What name shall we give Earthquake?

I think about earthquakes nearly every day, in one aspect or another. Every now and then I toy with the pre-scientific ideas about them. Before science, before literacy itself, every culture stored knowledge about the world in the form of images and especially in stories, told and sung, that were passed down the generations. Natural events were commonly assigned to the interactions of specific beings, with names and personalities, giving a relatable gloss to earthquakes, eruptions, meteorological phenomena and other doings that science reliably informs us are actually random.

Maybe you’ve heard of the oral traditions of the Pacific Northwest tribes, who remembered the great Cascadia earthquake and tsunami of 26 January 1700 in stories for more than two centuries. Many versions recounted the event as a great clash between Thunderbird, ruler of the wind and sky, and a sea creature referred to by convention as Whale. The same two entities populate the tribes’ art in a motif that informs their most deep-seated culture. And it all connects with the ordinary occurrence, seen every day along that coast, of eagles catching fish. Earthquakes and tsunamis come with the country and have seats around the evening fire.

In Japan there is the character of Namazu, a great catfish who lives restrained deep underground. Every now and then it thrashes loose, upending society with destructive shaking and floods from the sea. According to one authority, Namazu originated around the sixteenth century from “the Chinese ao, a hybrid fish/turtle/dragon.”

Namazu got a big boost with the Ansei Edo earthquake of 11 November 1855, the third of three catastrophic quakes in central Japan in 1854-1855. In Edo (modern-day Tokyo), the worst damage was in the wealthy quarter, and after a few weeks of aftershocks and widespread fear the city’s mood lightened as money flowed to pay for rebuilding. Widespread cartoon leaflets from the time record the changing attitudes in the form of catfish imagery.

The earthquake, personified as the catfish Namazu, forces money from wealthy property owners. Wikimedia image

That catfish, the Big One, is still around, ready to thrash and ready to hand when the Japanese need a symbol. A stylized Namazu is part of the national earthquake warning system‘s iconography.


In the mythology of ancient Greece, Poseidon the earth-shaker rules both the sea and earthquakes. So does his ancient Roman version, Neptune. Both personages embody the connection between earthquakes and tsunamis.

The U.S. Geological Survey has a small collection of earthquake legends from these and other cultures.

These ancient personifications all share the same feature: they present Earth forces as animate, as beings. The geologist’s Earth is also an active one, but we have always regarded it as, in Hutton’s 1785 phrase, “a machine of a peculiar construction.” It doesn’t have a soul. The geologist’s Earth is an engineering conception — the more science can understand this version of Earth, the better our engineering will be. It’s wonderful for what it makes possible, but not the first and last word.

The beauty of the animal personification is that an animal is an integral being, connected within itself. These days it would pay off, I sometimes think, to bring the Earth and its attributes back into the family. I suggest that we could use personifications today — not seriously, but ceremonially.

I suggest that we think of the half-forgotten Makkeweks, a sea being like Poseidon and Namaku and Whale, as our local earthquake avatar. We have a single story, from the Rumsen Ohlones of the far South Bay, that refers to this being. Coyote came to the shore with his wife, having instructed her about the various sea creatures — sea lions, sharks and so forth — and told her not to fear them, as they are our uncles. But he didn’t tell her about Makkeweks, and when Makkeweks showed up she was frightened to death, whereupon Coyote had to revive her.

It’s reasonable that our local Ohlone tribes, of the Huichin community, shared a story much like this, perhaps with the same names. And so it’s fitting that the city of Oakland has commissioned and placed a bronze statue of Makkeweks in Snow Park, down by the lake.

Maybe somehow we could recognize that Makkeweks, the Big One, is our uncle, part of the family, an actor in the world who belongs among us and for whom we must always make room in our lives.

One Response to “What name shall we give Earthquake?”

  1. manuelgarciajr Says:

    In Lafcadio Hearn’s book “Gleanings In Buddha Fields” there is a Japanese story (centuries old) about a man who saves a village from a tsunami (which he becomes aware of by a bell earthquake alarm on his land) — the villagers having gone down to the shore for a festival — by burning up his barn of stored grain to create a large smoke signal (the villagers rushing up to help put out a fire, too late). The tsunami comes, devastates the coast, but the village and villagers are saved being up on high ground. And the rich man is impoverished, but henceforth revered, and lives out his life on charity, and then a monument to him is placed on the cliff. There may be (have been) such a monument in reality, because Hearn specialized in seeking out Japanese folklore and real ancient stories. This particular story is the highlight of that book of collected stories, and that book was printed in the late 19th century (or very early 20th).  

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