Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 61.djvu/278

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272
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.
THE ANTILLEAN VOLCANOES.
By. Dr. W J McGEE,
VICE-PRESIDENT OF THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY.

IN all ages volcanoes have played a prominent role in human thought The Vulcan of classic mythology was but the head of a family of earth-gods born of the polytechnic Mediterranean mind fertilized by the "burning mountains" of continents conjoined in the Levant; and in the still lower stages of human development represented by scores of surviving tribes, Fire-Earth deities head the primitive pantheons—indeed, the Vulcanean notion seems to run back to a pristine stage in which the forerunners of living races first stole Vulcan's torch, tamed capricious and ferocious fire even as other [to them] beasts were tamed, and thus took the initial step in that nature-conquest by which man rose above lower life. Certain it is that Vulcanean myths are most dominant in lower savagery, feebler albeit sharper-cut about the birth-time of writing, and decadent during the period of written history. Naturally a factor in the eclipse of Vulcan was the dispersion of mankind, largely in accordance with preconceived plans, from the volcanic centers in which fire was first enslaved over volcano-free regions in which the new servant was thralled by new devices; and it is significant that not only the beast-gods of the prime but the later nature-deities, like Jove and Pluto, Thor and Odin, were swept away before the tide of self-confidence raised by nature-conquest. So Vulcan and the rest lost their terrors; they even fell into oblivion like the beast-gods before, save as the chaff of concepts caught in the meshes of scripture. Most of the mythic monsters are gone utterly; yet Vulcan dies hard—and now and then the nature power for which he stands rises above all human might, and tempts men to return to that early stage of thought marked by the personification of powers.

The latest Vulcanean throes have caught the attention of the reading world. Measured by volume of material cast out, or by force of explosions, the recent Antillean outbreaks rank below many others on record—far below the stupendous outbursts of later geologic periods; yet measured by mortality, the eruption of Mont Pelee on the morning of May 8, 1902, ranks among the most appalling catastrophes of history. And never before was news of disaster so quickly spread; quick thinkers jotted the details, and cables and swift ships carried them to every country within a few hours—yet not so speedily but that history's brightest example of practical sympathy overtook the echoes