Our planet is a pretty big place. It would take many lifetimes to travel the globe just to visit every square mile of it, and many more to take the time to sit and contemplate the things we see along the way. There are places of such extreme beauty so as to boggle poets into fervent scripting, but are evidently balanced by spots and specks of some of the most dangerous and fear-inspiring formations and events we can imagine. Of these are majestic volcanic peaks occurring the world over, and for the most part they rest silent, towering above us like massive stone gods commanding us to live in peaceful harmony under their slopes. Here at the foot of these great, relatively docile beasts can be found some of the most fertile soils in the world. So if it isn’t the sheer adoration of the sight that draws us to them, it is the basic human observation that rich earth can provide the best in food sustenance, fresh shadowed air and a focused mountain community. Put simply, it’s a nice place to live … until, of course, the most powerful geologic event known on Earth decides slowly to make its rumbling energy and thrust felt from miles beneath the surface, ending in unspeakable catastrophe.
Just as these violent scenarios have played out most recently at locations such as Mount St Helen in America’s northwest Cascade mountain range or the eruptions of Pinatubo, Pelee and Nevado El Ruiz around the world, they also occurred at other remote (and not so remote) locations over the course of recorded history, through the Holocene and on into the distant past before, during and after the dinosaurs ruled the Earth. An eruption – large or small – can hardly have gone unnoticed by any living creature at any time. And since our human capacities allow us to blend cosmologies into what we see much deeper than the average member of the animal world would, it should come as no surprise that when we look to the roots of human psyche (be it historic or prehistoric) we find remnant allusions to and accounts of volcanism.
The intent of this work is to therefore investigate and consider the influence of volcanic events and how they relate to historic beliefs of ancient peoples, in which case an excellent historical candidate is the group residing in northeast Africa, namely (but not limited to) the ancient Egyptians. By examining their texts – focusing on their chief creation myth – and by looking at the pyramid form itself we find there are quite evident markers for volcanological influences. Given time frames of eruptions in the surrounding regions (especially those of a greener Saharan environment), more recent continuous activity of the Bayuda Volcano Field (and others), plus migration routes of people on the African continent as related to environmental changes of the past 10-20 thousand years, there can be little doubt of the people of the Holocene having witnessed such cataclysms, eventually incorporating them into their lore.
Planting the seed
What is it about a volcano that would inspire a foundation for certain myths and cosmologies? The answer is simple: whether it be a slow, turtle-like advance of lava flows or an all-out thundering explosion moving millions of tons of rock in seconds, the fear and awe of an eruption can be so great as to be impossible not to be thrust into the mind and memory like the hammer of Thor. Even though modern scientists have a fairly good understanding of what is going on, observing an eruption can be a frightening experience, so in comparison, an individual living 10 or 50 or 100 thousand years ago would have ended up in a psychological frenzy for the rest of their lives. They’d have searched for an answer to what was happening, and the usual response would have been an attribution to some mystical force, thus creating legends and myths. The same can be said of any natural disaster, like floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, tornados and hurricanes. But as destructive as these can be, the true king of local ecosystem obliteration is, was and always will be the volcano. It is also set apart from the others because (ironically) in the wake of an eruption comes new life, as we shall see. The ancients knew nothing of meteorology or geology – they simply saw in their environment the will of the gods being acted out in brutish, devastating reality. From this, myths were born.
Why is a volcano a step above the rest? Just what exactly is a volcano and how does it work?
The first question some might call argumentative once the debate is opened. However, when overall impact, forces and amount of material are considered, nothing can really compare to many kilometers of debris, ash and lava being expelled in a number of hours. Nothing in nature can ensconce such a richness of fury better than a volcano. Recently, in 2005, hurricane Katrina delivered serious damage to the north coastal region of the Gulf of Mexico (especially to the city of New Orleans), and although the destruction will have repercussions for years to come, it cannot and will not affect global climate for years, whereas certain volcanic eruptions can and have done so. Thus, volcanoes have a certain edge on other events in nature, but this is not necessarily limited to global climate changes. This brings us to the second question about just what is it we’re looking at.
