean.    Before anyone could discuss this story, it began to rain - rain unlike anything anyone had seen before.  It rained all day and all night, and the rivers reached their banks and then crept out across the floodplains.  Still the rain came down, and the people and all the animals fled to the highest peaks.  Water covered the whole land from horizon to horizon unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.  It took weeks for the water to go down, everyone got very hungry, and many people died.  Nothing was the same after the night that the sky fell.  Now, whenever the sea grows rough and the wind blows, people know that the ocean is angry and impatient because the ancestor still refuses to let it go back whence it came.  When the storm waves break on the beach, people know that it is just the great ancestor beating the ocean down again.

The Moken Sea Gypsies of a small island off the coast of Thailand, most of whom survived the tsunami of 2004, have the legend of the Laboon - the great wave tat eats people.  The Laboon, believed to be sent by angry ancestral spirits, is said to be so fierce that other waves are afraid of it and run away before it's arrival.  The legend states how the sea recedes before the waters flood the Earth, destroying it and making it clean again.  So, when the sea began to recede in 2004, the Moken people knew exactly what to do and escaped to the hills before the tsunami hit land.

Sri Lanka have a legend which tells of the fight between the sea and the land which is everlasting.  According to this legend, there is a great tree on which the world sits.  When the tree becomes angry over the constant battle between land and sea, it shakes, sending the water away.  But the water returns to fight and, when it arrives, flows over the land, killing everything in its path. 
Another legend originating in Sri Lanka relates the story of how King Kalanitissa displeased the gods, causing a tsunami:

Uttiua, the brother of King Kalanitissa, once had a secret affair with his brother's wife, the queen.  When King Kalanitissa discovered this betrayal, Uttiua fled and hid among the people.  But Uttiua still wished to contact the queen, so he dressed a man as a Buddhist monk and sent him, hidden amongst many other monks, with a letter to the queen.  The disguised man managed to get close to the queen and dropped the letter at her feet.  But King Kalanitissa heard the noise of the letter hitting the ground and believed it had been sent by one of the Arahath Theras, the monks.  He was furious and immersed the monk in a cauldron of boiling oil, killing him.  The gods were very angry that the king would commit such an act and their anger was displayed in the ocean, which soon flowed over the land.  After much consultation with his ministers, King Kalanitissa sacrificed his daughter, Vihara Devi, to appease the gods, setting her afloat in a canoe on the ocean.  It was hoped that this offering would cool the gods anger and prevent the ocean from swallowing the villages.

More myths and legends concerning tsunamis can be found here.

That's all for today.  Tomorrow, I'm going to continue with the water theme and take a look at the Great Flood mythology.  Until next time.

Useful Resources.

Tsunami: The Underrated Hazard by Edward Bryant
Slaying the Gorgon: The Rise of the Storytelling Industrial Complex by Joe Mchugh
The Mythical Creatures Bibe: The Definitive Guide to Legendary Beings by Brenda Rosen

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