We all know that myths are old. All that talk of locust plagues, oracles and cousins getting married clues us in pretty fast.
But if you’ve ever wondered just how old some of the world’s legends are, you’ll want to read Patrick Nunn’s engaging, authoritative and often astonishing The Edge of Memory: Ancient Stories, Oral Tradition and the Post-Glacial World (Bloomsbury 2018).
In one of the many stories in his book, Nunn introduces us to the Klamath, a tribe indigenous to western Oregon in the United States. Nineteenth-century settlers noticed the Klamath’s reluctance to approach a body of water called Crater Lake. The tribespeople said the lake was once a mountain that was home to the Chief of the Below World. Spurned by a local woman, the chief rained hot rocks on the woman’s people. The Above World Chief, furious at the assault, caused his underground counterpart’s mountainous home to collapse, leaving a hole that filled with water and became Crater Lake.
The pioneers scoffed at this tale. But a century later, the Klamath were vindicated.
Geologists found that a volcanic mountain did once stand on the site of the lake. The volcano erupted so violently that every drop of fluid spilled out of its magma chamber, causing the mountain to collapse inwards and form the cavity that became Crater Lake. The weirdest part? Radiometric dating puts this explosion at around 5,600 BCE.
Lovesick rock monster aside, the Klamath had the story down pat. How, Nunn asks, could eyewitness accounts survive in such perfect condition through 300-odd generations?
He tracks the origins and transmissions of myths the way a biologist tracks the evolution of a species. Offering geophysical evidence for some of the world’s most fantastical legends, Nunn draws on forensic and folk wisdom to suggest the edge of human memory is more distant than we thought.
By Greer Gamble