A volcano is basically a geologic feature found in conjunction with an opening in the Earth’s crust that allows internal material (be it liquid or gaseous) called magma to be ejected onto the surface. Though mountains are closely associated with volcanoes and are the more common form, such an end-formation is not always the case. For instance, a rarer result is merely a low-lying lava flow and/or ash deposit – like those seen on the Hawaiian and Icelandic islands. Generally speaking, superheated materials in liquid form rise like blobs from the lower part of the mantle (the asthenosphere) up into the lower lithosphere (the ‘harder’ crust that makes up the surface of the Earth) due to the great pressures they are under. These blobs of molten material form into magma chambers which can either ‘carve out’ (by melting) a path to the surface or happen to coalesce at a weak (thinner) point of the lithosphere. If the surface is weak, chances are an eruption is not going to be that big of a deal, however when the strength of the surface is stronger the upward pressures form a bulge in the surface, essentially holding back for as long as it can. Any number of further properties (like rate of rise, size of magma chamber, etc) can determine how big of a bang is imminent. Predicting the exact force of an eruption to any great degree is beyond the means of current geologic knowledge, but general determinations are possible.
When an eruption occurs, it is hard to miss. In most cases, increased earthquake activity usually precedes an eruption, but sometimes there is just no telling, as in the case of a Mexican farmer named Dionisio Pulido. Out tilling his cornfield one day in 1943, a sudden hissing accompanied by clouds of sulfuric smoke sprang out of a small depression. After one day there was a cinder cone of ash nearly 10m high in his field. After a week it had reached 170m, and in a year – 370m. When the newly named ‘Paricutin’ finally went to sleep nine years later its elevation had reached 2,272m. All from nothing and without warning of any kind. On the opposite side of the scale, volcanoes like Vesuvius in Italy gave fair but unheeded warning in the days and weeks leading up to its terrestrial wrath, eventually raining down instant havoc and devastation onto the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79AD. These different types of eruptions are categorized (in one way) by an interpretation of the amount of tephra ejected, with each successive eruption being 10 times the lesser. The scale is called the Volcanic Explosivity Index or ‘VEI’. Table 1 gives some examples for comparison.
Table 1. Volcanic Explosivity Index examples
|VEI||Tephra Volume (km3)||Volcano|
|0||Effusive||Mauna Loa (Hawaii)|
|1||> 0.0001||Poas (Costa Rica)|
|2||> 0.001||Ruapehu (New Zealand)|
|3||> 0.01||Nevado del Ruiz (Columbia)|
|4||> 0.1||Pelee (West Indies)|
|5||> 1||Vesuvius (Italy)|
|6||> 10||Krakatau (Indonesia)|
|7||> 100||Tambora (Indonesia)|
|8||> 1000||Yellowstone (USA)|
If ancient Egypt is to be investigated for signs of volcanic lore and reverence, it certainly helps to look at other known volcanoes or regions in order to develop a sense of how the relative myths were formed. It also helps later to identify iconography and wording in the proper context when examining the ancient Egyptian landscape.
