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The Cultural Impact of Volcanic Eruptions Throughout History

These natural disasters have had a surprising influence on art, music, and literature.

volcanic eruptions in history
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  • Fresco of Mount Vesuvius, preserved in Pompeii's House of the Centenary.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Along with quicksand, volcanic eruptions are not quite the everyday threat we all perceived them to be when we were children. But they still have the potential to be catastrophic, world-changing events, a potential that has been met on several occasions. While an eruption’s effects on global travel and local ecosystems are apparent, there are less obvious effects on art and culture caused when molten lava spews out to the Earth’s surface. This type of natural disaster has been known to influence paintings, literature, film, and music.

The sixth and seventh centuries CE saw some of the most extreme weather events of the past 2,000 years, catalogued by ancient historians on multiple continents. In many regions, there were no storms in winter and no heat in the summer, and drought throughout. The most likely explanation was two to three major volcanic eruptions, possibly from Indonesia’s Krakatoa and/or El Salvador’s Ilopango.

Related: 11 Riveting Books About Natural Disasters That Will Engross Readers

The global impact of the volcanic winter, also known as a “Little Ice Age”, cannot be overstated. In Scandinavia, hoards of gold were sacrificed to appease the gods in hopes of ceasing the irregularities; it is likely that the Ragnarok myth, an apocalyptic tale in which the gods are killed and the world is drowned in water, is based on the weather events. In Mesoamerica, the metropolis of Teotihuacan fell from glory due to drought. The ruins were later discovered by the Aztecs, who named it the “birthplace of the gods” as the remains became central to their creation myth. Not all cultures were negatively affected; increased rainfall in the Arabian peninsula brought greater vegetation. As a result, the Arab Empire flourished and expanded.

Related: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: New York City’s Deadliest Industrial Disaster

In 1257, an Indonesian volcano named Samalas erupted, sending ash columns dozens of miles high into the air. Areas devastated by the eruption remain uninhabited eight centuries later. Once again, temperatures around the world cooled, helping trigger another Little Ice Age. Settlements from Greenland to Arizona were disrupted, which is to be expected. 

What came as a surprise, however, is the effect that the eruption had on music. The superior quality of Stradivarius violins, beautiful instruments from the 17th and 18th centuries, has long mystified scientists. Recently, it was proposed that the low heat from the Little Ice Age caused trees to grow more slowly, producing denser wood. This wood is likely the cause of a Stradivarius violin’s unmatched sound, all thanks to that fateful night in Indonesia centuries past. 

volcanic eruptions in history
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  • 1888 lithograph of the 1883 eruption of Indonesia's Krakatoa. 

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

This Little Ice Age also saw a distinct rise in witchcraft trials in Europe, as the populace sought scapegoats for the decreased temperatures and climate changes. Jewish populations were also blamed, not for the climate changes, but for the diseases brought by the lower temperatures and erratic weather. Techniques for painting wintry scenes, a subject rarely considered until then, were also developed during this period.

The enormous quantities of ash in the atmosphere can not only dim sunlight but also drastically change the colors of the sky. The 1883 eruption of Indonesia’s Krakatoa, one of the deadliest of all time, caused skies the world over to turn a bloody red. Fire brigades were called in New England as onlookers assumed there was a massive forest fire raging somewhere nearby, when the real culprit was thousands of miles away. In fact, it is now theorized that the famous orange-red skies of Edvard Munch’s The Scream were actually an accurate depiction of Norway as Munch saw it following the eruption.

Some seven decades prior, Mount Tambora, also in Indonesia, spewed ash hundreds of miles away from the initial explosion alone. The following year, 1816, became known as the “Year Without A Summer.” The northeastern United States received over a foot of snow in June and global harvests were devastated. It also led to the extraordinary origins of a classic piece of literature. 

Related: 7 Stunning Underwater Shipwrecks That Turn Back the Tides of Time

During that volcanic summer, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron planned a vacation in Lake Geneva, Switzerland. Shelley had brought along 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft, his future wife. The dreary weather denied them of any outdoor activities, so they did what any writer would do in historically bleak weather: started a ghost story competition. 

An anxious Mary struggled to think of a story until a discussion about the possibility of reanimating corpses gave her a nightmare. The experience would inspire a gripping scary story that she would later develop into the Gothic novel Frankenstein, which changed the face of horror forever. Another member of their vacation group, John Polidori, would take Byron’s short piece about vampires to create The Vampyre, often considered the progenitor of romantic vampire fiction.

volcanic eruptions in history
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  • 1888 depiction of the sky over London following the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. 

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Perhaps nothing captures the modern depiction of volcanoes in pop culture better than the response to the Yellowstone Caldera. The Yellowstone “supervolcano” could take thousands of years to erupt again, but if it were to burst, it could be the biggest natural disaster since the meteor that killed the dinosaurs. Anxiety over this apocalypse, however unlikely, has led to a number of novels, movies, and an episode of Big Mouth on the ramifications.

It’s no surprise that we are shaped by natural disasters, forces of Earth that are beyond our reckoning as a species. Entire societies have been wiped out by the eruption of volcanoes—just ask the citizens of Pompeii—some directly from the ash and lava flow, many more from the subsequent weather effects. The fact that our stories and art have been affected by these catastrophes for more than a millennium speaks to how closely entwined culture is to history. All living life is affected by natural disasters, but art is a uniquely human way of dealing with it.