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

Article excerpt



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). …