Mauna Loa – Hawaii
“The awesome results of volcanic eruptions, the Hawaiians believed, were the work of a fearsome deity named Pele, the goddess of fire … When annoyed, she would stamp her foot, and the earth would shake. When enraged, she might hurl fiery boulders (volcanic bombs) at offending mortals … sometimes [her] lava would flow down to the Sea and create new land. Pele’s power was equaled only by that of her sister Namaka o Kahai, the goddess of the sea, who could quench Pele’s fires and erode the land created by her cooled and hardened lava … [Pele’s] mother was Haumea, who personified the earth. Pele emerged from Haumea as molten lava. Her father was Ku-waha-ilo, the ‘man-eater’ who represented the destructive forces of nature. Pele and her sister were born on a mythical island somewhere in the South Pacific. Just as fire and water are incompatible, the sisters were always in conflict. To escape this sibling rivalry, Pele sailed away from their homeland in a great canoe provided by her brother Ka-moho-alii, the shark god. Namaka went off to a high peak on another island, where she could command all the seas. Pele had a magic digging tool called Paoa. Wherever she landed, she struck Paoa into the earth and opened a volcanic crater where she could live. At first these small volcanoes were near the seashore, on the flanks of mountains rather than at their tops, and Pele’s sister the sea goddess inevitably sent waves that doused the fires. In the Hawaiian islands, many of them were formed by the explosive interaction of magma and seawater that seeped through fractures.” – [De Boer and Sanders: 22, 32]
Vesuvius and the Phlegraean Fields of Italy
Centered on the eastern flank of the Bay of Naples’ arc-line is the world famous Mount Vesuvius, while on the northeastern end of the arc lies a broad inland field of vastly ancient (some, not so ancient) volcanic cones – aptly named the Phlegraean Fields. (Etymologically speaking, the term ‘flagrant’ means ‘to burn’.) As for Mount Vesuvius the famed poet and author Virgil (70-19BCE) decidedly claimed that after the wars between the gods and giants (a literary appropriation of numerous earthquakes in and around the Bay of Naples, and is seen reflected in the Greek war of Gods v. Titans) one of them was imprisoned under Vesuvius, his anger and fury of incarceration thereafter echoing through the mountain’s outer walls.
Turning to the Phlegraean area 20 kilometers to the northwest, these fields contain at least two very notable references: the first is a cone now filled with water (Lake Averno), which is mentioned in Virgil’s Aeneid as being the entrance to the Roman underworld, while the second reference is to La Solfatara which the Romans saw par excellence as the forge of Vulcan. It is quite clear where the term ‘volcano’ comes from. These fields of fire even inspired the great work of Dante Alighieri – his Inferno – wherein humanity and its souls are introduced to the nine levels of hell.
A few surprises?
1. Teotihuacán: Sometime in the 6th century CE the people vanished from the city, while not long after, the city itself was supposedly razed to the ground by an unknown army wielding fire as their primary weapon. A layer of ash among the ruins provides ample testimony for this mysterious attack on a ghost town. Was this an army of soldiers, or could it have been something else?
Pretty much any and every modern visitor to the site finds great excitement in climbing to the top of the Pyramid of the Moon, then with tourismic awe they turn toward the avenue below – the ‘Way of the Dead’ – happily snapping a memorable photo. However, no one – it seems – really takes the time to look in the exact opposite direction, for if one stands at the southern end of the avenue facing the Pyramid of the Moon a prefect line of sight is created along the roadway, through the dead center of the pyramid, finally pointing to Cerro Gordo – a now calm volcano rising nearly 3000 ft above the surrounding plain and only 5 km away. Such an alignment does appear to have some significance as regards a volcano (plus, the next nearest mount competing with Cerro Gordo’s elevation is three times the distance away). These things in mind, one has to wonder if the core cosmology of the original architects was actually based on the volcano itself, and perhaps was the real reason behind the sudden and unexplained exodus away from Teotihuacán. The idea of there being reverence for volcanism is compounded to a very high degree once an investigator is informed of a little expressed fact … for hundreds of kilometers in any direction from Teotihuacán (except to the northeast) are vast numbers of cinder cones, strato-volcanoes, etc, numbering in the thousands. Heightened activity and being constantly surrounded by mountainous pyres of destruction is certainly a good enough reason to abandon a city for a century or so.
