Mythology of Chornobyl

Chornobyl has become an event that has so far survived in the public eye as long as its after-effects have. It’s arguable how much information surrounding Chornobyl is considered “common knowledge,” but anyone who has done even a cursory dive into the effects of it will have become acquainted with the “mythology” that surrounds it. This isn’t to say that the Chornobyl reactor meltdown created a wasteland straight out of some science fiction, but it did give a setting and inspiration to many pieces in that genre.

Even among the already unobtainable (at least for most) areas of the Exclusion Zone, one particular place has become infamous: Reactor Room 4, or the walls that house the Elephant’s Foot. The Elephant’s Foot is a solidified mass of corium and other reactor materials (including an entirely new element, “chernobylite”) resembling an elephant’s foot, hence the name. It first formed following the initial reactor meltdown, which resulted in reactor fuel melting through the structure into the basement and eventually pooling into the shape it is known for. Owing to its origin and chemical makeup, the Elephant’s Foot is considered one of the deadliest inanimate objects. At the time of its discovery, it emitted enough radiation to kill anyone close enough in just five minutes. The copious amounts of radiation it emitted rendered any machinery brought near it useless. Even decades later pictures taken near the Elephant’s Foot look grainy and unfocused, as if it had been taken with much more obsolete technology.

The Elephant’s Foot is unique even in the context of the Chornobyl disaster. There is no question that even being near it constitutes a fatal risk for anyone, a risk that isn’t applicable to anywhere else in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone. This makes it the most unobtainable, likely even unviewable spectacle that came of the disaster. Attempting to recreate even just its visage is a difficult task as the already scarce amount of footage that exists of it is warped and grainy. The location of the Elephant’s Foot below what is considered ground zero of the disaster is enough to make it an unobtainable sight for most. The amount of radiation it emits in addition to that makes it an impossible landmark for any stalker to see and live to tell the tale.

The inhospitable nature of the Elephant’s Foot is enough to give some the feeling that it’s like Chornobyl’s very own minotaur: housed in a labyrinthian reactor with only the promise of death. In this way this inanimate object has been given its own life and mythology through its unattainability. When you look at this diminutive approximation of it, consider what you feel. Is it fear, intrigue, wonder, curiosity, maybe even boredom? Do you wish you could take a trip to the Exclusion Zone, to Reactor Room 4, and visit it?


  1. Anonymous. Liquidators. Gray Unit, 20 Sept. 2020.
  2. Plokhy, Serhii. Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe. Basic Books, 2020.“Press Release.” Archive, Accessed 24 Oct. 2023.
  3. Richter, Darmon. “How the Video Game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Inspired a Wave of Real-World Chernobyl Tourists.” The Verge, April 29, 2021.
  4. SCR. “Elephant´s Foot in Chernobyl.” Chernobyl X, Accessed 24 Oct. 2023.

Lillian is a senior anthropology major at Bryn Mawr College.

RUSSB220 Chornobyl, Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2023

Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.