5 Mystical Historical Explanations for Natural Phenomena
Nowadays, everybody knows and understands natural phenomena. Or at least, we pretend we do. I doubt I could write out, in plain English, off the top of my head, how lightning is formed, but I understand that it’s generally caused by air pressure or… clouds? Okay, maybe I don’t know how it works, but I at least know it’s not just ghosts or a god’s sneeze or whatever. This is all thanks to smarter, more scientific people than me figuring it out.
Ancient civilizations didn’t have this benefit, and so, they were left to much more poetic possibilities when it came to things they couldn’t explain. They might not have been great at surgery or sewer systems, but one thing they were amazing at was storytelling. Their reasoning might not have given them much of a heads-up when a volcano was about to blow, but at least the lore behind it was incredible.
Here are five phenomena with delightful mystical explanations from the past…
Namazu the Earthquake Catfish
The catfish, especially in North America, is not a regal fish. It’s a goofy-looking bottom-feeder that’s yanked out of underwater holes by sparsely-fingered Southern fellas and fried up for cheap. In Japan, however, this isn’t the case — thanks probably in good part to the existence of their relative koi at least coming in a color other than “sewage.” In fact, there’s at least one mythical catfish that supposedly controlled the fate of the entire country.
That catfish is Namazu, a gigantic, stir-crazy catfish that lives beneath the earth. As the story goes, he’s only held in check by the god Kashima, who pins him down with a giant stone that serves as basically a huge mythical paperweight. Kashima, god that he is, however, still sometimes gets distracted and lets the stone fall, after which Namazu thrashes about, unleashing his devastating zoomies on the country above in the form of earthquakes. We know about tectonic plates now, but the legend still even lives on in official signage in the form of an adorable catfish logo on earthquake warning signs.
Giant Arctic Foxes Creating Northern Lights
Several scales of weirdness up from earthquakes, even in the modern age, are the Northern Lights. Aurora Borealis, at whatever time of year and wherever it’s localized, still feels too weird and beautiful to live entirely in the realm of science. So it makes sense, with even less information, that they’ve borne out plenty of delightful, invented origin stories. A common, if grim, one, is giving them the property of souls, whether coming or going, visible in the night sky.
My personal favorite, however, belongs to the Finnish. They call the lights revontulet, which means “fire fox.” This comes from the tale that the lights in the sky were the trails of huge mythical (what we now call) Arctic foxes kicking up snow into the moonlight. As someone who loves both adorable animals and ancient magic, it’s a tale that feels personally designed to make my brain warm.
Volcanoes Are Bits of a Dismembered Fire God
Volcanoes might have lost some of their mystery over time, but they’ve lost none of the respect. Whether you know where the hot bits come from or not, they’re still considered rad as hell or terrifying, depending on your proximity, to this day. When you’re spitting fire out of the ground, it makes sense too that people are going to come up with some cool stories to explain it. Here, we’re headed back to the Japanese storybooks for the most metal explanation of all.
It starts with the birth of the fire god, Kagu-tsuchi. As you can imagine, it was not an easy birth. His mother, Izanami, died giving birth to the little literal firebrand, which quickly made him his father’s least favorite son. The grief would eventually drive his father to pick up his sword and chop Kagu-tsuchi’s head off, then chop his body into eight neat little pieces, which landed on earth like a spilled order of maki rolls, forming volcanoes where they fell.
Thunder and Lightning Were Thor’s Goats
Thanks in good part to his weird inclusion in the Marvel universe, the connection between Thor and thunder is something that 8-year-olds already know from Target backpacks. Side note: What’s with random literary figures just hanging out with the Avengers? Why are Ant-Man and Dracula part of the same comic universe? Anyway, most people would intrinsically know that thunder and lightning in Norse mythology are connected to Thor.
What’s slightly weirder, though, is that the actual weather phenomena aren’t coming from Thor himself, but his chariot, pulled by two goats named Teeth-Barer and Teeth-Grinder. Goats that are also now part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sure, Thor might have preferred a cool eight-legged horse like his dad, but goats were, I guess, the Norse mythological equivalent of a used Jeep you’d get for your 18th birthday. The sparks and impact of this chariot running through the sky, in what we have to assume was a bit of a bumpy ride, were what they attributed lightning and thunder to.
Eclipses Getting Eaten
Eclipses, too, are something that are extremely cool now, but are probably more enjoyable when we know for a fact they aren’t signaling the apocalypse. Given how terrifying it must have been in the past, there’s a number of ancient civilizations that went straight to the explanation of some sort of mythic horror swallowing the sun. Unlike the others on this list, it’s too hard to pick just one, but it is fascinating that celestial vore was the quorum achieved by civilizations all across the planet. Whether it’s a wolf, a cat, a dragon, a decapitated demon’s head or a big-ass frog, when the sun disappeared, the de facto explanation was always that it had been eaten.
Eli Yudin is a stand-up comedian and writer living in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, What A Time to Be Alive about the five weirdest news stories of the week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.