2. Many people know the story of Noah in the Bible. One of the main features in this story is where his ark first found land, which was the now-famous Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey. On the opposite side of things many people do not know this mountain is actually a volcano situated among others in the region. The Global Volcanism Program has this to say about it:
“The 5165-m-high, double-peaked stratovolcano Mount Ararat, also known as Agri Dagi, is Turkey’s highest, largest volume, and easternmost volcano. Glacier-clad Ararat, along with its twin volcano, 3925-m-high Kucuk Ararat (or Lesser Ararat), covers an area of 1000 sq km at the eastern end of a SSW-ESE line of volcanoes extending from Nemrut Dagi. Construction of the Greater and Lesser Ararat volcanoes was followed by a period of extensive flank eruptions, many erupted along N-S-trending fissures. The initial stage of flank eruptions produced a cluster of cinder cones and dacitic-rhyolitic lava domes surrounding Greater Ararat and a series of pyroclastic cones and domes on the western flank of Lesser Ararat. Late-stage activity formed large pyroclastic cones lower on the flanks of the two volcanoes. Ararat appears to have been active during the 3rd millennium BC; pyroclastic-flow deposits overlie early Bronze Age artifacts and human remains. Karakhanian et al. (2002) reported historical evidence for a phreatic eruption and pyroclastic flow at the time of a July 1840 earthquake and landslide.”
With plenty of candidates in the region for an ark to have landed, it makes one curious about why Mount Ararat was ‘chosen’ as the place where life on Earth was essentially given its second chance, so with the awareness of its true nature as an active volcano during an auspicious time of Bible interpretive-writing there is good reason to suspect the root idea came from reverence and fear of its volcanic status and not merely because it was a local high point.
3. Another well-known story from the Bible is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, where – literally – fire and brimstone rained from the sky, destroying these towns. A closer look at their approximated locations close to the Dead Sea reveals an expected truth: nearby are remnants of volcanic activity just above the eastern embankment of this sea.
From the above examples it is apparent volcanoes have played in important role in forming many worldwide myths concerning allusions – or direct references – to them, and rightly so. Therefore it should come as no surprise if when we turn to northeastern Africa and its associated peoples we ought to find similar and consistent myth-forming scenarios, especially since the region has an extensive and continuous history of volcanism.
What circumstances would lead to incorporations into African-based myths?
People naturally inhabit a region that can support their basic survival needs. The majority of a population subjected to extreme conditions will tend to move on to ‘greener pastures’, while only a select few and hardier types will remain dedicated to staying on. (Two prime examples of the latter individuals would be the Inuit and Bedouin tribes.) Since the focal question here involves northeastern Africa we need to look at the paleoclimatological history of that region and those directly related to it, namely the whole of northern Africa. By doing so migration routes can be traced in general form.
LGM (Last Glacial Maximum)
Approximately 19,000 years ago the Earth as whole experienced a top-out of cooler temperatures accompanied by heightened aridity. In northern Africa, the Sahara was as much a dry and sandy land as it is today, but more so. As Figure.1 shows, populations would naturally have moved in a southerly direction – away from the arid conditions in the north. Archaeological work done in the area of Lake Chad reveals an increase in population in west-central Africa where water resources were more abundant, practically standing out as a sort of focal meeting place on the continent. Meanwhile in east-central Africa a large portion of the Ethiopian region also seems to have survived from hyper-arid conditions, seemingly standing out as a sea-sized oasis. This was obviously helped along by the extensive mountain ranges found here. It also supports the idea that humans would have naturally migrated toward it, and in due course would have run into (or had continued to live among) a volcanically active area. Of special interest are the Bayuda Volcano Field (BVF) and Meidob Volcano Field (MVF), which will be discussed shortly. Since cooler and dryer situations verily force human migrations away from them, they also result in greater population density in and around volcanism – at least in the case of eastern Africa. At this point it is appropriate to note that such geologic activity has been continuous for hundreds of thousands of years (as have alterations in climate compelling migrations into or through such areas) so there would be a vastly ancient history of human experience with these phenomena. Over the course of the next few thousand years this climatic trend began to change with the advent of slightly warmer conditions. These in turn led to a change in the north African environment, that is, to a wetter one, supplemented by slow migrations away from the humid African outposts. Nevertheless, a more comfortable living situation still had not developed overall. It would take a noticeable event later on to set this in motion. In geological terms a rapid change was on the horizon which would thrust our planet out of the glacial age into what we now know as the Holocene Era.
