Earthquake Myths and Folklore

When looked at with our modern understanding of why the earth moves, earthquake myths may seem humorous and inconsequential. But they were once standards of their various cultures, a way of trying to understand the powerful natural events that could so greatly affect the lives of ancient people.

Earthquake myths evolved in virtually all cultures and reflect unique and interesting perceptions of the shifting crust. And, in spite of all the advances scientists have made in beginning to understand the reasons for earthquakes, modern myths exist that still capture the imagination of many, remaining rooted not only in the United States, but all over the world.

Ancient Myths

Ancient Greece Thales of Miletos (6th century BC) believed an agitation of the great sea on which the earth floats, produced earthquakes. But the notion that the movement of air in subterrestrial chambers created earthquakes formed the basis for the most elaborate theories of ancient times.

Mexican, Vaqueros, California

El Diablo, an Indian god, made a giant rip in the ground so that he and his cohorts did not have to take the long way around, whenever they wanted to stir up mischief on the earth.

Gabrielino Indians, Southern California

Long ago, when most of the world was water, Great Spirit decided to make a beautiful land with lakes and rivers, that turtles carried on their backs. One day the turtles began to argue and three of the turtles began to swim east, while the other three swam west. The earth shook! It cracked with a loud noise. The turtles could not swim far, because the land on their backs was heavy. When they saw that they could not swim far away they stopped arguing and made up. But every once in a while, the turtles that hold up California argue again, and each time they do, the earth shakes.

Hindus of India

They believed that eight mighty elephants held up the land. When one of them grew weary, it lowered and shook it's head, causing an earthquake.

Kamchatka, Siberia, Russia

A god named Tuli drove an earth-laden sled pulled by flea-infested dogs: when the dogs stopped to scratch, the earth shook.

Mongolia, China

A gigantic frog which carried the world on its back, twitched periodically, producing slight quakes.


Whenever their god visited the earth to count how many people were there, his footsteps caused earthquakes. To shorten his task, the people ran out of their houses to shout "I'm here, I'm here!" (incorporating in their myth, the wisdom of leaving their flimsy houses during an earthquake).


A giant catfish lived in mud beneath the earth. The catfish liked to play pranks and could only be restrained by Kashima,a god who protected the Japanese people from earthquakes. So long as Kashima kept a mighty rock with magical powers over the catfish, the earth was still. But when he relaxed his guard, the catfish thrashed about, causing earthquakes.

Modern Folklore

The Swallowing Earth

People all over the world believe that when an earthquake happens, a chasm may open up along the fault, and anybody standing over the fault will fall in and be swallowed-up by the violent earth. This is a myth. Sudden movement along a fault may create a shallow crevice; however, there is no reliable account of anyone falling to his or her death in such a crack.

Earthquake Immunity

Some people believe that they are protected from a large earthquake because their home is often shaken by small earthquakes that "let off steam". This is not true. A moderate earthquake, of Richter magnitude 5.0, releases only one thousandth of the energy of a large magnitude 7.0 earthquake. The moderate quakes may actually be precursors of larger earthquakes.

Astrological Considerations

The idea that somehow Mars, Jupiter and Saturn govern the destructive action of the earth, and the notion of earth tides as possible triggers for earthquakes is gaining popularity. Earth tides are caused as the rotating Earth is influenced by the combined gravitational pull of the Moon and Sun. The most careful scientific studies do not reveal stastically meaningful correlations of earthquake occurance with tidal loading (see U.S.G.S. circular 1083).