Teacher Feature-Earthquake Legends Throughout the World


Teacher Feature:Quake

Earthquake Legends Throughout the World

From March/April 1996 issue of California Geology magazine


An earthquake is a sudden, rapid shaking of the earth caused by the release of energy stored in rocks.


Legends are traditional explanations of natural phenomena that evolve when scientific explanations are not available.


The earth is held up by four elephants that stand on the back of a turtle. The turtle is balanced in turn on a cobra. When one of these animals moves, the earth trembles and shakes.

Assam (Between Bangladesh and China)

There is a race of people living inside the earth. From time to time they shake the ground to find out if anyone is still living on the surface. When children feel a quake, they shout "Alive, alive!" so the people inside the earth will know they are there and stop the shaking.


El Diablo, the devil, makes giant rips in the earth from the inside. He and his devilish friends use the cracks when they want to come and stir up trouble on earth.


The earth rests on a sled driven by a god named Tuli. The dogs who pull the sled have fleas. When they stop to scratch, the earth shakes.


The earth is a living creature, and it has the same kinds of problems people have. Sometimes it gets sick with a fever and chills, and we can feel its shaking.

Tennessee, USA

Once a Chickasaw chief was in love with a Choctaw princess. He was young and handsome, but he had a twisted foot, so his people called him Reelfoot. When the princess' father refused to give Reelfoot his daughter's hand, the chief and his friends kidnapped her and began to celebrate their marriage.

The Great Spirit was angry, and stomped his foot. The shock caused the Mississippi to overflow its banks and drown the entire wedding party. (Reelfoot Lake, on the Tennessee side of the Mississippi, was actually formed as a result of the New Madrid earthquake of 1812.)

West Africa

The earth is a flat disk, held up on one side by an enormous mountain and on the other by a giant. The giant's wife holds up the sky. The earth trembles whenever he stops to hug her.


The gods who made the earth gave it to a frog to carry on his back. When this huge frog stirs, the earth moves directly above the part of him that moves: hind foot, head, shoulder, or whatever.


Seven serpents share the task of guarding the seven sections of the lowest heaven. The seven of them also take turns holding up the earth. When one finishes its turn and another moves into place, people on earth may feel a jolt.


A god named Drebkuhls carries the earth in his arms as he walks through the heavens. When he's having a bad day, he might handle his burden a little roughly. Then the earth will feel the shaking.

Central America

The square earth is held up at its four corners by four gods, the Vashakmen. When they decide the earth is becoming overpopulated, they tip it to get rid of surplus people.


The world rests on the divine pillars of Faith, Hope, and Charity. When the deeds of human beings make one of the pillars weak, the earth is shaken.

West Africa

A giant carries the earth on his head. All the plants that grow on the earth are his hair, and people and animals are the insects that crawl through his hair. He usually sits and faces the east, but once in a while he turns to the west and then back to the east, with a jolt that is felt as an earthquake.

Turtle Tale


Long, long ago, before there were people, there was hardly anything in the world but water. One day, Great Spirit looked down from heaven, He decided to make a beautiful land. But where could he begin? All he saw was water. Then he spotted a giant turtle. Great Spirit decided to make the beautiful land on the turtle.

But one turtle was not big enough. The land Great Spirit wanted to make was very large. So he called out, "Turtle, hurry and find your six brothers." Turtle swam to find them. It took her a whole day to find the first. It took another day to find the rest. After six days, turtle had found her six brothers. "Come," she said, "Great Spirit wants us."

Great Spirit called down. "Turtles! Form a line, all of you— to tail, north to south. Umm— three on the south, please move a little to the east. Hmm. Yes, that's just right. What a beautiful land you turtles will make! Now listen! It is a great honor to carry this beautiful land on your backs. So you must not move!"

The turtles stayed very still. Great Spirit took some straw from his supply in the sky. He spread it out on the turtles' backs. Then he took some soil and patted it down on top of the straw.

Great Spirit cleaned his hands on a fluffy white cloud. Then he went to work, shaping mountains and valleys, and lakes, and rivers. When he was finished he looked at the beautiful land he had made. Great Spirit was very pleased. But soon trouble came. The giant turtles grew restless. They wanted to stretch their legs. "I want to swim east," said one. "This beast goes east." "West is best. I'll swim toward the setting sun," said another.

The turtles began to argue. They could not agree on which way to move. One day, four of the turtles began to swim east. The others began to swim west. The earth shook! It cracked with a loud noise. But after a minute, the shaking stopped. The turtles had to stop moving because the land on their backs was so heavy. They had only been able to swim a little way from each other. When they saw that they could not swim away, they stopped and made up.

Every once in a while, though, the turtles argue again. Each time they do, the earth shakes.

From the March/April 1996 issue of CALIFORNIA GEOLOGY magazine.

Originally published in 1989 in Earthquakes by the National Science Teachers Association, 1840 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, VA 22201-3000.

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