Figure 1. Africa during the LGM.
The Younger Dryas Era
Changes in climate are by no means linear, and the global activity encountered during the Younger Dryas is a good example of how the transitional phasing out of an ice age is not strictly a warming trend. This age saw a brief yet noticeable return to cooler and more arid environments lasting for a millennium or so. However, the overall warming of our planet continued unabated, even though temperatures were in a constant state of flux. What brought this age to an end is defined by the cusp event that led directly to what we call the Holocene Era. The apparently normal millennial-long variations were all thrown to the wind when c.11,500 years ago a permanent and acute transition occurred over the course of about 15 years. As temperatures rose near the end of the Younger Dryas, moister climates emerged, in turn giving rise to higher methane expenditure from swamps and other biotic sources [Adams, et. al.: 1999]. While all this was going on, humanity was beginning to experience its first child-steps toward forming civilizations. With increase in population density there was a natural need to form more ordered communities.
The Holocene Era
And so, with a new climatic environment emerging out of the ice age, the stage was set for the advancement of basic society. Thanks to situational boundaries the people of northeastern Africa were exposed to volcanism moreso than if there were no arid phases basically forcing them into these areas. And because a new-found sense of community was developing, there would also have been greater communication, especially replete with curious content in regards to the world they lived in. No doubt this would have included such topics as the Sun and Moon, improved hunting techniques and weapons, and of course the awesome and mysterious forces of nature. As regards the latter, a now millennial-long relationship with volcanoes would surely have found its way into legends.
Figure 2. Africa during the early Holocene.
In a nutshell, the prehistory of northeast Africa’s indigenous population would have gone something like this: First, pushed away by the hyperaridity of the Sahara during the LGM and on until the onset of the Holocene, communities settled around wetter and warmer areas, which in the case of eastern-central Africa happened to include volcanic fields of activity. Second, with the advent of a greener Sahara in the first couple of millennia of the Holocene Era, people re-inhabited the northern expanse in greater numbers, bringing with them memories of where they came from (at the same time the core that settled around the cordoned-off grasslands and forests would have stayed on, continuing a relationship with the volcanic activity). During the Holocene there were a number of VFs (volcano fields) active where they would have lived. Greater proximity to VFs provides a stronger case for witnessing and thereby incorporating these awesome events into myth. Lastly, toward the age when true civilizations began to form c.5-6kya, hyperaridity returned to the Sahara and the diasporas spread to the desert’s outer rim once again, settling for good among the surviving oases (like Dakhla, Kharga, and Farafra), the Nile Valley, and so on. But like the hardier types mentioned earlier, not all sought refuge in greener environments; those with good survival skills and a fair serving of intestinal fortitude stayed on at remote locations in the eastern desert of Egypt (for instance at Gilf Kebir). Indeed, studies of ceramics [Lange: 2000] found at desert locations have proven to be the original source of certain styles only seen later on in ancient Egypt. This in itself tells us that at least a portion of their history has its roots outside of the Nile Valley, providing further testimony how distant legend and myth also made its way to the river. But ceramics are only part of the tale because of the hint of earlier mummification found in the desert (i.e. the ‘Black Mummy’ exposed recently by Savino Di Lernia of the University of Rome) and the fascinating and archaic rock art found all over northeast Africa which presumes an early source for what would later become the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph writing system. Because of these ample archaeological results outside of Egypt which suggest a root of influence, the next question concerns what exactly would have been the inspiration for volcanic allusions found in ancient Egyptian tales and religious texts.
