“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe” – H.G. Wells
Earth is not a particularly safe place. There’s a lot of flotsam and jetsam out there in the solar system, just waiting to pummel us into some sort of mass extinction event. The good news is that the kind of space rocks that could cause catastrophic destruction on a global scale are few and far between. This is of little comfort to the dinosaurs, but suggests that we’re probably more likely to blow ourselves to oblivion long before another sizable asteroid comes hurtling at us. Smaller impacts that nonetheless have significance are far more common. Hundreds of earth impacts or exploding bolides have been documented throughout recorded human history with more localized consequences. Roughly 500 meteorites (usually less than 3 feet wide on impact) reach the ground per year, with only 5 or 6 big enough to register on radar, leave a small crater, or result in a debris field. A good portion of the Earth is water or uninhabited, so most of this stuff goes unnoticed, although even in the past two centuries or so, we’ve noted some nasty incidents such as the 1908 Tunguska Event or the 2013 Chelyabinsk Meteor. Since most people, for most of human history were illiterate and we’ve only been taking notes for about 6000 years anyway, the farther back one trawls the historical record, the less likely it is that anyone with adequate penmanship felt compelled to make a record. Curiously, a number of Native American oral traditions highlight an ancient catastrophic event as central to their tribal origin myths collectively called “The World Fire” by folklorists, all of which are highly suggestive that some sort of catastrophic event related to rocks falling from the sky had big enough effects to be remembered by every generation since.
The Miwok tribe of Northern California are thought to have been descendants of Siberians who migrated across the Bering Straits some 20,000 years ago, and were well established in the region about 3000 years ago. There aren’t that many Miwok around to ask anymore, but Miwok myths suggest a rain of fiery stones caused a massive conflagration, which was attributed to lovelorn figure named Snipe, whose amorous advances were soundly rejected by White Goose Girl.
Snipe wanted to marry White Goose girl, but she wouldn’t have him. Snipe became very angry at this. In fact, so humiliated and angry was he that he left home and went away towards the north, with a wicked purpose in his mind. As he traveled northward he held a stone in his hand. This he kept throwing away from him, and wherever the stone landed a fire started. Then the stone would come back to Snipe, and he would throw it in some other direction, and where it landed a fire started there, also. Each time he threw the stone it returned to him, and, as he kept going along, everywhere behind him a fire was burning the whole world. The mischief done, Snipe tried to save himself and escape from the burning world. So he flew up in the direction of the upper world. But just as he reached the gate the fire overtook him and he fell dead. A fitting end for a wicked fellow like Snipe (Gifford, 1930, p145).
Another northern California tribe named the Pomo (as well as several related groups of folks), linguistically distinct from the Miwok, and believed to have originally been a conglomeration of Hokan-speaking people inhabiting the Sonoma County region since about 7000 B.C. mention a similar “World Fire”.
The belief in the destruction of the world by a great conflagration seems fairly general though it is perhaps more prominently featured in Pomo myths than in any of the others which have been recorded. The cause of the World-fire is variously given by different tribes. Among the Pomo it is usually ascribed to Coyote’s retaliation for the abuse of his children by the people. Among the Maidu there is no recorded version of a real World-fire similar to that of the Pomo. The closest approximation to it is perhaps the story of “The Loon Woman,” which contains various of the same elements incorporated in the Pomo world fire myths. The Yana believe that the World-fire was caused by Coyote who dropped the firebrand at the time of the theft of fire from the south. The Yuki version of the World-fire is a mere incident in the theft of fire. In the dissemination over the earth of the fire stolen by Dove, a world conflagration was caused. In order to escape destruction the people took refuge in a pond. There was not sufficient room for all to submerge themselves so that some were scorched. That is why the head of the red-headed woodpecker and the shoulders of the red-winged blackbird are now red. The Lake Miwok and the Southeastern Pomo relate that the World-fire was caused by a theft of beads from Weasel. Hawk steals these beads and Weasel sets the world afire in revenge (Barrett, 1933, p471).
Further east, the Atikamekw, indigenous inhabitants of the upper Saint-Maurice River valley of Quebec similarly note the occurrence of a horrific World Fire resulting from a snaring of the sun, and subsequent attempts to release it scorched all the animals.
