The Mythological Origins of 9 Natural Wonders
Meet the gods, giants, and ambulatory volcanoes behind your favorite works of nature.
Plate tectonics, erosion, termites. These scientific explanations for how mountains, volcanoes, and their ilk are created are all well and good, but where’s the drama? What about the less accurate but more exciting explanations for some of the world’s most incredible natural wonders? If you like your origin stories with a little more narrative flair, discover the myths and legends that explain how these natural wonders came to be.
WHERE: Northern Ireland
These incredible basalt formations are the handiwork of Fionn mac Cumhaill, who sometimes appears as a giant or a human hero with superhuman abilities. Fionn is said to have built the causeway after he was challenged to a fight by Benandonner, a Scottish giant. Fionn’s causeway allowed him to walk across the North Channel and duke it out with his Scottish challenger. One version depicts Fionn as winning the fight but another iteration involves considerably more hijinks. Fionn, not wanting to fight Benandonner, instead disguises himself as a baby. Benandonner, upon seeing the bizarrely large baby, assumes that whoever sired the child must himself be abnormally huge and flees back across the causeway, destroying it in his haste.
In the case of Crater Lake, the myths about its creation echo the tumultuous geological history. Thousands of years ago, Mount Mazama stood in the place where Crater Lake is today. In Klamath legend, Llao, the god of the underworld, was standing on Mount Mazama when he spotted and fell in love with a woman. But when she refused to go live with him in the underworld, he burst through the top of the mountain and fire rained down on the people below. Skell, the god of the upper world, did battle with Llao, eventually driving him back inside the mountain. Llao then filled the crater with water.
There are a couple of variations on the legends surrounding the creation of Devils Tower, but all of them have an ursine element. According to Kiowa legend, seven sisters were being chased by bears. The girls climbed on a rock and one of the girls asked the rock to take pity on them and save them. The rock suddenly grew into a towering pillar. But the bears continued to climb and scratch at the sides of the pillar. So the rock continued to grow into the sky where the seven sisters became the seven stars that make up the Pleiades. In Sioux legend, two boys are chased by a giant bear. The boys ran as far as they could but, exhausted and with the bear still in pursuit, one of the boys prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. The rock rose up into the sky and, though the giant bear scratched at the sides of the rock, it eventually gave up. The boys were then helped down from the rock and back to their village by a giant eagle.
Jeffrey T. Kreulen/Shutterstock
Tunupa and Salar de Uyuni
In Aymara legend, volcanoes once walked and interacted with one another. The volcanoes were all male except for one—Tunupa. When Tunupa gave birth to a smaller volcano there was just one problem: It was impossible to know who the father was because Tunupa had been courted by all the other volcanoes. The other volcanoes fought over who the father was, eventually stealing Tunupa’s son and hiding him away. The gods, incensed by the volcanoes’ fighting, took away their ability to walk and talk. Devastated and separated from her son, Tunupa wept and wept, her tears and breastmilk covering the surrounding land, creating the salt flats.
In the Namib Desert, parts of the grasslands are a patchwork of barren spots known as “fairy circles.” According to local myths, the spots are footprints that have been left behind by gods or spirits. And while some of the other formations and phenomena on this list have solid scientific explanations, the exact truth behind what causes “fairy circles” is still not fully understood.
Just off the coast of a stunning black sand beach are three towering basalt sea stacks rising out of the water. But, if legend is to believed, these aren’t sea stacks at all but trolls. It’s said that two trolls saw a ship out on the water and decided to wade out to retrieve it. But as the trolls were dragging the ship back inland the sun rose and turned the trolls and the ship to stone.
In Norse mythology, the spectacle of the Northern Lights is caused by light reflecting off the shield and armor of the Valkyries as they lead valorous souls into Valhalla. In the Sámi tradition, the lights are also associated with death, but instead of representing an aspirational afterlife, the lights were something to be feared. Sámi legend says the lights are the souls of the dead and were potentially a bad omen.
Located in the Tyrrhenian Sea, this volcano isn’t just any volcano, it is the volcano. The very word volcano derives from the name of this island. According to Roman mythology, the volcano at the heart of the island is actually the chimney of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and metalworking.
Mountains of Montalban
WHERE: The Philippines
The legendary figure Bernardo Carpio is sometimes characterized as a giant or sometimes a man of supernatural strength. Either way, he is credited not only with creating a gorge in the Montalban mountains but with earthquakes. It’s said that he was trapped between Mt. Pamitinan and Mt. Binacayan, and when he tried to escape them by pushing the mountains apart he created the gorge where Wawa Dam is currently located. Other versions of the story say that Bernardo is trying to keep the mountains from crashing into each other.