Volcanic fields of Africa
Libya, Meidob, etc
At some point during their travels and occupations of northern Africa, groups would have undoubtedly been familiar with the geographically associated VFs of their environment. Two fine examples are found in the modern-day countries of Libya and Sudan (although such examples are not limited to these areas) (Figure 3). During the initial transit from the Sahara, they’d have left behind the Libyan, Chadic, etc VFs only to see the Sudan VFs looming on the horizon after naturally following the path of aridity encroachment (in both easterly and south-easterly directions), finally arriving at the southern Nile where they would continue to co-exist under the shadow of volcanism at the Bayuda VF in Sudan (item 15 in Figure 3.). Of course, they would not have been the first to come across such things along the southern Nile as we would expect other tribes to already have held extensive and continuous occupation of this section of the river. The combined experiences of the regionally indigenous folk and those who slowly migrated there would eventually lead to a wider and perhaps new cosmology, thereafter solidifying the early references of volcanic mythos in northeastern Africa. Such religious grandeur undoubtedly bled north along the Nile as the millennia passed, bringing with it much more inspiring and awesome beliefs and concepts then might have been developing to the north. After all, imagery wrought from a naïve comprehension of earth forces certainly outweighs ‘lesser’ god figures associated with members of the animal kingdom (less, perhaps, the lion and crocodile), water, or even sky. The sheer overwhelming nature of volcanic-based cosmology forces it to become a lasting staple within the whole of religious beliefs that were yet to blossom. This has been largely overlooked when investigating ancient religion because the idea of an ancient relationship with volcanism is simply not present nor considered during the research. Applying these concepts reveal startling realities and open the door to fully appreciating some of the ideas seen in ancient Egyptian religion.
Figure 3 Legend: 1. Algeria VF I 2. Algeria VF II 3. Algeria VF III 4. Niger VF 5. Libya VF I 6. Libya VF II 7. Libya VF III North 8. Libya VF III South 9. Libya VF IV North 10. Libya VF IV South 11. Chad VF West 12. Chad VF East 13. Sudan VF I (‘Marra’) 14. Sudan VF II (‘Meidob’) 15. Sudan VF III (‘Bayuda’).
Sudan VF III: Bayuda and more
Seen along the southeastern arc of desert expansion are at least two notable VFs – Marra and Meidob – while just off this arc and to the east we find the Bayuda VF nestled within a curve of the Nile River (Figure 3: items 13, 14 and 15 respectively). The time frame of activity of these fields and their location along natural hominid migration routes suggest very strongly their volcanic eruptions were undoubtedly witnessed. Considering a long history of lore reaching back many more thousands of years and that grouped volcanism would have an equal or greater affect to the witnessing of a single sequestered eruption (e.g. Krakatau, Kilimanjaro, etc.) it is difficult to think such real-world experience would not have had an impact on the people lucky (or not so lucky) enough to be there.
Thus, the Bayuda VF’s prominent position next to the Nile gives us ample reason to investigate the later extant cosmological concepts of the ancient Egyptians who had definitive roots at this comparatively southern Nile location. Indeed, this bend in the Nile has an extensive history in the post-Unification epoch. Two immediate examples are: [a] the reverence for Gebel Barkal whose prominent stone ‘spike’ reminded the locals of the cobra symbol associated with a version of their sun god, and [b] the royal focal point of Meroe, the latter of which held control of Egypt in late antiquity. In fact, a few miles downriver from Meroe and actually buttressed against the western flanks of the Nile is the 15 mile-wide aa deposit (a specific type of volcanic flow/deposit; first given the name in Hawaii) of Umm Massart. The late geologic history of this volcano was most certainly not missed during the 3000-year existence of the Egyptian kingdom and might well – in part – explain the choice of the late pharaonic retreat to the area. The idea would be that a connection between the volcano and cosmology was not lost on them over the centuries, making it a sort of pilgrimage to an old stomping ground of the gods. With a practically ‘bubbling’ earth at Bayuda as a hub for the small region, the notion of volcanism being found in Egyptian myth takes little imagination, if any.
