The Fall of Phaethon: A Greco-Roman Geomyth Preserves the Memory of a Meteorite Impact in Bavaria (South-East Germany)

By Rappengluck, Barbara; Rappengluck, Michael A. et al. | Antiquity, June 2010 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

The Fall of Phaethon: A Greco-Roman Geomyth Preserves the Memory of a Meteorite Impact in Bavaria (South-East Germany)

Rappengluck, Barbara, Rappengluck, Michael A., Ernstson, Kord, Mayer, Werner, Neumair, Andreas, Sudhaus, Dirk, Liritzis, Ioannis, Antiquity



The term 'geomythology', coined by Dorothy Vitaliano (1968: 5), 'indicates every case in which the origin of myths and legends can be shown to contain references to geological phenomena and aspects, in a broad sense including astronomical ones (comets, eclipses, meteor impacts etc.)' (Piccardi & Masse 2007: vii). Vitaliano differentiates between two kinds of geological folklore: '... that in which some geologic feature ... has inspired a folklore explanation, and that which is the garbled explanation of some actual geologic event, usually a natural catastrophe' (Piccardi & Masse 2007: vii). Within the last few years a number of studies have tried to demonstrate that some mythical or legendary traditions are geomyths of the second kind, depicting concrete, geological verifiable natural catastrophes in former times (e.g. Piccardi & Masse 2007).

For a long time the myth of Phaethon (see e.g. Ov. Met. I.750-II.408; detailed overview on the Classical texts dealing with Phaethon: Knaack 1965) has fuelled suspicions concerning the possibility that it is the reflection of a real natural event in the sense of a geomyth. Its main features are as follows: Phaethon, the son of Helios, borrows the sun-chariot of his father. But he is not able to keep it on course along the sun's accustomed path and, disoriented, the burning chariot sets parts of heaven and Earth on fire. To prevent an even bigger catastrophe, Zeus strikes Phaethon with his thunderbolt and the youth falls to Earth into the river Eridanos.

Von Engelhardt (1979), among others, advanced the hypothesis that the myth of Phaethon is the reflection of a meteorite impact event (Rappengluck & Rappengluck 2007: 102-3). He suggested that the myth was related to the fall of a large meteorite in the Po Delta (Italy), but failed to provide geological evidence for impact in the relevant region. By contrast, Blomqvist (1994) suggested a connection between the myth of Phaethon and actually existing meteorite craters, in particular the Kaalijarv craters in Estonia. There is considerable controversy concerning the dating of these nine craters, the biggest of which has a diameter of 110m, for which the dates range between 6400 and 400 BC (see Masse 2007: 29). But, when Blomqvist published his theory, these were the only known craters that might fit approximately to the place and time in question (Northern or Western Europe, c. 2000-428 BC, see below: Time and place).

This article presents further arguments for interpreting the myth of Phaethon as a geomyth. This will be done by comparing in detail the descriptions in the texts of the myth with an example of a scientifically analysed meteorite impact. Our candidate is the site of Chiemgau in south-east Germany, one of the biggest known Holocene meteorite impacts, where an extraordinary variety of phenomena can be studied by bringing geology, mineralogy, geophysics, archaeology and astronomy to bear (Ernstson et al. 2010).

The Chiemgau impact

The Chiemgau field (Ernstson et al. 2010) in the Alpine foothills comprises more than 80 mostly rimmed craters spread over a roughly elliptical area c. 60 x 30km (c. 1800[km.sup.2] between 47.8[degrees] and 48.4[degrees]N, and 12.3[degrees] and 13.0[degrees]E, at an elevation of 360m to 560m asl). The crater diameters range from a few metres to a few hundred metres (Figure 1). The biggest crater, that of Tuttensee (Figure 2), which is filled by a lake, has a rim wall 8m high, a rim-to-rim diameter of about 600m, a depth of roughly 30m and an extensive ejecta blanket. Geologically, the Chiemgau craters occur in Pleistocene moraine and fluvio-glacial sediments. The impact event itself is chiefly documented by the abundant occurrence of shock metamorphism (e.g. planar deformation features [PDFs]) in quartz, which is generally accepted as evidence of a meteorite impact (Stoffler & Langenhorst 1994: 165) (Figure 3).

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

The Fall of Phaethon: A Greco-Roman Geomyth Preserves the Memory of a Meteorite Impact in Bavaria (South-East Germany)


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?