Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 67.djvu/561

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GREEK IDEAS OF VULCANISM.

GREEK IDEAS OF VULCANISM.
By Dr. CHARLES R. EASTMAN,

HARVARD UNIVERSITY.

'GREEK philosophy was born' as has been aptly remarked, 'on that day when some thinker tried to find a rational explanation of the universe.' Tradition awards the honor of this initiative to Thales of Miletus, who lived in the beginning of the sixth century, B.C. Meager and unsatisfactory as is our knowledge of this early pioneer, his place is none the less honored and secure in the history of natural philosophy. According to common report he was well versed in the astronomical lore of the Chaldeans, predicted eclipses, investigated meteorological phenomena, sought to explain the causes of earthquakes, and attained to the truly sublime height of conceiving that all existing things had a common origin, and that water was the primordial matter of the universe.

In the teachings of Thales and his followers we discover not only germs of suggestion destined to become extremely fruitful in biological science, but also the first serious attempts at geological speculation during classical antiquity. Previous to the sixth century b.c., neither the Hellenic, Egyptian nor Oriental mind seems to have advanced beyond intellectual childhood in proposing to itself a rational explanation of nature. The ancient feeling for nature amongst the Greeks, as revealed in literature, was decidedly prosaic and practical; only by slow degrees did they come to the idea of nature as a single power or being, more or less personified, and possessing the attributes of beauty and conscious intelligence. With the earlier deistic interpretation of nature, with the numerous legends and 'observation myths' of antiquity, and with the invocation of supernatural agencies by way of explaining vulcanism, we are not now especially concerned. Merely be it noted in passing that the localization of geological myths, such as that of the Chimæra, the Deucalion deluge, the fall of Hephæstus upon Lemnos together with his various subterranean forges, and also significant place-names like Rhegium, Tempe, Piræus, Kaimeni, Katakekaumene ('Burnt Country'), etc., frequently attests the occurrence of geological events which were afterwards forgotten.[1]

Volcanoes themselves did not at first engage the attention of Ionian philosophers, for reasons easily understood. In the first place, the eruptions known to have taken place in the Greek Archipelago occurred


  1. It has been suggested with much plausibility that all the traditions of certain islands in the Mediterranean having at some time or other shifted their positions, and at length become stationary, originated in the great change produced in their form by earthquakes and submarine eruptions, of which there