Figure 4. Image mosaic of the Chad (West), Meidob and Bayuda volcanic fields. For all intents and purposes, the areas where the earth practically ‘bubbled’ with volcanic activity in recent millennia.
Affecting the psyche
In Myth and Text
In its most general form the Egyptian creation myth has an emerging mound as its central feature. Rising from the primeval waters is the mound which would lead to all life and matter of environment on earth. That this is different from a mound rising from the ground is explained by way of myth creation: When first contemplating where all solid ground came from, it would have been assumed there was no ground in the beginning, thus implying water must have come before. Observing a volcano shows ‘new’ ground coming from below the surface, so with the simple back-stepping of ground emergence one can only conclude water is what the first mound emerged from. We note here that the first god is Geb, which in his capacity is the personification of earth. Further to this, a volcanic eruption releases material, be it clouds of ash or lava flows, and since these can generally translate into air and liquid (i.e. moisture) it is no surprise the next two gods to emerge from the rising mound (‘Geb’) are Shu and Tefnut, the gods of air and moisture, respectively. Visualizing a volcano in action blends quite well into the creation myth. Even a brief expose of a destruction myth has the people receiving their judgment (i.e. ‘death’) after being brought to a mountain [Budge: 392].
In the Pyramid Texts we find the king ascending to the sky in what appears to be an unusual way. Normally consistent throughout these archaic texts is that the king ascends by means of the air, an ethereal ladder, a ‘sun’ barque and so on. Such things are very much metaphysical, and were manifest due to a need to fulfill the unknowns of nature prevalent at the time of writing. In the instance of Utterance 509, however, “ … the sky thunders, the earth quakes, Geb quivers, the two domains of the god roar …” [Faulkner: 1998, 184]. With this as a mode of ascension the king eventually gets to his destination – the sky. What makes this a clear description of a volcano is that earthquakes (common enough in northeast Africa) aren’t synonymous with a thundering sky. However, these two quaking entities do appear together during a volcanic eruption (thunder and lightning are born out of the kilometer-high smoke plume, which essentially takes on the role of a thunder cloud). The witness reports of Pliny the Younger concerning Vesuvius, recent modern accounts and the basic science of volcanology today show this to be true. Utterance 510 [Faulkner: 1998, 186] may well be describing a volcanic plume in the form of the arms of a god: “ … while Geb, with one arm to the sky and the other to the earth, announces me to Re [the sun god] … “. Later in the same Utterance Geb is the form of the king, which in turn appears to describe a volcano: “ … The Gods come to me bowing, the spirits serve me because of my power; they have broken their staffs and smashed their weapons because I am the great one [a comparison of power; the king’s mode in ‘volcano’ form is much greater than any weapon], the son of the great one, whom Nut bore. My strength is the strength of Seth [archaic god of chaos and destruction] and Nubet [female compliment to the masculine deity of creation; Wilkinson: 156] … I am the flowing fluid, I have issued from the creation waters; I am a snake, multitudinous of coils; I am this head-band of red colour … ”, the last parts very reminiscent of lava flows. This theme continues in Utterance 511, and armed with the view of volcanism we can – perhaps – unravel other heretofore ‘confusing’ textual excerpts (NB: Faulkner surprisingly doesn’t see nor refer to the idea of volcanism even though the above examples are explicit). This trend continues in the later Coffin texts, where in Spell 336 we read, “ … Fifty cubits along its side are fire, the tip of its flame crosses the land from the sky and the gods have said of it: ‘It means blackness(?)’ …”. At this point Faulkner puts a question mark beside ‘blackness’, and explains in his footnote the word seems to be a corruption of ‘charcoal’ or ‘soot’ [Faulkner: 2004, 269-271]. The remaining context of the Spell 336 and others in the Coffin Texts (e.g.: Spell 316) reveal stunning imagery that can only be a volcano. Interestingly, the only mention of a ‘Lake of Fire’ in the Coffin Texts occurs in Spells 335 and 336. However, allusions to it and other volcanic attributes can be found throughout.
