Teach the Earth > Environmental Geology > Teaching Activities > How myths form: Accounts from Mt. Pelee

How myths form: Accounts from Mt. Pelee

Lynne Elkins, Bryn Mawr College
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This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This page first made public: Nov 7, 2012


This is a great activity for class sizes ranging from small seminars to lecture classes. It's particularly appropriate for courses that relate hazards/volcanism to culture, society, and human interest subjects like risk management. I designed it for a Volcanoes and Society class.



Designed for an entry-level, non-majors class on Volcanoes and Society, in a unit focused on the origins of myths and legends about volcanoes. Very adaptable to almost any class size and any topic about how geologic phenomena inform or are transmitted culturally, either in a broad culturally-focused class or within a more scientifically-focused course.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

They'll need to be generally familiar with the major volcanic hazards associated with a major eruption (e.g., know what a pyroclastic flow and a lahar are, on a basic level). A 20-minute lecture in the class before the one in which this activity will take place or a short background text is sufficient.

How the activity is situated in the course

In my Volcanoes and Society class, this activity happens quite early in the semester. Requires little enough background knowledge to be very flexible in terms of course timing.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

This activity explores transmission of information (and misinformation) in society, and can lead into conceptual coverage of various kinds of popular bias about scientific thinking and natural events. A secondary conceptual aim is to demonstrate and achieve better understanding of how volcanic hazards occur and impact communities.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Synthesis of large amounts of information, critical evaluation of validity of sources and pieces of information in disagreement, application to broader social narratives about natural phenomena.

Other skills goals for this activity

Searching the internet or library for accounts, group discussion and analysis of information.

Description and Teaching Materials

This activity is purely an in-class discussion following a very short homework assignment. The task as presented to the class is to put together the true events that occurred in the eruption of Mt. Pelee and destruction of St. Pierre in Martinique in 1902. Students are asked to bring in one or more accounts of that event, and the class attempts to tell the full story accurately--something that turns out to be very difficult. The subsequent discussion explores how myths and legends about natural phenomena begin and spread, and how that relates to social understanding of and reaction to hazards.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students are assigned one piece of homework prior to this exercise: to find and bring in 1, 2, or 3 accounts of the eruption of Mt. Pelee and destruction of the city of St. Pierre in Martinique in 1902. The number of accounts required per student depends on class size: this exercise works best with at least 15-20 accounts; above ~50 accounts the number of new pieces of information is likely to drop significantly. I explicitly tell the students that for this purposes of this exercise, I will accept accounts from ANY source they can find, no matter how disreputable: sketchy internet sites, Wikipedia, books in the library, etc.

In class, I tell the students that I want to use the various accounts they found to piece together the story of what really happened in that eruption. I set up two lists on the board in class: one for what we are sure occurred, and one for discrepant or contradictory accounts. Note that almost nothing will go on the first list, so the space for it can be small; it will wind up only containing information like "The volcano erupted", "The eruption was in the year 1902", "A lot of people died", and "St. Pierre was destroyed".

Depending on class size, I either solicit accounts from volunteers or go around the room to ask each student for one of their accounts. While they explain or read their accounts, I summarize them on the board under the two lists, moving them as necessary as accounts contradict each other. Sometimes to keep the class involved I go around a second time in this open-ended way, but often the discussion quickly becomes energetic enough that I instead start asking the class directed questions about key pieces of information. Useful questions to ask include:

"On what date did the eruption occur?"
"What type of volcanic activity occurred?" Related: "What destroyed the city?"
"How many people died?"
"How many people survived?"
"Who were those survivors, and how did they survive?"
"What happened before the eruption and why?"
"What happened after the eruption and why?"
...plus anything else that comes up during the conversation and about which the students' accounts disagree.

Expect and be prepared for extensive discussion about each of three characters: Ludger 'Sanson' Cyparis/Silbaris, a cobbler, and a little girl (including variably their names, crimes, ages, how they survived the eruption, and what happened to them afterwards). I typically find and provide an image of the Silbaris circus poster when the discussion has established that he joined the circus after the eruption (the poster tends to then inform one of the reasons for the discrepant death count numbers):

Ludger Silbaris poster

I always have a copy of the Vulcan's Fury chapter on the eruption for additional details and information on all of these issues, including some key points that are difficult to find else where (e.g. the rum fire that burnt St. Pierre to the ground after the pyroclastic flow).

This activity is a lot of fun for instructors and for the students, and tends to be remembered vividly. It can take up to an hour for just making the list, depending on how many accounts you have an how lively the discussion is. I find it helpful to then follow up with a conversation with the class about social response to disaster and/or the formation of legends and myths around natural phenomena and catastrophic events, depending on the topic of the course. Some possible discussion questions:

  1. How did so many discrepant accounts come to be? What is the motivation for telling or changing a story about a catastrophe?
  2. Which stories get passed on and why?
  3. Has modern technology changed how this happens or how much it happens? Why/why not?
  4. How do societies react to news of a disaster? What are the different ways that happens?
  5. What do those reactions say about how we conceptualize risk and disaster? How does that influence societies when dealing with natural hazards?


This activity is assessed using in-class discussion and feedback only.

References and Resources

I encourage locating and borrowing the text Vulcan's Fury by Scarth, and having it in class during the lesson for reference and to add detail. The chapter about the Mt. Pelee disaster is well-researched and contains key information about the event.
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