Earthquakes, myths and legends

Many writers more qualified than I am are writing about the unfolding horror and heartache of the earthquake and tsunami that have shattered the Japanese nation. It is a horrible reminder of the ease with which the earth can shrug its shoulders and be rid of us.

Earthquakes have always been with us – they are one of the consequences of the shifting tectonic plates that lie beneath. The other major consequences are volcanoes and the creation of mountains – which all gives the lie to the oft used phrase ‘solid ground.’

As with everything, humans have created stories over thousands of years to explain the phenomenon of earthquakes.

In Japan there is the Namazu legend – Namazu is a type of catfish and it features prominently in Japanese folklore, often as a foreteller of major upheavals – be these floods or earthquakes. In one of the versions of the tale the Namazu actually causes earthquakes. He lives in the mud below the earth and is kept there by the god Kashima, who holds a rock over him to prevent him escaping. Sometimes however, like all gods, his mind wanders and he forgets to hold him firmly in place. It is then that the giant catfish thrashes about causing the earth to quake. Like most legends around the world this is a story created to explain natural phenomena – not a truth that Japanese today would hold to.

Namazu, the giant catfish, being held down by the god Kashima

In different parts of Africa, earthquake legends have also arisen. One of these involves a compliant cow. The cow stands on a huge flat stone, and the stone in turn is resting on the back of a giant fish. The cow balances the earth on the tip of one of its horns, but the weight of this sometimes causes her neck to ache. When the aching gets too bad she tosses the earth onto the other horn. It is this movement that causes the earth to shake.

The cattle indigenous to this region are within the broad group of Sanga cattle, originating in the highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia. They are long horned (Sanga meaning Ox in the Oromo language of Ethiopia.) Among the breeds found in the eastern parts of Africa are the Ankole cattle – in the picture below of these beautiful creatures you will see how easy it is to imagine them tossing a globe from one horn to the other.

Ankole Cattle

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