Solving ‘pyramid’ and more?
Etymologists and enthusiasts alike have had a hard time when trying to define the origin of the term ‘pyramid’. In this form it is Greek, and many have noted the prefix of ‘pyr’ (Greek for ‘fire’) but none have made the connection to a ‘volcano’ theme. The actual, purer Greek form of the word is ‘pyramis’, meaning ‘bread’. How to resolve the question of why the Greeks chose the term ‘pyramid’ as a label for these great heaps of stone comes in what bread is. Bread is baked to ‘rise’ from heat/cooking. This reads into a volcano well in how it rises/ascends from/with heat. In context, the Egyptian term for ‘pyramid’ is ‘mr’, which is thought to mean ‘ascend’. However I.E.S Edwards asserts it is a ‘place or instrument of ascent’ [Meltzer]. Had a Greek required to label something after being told the Egyptian meaning it makes sense to allude to the best relative term in his own language. In hindsight it may not have been the closest term, but it does work. Thus, in the fuller context of ‘monument of ascent’, ‘pyre’ within the term and the general root ideas of the words themselves, the input of volcano seems to resolve the etymological issue. At the same time it reveals how and why a pyramid form (and size – at least in the early Egyptian kingdom) could very well have been produced by either direct or indirect association with volcano myth, which in a small way underlies part of ancient Egyptian lore. Even Manetho – torn between two worlds of influence (Egypt and Greece) – placed Hephaestus as the first of all gods in his famous chronological lists [Waddell:3]. Greek in all his forms, Hephaestus seems an odd choice by Manetho who is thought to be of pure ancient Egyptian stock because we see his list of kings and deities drawn directly from Egypt (with Greek-ized versions of the names). So why place a Greek god at the head of all existence in Egypt? As it turns out, Hephaestus is also known by his Roman name; ‘Vulcan’. By accepting volcanic lore as being part of ancient Egypt’s cosmology, such themes and deity assignments begin to seem sensible. Perhaps Manetho’s choice was deliberate, revealing to us a lost and misinterpreted cosmological foundation. It tells us that at some point volcanism helped to form an ancient theosophy, one that would be overshadowed by metaphysical interpretations of the sky (sun, moon, and stars) and local environment (seen in the myriad of anthropomorphic deities – the lion, the crocodile, the falcon, and so on.).
Looking even closer at the pyramids of ancient Egypt sheds light on possible volcanic influences. For example, the truncation of a pyramid mimicking the ‘loss’ of the top of a volcanic peak. Or, we can appreciate a dual meaning for the shafts within the Great Pyramid, where one instance is as a metaphysical aid for the pharaoh’s soul to the reach the sky, while the other suggests a reference to the focused expelling of tephra through mountainside vents, with the similar aid of transporting the soul from within to the sky. As noted earlier, the ancient texts do refer to the king ascending to the sky in this fashion. Another example would be the explicit reverence for – and naming of – the ‘Black Land’, which was very much the local name for Egypt. For them, it was sacred land, and when taken in the context of volcanoes the southern fields covered in black ash speak volumes. Even the specific hieroglyphs used when communicating ‘land’ create an appeasing all-in-one perspective.
After thousands of years of continued experience with volcanism right on their doorstep, it seems entirely reasonable that a proportionate amount of the events remained securely incorporated in the original, basic cosmology. There is the awe of the event; there is the plausible witnessing of the VFs; there is the evidence of origins in the Sahara (pottery styles, drawings, and mummification); the Nubian ‘retreat’ of late pharaohs; the continued reverence for lands to the west and south of the northern Nile; the pyramid form; Pyramid and Coffin Text references; creation myth references; and so on. Through it all, the volcano has been overlooked as a key environmental icon. Perhaps what we’re looking at is just the tip of the iceberg … or … volcano.
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