Tcikabis was very fond of climbing trees. He had a magic power of making trees grow. He used to blow on the tree when he had reached the top, and the tree would increase its original length. Tcikabis would then climb to the new top and repeat the process. He thus was able to climb very high. One time when he climbed much higher than usual, he came to a straight wide path which crossed the sky. “Who can it be who has such a fine wide path?” thought Tcikabis to himself. He decided to find out who it was that used this path, so he stretched himself across it and went to sleep. Pretty soon he was awakened by someone coming along the path. “Now I will find out who passes along here,” thought Tcikabis. He looked up and saw the sun approaching. “Get out of my path,” ordered the sun. “Go around me,” replied Tcikabis, remaining where he was. “I cannot leave my path,” said the sun. “You must get out of my way.” But Tcikabis was not frightened by the sun. “Jump over me,” he laughed. When the sun realized it was pointless to argue with Tcikabis, he stepped over him and proceeded on his way. When the sun stepped over him, Tcikabis nearly died of the heat. When he looked up, he found all his clothes burned. In fact, he was severely scorched himself. Tcikabis was very angry at the sun for burning up his clothes. He then descended back to earth. His sister saw him coming and noticed that his clothes were nearly all burned off. “How did you burn your clothes, Tcikabis?” she asked. Tcikabis then told her. He decided to play a trick on the sun to even things up for his loss of clothes, for he was very angry. He then made a snare. “What are you going to do with the snare, Tcikabis?” asked his sister. He replied, “I am going to get even with the sun; he burned up my clothes yesterday.” His sister tried to warn him against the trick, but he was not afraid. Climbing back up the tree to the path, Tcikabis set the snare and waited at one side. Soon the sun came along on his daily journey and was caught in the snare. Immediately, everywhere there was darkness. The darkness continued for some time. Finally Tcikabis realized that it would be dark always until the sun was set free. He then wanted to set the sun free, but he could not get close to the sun without being burned. He knew just how much damage the heat of the sun could do. Tcikabis then collected all the small animals together and sent them, one after the other to release the sun. One by one they were killed. The heat of the sun was too great for them. Finally, mouse managed to free the sun from the snare. He chewed it with his teeth. The sun then continued on his journey, and right away there was light again (Coffin, p105-106).
Numerous other tribal traditions from the Ojibewe to the Hopi also discuss an ancient “World fire”, and these motifs figure centrally in the pre-contact histories of native North Americans. While no concerted attempt has been made to mine this folklore in the interest of pinpointing any particular event, such analyses have been conducted in South America, specifically identifying the connection between World Fire folklore and possible meteorite impacts in Gran Chaco, the Brazilian Highlands, and Tierra del Fuego.
The UCLA collection identifies three separate regions containing a total of 60 myths about a great fire that destroyed humankind. These include the fire-prone Gran Chaco, the Brazilian Highlands, and Tierra del Fuego. It is not unexpected that myths about devastating mass fires are identified. What is surprising, however, is the stated cause of the mass fire for each region. In the nine myths actually specifying a cause for the fire (four each from the Gran Chaco and Brazilian Highlands, and one from Tierra del Fuego), all point explicitly to a cosmic rather than an earthly cause. This link with the sky is even implicit in several of the remaining 51 myths: ‘The fire, when it burned everything here on the earth, was made by a creator demiurge present at the great flood, the great fire, and the sky fall events; he did the burning. He alone did it. The entire earth was burned, even the water in the lagoons. Even the sky burned’ (Masse & Masse, 2007, p193).
This set of myths has been tentatively linked to identifiable Holocene (11,700 B.C. – 2000 A.D.) impact craters in South America. Now, obviously we can’t link every instance of a “World Fire” myth directly to catastrophic collisions, but neither can we assume that our ancestors were less keen observers of the natural world than we ourselves are, particularly when they are quite explicit in their traditions that attribute the cause of the cataclysm to celestial objects. Given the ubiquity of “World Fire” myths and our much more densely populated world, I’ve got to say, I don’t like our odds. Savvy experts agree that you’ll more likely be killed by any number of other fatal events. As physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “The chances that your tombstone will read ‘Killed by Asteroid’ are about the same as they’d be for ‘Killed in Airplane Crash’”, which is cold comfort since it only makes me think we need to reconsider this whole flying thing as well.
Barrett, S. A. 1879-1965. Pomo Myths. Milwaukee, Wis.: Pub. by order of the Board of trustees, 1933.
Coffin, Tristram Potter, 1922-. Indian Tales of North America: an Anthology for the Adult Reader. Philadelphia: American Folklore Society, 1961.
Gifford, Edward Winslow, 1887-1959. Californian Indian Nights Entertainments: Stories of the Creation of the World, of Man, of Fire, of the Sun, of Thunder, Etc.; of Coyote, the Land of the Dead, the Sky Land, Monsters, Animal People, Etc.. Glendale, Calif.: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1930.
Masse, B. & Masse M. “Myth and catastrophic reality: using myth to identify cosmic impacts and massive Plinian eruptions in Holocene South America”. Myth and Geology 273, 2007.